The House of Lords may soon debate the following question for short debate if time is available:

Lord Campbell of Pittenweem (Liberal Democrat) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the political situation in Tunisia, including the new draft Tunisian constitution, and what impact they believe suspension of the Tunisian Parliament has had on Tunisian civil society.

1. Revolution and an emerging democracy

1.1 The jasmine revolution

The Republic of Tunisia has been through a period of constitutional change since the start of the Tunisian revolution in December 2010. The revolution, also known as the ‘jasmine revolution’, began when a young market trader set fire to himself in protest at alleged state corruption. His actions led to widespread protests against the regime of long-term President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Demonstrations quickly escalated when protestors were killed in clashes with the police. The government and security forces were unable to subdue the protests despite pledges from the president to introduce reforms, including loosening restrictions on the media. President Ben Ali’s 23-year regime ended in January 2011 when the army withdrew its support and refused to fire on protestors. The jasmine revolution triggered further uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa in what was called the ‘Arab spring’.

1.2 A new democratic system

Extended political turmoil followed the fall of President Ben Ali. An interim government recognised new political parties amid further protests and a coalition government was formed after assembly elections on 23 October 2011. In 2012 the government attempted to control further protests, in part over the prominence of religion in public life. Protestors were fearful of an end to Tunisia’s secular outlook. The elected assembly also started work on a new constitution, stimulating debate around the role of Islam in politics. Further unrest was triggered in 2013 when two prominent opposition leaders were assassinated in five months.

On 26 January 2014, the assembly passed a new constitution by 200 votes out of 216. The constitution provided for a civil state with laws that were not based on Islamic law. It guaranteed equal rights for men and women. Article 50 of the constitution set out that the people would “exercise legislative power through their representatives in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People or through referendum”.

The constitution provided for a semi-presidential system. The president served as the head of state and the prime minister as the head of government, together with a unicameral legislative branch. The president was elected for a maximum of two five-year terms. A presidential candidate required an absolute majority to win the presidency. If no candidate won an absolute majority in the first round of voting, the two candidates with the most votes would enter a second round. The constitution could not be amended to increase the maximum number or length of presidential terms.

The constitution limited the power of the president. It made the government of Tunisia accountable to the elected legislature only and the president had no constitutional authority to dismiss the government. The president could ask the legislature to renew its confidence in the government a maximum of two times during a presidential mandate.

Following the reforms, Tunisia was seen as the only democracy to have emerged from the Arab spring. In 2020, the Economic Intelligence Unit rated Tunisia as a ‘flawed democracy’. This put it in the same category as the United States and France, with a higher democratic index score than both Croatia and Hungary. In 2021, its rating fell to ‘hybrid regime’ but remained the second highest in the Middle East and North Africa behind Israel.

The UK government responded positively to Tunisia’s 2014 constitutional reforms. Discussing democracy in Tunisia on 5 March 2014, Alan Duncan, then minister of state for international development, described Tunisia as a “beacon” and said that it was “well ahead of many other countries”.

2. Emergency presidential powers

Kais Saied, a former professor of constitutional law, was elected as president of Tunisia in October 2019 with a landslide. His victory was seen as a rejection of the established political parties due to declining economic circumstances.

On 25 July 2021, President Saied sacked the government and froze the assembly for 30 days. He justified this by citing difficult economic circumstances and the Covid-19 pandemic and announced that he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new prime minister. To make this change, he invoked emergency powers found in article 80 of the constitution. This stipulated that:

In the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state, the president of the republic may take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances.

Article 80 contained protections around the extent of emergency presidential powers. A president could not dissolve the assembly and a motion of censure against the government could not be presented. After 30 days the assembly could ask the constitutional court to rule on whether the circumstances remained exceptional. These protections were not effective as President Saied had frozen the assembly and the constitutional court did not exist.

Supporters of President Saied celebrated his move to consolidate power but parliamentary opponents accused him of staging a coup.

Politicians and members of the judiciary were targeted following the activation of emergency powers. Assembly members were arrested under military court decisions. Dozens of politicians were banned from travelling without judicial permission. An assembly member who criticised President Saied’s seizure of governing powers as a “coup” was among those arrested by security forces. Judges were also placed under house arrest and 57 were sacked under accusations of corruption.

President Saied further strengthened his powers in September 2021. He issued a decree which stated that the assembly would remain suspended, and a committee would be formed to amend the constitution. The president appointed a new prime minister in October 2021.

President Saied later made changes to the judiciary. In February 2022, he dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council that dealt with the independence of judges. He said that the council was a “thing of the past” and accused council members of taking bribes. The head of the council said that the president’s actions were an attempt to bring judges under political instruction. President Saied later established a new council giving himself greater control over the appointment of judges.

President Saied dissolved the assembly on 30 March 2022, eight months after freezing it. In a television address he said that dissolving the Assembly of Representatives of the People was required to “preserve the state and its institutions”.

3. Political roadmap and constitutional referendum

3.1 A new constitution

President Saied put forward a new political roadmap for Tunisia on 13 December 2021. The roadmap included a proposed referendum on a new constitution that would be held on 25 July 2022.

