Tunisians must boycott the upcoming constitutional referendum

Rejecting the referendum is the only way for Tunisians to take a stand against President Kais Saied’s autocratic legalism.

Presidential candidate Kais Saied speaks as he attends a news conference after the announcement of the results in the first round of Tunisia's presidential election in Tunis.
Last year, Tunisian President Kais Saied dissolved the elected parliament to rule by decree in a step his foes call a coup [Muhammad Hamed/Reuters]

The new draft constitution released by Tunisia’s President Kais Saied, which will be voted on by the public in a July 25 referendum, signals the imminent undoing of the country’s post-revolution political transition. It represents a dangerous turning point that exposes Saied’s aim to consolidate his one-man rule by turning Tunisia’s young democracy officially – and through seemingly legal means – into an autocracy.

His proposed constitution re-establishes a hyper-presidential system and banalises the judiciary and legislative branches by placing them completely under the control of the president. It foresees the disappearance of Tunisia’s pluralistic system of political parties and independent bodies and, most importantly, legitimises the removal of the checks and balances on the authority of the executive. In a nutshell, Saied’s constitution aims to restore the authoritarian rule from which Tunisians have reeled for decades and started a revolution to dismantle.

Boycotting the constitutional referendum is the only remaining option for Tunisians concerned with safeguarding their country’s young and fragile democracy.

Since his infamous July 25, 2021 power grab, Saied – largely assisted by Tunisia’s powerful security apparatus – has slowly and steadily destroyed the pillars of a vibrant, albeit chaotic, political ecosystem, and constrained the civil freedoms and rights that many Tunisians have fought hard to achieve and reached difficult compromises around.

After shutting off the parliament, his regime has established a reign of invisible fear that has since succeeded in silencing his political opponents and excluding them from the public space. Not only opposing voices are all but eliminated from the national media, many former members of the parliament, lawyers and civil activists have been jailed.

Saied’s decision to write a draft constitution less than a year after his coup takes a well-used page from the playbook of autocratic legalism –  by acting like he is simply working towards building a more robust legal framework to support democracy, he is trying to deceive Tunisians into thinking his authoritarian program is actually legal and democratic, and may even eventually result in the establishment of a new, much more progressive republic.

Saied, a retired law lecturer, managed to grab power first and foremost because he knew how to game the shaky political system in post-revolutionary Tunisia and take advantage of the inherent flaws of the existing constitutional design.

After being elected president, he successfully weaponised the public’s declining trust in the fractured parliament and frustration with the country’s deepening economic and social vulnerabilities to highjack shaky democratic institutions from within and consolidate his power under the guise of attempting to “fix” the democratic system.

As he continuously paid lip service to democratic rights and principles, and used not solely the blunt force of the military but also article 80 of the 2014 constitution to seize power and dismiss the parliament, he managed to confuse a significant number of local and international analysts and commentators into thinking what happened on July 25, 2021 was not a coup and the president is indeed acting to strengthen Tunisia’s democracy. Even most of the Tunisian public debate on the events of July 25 were focused on establishing whether Saeid’s coup can actually be considered a coup. Thanks to this confusion, while everyone was busy trying to establish whether what happened was “legal” or not, Saied has successfully launched a precise legalistic programme of autocratic consolidation and dismantled the judicial system and civil organisations through a series of decrees, established a monopoly over the state media and criminalised dissent.

And as he moves to finalise his power grab by passing a new constitution, Saied is still trying to confuse the world and the Tunisian public into thinking that his primary aim is to further democratic rights and freedoms in the country. The president’s new constitution, for example, repeatedly emphasises the importance of “the will of people”, human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.

And yet, Saied’s actions in the past year clearly demonstrate that he has no interest in serving the will of the people or furthering democracy in the country. Indeed, since his power grab, the president has only shown a cynical contempt for democracy and truth.

He excluded opposition parties and civil organisations from the drafting of the new constitution. He persecuted his primary political opponent, Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Ennahdha party, and froze his bank accounts and those of other Ennahdha figures on alleged charges of money laundering. He also dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council and sacked more than 57 judges. More recently, he ruled that only his allies could participate in the public debate on the proposed constitution and the July 25 referendum. He also made sure that the constitutional referendum is not a real referendum. Voting against the proposed constitution seems to be futile because the planned referendum is only “consultative”, and Tunisia’s new dictator – who is of course also in charge of the elections authority – will make the final decision.

Legalistic autocrats like Saied hypocritically embrace elections and referendums to befuddle any critics and advance their autocratic program. As Kim Lane Scheppele, professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University, argues, “The autocratic legalists often make a giant public show of being governed by and governing within the law, changing the law and even the constitution itself with impeccably legal (if illiberal) methods. But underneath the legal reforms carried out in the name of democracy is the illiberal sensibility of the autocrat and the steady consolidation of power in fewer and fewer hands.”

Tunisia’s upcoming constitutional referendum is nothing more than another deceitful attempt by the region’s latest autocratic legalist, Saied, to leverage the power and respectability of democratic constitutionalism to consolidate his authoritarian rule. To make their voices heard, Tunisians must boycott this charade. It is the only way they can challenge Saied’s illegitimate tactics and avoid participating in the dismantling of the democratic system they worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.