On July 25, Tunisia will celebrate its sixty-fifth Republic Day. From gaining its independence from the French, proclaiming itself as a Republic in 1957, to sowing the seeds of the Arab Spring – Tunisia’s quest for political stability and democratic rights continues to be an elusive chase.
Ever since its independence, this North African nation has been relentlessly pursuing its protracted struggle against autocracy and to upkeep the democratic principles of its Republic.
Habib Bourguiba, the first Tunisian president, brought numerous reforms across education, economy, neutral foreign policy, and gender equality – efforts that have ranked Bourguiba among the exceptional Arab leaders. Yet, his rule turned into a one-party system dominated by his Socialist Destourian Party, leading to a cult of personality revolving around him. In 1975, Bourguiba proclaimed himself president for life.
His term ended in a war of succession, and the rise of clientelism and Islamism. On 7 November 1987, he was removed from power by his prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Most of Ben Ali’s regime was defined by political repression, corruption, and poverty leading to an acute disquiet among the public which culminated in what is popularly known as the Jasmine Revolution that forced Ben Ali to step down in January 2011. A popular uprising, the Jasmine Revolution, is considered to have laid the foundation for the Arab Spring throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
The Revolution began after Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian small-time vegetable vendor, set himself on fire outside a municipal office in protest of the repeated demand for bribes by local officials who confiscated his merchandise. Bouazizi’s plight inspired street protests throughout the country against high unemployment, poverty, and political repression under the Ben Ali regime.
The Tunisian Government’s repressive response to the protests that killed dozens as protesters clashed with police met with international criticism.
Later, Ben Ali pivoted to making some concessions. However, the protests continued, ultimately forcing the former President to step down, leading to the dissolution of his party, the Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD) in 2011. A new constitution was promulgated in January 2014. However, the two opposing factions – the secularists, who wanted to keep religion out of government matters, and Islamists, who sought constitutional guarantees for Islamic activity – continued their effort to gain political mileage.
The next watershed moment in Tunisian political history was in 2019 when Kais Saied won the first presidential election in which a presidential debate was held. Saied became the fifth Tunisian president since the 2014 constitution.
However, the current Tunisian President is facing intense protests and criticism for introducing an amended version of the 2014 Constitution, which many say is an attempt to regress Tunisia back to the autocratic era given the unlimited power the new version bestows on the president’s office.
The new constitution, slated for a referendum on July 25, is viewed as Saied’s plan to remake the North African country’s political system. Legal experts have denounced the draft, warning that it could pave the way for a dictatorial regime. They added that the new draft is an attempt to replace the mixed presidential-parliamentary system of the 2014 constitution.
The document proposes that the president of the Republic carries out executive functions with help from the government, whose chief would be appointed by the president and is not subject to any confidence votes in the parliament. It allows the president to exercise exceptional powers at discretion without meaningful checks and balances.
In essence, the draft 2022 constitution recreates the very personalistic system against which many Tunisians laid their lives since 2011.
Because the referendum does not mandate any minimum requirement for voter participation, the transition would likely be affected without any significant voter turnout.
The Tunisian public has again taken to the streets to protest against the referendum on the new constitution that would expand the president’s executive powers. However, the protesters are led by the Free Constitutional Party leader Abir Moussi, a supporter of Ben Ali who was ousted in 2011. Incidentally, local polls say Moussi’s Constitutional Free Party would win by a large margin over rivals in parliamentary elections.
Whatever the outcome, the Tunisian Republican system seems to continue to be in jeopardy in the foreseeable future. The North African Republic might soon relegate back to an autocratic rule either by a successful referendum of the amended 2022 Constitution or by installing a new Ben Ali backed political regime.