The Christian Science Monitor Daily for July 25, 2022


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With Tunisia’s democracy hanging in the harmony, a female votes in Ariana, around Tunis, July 25, 2022. Turnout was small as Tunisians voted on a new structure granting near-limitless powers to the president.

Tunis, Tunisia and Amman, Jordan

Democracy in Tunisia, the Arab world’s last hopeful holdout given that the revolutions of 2011, was dealt a crushing defeat today – not with the bang of a armed forces coup, but with a whimper of apathy at the ballot box.

Anticipating the constitutional referendum Monday set to tear up their democratic process in favor of a presidency with in close proximity to-limitless powers, lots of Tunisians merely shrugged.

“We expended too a lot time and electricity talking the very last 11 yrs, and left no electricity to do the job to change points for the better. At times a dictatorship is just better,” claims Hamzeh Salem, a Tunis cafe proprietor and political unbiased in his 30s who, like lots of, was abstaining from the vote.

“We have a whole lot of freedoms, but we did not get a much better existence. Independence and liberties signify nothing if you just can’t live comfortably.”

With no bare minimum-vote threshold essential for the referendum’s approval, and a lot of boycotting, it was widely considered the authoritarian structure drawn up by populist President Kais Saied passed.

The new technique replaces the most progressive constitution in the area, a product of two several years of consultations that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.

Posts codified women’s rights, youth legal rights, and legal rights for people today with disabilities defend against discrimination of all types and assure “the correct to a healthier and balanced surroundings and the correct to participation in the defense of the weather.”

However despite profitable plaudits from the West and serving as an inspiration to Arabs battling in opposition to oppression, the democratic process simply just did not deal with decades-previous inequality, corruption, unemployment, and crumbling public providers, Tunisians say. Political functions only seemed out for their possess pursuits, they declare. 

The widespread apathy greeting these kinds of an authoritarian relapse speaks to a main dilemma confronting Tunisian citizens and supporters of democracy around the world: What is the benefit of liberty with no socioeconomic equality and prosperity?

Tunisians acquire section in a protest from populist President Kais Saied’s referendum on a new structure, in Tunis, Tunisia, July 23, 2022.

Arab democrats and rights activists throughout the area who once viewed Tunisia as a guiding light now see a cautionary tale rising from the North African point out: Unaddressed, citizens’ financial grievances can unravel hard-gained democratic gains, creating a back again doorway for authoritarianism’s return.

“What legal rights am I experiencing suitable now? Only the right to vote,” suggests Dhia Hammami, a former supporter of Mr. Saied who said he has given up on the political course of action.

“Where is my correct to good clinical care and social stability? The place is my appropriate to free of charge motion and transportation? Wherever is my proper to security and protection? The state is not presenting me this.”

Populism to authoritarianism

Monday’s vote was viewed by lots of as the crowning victory for President Saied, codifying the unexpected emergency powers he seized in 2021 – ostensibly in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic – in what was described at the time as a “constitutional coup.”

Mr. Saied, who was popularly elected in 2019, was established to overhaul a submit-revolution program in which a parliament-backed federal government and the popularly elected president shared powers, an arrangement vulnerable to policymaking deadlock.

But somewhat than launch a countrywide dialogue or consist of political groups in the drafting of a new constitution, the previous constitutional law lecturer alternatively named a small committee of lawful industry experts in June to do the get the job done.

Mr. Saied then stunned Tunisians as soon as all over again July 1, when, relatively than forwarding the committee’s resulting draft for a referendum, he put forward his possess. Committee chair Sadok Belaid denounced the doc as “completely different” from the experts’ draft and explained it could “pave the way for a disgraceful dictatorial routine.”

Under Mr. Saied’s tailor-designed structure, the president heads the armed forces and has the authority to kind and dismiss governments, dissolve parliament, connect with for elections, and appoint judges.

There is no check on the president’s powers or system to impeach the govt, and a loophole lets the president to serve for life.

Past the power grab, the draft also imperils particular person freedoms.

Slim Abid/Tunisian Presidency/AP

Tunisian President Kais Saied and his wife, Ichraf Chebil, go away the polling station after they cast their votes in Tunis, Tunisia, July 25, 2022. Mr. Saied was popularly elected but is looking for close to-unlimited powers by means of the referendum on a new constitution.

“There is no apparent definition of human rights or a civil democratic state in this proposed structure,” says Wahid Ferchichi, honorary president and co-founder of the Association for the Defense of Person Liberties, just one of dozens of Tunisian human legal rights and civil legal rights organizations that flourished immediately after the 2011 revolution. 

“The only particular person who can interpret this structure is Kais Saied himself. He can change its that means dependent on his needs of the working day.”

The shift has been met with a smattering of protests that ongoing Sunday and Monday, led by hundreds of Tunisian activists who lived less than previous dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

But most Tunisians were keeping absent from the polls entirely, disinterested equally in Mr. Saied’s venture and in conserving a democratic system they say has failed to work for them.

