07/19/2022, 11.14
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Tunisia votes on one-man-rule Constitution

by Chiara Zappa

On Monday 25 July Tunisians will vote in a referendum on the new charter, which would centralise all powers in the hands of President Saïed. Islam is not defined as the national religion, but it is said that the country 'belongs to the Islamic nation (Ummah)' and that the State must work to achieve 'the five goals of pure Islam'. Opposition and civil society protest but the electorate, weakened by the economic crisis, may support the head of state.

Milan (AsiaNews) - The long preamble states that he is speaking on behalf of the people and makes constant references to the "thawra", the 2011 revolution, but the new Tunisian Constitution that will be put to a referendum on Monday 25 July actually risks handing the country over definitively to one man: President Kaïs Saïed.

One year ago the same head of state suspended parliament and sent the prime minister packing, appointing a small group of experts who in barely a month prepared the draft of the new charter, made public on 30 June. Saïed, unconvinced by the result of 'his' team's work, then revised it himself, modifying some substantial points, so much so that the head of the commission himself, Sadok Belaïd, has in recent days distanced himself from the text published in the Official Gazette, believing that it could 'pave the way for a dictatorial regime'.

Tunisia is preparing for the constitutional referendum in the midst of a serious crisis that is not only political but also economic and social: skyrocketing unemployment, particularly among young people, and the heavy repercussions of the war in Ukraine, which has exacerbated the price of raw materials and food, are driving a people now completely disillusioned after the hopes for change sown by the Jasmine Revolution. In recent years, the political class has demonstrated its inability to carry out the reforms necessary to relaunch the country and has revealed itself still entangled in the old clientelist dynamics against which the people rose up eleven years ago.

The fight against corruption was the banner under which Saïed carried out his coup against the parties, in particular the Islamist-led Ennahdha formation. But if exactly one year ago - on 25 July 2021 - Tunisians had taken to the streets in support of the president's move, now part of civil society fears that the new Constitution will jeopardise the democratic counterweights enshrined in the 2014 Charter, the result of a difficult compromise between the political parties in the post-revolution years and cited as a model because it guaranteed important rights.

The new fundamental law, which will be submitted to a popular referendum without a quorum on Monday, if approved, will transform Tunisia into a pure presidential republic, with a sharp reduction in the role of Parliament. In fact, the text envisages that the head of state will exercise the executive function, will have the power to appoint or remove the prime minister (without the confidence of parliamentarians), to reject laws passed by the chambers (the Assembly of People's Representatives will be joined by a National Council of Regions) and to assign high civil and military posts.

Over the past few days, more than thirty NGOs and civil society associations have taken sides against the excessive centralisation of powers in Saïed's hands. In a joint note, they denounced "the unilateral approach of the president of the Republic who has confiscated the right of Tunisians to discuss their destiny, without involving the components of civil society, the political scene, academics and specialists", and criticised among other things "the abolition of constitutional bodies relating to the media, justice, human rights and the fight against corruption".

Not only that. The signatories, including the Tunisian League for Human Rights (former member of the Quartet for National Dialogue awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015), the Journalists' Union (Snjt), the Forum for Economic and Social Rights (Ftdes) and the Coalition for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, argue that the text in question 'undermines the notion of citizenship that unites Tunisians without discrimination based on creed, colour or gender'.

Indeed, in Article 1 of the new Constitution, the reference to the civil nature of the State has been removed. And although Islam is not defined as the national religion, in reality Article 5 declares that the country 'belongs to the Islamic nation (Ummah)' and that the State must work to achieve 'the five aims of pure Islam: the preservation of life, honour, property, religion and freedom'. Thus the hopes of those who expected a 'secular' text vanish.

The concerns of some jurists on this point are shared by the exponents of minorities, including Christians: on the other hand, the text not only maintains the constraint that the president of the Republic must be a Muslim, but also requires that candidates for the presidency, as well as members of parliament, have both parents and grandparents of Tunisian nationality. Instead, the reference to the universality of human rights disappears.

But while it is true that part of civil society is expressing its dissent and the leader of Ennahdha Rached Ghannouchi has urged citizens to boycott the referendum (a self-defeating choice given the absence of a quorum), the fact remains that the president continues to enjoy the silent support of a large part of the population, which sees his democratic 'tear' as a painful but necessary move to eradicate corruption. And, faced with daily difficulties in obtaining even bread, they are willing to sacrifice a large margin of freedom in the hope that a 'strong' president can put a country in disarray back on track.



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