Voters in Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the violent implosion of the once-promising 2011 Arab Spring, go to the polls on July 25 to vote on a constitution proposed by their president. The referendum appears to represent another step backwards, weakening the currently suspended parliament, concentrating more power in the executive, and diluting checks and balances. This in a country where civil society organizations were so vibrant after the 2011 revolution that toppled autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali that they successfully forestalled a political collapse by organizing a national dialogue process in 2013-2014. The achievement earned the four organizations that led the process the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize

In the interview below, Amine Ghali, director of Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM), a civil society organization focusing on democratic transition, reflects candidly on what led to the entrenchment of the president, the role of civil society since 2011, and what may be ahead for Tunisia.

Current President Kais Saied insists that his proposed constitution, unveiled after scant public input and disavowed by a former constitutional law professor who led a drafting process, does not abrogate democratic rule. Yet it furthers the consolidation of presidential power that he began when he suspended Parliament a year ago and that he has continued with measures such as curbing the independence of the judiciary and restricting civil society organizations. 

“The proposed new constitution would return Tunisia from the hybrid parliamentary-presidential system under its postrevolutionary constitution to a presidential system, similar to what it had prior to the 2011 uprising,” according to an analysis of the draft and the context around it by Human Rights Watch. 

The country’s ever-worsening economic crisis, exacerbated by corruption, mismanagement of a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic last summer, and perpetual dysfunction in Parliament, has outraged Tunisians, opening the way for Saied to take a no-nonsense – and often bombastic – hammer to the ruling political class. He has wide support, especially in rural areas, from citizens fed up with the failure of democracy to deliver economic security. The opposition, too, is divided over how much to push back, and whether to boycott the referendum or recommend a “no” vote.

In the following interview, Ghali, who has served on national commissions on corruption, transitional justice, and legislative reform, considers the role of Tunisia’s civil society since 2011 and the future of governance in Tunisia. The interview was conducted by phone and has been edited for clarity.

Q: What do you think have been the biggest barriers to Tunisia’s democratic development?

One of the biggest barriers is that the Tunisian democracy did not deliver for the people – it was a non-delivering democracy. They did not have the fruits of democracy. Yes, people do want to be part of a country where you have elections, free press, a good constitution, good laws. But at the end of the day, they would love to see better food on their plates, better education, more job opportunities, a better economy – this is what matters for people at the end. And our democracy failed to deliver on this. We did not deliver on this. So people lost hopes and stopped believing in democracy because it did not improve their daily life or their daily economic life. 

Q: What were the obstacles to delivering on the economy simultaneously with democratic development?

In the first years of the transition, all of the political class spent too much time on political issues and democracy-vision issues – which is good because we needed to solve a lot of our issues after our 50 years of an authoritarian regime under Ben Ali and also under [former Prime Minister and President Habib] Bourguiba. Tunisia needed to fix a lot of the politics, and politics was very hard to fix, with a lot of political bargaining and a lot of democratization efforts –many things that delayed the big discussion about the reform of the economy. 

That reached the point that, in 2014 and 2015, which coincides with [the new political party] Nidaa Tounes winning the election, politicians started implementing a new strategy: let’s co-opt the clientelist system of Tunisia — instead of reforming the economy, let’s be part of this clientelist economy. Politicians wanted to take the maximum [benefits], or revise the networks that existed during Ben Ali’s time but now for their own interests. So instead of reforming, revising, amending the structure of the economy, which was and still is a very outdated, very clientelist, very closed economy, they thought let’s be part of it. And that approach delayed further the reform of the economy in Tunisia, which delayed the transformation of the country and our democracy. On one side, the democracy was trying to work, but on the other hand, the economy was not working.

Q: How did that clientelist economy manifest in Tunisia?

You have politicians selecting their own economic players, passing regulations and laws that benefit their own people, selecting what products to subsidize, who produces what, who imports what, licenses for imports, access to loans, access to banks. All of this is done not in a free-economy model, but in a selective, closed economy. It puts them in the center of this clientelist system that we thought we got rid of after Ben Ali. But the network still existed; they just positioned themselves into this existing and even some newly developed network.

Q: Tunisia’s civil society made impressive strides in supporting democratic development in the early years after the 2011 revolution, and it rocketed to stardom in 2015 when the National Dialogue Quartet of four civil society organizations won the Nobel Peace Prize for shepherding an agreement among feuding political parties to move the country forward. Was that the high point of Tunisia’s civil society? And how has it developed – or not – since then?

From 2011 to 2014, civil society was the champion of democracy in Tunisia. We did not have a Nelson Mandela, we did not have a Vaclav Havel, we did not have a Spanish king, or a Lech Walesa in Poland. We did not have a political figure driving or acting as an icon of democracy. Rather, we had the broadly distributed contribution of civil society. And I agree that the climax of recognition of this was the Nobel Peace Prize granted to the four civil society organizations. But then, at the end of 2014, when we had the election of Nidaa Tounes, what we thought would be the progressive, democratic option, there became a kind of relaxation, a softer approach from civil society. They began saying or thinking collectively that we succeeded, we got rid of the risk of Islamic law, or Shariah, of all of these dynamics, and we have a good constitution, we have good momentum, and people started to ease off in their involvement and the role they played. 

We started to lose some of the democratic momentum since 2014-2015, more or less. By 2021, people started feeling very tired of Ennahda, of the rulers of 2020-2021 [when Ennahda was the largest party in Parliament] – their failures to cope with the COVID pandemic, their failures to deal with the economic impact of it. Then civil society was silent or supportive of new President Kais Saied; we did not see the resilience of civil society as we had seen in the past. 

Q: What do you see as the most serious ramifications of Saied’s consolidation of power and this coming referendum?

