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Fears for Tunisian democracy as Saied holds referendum

tunisia's president kais saied and his wife ichraf chebil walk outside a polling station, during a referendum on a new constitution in tunis
Tunisia's President Kais Saied and his wife Ichraf Chebil walk outside a polling station, during a referendum on a new constitution in Tunis, Tunisia July 25, 2022. Tunisian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

Tunisians began voting on Monday in a referendum on a new constitution that critics of President Kais Saied fear will dismantle the democracy that emerged from a 2011 revolution by handing him nearly total power.

The vote is being held on the first anniversary of Saied’s ousting of an elected parliament, when he established emergency rule and began governing by fiat.

Tunisia‘s divided opposition parties have called his moves a coup that risks flinging Tunisia back into the autocratic era from before the revolution and putting the final nail into the coffin of the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings.

But amid an economic crisis and deepening hardship, there has been little in the way of protest against Saied, whose power grab last year was welcomed by many Tunisians who were fed up with political bickering and government failure.

It is not clear when the results will be announced after polls close at 2100 GMT. But with little apparent enthusiasm for the vote and a boycott by major parties, analysts expect a “yes” vote with a low turnout.

As voting got underway, few people were out in the humid early morning streets. But at Rue Marseilles polling station in downtown Tunis, Illyes Moujahed was first in line, saying Saied was the only hope.

“I’m here to save Tunisia from collapse. To save it from years of corruption and failure,” he said.

Standing outside a cafe in the capital, Samir Slimane said he was not interested in voting. “I have no hope of change. Kais Saied will not change anything. He only seeks to have all the powers,” he said.

Under rules set by Saied, no minimum level of participation among the 9.2 million registered voters is needed to approve the constitution. He has only stipulated that the constitution will come into effect once the final results are published, and has not said what happens if voters reject it.

Saied has hailed his changes as the foundation of a new republic to put the revolution back on course and end years of political sclerosis and economic stagnation.

“We will establish a new republic, not like the one of the past 10 black years… We want a state of law. The people will have the last word,” Saied said after voting.

Elected in 2019, Saied has said freedoms will be protected.

DISUNITY

The new constitution shifts power back to the presidency and away from parliament, where an Islamist party, Ennahda, has been the biggest faction since the revolution.

Western states which held up Tunisia as an Arab Spring success story have said little about the proposed changes, though Washington criticised Saied in June for undermining democratic institutions after he purged the judiciary.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates showed some support to Saied last year, happy to see the Islamists’ wings clipped. But they have not followed through with badly-needed aid despite Tunisian officials saying some had been pledged.

Groups that oppose Saied have held scattered, small protests in the run-up to the referendum, underlining their disunity.

Ennahda took part in a protest on Saturday, while civil society organisations and smaller parties held one on Friday. A party that backed the pre-revolution autocracy held its own on both days.

Rallies organised by Saied supporters have also drawn few people, and there has been little sign of excitement around the campaign.

Economic decline since 2011 has left many people angry at the parties that have governed since the revolution and disillusioned with the political system they ran.

“I don’t support Saied, but I will vote ‘yes’ in the referendum because those protesting against it are the main cause of our problems for the past decade,” said Mohammed, a Tunis resident.

Of the three parliamentary elections and two presidential elections since the revolution, the lowest turnout, of 41%, was in 2019 for the chamber dissolved by Saied.

A turnout on Monday far below that rate would further call into question the legitimacy of the new constitution.

Saied’s critics say his bid to remake the political system has distracted attention from the economic crisis.

The government hopes to secure a $4 billion loan from the IMF. But it faces stiff union opposition to the required reforms, including cutting fuel and food subsidies.

What became of the Arab Spring

TUNISIA

See above

EGYPT

President Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1981, but massive anti-government protests began on Jan. 25, 2011 as activists called it a “day of rage”, inspired by Tunisia. As hundreds of thousands of protesters massed after Friday prayers three days later, Mubarak deployed the military.

Protests gathered momentum, and the army pulled its forces from the protests and Mubarak stepped down – to be tried in August on charges of abusing power and killing demonstrators.

