Where is Tunisia heading, or, better yet, what is the outcome President Kais Saïed wishes to achieve with the founding of a so-called “new Republic”? Will the country grow into an innovative and reliable democracy or, instead, an autocracy disguised as a formally democratic regime? Saïed’s authoritarian measures over the past twelve months are not promising. These include ruling by decree, jailing opponents, suspending parts of the constitution, dismissing the Supreme Judicial Council, dissolving the Parliament, and, lastly, drafting a new constitution with the support of experts whilst failing to involve several political parties and despite the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) ’s opposition. In this regard, concerns and skepticism have spread across Europe and beyond.
As Saïed moves forward, many thorny issues remain in the country
The new constitutional draft calls for presidential, parliamentary, and local elections and reconfirms the existence of traditional institutions, including judicial independence. It also maintains most parts of the sections already foreseen in the 2014 Constitution, including rights and liberties such as freedom of speech, the right to union organising, and the right to peaceful gatherings. One of its main pitfalls, however, is that it does not create a meaningful system of checks and balances.
Against this backdrop, Tunisia faces a host of structural problems, including corruption, ideological sectarianism, high inflation, unemployment, and declining public services. In this respect, President Saïed’s daily complaints serving to support his measures are not groundless. According to the new draft Constitution, the president would be able to serve two five-year long terms and extend this timeframe in case of imminent national emergency. (S)he would also have the right to dissolve the parliament, while it is worth noting there is no clause allowing for the president’s removal. In addition, the text stipulates that the president would be the head of the armed forces and charged with appointing judges, who would be banned from holding public strikes.
Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of the new Constitution is that it will not enshrine Islam as state religion. The text indeed claims that Tunisia — once the democratic flagship of the so called “Arab Spring” before being severely affected by waves of Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks — is a “free, independent and sovereign state” which “belongs to the Islamic Ummah” (worldwide community), and that “the state alone must work to achieve the objectives of Islam in preserving (people’s) souls, money, religion, and liberty”. This move could be seen as part and parcel of Saïed’s efforts to reform the country’s political system, often accused of being corrupt and chaotic, but also as a manoeuvre to sideline rival Islamist parties, Ennhada above all.
On July 25th, Tunisians will cast their ballots in a referendum on the new constitution, with no minimum participation threshold required. Therefore, it is likely to pass and allow Saïed to keep ruling by decree, at least until the new parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for December 17th.
Unsurprisingly, most of the leading political parties, including the ‘Muslim Democrat’ Ennahdha — the largest force in the currently dissolved parliament and a crucial actor in the successive coalition governments since the 2011 revolution — oppose the new national charter and are urging their supporters to boycott the vote.
The UGTT, which is Tunisia’s biggest trade union, also stands against the new constitution and staged a nationwide strike in mid-June to challenge the government’s economic reform plans, resulting in the closure of airports, public transport, ports, and government offices. The mass strike was an additional sign that a great number of Tunisians are less focused on the constitutional debate and more concerned with the growing economic crisis, threats to public finances, which have caused salary delays, and the risk of new shortages of key subsidised goods. The referendum on the new constitution will provide the first answer to Saïed’s vision of a “new Republic” and to the opposition’s reaction.
The European partners stand by Tunisia, but not without concerns
The European Union (EU), a strategic partner for Tunisia given their political, economic, social, and cultural ties, is well aware of Tunisia’s economic and social predicaments as well as of the risks in its current political dynamics. Hence, Brussels is determined to support the North African state on the road to overcoming its constraints in all possible ways and means.
The reasons behind this are twofold. First, Tunisia was the first Southern Mediterranean country to sign a Euro-Mediterranean Agreement, establishing an association with the EU on the 17th July, 1995. Second, bilateral relations are an integral part of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), launched in 2004, with the aim of supporting and promoting stability, security, and prosperity in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean. These bilateral relations witnessed a significant leap forward in the wake of the Tunisian revolution in January 2011, which was followed by the establishment of a "Privileged partnership" between Brussels and Tunis in November 2012 and the adoption of a multi-sectoral Action Plan, which identified several priority areas of cooperation for the 2013-2017 period. These included the Deep & Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement-(DCFTA), the Partnership for Mobility, the Open Sky agreement, a series of high-level political dialogues on security and counterterrorism, and Tunisia’s participation in European Framework Programs such as “Horizon 2020” and “Creative Europe”.
Brussels’ support for a democratic Tunisia has also given further impetus to France and Italy, the European member states closest to Tunisia and most engaged in supporting it at this delicate juncture. The rationale behind France’s and Italy’s lies in their respective national communities living there; the challenging Libyan situation vis-à-vis Mediterranean stability; Tunisia’s traditional role in promoting coexistence among North African countries and in contributing to social and political security within the Sahel region; the already high degree of South-North interrelation at all levels; and the constant, looming threat of Salafi jihadism.
Within the framework of these North-South relations, NATO’s recommitment in the fight against terrorism at the recent Madrid Summit is noteworthy. Moreover, the Alliance’s 360-degree approach to deterrence and defence, discussions around the global food crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and debates over Russia's and China's increasing influence in the Alliance's Southern Neighbourhood were also of note. Equally important was the approval of a new support package to Tunisia (and Mauritania) as partner countries. In this respect, Italy has welcomed NATO's new approach vis-à-vis the Mediterranean, especially the prospects for further cooperation as regards realistic and credible democracy-building in the region.
Tunisia has the potential to play a pivotal role in the Euro-Mediterranean geopolitical space and to foster a more inclusive North African cooperation. However, it primarily needs economic support to overcome its shortcomings and to resist the call of the anti-West sirens. In turn, Europe must closely monitor the course of action in the country after the new constitution’s referendum. This is what really matters right now, and Italy should lead by example.