Tunisia, once a beacon of democracy in the Arab world, is on the brink of losing their democratic government that inspired millions. In late June, Tunisian President Kais Saied proposed a new constitution to be voted on in a July 25th referendum vote. The proposed constitution consolidates power to the executive and is a dangerous step towards authoritarianism for millions of Tunisians. Opposition leaders, such as The National Salvation Front, have told their supporters to boycott the vote, making the proposal likely to pass. The United States and the larger international community should put pressure on Saied to have a more inclusive method of redrafting the constitution. If Tunisia becomes an authoritarian state, all democracies born from the Arab Spring are in jeopardy of losing their hard-fought freedoms.
The referendum comes nearly a year after Saied began a process of consolidating political power. Beginning in 2021, Tunisians mounted large scale protests over the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, worsening wealth inequality, and corruption within the Tunisian elite. Saied responded to the protests by declaring a state of emergency. He then used the declaration to dissolve the parliament, ban all protests, and launched widespread purging of the judiciary. Though protests have been banned, Tunisians have marched en masse, denouncing the actions of Saied and his supporters. Saied has refused to listen to the demands of these protestors and has intensified his efforts to remain in power.
The new proposed constitution would give Saied near autonomous power over the Tunisian political process. If passed, it would allow the president to propose draft laws to the parliament, possess the sole power to propose treaties, and have the sole power to manage budget appropriations. The president would have full control over bureaucratic institutions, including law enforcement agencies and military branches which were previously managed by the parliament. Saied announced that these groups would no longer be able to go on strike, a move that could give Saied full autonomy in harassing Tunisians opposed to his rule. These changes proposed are indicative of executive aggrandizement, a step towards democratic backsliding. Executive aggrandizement occurs when a regime takes deliberate steps to consolidate power away from democratically elected or constitutionally appointed officials. This authoritarian technique weakens checks on executive power and makes challenging the executive increasingly difficult.
The main target of executive aggrandizement is the judiciary. Independent judiciaries can be a powerful means to check executive over-step, however, lack enforcement power to carry out rulings. By removing an independent judiciary, the executive can better shape the government into an authoritarian tool.
In early 2022, Saied began the process of executive aggrandizement by dissolving the High Judicial Council (HJC). The council was formed in 2011 charged with ensuring the judiciary remained independent and that the newly ratified constitution was followed strictly. Saied attacked the judiciary even further by dismissing 57 judges deemed disloyal to the government. If passed, the new constitution would give Saied even more power over the judiciary. The president would have full appointment powers of the judicial branch, whose members would be selected by a new HJC. Like all other government ministries, the HJC would be selected by the president. This proposal would therefore give Saied full autonomy over the judicial system, severely limiting any prospect judicial independence. The courts would no longer operate independently of political parties but become a legal tool for the state to encroach on the liberties of its citizens.
Tunisian citizens opposed to the proposed constitution have clashed with police forces in recent weeks. The National Salvation Front, a collection of multiple opposition groups, has been on the forefront of these protests. Older generations of Tunisians who remember what life was like under the previous authoritarian regime have been the most vocal about Saied’s dangerous power grab. The protests are aimed at unmasking Saied’s actions to the world and to encourage foreign governments to support the citizens’ democratic freedoms. The government responded to the protests by beating and pepper spraying the protestors, demonstrating the great lengths that Saied will go to protect his authoritarian pursuits. Members of the United States Congress have urged President Biden to put pressure on Saied and his government through targeted financial assistance for pro-democracy organizations.
Saied claims that his actions are not an attempt to pursue authoritarian goals. In his view, his proposed changes are a prescription to cure Tunisians from a system that hasn’t worked. In a move that surprised and angered many of his most loyal supporters, the new constitution would end Islam as the state religion and instead make the country a part of worldwide Islamic nation. Saied also kept parts of the 2015 constitution that guaranteed certain rights and liberties, including freedom of speech and the right to assemble peacefully. Given his recent actions, many Tunisians are skeptical that these rights will be protected, especially with little to no formal mechanisms to check the executive branch.
The United States and other democratic leaders need to take action against Saied to prevent the democratic degradation of the larger Arab region. Tunisia is a small country with numerous neighbors that have similarly new democracies. If Saied and his regime continue down the road of democratic backsliding through executive aggrandizement, there will likely be a proliferation of authoritarianism in the region. The impact that one system can have on the wider region was clearly seen during the Arab spring. The Tunisian people said no to autocratic policies and launched a successful revolt that brought democracy to their people. The events that occurred in this small country and their successful efforts to democratize inspired millions of Arabs in other countries. If Tunisia becomes more authoritarian, neighboring regimes will find inspiration to take legislative power away from the people, the opposite of what occurred during the Arab spring. By standing idly by as Tunisia delves into a more autocratic form of government, world leaders will allow the Arab world to fall back into authoritarianism, ruining the tremendous progress that was achieved in 2011.