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Tunisia has a new constitution; will it be the first step in bring the country out of the socio-economic doldrums … or will the country simply face more of the same?

July 31, 2022

Market place in Sousse, Tunisia, 2015, the same year of a Salafist inspired massacre


In 10 years they’ve killed: school, culture, economy, trade, smiles, family, the projects , the future ..

– A Tunisian critique of the Ennahdha Party commenting on social media (July 31, 2022) –  

Tunisia has a new constitution. will it be the first step in bring the country out of the socio-economic doldrums … or will the country simply face more of the same? Only time will tell. The process of revising the constitution, pet project of Tunisian President Kais Saied, has been filled with controversy with eligible voter turnout low and claims of voter manipulation being raised.  Be that as it may, it appears that the small North African country wedged between two oil producing giants with turbulent histories – Algeria and Libya – has entered what might be considered a “post Ennahdha” era. Ennahdha is the Tunisian branch of Moslem Brotherhood. 

The new constitution will replace one that was drawn up and approved in 2014; that constitution was spearheaded by the Ennahda Party, At the time, Ennahda and its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, enjoyed great influence despite the fact the party held back and had virtually no role in the demonstrations which brought the government of Zine Ben Ali to its knees. It’s influence over the country’s political system since the Arab Spring events of 2011 has been pivotal. There is no doubt that it is the biggest loser in the political changes embodied in the new constitution and its supporters are among those who crying “foul” the loudest. The cries of foul of the new constitution aside, if anything, the vote for a new set of political guiding principles for Tunisia is a rejection of Ennahdha’s policies over the past decade where it was, undoubtedly, the power behind the presidency. 

The new constitution returns considerable power to the country’s presidency weakening the power of the Parliament; the 2014 constitution it replaces had reduced the power of the presidency and given a great deal of the country’s decision-making to the Parliament, which, at the time, Ennahda had a controlling influence. All this might have been beside the point – in different situations require different political formations – if not for the fact that during the years that Ennahda essentially ruled Tunisia (with Washington’s approval) the socio-economic crisis inherited from the Ben Ali years only deepened.

High levels of debt, unemployment continued, the economy remained stagnant, a former corrupt government was replaced by an equally corrupt one, etc. etc. Add to the problems of the Ben Ali years, new traumas – a wave of terrorist attacks (the beaches of Sousse; 2016 Bardo Museum,) and political assassinations of important national figures (Chokri Belaid, Mohammed Brahmi. Ennadha had encouraged the grown of previously prohibited radical Salafist elements convicted of the terrorist attacks. Although it denied responsibility there suggestions of their involvement in the Belaid and Brahmi assassinations, two leaders with broad-based support that were challenging Ennahda’s power grab. 

During those same years, women’s rights and the economy took serious hits. 

Women’s rights – a genuine advance of Tunisian independence – were seriously eroded and many of the country’s moderate mosques were literally seized, their imams expelled, and replaced by Salafist and Wahhabist elements many of whom had little or no formal training – and foreign financed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. During the decade of effective Ennahda rule privatization of Tunisian economic and social institutions which had begun under Ben Ali reached epidemic proportions in those years. To cite only two examples – the near collapse of what was one of the best healthcare programs in the Arab World and the erosion of one of MENA’s best educational systems came under intense pressure from IMF/World Bank structural adjustment programs. Nor did the rampant corruption which characterized the Ben Ali years abate; it only changed hands.

During its decade in power Ennahda did to improve Tunisian conditions. In fact it is in fact impressive how much damage was done while Washington looked on and did nothing. The changes in the Tunisian constitution will weaken Ennahda’s hold and return power to the presidency enjoyed both by the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba and Zine ben Ali who followed him. It remains to be seen whether the constitutional changes will result in ending the gridlock which has gripped the country in reversing the socio-economic crisis, or if the president, with his new gained powers, has a plan and a vision to bring the country out of the doldrums it is now in. There was also the active and intense recruitment of Tunisian youth to serve as mercenaries in the armies of al Nusra and like radical Islamic elements in Syria in which the Ennahdha government either turned a blind eye or worse, was actively involved in the process, coordinating with Qatar and Turkey. 

All this is common knowledge and should surprise any Tunisian or anyone following the trajectory of its politics since 2011. 

Washington Meddles – Tunisian Government cries interference in its internal affairs

Rather than letting the Tunisians decide their own fate, the Biden Administration,  through the agency of the State Department and the statements of a future U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia – has muddied the waters of the constitutional process controversy by doing what American diplomacy seems reduced to these days – meddling in the internal domestic affairs of another country. Nothing particularly unusual here, this is standard fare for U.S. foreign policy from China to Russia to Iran, Venezuela and other places. However what is much less standard fare is the angry retort from this small North African country, long a key U.S. ally in the Maghreb. 

