New constitution gives some Tunisians hope, others worry

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TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisians have overwhelmingly approved a referendum on a new constitution that gives more powers to the country’s president. It’s a step that brings hope to many in the troubled North African nation, but critics warn it could return Tunisia to autocracy.

Some people interviewed by The Associated Press this week celebrated Monday’s referendum result and expressed support for President Kais Saied, who led the project and proposed the text himself.

Others said they were worried about what the changes might mean for the future of democracy in the country. The revised constitution gives extensive executive powers to the president and weakens the influence of the legislative and judicial branches of government.

Adel, a 51-year-old plumber who declined to give his last name for fear of political reprisals, said while he supported Saied he did not take part in Monday’s referendum because he believed the proposed changes gave too much power in the executive. .

“This constitution he made was not for the long term. Those who come after Saied will do what they want without being held accountable,” he said.

In 2011, Tunisians rose up against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s strongman, and launched the Arab Spring protests in North Africa and the Middle East. Tunisia was the only nation to emerge from the protests with a democratic government.

Saied won the presidency in 2019 with over 70% of the vote. It continues to enjoy broad popular support; recent polls put his approval rating at over 50%.

The referendum came a year to the day after Saied froze Tunisia’s parliament and toppled his government. Opponents derided the measures as “a coup,” but many Tunisians backed the president’s actions due to exasperation from political elites and years of economic stagnation.

Similarly, many citizens believe that the new constitution will end years of political stalemate and reduce the influence of the country’s largest political party, Ennahdha. Others saw a “yes” vote as a vote for Saied and a chance to change their fortunes.

Saida Masoudi, 49, a fast food vendor in a Tunis suburb who voted for the revised constitution, said she hoped the changes would pave the way for economic reforms and a lower cost of living.

“We just want the country to improve and reform. That’s why I participated in this referendum, so that the country can go back to how it was before,” she said, adding that she thinks Tunisians lived better under Ben Ali than they do today. .

However, Heba Morayef, regional director of Amnesty International, called the adoption of the constitution “deeply worrying”. She said in a statement that the revisions were written behind closed doors in a process controlled by Saied.

“The new constitution dismantles many guarantees of independence of the judiciary, removes protection for civilians from military trials and grants authorities the power to restrict human rights or renege on international human rights commitments. man in the name of religion,” Morayef said.

Official preliminary results showed around a third of registered voters cast their ballots, with 94.6% giving their approval.

Opposition leaders had called for a boycott of the referendum, saying the process was flawed, and they argue the turnout reflected unease with changes to Tunisia’s system of government.

“The referendum was rigged from the start, with no turnout threshold set out,” said the regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, Said Benarbia. “The low turnout and the opaque and illegal process by which the adoption of the constitution was made possible give the president no mandate or legitimacy to change Tunisia’s constitutional order.

Several people The Associated Press spoke to said they did not vote in the referendum. Some said they weren’t interested in politics, while others said a new constitution would do little to change their quality of life. Many did not understand the changes it would introduce.

“I didn’t vote because none of this interests me,” said Khalil Riahi, a 26-year-old DJ. “Whether Kais Saied does this or someone else, I don’t care. Nothing will change.

Monica Marks, professor of Middle East politics at NYU Abu Dhabi, says many Tunisians have become weary, disillusioned and cynical in recent years, but “have never called for a complete shake-up of their political system”. .

“What they have been calling for for years is effective government leadership that makes a real tangible difference in their daily lives and solves the economic challenges they desperately face,” Marks says, explaining that many are attached to the idea that “one man can take the system, break it and maybe fix it”.

“There are still many Tunisians who believe Saied is Mr. Fix It… They believe he is the man who will clean it all up, even if he is ruled by powers of personal decree for an entire year , and their situation is tangible has not changed.

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