Worn down by inflation, forex devaluation, and foodstuff shortages, Tunisians are involved in its place with financial aid. Turnout for the referendum was projected to arrive at 15%.

Among the tiny, vocal faction supporting the new structure are Saied supporters who consider a strong presidency is crucial to turning about a deteriorating overall economy, tackling unemployment, and curbing corruption.

Then there are those Tunisian liberals ready to trade absent their democratic gains in purchase to sweep Islamists out of governing administration and community lifetime. A similar cut price was struck in 2013 by Egyptians and strongman President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who, following overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood there, cracked down on totally free expression and political activity and jailed tens of 1000’s – which include liberals.

Politicians and rights activists warn of what could come next Mr. Saied has vowed to move laws dissolving political parties and allowing for the president powers to dissolve civil society companies and ban them from meeting, issuing stories, or acquiring international funding.

Then there are the crackdowns. Law enforcement beat and pepper-sprayed activists protesting peacefully in downtown Tunis Friday, attacking the head of the journalists association and arresting primary LGBTQ rights activist Saif Ayadi, who experiences an uptick in police raids because Mr. Saied’s ability seize. 

“We who advocate for authorized legal rights are going through revenge attacks, intimidation, and threats by the police – significantly individuals of us who advocate for queer rights,” states Mr. Ayadi, a social worker at Damj, an corporation that advocates for LGBTQ Tunisians. “I fear for my safety, for my business, and specially those who occur to us for support.”

“Civil culture in jeopardy”

All over the location, political and constitutional reform activists have consistently cited the codification of legal rights in Tunisia’s democratic structure as inspiration.

Crucially, the 2014 structure integrated a “limitation clause” constraining how far the “civil and democratic state” can suppress particular and collective freedoms for the better excellent, this sort of as in an crisis, the initially of its type in the Arab world.

A woman distributes stickers urging Tunisians to vote certainly in a referendum for a new structure, in Tunis, Tunisia, July 23, 2022.

Even with Tunisia’s “antagonistic political program inclined to deadlock,” the 2014 constitution “was a extremely progressive way of searching at legal rights and safeguarded civil modern society as a merchandise of the method,” suggests Zaid Al-Ali, a Tunis-based expert on Arab constitutions.

“If this new proposed structure had been to be adopted, it would make it quite straightforward for this new system to control all legal rights. It would promptly put civil modern society in jeopardy,” states Mr. Al-Ali, writer of the 2021 e book “Arab Constitutionalism: The Coming Revolution.”

Abruptly at stake are freedoms and protections that Tunisians have grow to be accustomed to, but some are inclined to sacrifice.

“You can communicate freely in Tunisia, but these freedoms didn’t translate to benefits on the ground,” claims Abdulkhalek Essid, a Tunis taxi driver in his 60s who describes himself as “unsure” more than Mr. Saied’s adjustments.

“Unemployment is popular the dinar has dropped its price charges have increased youths are migrating illegally and dying. We have liberty, but the scenario has deteriorated.”

Other Tunisians say they are simply just worn down from 5 elections in the earlier 10 years.

Tunisia’s civil culture has been campaigning throughout the nation, urging disillusioned citizens to not give up on their democracy and to resist Mr. Saied’s authoritarian challenge.

“We inform folks: Visualize socioeconomic rights without the need of the liberty of expression, independence of considered, freedom of education, freedom of media, independence of association,” suggests Mr. Ferchichi of the Affiliation for the Defense of Particular person Liberties.

“It will reduce anybody from bettering the socioeconomic circumstance, from monitoring the government’s guidelines, or even complaining about the socioeconomic condition.”

Cautionary tale

Tunisia has been the previous refuge in the Arab globe for the no cost trade of suggestions, serving as a regional hub for human rights and democracy get the job done. Activists, journalists, and legal professionals throughout the Arab world carry on to arrive to Tunis to teach, learn from the Tunisian encounter, and apply classes back again residence.

“People have often looked to Tunisia as what can go suitable, how you can bring in democracy following these definitely sizable protests. All the progressive alter they reached inspired Arab democracy activists,” states Kholood Khair, handling partner of Insight System, a Khartoum-based mostly consider-and-do tank functioning on the changeover in Sudan, where by grassroots activists continue on to push for democracy two years after toppling strongman Omar al-Bashir.

“I think it will be a cautionary tale now of what could go improper even when the armed forces is not seriously associated: You however may not get the democracy you wanted.”

Other individuals, these types of as tour information Lassad Chebi, say they refuse to let their children develop up in a dictatorship. They urge fellow Tunisians to safeguard their freedoms.

“Liberty will end result in prosperity in the very long term,” Mr. Chebi says, “if we can maintain it.”

Correspondent Ahmed Ellali contributed to this report from Tunis.

By Harriet