The once-banned Muslim Brotherhood won the 2012 election but a year later the military, encouraged by anti-Brotherhood protests, toppled the new president, Mohamed Mursi, who was put in prison and died in 2019.

Army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi replaced him as president. Rights groups documented abuses in a crackdown on dissent and the military faced a long-running insurgency from Islamist militants in Sinai.

Mubarak died a free man in 2020 aged 91, the case against him having been dropped in 2014.

YEMEN

Crowds took to the streets against President Ali Abdullah Saleh from Jan. 29, 2011, aggravating splits in the army and between political blocs. Saleh was hurt in an assassination attempt in June 2011, forcing him to seek treatment in Saudi Arabia.

Gulf states brokered a transition deal including a “national dialogue” aimed at resolving Yemen’s problems, with Saleh’s old deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to be president until elections.

With an al Qaeda insurgency raging in the east, Sanaa faced new problems in the north from the Iran-allied Houthi group and from a revived southern secessionist movement.

In 2015, after the Houthis seized Sanaa, Saudi Arabia and its allies began a military campaign to keep Hadi in power – a war that soon reached bloody stalemate, aggravating food shortages and cholera outbreaks.

Ex-president Saleh was killed in a roadside attack in 2017 after switching sides, abandoning the Iran-aligned Houthis for the Saudi-led coalition.

A U.N.-backed ceasefire took effect in April, 2022 and Hadi, who had spent years in exile in Saudi Arabia, was replaced by a presidential council.

LIBYA

In first Benghazi and then Misrata, protests broke out in February, 2011, soon turning to armed revolt against Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.

In March, the United Nations Security Council declared a no-fly zone to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s forces and NATO started air strikes to halt their advance on Benghazi.

By August, rebels had seized Tripoli and in October Gaddafi was captured hiding in a drainpipe outside his hometown of Sirte and killed.

Local militias seized hold of territory and, as chaos took hold, the country split in 2014 between western and eastern factions. The U.N. helped broker a political agreement in 2015, but in practice the country stayed divided and Islamic State seized control of Sirte for more than a year.

In 2019 eastern commander Khalifa Haftar launched a new war, assaulting Tripoli for 14 months before his forces turned back. By now the conflict was international, with Russia, the UAE and Egypt backing Haftar and Turkey and the Tripoli government.

A U.N.-backed election – part of a peace process aimed at knitting Libya back together – was cancelled in December, 2021 for reasons including disputes over the rules.

In March 2022, the Sirte-based parliament appointed a new prime minister but the government based in Tripoli refused to step down, leaving Libya split between rival administrations.

BAHRAIN

On Feb. 14, 2011, the biggest protests in years erupted in Bahrain as demonstrators echoed the Egyptian crowd’s call for a “day of rage” to demand the ruling monarchy grant democracy.

As protesters and police clashed over the coming weeks, sectarian tensions rose in a country where many majority Shi’ite Muslims had long chafed against the Sunni ruling dynasty.

On March 14, neighbouring Sunni kingdom Saudi Arabia sent tanks across the causeway linking it to Bahrain to guard major installations. The authorities declared martial law and cleared protesters from the camp that had become their symbol.

Protests continued for months, leading to at least 35 deaths, but the monarchy suppressed the uprising and restored control.

SYRIA

When the first protests began to spread through Syria in March, 2011, President Bashar al-Assad sent in security forces and there was a wave of arrests and shootings.

By July, protesters were taking up arms and army units were joining the gathering revolt, later backed by Gulf monarchies and Turkey, as Assad hit back with air strikes. Full-blown war erupted.

As chaos engulfed the country, the Islamic State group in 2014 seized a swathe of territory, drawing a U.S.-led coalition to back Kurdish fighters in the northeast.

Support from Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah movement helped Assad claw back control over much of the country, defeating the rebels in areas including Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta from 2015-18.

By the end of the decade, hundreds of thousands were dead and more than half the country’s pre-war population was displaced with the country partitioned between Assad, Turkey-backed rebels and Kurdish-led groups.

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