A draft of the new constitution was published in Tunisia’s official gazette on 30 June 2022. It outlined a full presidential system with the president having ultimate authority over the government and the judiciary. Under it, the government would answer to the president rather than to Parliament. Some of the other main features of the constitution include:

  • A reduced role for Parliament. Legislation introduced by the president would take precedence over other legislative proposals. Draft laws and proposals submitted by lawmakers would be rejected if they “upset the financial balance of the state”. A two-thirds majority in Parliament would be required to force the resignation of the government rather than a simple majority as under the previous constitution.
  • New presidential prerogatives. The president would enjoy immunity during his tenure and should not be questioned about actions undertaken whilst performing his duties. After consulting with the prime minister and Parliament, the president would be able to take “exceptional measures” if there was an “imminent danger threatening the republic, the security of the country and its independence”. Judges would be appointed by the president upon nomination by the Supreme Judicial Council. The president could terminate the government or remove any of its members and would have the right to dissolve Parliament.
  • Greater presidential control over the security forces and ministries. The president would make senior appointments to the military and civil service in response to proposals from the prime minister. Internal security forces would report to the president rather than the government.
  • Maintained protections for individual rights and freedoms. The constitution includes the right to form political parties and protest. Publication freedom would be guaranteed. Equal rights for men and women would be maintained and women’s representation in elected bodies ensured.
  • A societal role for Islam. The constitution states that Tunisia is part of the Islamic nation, and the state alone must work to achieve “the goals of pure Islam in preserving life, honour, money, religion and freedom”. The president must be a Muslim, as was the case under the 2014 constitution.
  • Conditions on the presidential term limit. The president would be able to serve two five-year terms that could be extended if the incumbent felt there was an imminent danger to the state. There would be no clause for the removal of the president.

The question on the ballot paper in the referendum on 25 July 2022 was “Do you support the new draft constitution for the Tunisian republic?”.

3.2 Reaction to the proposed constitution

Supporters of President Saied said that change was required to stand up to the “elite”, who had in their view presided over corruption that had condemned Tunisia to a decade of political paralysis and economic stagnation.

Opponents of the referendum were divided. Some advocated a “no” vote whereas others indicated that they would boycott the vote as they believed it was illegitimate. The powerful Tunisian General Labour Union boycotted the consultation stage for the draft constitution. However, despite publishing an extensive criticism of the proposals, it declined to take any official position on the referendum itself. The day before the vote was held, protestors gathered in the capital, Tunis, to demonstrate against the referendum that they rejected as illegal.

3.3 Results of the referendum

Preliminary results announced on 26 July 2022 by the Tunisian Independent Higher Election Authority, a government agency, showed that 95.6% of voters were in favour of the new constitution with a turnout of approximately 30%. Earlier on 26 July, at 2am local time, President Saied had appeared in front of a crowd and declared that Tunisia had “entered a new phase”. The final result will be announced at the end of August after a month-long appeal process. President Saied will continue to rule by decree until parliamentary elections are held in December 2022.

4. International response

The UK government has expressed concern over President Saied’s use of emergency powers. Responding to a written question on 1 June 2022, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said the UK was “concerned by President Saied’s decision to dissolve Parliament and the possibility of politicians from the previous government facing criminal charges”. Lord Ahmad added that Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Tunis had met with President Saied and that the ambassador “welcomed the moves toward public consultation and accountability to the Tunisian people in the president’s political roadmap”.

Lord Ahmad visited Tunis on 7 and 8 June 2022 to strengthen the “UK’s friendship and partnership with Tunisia”. On his visit Lord Ahmad signed an agreement between the UK and Tunisian governments to “increase cooperation on sustainable energy and unlock opportunities for private sector trade and investment”. After his visit, Lord Ahmad said he had discussed with Tunisian ministers “the importance of inclusive political participation in the democratic process and the role of civil society and strengthening human rights”.

More recently, the UK government has said it continues to monitor the economic and political situation in Tunisia. Responding to a written question on 28 June 2022 on the political roadmap of President Saied, James Cleverley, then minister of state for Europe, said that “the UK stands ready to play a constructive role as Tunisia addresses significant political and economic challenges”. Mr Cleverly added that the government “regularly emphasises the importance of accountability and inclusive political participation in the democratic process”.

The European Union outlined the positions of its institutions on the political situation in Tunisia ahead of the 2022 constitutional referendum. The EU’s delegation to Tunisia said that it took “note of the concerns raised with regard to the proposed draft published on 30 June and the process of its elaboration”. It added that “the strength of the EU-Tunisia partnership rests on shared values and a commitment to democratic principles, individual freedoms and the rule of law, separation of powers, and independence of the judiciary”. The European Parliament said that Tunisia remains an important partner in parliamentary diplomacy despite the suspension of the Tunisian assembly.

The United States said that it was closely monitoring the situation in Tunisia following President Saied’s activation of emergency powers. In a statement released in response to the situation, the US Department of State said that “solutions to Tunisia’s political and economic troubles should be based on the Tunisian constitution and the principles of democracy, human rights, and freedom”.

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) expressed concern over the referendum and new constitution in Tunisia. In a statement released in response to the referendum, US congressman and NATO PA President Gerald Connolly said that “the new constitution will codify the democratic backsliding that has already taken place in Tunisia at the hands of President Kais Saied”. Mr Connolly added that “President Saied is on track to further erode existing democratic institutions, the rule of law, human rights, essential freedoms and the democracy Tunisians have been trying to build since 2011”.

Some states in the region emphasised a preference for de-escalation in response to President Saied’s initial use of emergency powers. Qatar said that it hoped Tunisian parties would “adopt the path of dialogue to overcome the crisis”. Prince Faisal bin Farhan of Saudi Arabia said that the Kingdom stands by “everything that achieves prosperity” in Tunisia. However, Turkey was more critical in its response, calling the dissolution of the assembly a “smearing of democracy”.

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Cover image by Sami Mlouhi on Wikimedia Commons.