On July 26, 2022, Ned Price, State Department spokesperson read the following statement:

Secretary Antony J. Blinken spoke with Tunisian President Kais Saied today. The Secretary underscored the United States’ strong partnership and continued support for the Tunisian people as they face the dual challenges of an economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. He encouraged President Saied to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights that are the basis of governance in Tunisia. The Secretary urged President Saied to maintain open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people, noting that the United States would continue to monitor the situation and stay engaged.

Although the language seems convivial enough, in the end it is not; instead it is a threat, nothing less. While the message is vague, it could mean sanctions, the cutting of badly needed aid. It was meant to put pressure on the constitutional vote to take place the next day. 

The next day, future U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, Joey R. Hood speaking to a Congressional commission threatened to “use all the tools available to American diplomacy to urge Tunisia to return to democratic governance. In the same statement Hood also pressed Tunisia to normalize its relations with Israel as some other Arab nations have done recently. There is strong sentiment among the Tunisian people against such a move. 

Both statements taken together – viewed as interference in Tunisia’s internal affairs – created a sharp negative and from what I can tell unprecedented reaction both from the Tunisian government of Kais Saied which sponsored and pushed the constitutional changes and from important elements of Tunisian civil society. On July 30, 2022, that is a few days after the referendum and the statements by Blinken and Hood, a number of Tunisian civil society organizations issued a communique condemning American interference in Tunisian affairs and citing the Secretary of State and future U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia by name. The statement called for respect for Tunisia’s national sovereignty evoking the sacrifices made by Tunisian nationalists first to gain independence from France and then to maintain that independence in the face of foreign interference. Among those organizations that signed the statement were la Ligue tunisienne des droits de l’Homme, le Syndicat national des journalistes tunisiens, l’Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates, le Forum tunisien des droits économiques et sociaux and l’Organisation contre la torture en Tunisie.

Tunisia’s main trade organization, the UGTT issued a separate statement along the same lines, denouncing the “flagrant (American) interference” and labeling Blinken and Hood’s remarks as “a return to colonialism.” 

Along the same lines, also unusual if not unprecedented, Tunisia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Othman Jerandi, requested a meeting with Natasha, Franceschi,  Chargée d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia criticizing U.S. meddling. While meeting with Franceschi is not at the same level as meeting with the current U.S. Ambassador in Tunis, still, such challenges to U.S. power in Tunisia are generally unheard of. 

Adding to the pressure on Tunisia from the State Department were a flurry of articles in different mainstream publications in both the U.S. and U,K. also critical of Tunisia’s constitutional changes. A June 21 article in the British Economist “Kais Saied will probably get his way, but his new charter will solve little” is case in point as is July 26 piece in the NY Times “Tunisians Approve A New Constitution That Undercuts Democracy” – both examples of how Washington and London’s “soft power” works in tandem with government policy. 

The point here is to neither support nor oppose the constitutional changes in Tunisia nor the process of the referendum. Approval or rejection is up to the people of Tunisian. That shouldn’t be very hard to understand, should it? 


2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2022 9:09 pm

    Sorry to say that I was expecting analysis, not a one-sided account that misses out much. People have spoken and by boycotting the referendum they have rejected the constitution. They could have been smarter by voting and defeating it. Why didn’t they do that? Ennahda seems to be losing ability to think and act. True? Why?

  2. kerim permalink
    August 2, 2022 1:22 am

    @ ambassadorfabian

    Why people didn’t go out and vote NO, was expected to happen, because the whole referendum contains a trap, which 75% of the population has become aware of, and have chosen not to be part of it.
    The fact remains that Saied desperately wanted a YES, no matter how many people would show up. And the lack of transparency made most people think twice before giving a blank check to Saied, who is clearly out to establish an authoritarian regime, like in the good old days.
    So the 75% who didn’t vote, somehow knew by intuition that their vote with NO, will certainly be counted as a YES, and that’s exactly what Saied’s men had in mind. In order to win by high percentage, just manipulate the results in such a way that the Nay ballots don’t have the slightest chance to exceed the Yea ballots.
    Cheating, then becomes obvious, in the absence of any reliable transparency regulations; no press reporters were allowed inside the voting centers, no international observers, and no more than 200 national observers, most of whom support the Yea, thus loyal to Said, were dispatched among 30,000 locations. Just to say that even with this relatively low turn out at the ballot boxes, you can bet that cheating must have taken place. No doubt about it.

    Besides, the reporters that were kept at bay, managed to broadcast footage from different locations where we haven’t seen crowds of voters, at all. The camera long shots showed no intense activity on the scene. It was almost deserted, to be honest, and despite making it the longest voting day in history, as people had the possibility to vote, from 6 a.m to 10 p.m. (16 hours long). Unheard of.

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