The new political system will see sweeping executive powers given to the president and the removal of key checks and balances, causing critics to warn that Tunisia may see a reversal of democracy.
( Riadh Dridi, file
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. In 2011, Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution sparked a wave of demonstrations throughout the region. Tunisia was the first democracy to emerge from what became known as the Arab Spring. Now, just over a decade later, after the adoption of a new constitution headed by President Kais Saied, it is poised to be the last to fall.
The new constitution effectively grants the president a monopoly on power and bolsters Islam as a priority of the state. It was approved by referendum on July 25th, passing with a 95% approval but with only 30% of Tunisia's eligible voting population casting a ballot. You can hear the emotion from protestors on July 23rd in Tunisia as they demonstrated against the referendum.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're joined now by Sharan Grewal, Assistant Professor of Government at the College of William and Mary and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Sharan, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Sharan Grewal: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you take us back to Tunisia 2011 and Arab Spring and remind us what was happening?
Sharan Grewal: Yes, so in 2011 even late 2010, Tunisians had risen up against the former dictator, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, primarily for economic reasons, for frustration with the economic situation, frustration with corruption, but also with political grievances. Frustration with decades of dictatorship, frustration with police brutality. Once Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled, the political forces that came to power in the wake of the Arab Spring focused primarily on the political aspects, on setting up a new democracy, on finding consensus over the new constitution in 2014 but, by and large, they neglected the economic and social grievances of the population. 10 years later, still, the economic situation hasn't improved. By many accounts, it has been even worse than it was pre-revolution. That is in essence the economic context that is now leading to support for this new president to monopolize all powers in his hand in the hopes that he can finally fix the economic situation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell us a little bit about this president and about this constitution. I think there's a little bit of irony here. He is a constitutional law scholar?
Sharan Grewal: Yes, he is.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell us about him and his understanding. I hear, as you're saying, that he perceives this as an opportunity, at least the way I heard you frame that, that it's not simply a kind of autocratic seizing of power but a genuine belief in his own capacity to bring an economic revival, better economic conditions for his people's. Of course, history gives us a little bit of warning there. Help us understand what you see as his expectations and motivations.
Sharan Grewal: The narrative he's putting out is largely a populous narrative. One that says the economy is struggling today because of the previous regime, because of the democratic system, in essence, because of the political parties, because the system that had been set up was one in which all the parties had to get along in order for anything to get done. What we saw in 2019-2020 was that they couldn't get along and thus nothing could get done.
His narrative is that instead of that divided system, we need a strong leader. That's the way you would actually get things done for the economy. Likewise, the narrative he's putting out is that these political parties that had emerged after the Arab Spring, they were all corrupt. They are the source of the problem, and so his narrative is we need to uproot this system, get rid of all these political parties, these politicians, and instead, start from scratch.
That's what he's proposing in this constitution and that is in essence what he had proposed also in 2019 when he first got elected in a landslide victory. There was so much frustration with the system, with the economy that people fell for this populist appeal largely because he himself has a very clean image. He is not part of a political party. He's not tainted by the politics of the last 10 years. He has this clean image and an image that he is going to clean up the political system and get it working again for Tunisians.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This constitution is passed by an enormous margin but a small turnout. Help us understand what's going on there.
Sharan Grewal: The president still retains quite a bit of support. About 2.5 million Tunisians came out and voted in support of this constitution. The bigger story I think is the turnout because the major opposition parties said we are going to boycott this constitutional referendum because, A, we don't want to legitimate the whole process. This coup that the president undertook last year when he froze the parliament and dismissed the prime minister, and then embarked on this unilateral roadmap of rewriting the constitution, they said we don't want to legitimize this process so we're going to boycott and, secondly, that we're not even sure if we all voted no whether our votes would be counted honestly given that the president reshuffled the membership of the formerly independent electoral commission such that they then had some doubts about whether this referendum would really be free and fair. The opposition decided to boycott.
The even more important number rather than the percent who voted yes is the percent who actually voted at all, the turnout. What the opposition is trying to say is that, "Look, only 30% of the population supports the president. The other 70% is with us, the opposition." That is also an exaggeration. Neither of them really have the majority. The story really is that Tunisia is divided over this president.
Yes, he still retains his supporters who think he's a clean president who therefore should be given greater powers but you also have this growing opposition that are realizing that, "Hey, wait, this guy is not actually going to revitalize democracy. He's going to recreate an authoritarian system," and, "Hey, wait, this guy is not actually as secular and progressive as we thought he was given that he opposes the Islamist Party, Ennahda. In reality, he's quite Islamist himself. You see that in this new constitution where it says that the state should play a role in advancing the objectives of Islam.
Now that he's finally had to put forth a constitution after a year of dismantling institutions, now he has to create an institution, people are realizing his true colors. They're seeing what he really stands for and that's scaring away some Tunisians. The real story here I think is that you have a divided country, divided over whether this president is really going to lead their country in the right direction.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does all of this tell us about young democracies?
Sharan Grewal: It suggests that this correlation that we have in our heads that democracies produce great economies, they're prosperous, they're successful. While it might be true in the long term that democracies on average have stronger economies than dictatorships, it's definitely not true in the short term. When you're trying to transition to democracy and you have all the uncertainty and instability of creating a new system, the economy doesn't always perform so well, especially in Tunisia's case where you had, in addition, a number of terrorist attacks in 2014, 2015 that deterred foreign investment, that deterred tourism to Tunisia, all of which meant that the economy didn't really improve in those initial 10 years.
The other lesson I think is that without large foreign support, democracies also can fall. We didn't see any big Marshall plan for the Arap Spring countries like we saw for Europe after World War II. We saw a bit of economic aid and primarily security aid for Tunisia but nothing on the likes that Europe received and that might have shaped the trajectory in Tunisia differently that might have actually improved the economy for Tunisians.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there a US role in all of this?
Sharan Grewal: There is. The US in terms of its rhetoric has been quite critical of President Kais Saied and what he's done over the past year. They never used the word coup when describing what he did last year which would've mandated a suspension of all aid, but they have been quite critical of the moves he has taken, the lack of inclusion, and even the substance of the constitution they criticized as not having sufficient checks and balances.
They've also threatened that next year their aid will be reduced on account of what the president has done, but we will see if that materializes. Where we haven't seen as much action has been on Europe side. Europe has been a bit more concerned about migration from Tunisia, and so they're hoping instead that this president will provide the stability that can keep Tunisians in Tunisia rather than fleeing to Europe.
Without, I think, that unified international community, without the Western democracies being unified on this aspect, I think President Kais Saied is able to push forward with his roadmap and with his plan forward without enough costs to change his calculation to become a bit more inclusive.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sharan Grewal is an Assistant Professor of Government at the College of William and Mary and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Sharan, thank you so much for joining us.
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