We’re taking a path outside of democracy. This new constitution concentrates a lot of powers within the hands of the president – all of the executive powers, some of the legislative powers, but also some of the judicial powers, appointing the High Judicial Council, appointing judges, having the ability to fire judges. It has all sorts of provisions for passing legislation, for changing legislation, for amending the constitution without any checks – that gives him a lot of the powers of the legislative branch. As for the executive branch, he appoints the government, he heads government meetings, he’s responsible for public policies – all of this makes him a super-powerful president without any checks and balances whatsoever.

This is a recipe for a possible autocratic president or autocratic regime, with all of the implications that carries.

Q: Why do so many Tunisians support Saied?

There still is limited democratic culture in Tunisia. After 50 years of complete negation of political life or democratic life, Tunisians still have not grown very democratic in the years since. We had very good learning years from 2011 to 2020 or 2021, but this has been offset by the weak delivery of our democracy. 

People see Kais Saied as a figure who is drastically cutting ties with the political elite that they hated. They see in him the possibility of a renewal of the political elite and the political class. This is a reality. And we also have to admit something very important – Kais Saied is a populist president, and when you use populism, there is very little argument. Democracy somehow provides very weak arguments in the face of populism. 

But in future years, when populism also doesn’t deliver any more than other popular types of discourse, people will start to feel deceived and lose faith even in these populist leaders. The risk is that, this time, our president is changing the constitution and is changing the rules of the game.  

Q: Did the United States suspend security cooperation with Tunisia over Saied’s moves?

I’ve heard and I’ve read that some members of Congress are calling for limiting military support to Tunisia as a way of expressing unhappiness of the United States with Tunisian developments. The west will never let fall the security component of cooperation with Tunisia. The United States might be a little different, but for Italy and France especially, they favor security and stability over democracy. In the past year, the European Union has been very silent — some people say because of the lobbying of Italy and France — for fear of risking further destabilization in Tunisian. They don’t want to have any spillover across the region or to their borders in the form of refugee flows.

For the United States, the effect is more geostrategic. With Libya and Algeria next door, the United States wants to keep good military and security cooperation, as has been the case with Tunisia. It’s working fine, especially with the military. With the Ministry of the Interior [which oversees police and the National Guard], it’s working less fine, because we do not see much of the reform we would have expected in the security sector, because the police are still not accountable.

Q: Did Saied approve the draft law that was leaked in January that would amend Decree-Law 2011-88 on civil society organizations to restrict their operations?

Still not yet. The leaked draft would have destroyed the independence of civil society. This is part of the strategic move of Kais Saied to destroy all intermediary structures. He started with the parliament, then completely discredited political parties, he destroyed the High Judicial Council. He discredits and attacks judges, he’s boycotting media. He removed the independence of the Independent High Authority for Elections, he closed the anti-corruption commission, and he put on standby a human rights body. As part of these moves, he is also trying to change the role of civil society.

Q: What do you think civil society organizations could have done differently to help avert the current circumstances?

We should have stopped what he has been doing since the beginning. Civil society and political society – we were very silent. Some were waiting to see what he was doing and some were silent and waiting to see what would happen. There was no wakeup call with all that has happened from July 2021 to January or February 2022. Then, little by little, people started to realize that this is an autocratic track and they started to oppose it. And, further, when they saw the draft constitution, they started to realize that it is not a democratic draft, not a “democratic correction,” as he calls it, just a deviation towards an autocratic regime.

So if we had started this momentum that is happening now four or five months ago or in August 2021, I think we could have countered all of his subsequent moves.

Q: Assuming, as it appears currently, that Saied will win the approval he seeks for his constitution in this referendum, even with low turnout, where do you see Tunisia going from here?

Tunisia will go through an episode of backsliding. Many countries trying to go through transition have episodes. For them, fall into abyss continues, for others, they reach a turning point that provides a return to democracy. At what expense, this will unfold in the near future – will we see an economic collapse? Will we see general strikes for people will see this is not delivering for them? Will we see a political momentum that changes the reality? This will be unveiled probably in the next fall or winter of 2022-23.

Q: What do you think will be the most important effects of these developments beyond Tunisia’s borders? Any security ramifications?

The most impacting effect is that the failure of the Tunisian experience is a very important argument given to those arguing that there can be no democracy in the Arab region. This is a motto that we have been hearing for the past 50 years. That’s why the Arab region is the least democratic region on the planet, because people are happy to say Islam does not fit with democracy. Tunisia was the counter example, showing that we can have Islam and democracy in the Arab region. And Arab leaders were not happy with this, and that’s why we had a lot of spoilers – the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar had leaders who were unhappy with our democracy, and they spared no effort to spoil it.

Q: What do you think the international community should do going forward?

The international community has missed an opportunity to influence Tunisian democracy. They had one year of possible influence. They preferred to not speak out. If Tunisia, a very small country that is very much in a dire economic situation and in need of international support and looking for a deal with the International Monetary Fund, and yet the international community was not able to exert influence, it means there is a failure of democracy support. This weakening showed that the international community, the democratic community, has been inefficient in supporting democracy.

That doesn’t mean I’m endorsing conditionality, but rather the idea of more for more – we support you more if you move more toward democracy.

Q: Any final thoughts?

It’s important to remember that other milestones will happen after this. I hope the community of democracies will try to hold on and keep supporting Tunisia, not only economically, but also for democracy. Diplomats must find a way to push more democracy through more support for the economy.

IMAGE: Tunisian protesters raise placards on July 22, 2022, during a demonstration along Habib Bourguiba avenue in the capital Tunis, against their president and the upcoming July 25 constitutional referendum. (Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images)