The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tunisia’s constitutional referendum represents a dark day for democracy

Tunisian President Kais Saied casts his vote at a polling station in Tunis, Tunisia, on JUly 25. (Slim Abid/Tunisian Presidency/AP)

Monica Marks is an assistant professor of Middle East politics at New York University in Abu Dhabi.

TUNIS — On Monday, Tunisians have been going to the polls to vote on a new constitution proposed by President Kais Saied. At stake is nothing less than the fate of the Arab world’s most promising experiment in democratic governance. If Saied gets his way, Tunisia could send an ominous signal to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, where despotic rulers remain entrenched.

In 2011, a popular uprising in Tunisia sparked by a young fruit vendor’s suicide overthrew the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled for 23 years. The events in Tunisia triggered a wave of similar revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa, an upheaval that came to be known as the Arab Spring.

Tunisians embarked on a halting, yet remarkable, transition toward democracy. Thousands of grass-roots civil society organizations, hundreds of political parties, and dozens of fresh media outlets sprang up. In 2014, Tunisia’s democratically elected Constituent Assembly passed an inclusively drafted constitution, painstakingly debated over two years, that enshrined safeguards for human rights, checks and balances, and other fundamental pillars of representative governance. For a country whose dictator had once “won” staged elections with farcical 99 percent margins, the fact that Tunisia managed to hold multiple nationwide democratic elections was extraordinary.

It is true that Tunisia’s post-revolutionary governments never managed to create a better functioning economy, to reform the corrupt security state, or to create a Constitutional Court. But despite significant failures, Tunisia’s strides in free speech and democratic governance catapulted it to the highest marks in democracy-rating indexes such as Polity IV and Freedom House. The symbolic importance of this — namely that organic, grass-roots-created democracy is possible in the Arab world — posed a crucial counterargument to regional autocracies and violent extremists. Tunisia’s example gave hope to an entire region.

Now, Saied — a little-known law professor who won office in 2019 as a dark-horse populist — appears determined to reverse that progress. On July 25, 2021, he staged a presidential coup that overthrew the country’s nascent democracy. Framing his takeover as a “correction” to jump-start urgently needed reforms, Saied painted the entire political class — including independent civil society organizations and media outlets — as corrupt intermediaries standing between him and “the people.”

Saied shut down the democratically elected parliament with tanks and seized the reins of all three governmental branches. He has ruled by fiat ever since. He has dragged his civilian critics in front of military courts. He has accused parliamentarians who convened virtually to condemn his power grab of “attempting a coup.” He has assaulted the judiciary’s independence and seized control of the country’s electoral commission.

For a man who built his reputation on his alleged expertise as a constitutional lawyer, his unconstitutional assault on Tunisia’s institutions has been tragically ironic. Undeterred by his critics, who now include nearly all political parties and a broad range of civil society groups, Saied is hurtling toward a style of authoritarian hyper-presidentialism that could be worse than the dictatorships that came before.

Saied released his draft constitution on June 30, just weeks before his vanity referendum. The draft, first issued with dozens of grammatical errors, bafflingly enshrined the Tunisian state as the sole and best interpreter of sharia law for all Muslims. More importantly, Saied’s constitution obliterated basic requirements for democratic governance, such as the separation of powers and oversight between branches.

Days after the draft’s release, Saied’s hand-picked constitutional committee vehemently disavowed it. This carelessly constructed, single-handedly-authored authoritarian constitution represents a massive insult to the dignity and hard-won democratic achievements of Tunisians.

Disgusted by the illegitimacy of Saied’s coup-launched process, many Tunisians vowed to boycott Monday’s referendum. The minority who do vote will likely vote yes, because Saied’s promises — however unreliable — still represent to them a preferable alternative to a decade of parliamentary bickering and dysfunction that failed to deliver tangible economic benefits. The last-minute nature of this crude plebiscite, the disorganization of Saied’s electoral commission, and the widespread perception that the vote will be rigged in favor of “yes” have stymied efforts to organize, observe and vote “no.”

Most Tunisians seem beaten down by economic hardship. “We’re sleepwalking back to the dark old days,” 39-year-old Zouhair Khlefi told me over coffee in Redeyef, a remote town near the Algerian border. “I want to shake people awake, but I can’t. They’re too hungry, they’re too tired, and they’re too forgetful of how precious our revolution was."

The absence of any minimum threshold for turnout — a striking departure from global standards in binding referenda — means Saied’s constitution will likely pass despite low engagement.

If it does, Tunisia’s democratic experiment could definitively end. It remains to be seen whether the same people who once rose up so inspiringly for inclusive government might again stand to topple another dictatorship — one that will, tragically, be largely of their own making.