Tunisia on the precipice

Five days after the start of my internship at Aswat Nissa, a feminist organization in Tunisia, President Kais Saied published his constitutional project in the Official Gazette. What followed was a whirlwind that taught me the value of democracy, institutions, and the rule of law. Before I dive into what was the most incredible few weeks of civil society advocacy, I want to share a little more about the context of my internship.

A sunset captured from my grandmother’s house in Ezzahra.

This isn’t my first time in Tunisia. In fact, my father is Tunisian, and I have many family members that live here. When I was offered this internship, my heart and mind immediately went to my grandmother, Emna. She lives in the small coastal town of Ezzahra (“the flower”), a few kilometers away from the offices of Aswat in Tunis. Growing up, I only got to spend a few days a year with her, during short summer vacations. Spending the last few weeks with my grandmother and living in the family home, where my father was born and raised, has been incredible. What this means for my internship in Tunisia is twofold; first, my experience is coloured by an attachment and sense of belonging to my homeland, and second, that the current political and economic crisis has been emotionally challenging and overwhelming (I will expand on this in another post).

To understand the current political crisis in Tunisia, I will first start with a short timeline of important events:

  • July 25, 2021: the president invoked emergency powers, fired the prime minister, and suspended parliament in what many critics called an attempted coup. He has since ruled by decree and further consolidated his power by removing key political actors, dismantling political institutions, and dismissing members of the judiciary.
  • December 6, 2021: the president announced his intention to draft a new constitution that will be voted on via referendum to be held in July 2022.
  • June 30, 2022: Saied’s unilaterally drafted constitution is revealed in the Official Gazette. All political parties and civil society have condemned this constitutional project as antidemocratic and ironically, unconstitutional.
  • July 25, 2022: a popular referendum will be held on the new constitution. Civil society and political parties are boycotting the referendum claiming that the process and constitution are anti-democratic.

Caricature published by Aswat Nissa of President Kais Saied mowing over the slogan of the 2011 revolution: Freedom, Dignity, Equality.

Since June 30th (4 days after the start of my internship in Tunisia), the work at Aswat, and in virtually every other civil society organization in the country, has revolved around this new constitutional project. If adopted, the new constitution will threaten the Arab Spring’s only successful democracy and steer the country back into authoritarianism. To name a few changes made to the previous constitution: the civil state is removed, the parliamentary system is replaced by a hyper-presidential system with no checks and balances, and the president has ultimate powers over all three branches of government. Given that the opposition is boycotting the referendum, it is almost certain that the Yes vote will win, and the new constitution will be adopted. The passage of the proposed constitution will consolidate a return to autocracy and jeopardise decades-long advances in human rights.

The Aswat Nissa team carrying slogans for a protest opposing the referendum and the proposed constitution.

As a militant feminist organization, Aswat is leading social media campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers of the new constitution, speaking on radio shows, hosting panel discussions, issuing warnings to international partners, organizing a popular protest, and strategizing with other civil society organizations. I have spent many hours reading and analyzing the proposed constitution and what it will mean for the rule of law and democracy in Tunisia. In parallel with what is happening in the United States and around the world, my trust in democratic institutions has never been weaker. Within a few months, a democratically-elected president – who ironically happens to be a constitutional law professor – unilaterally drafted a new constitution that will change Tunisian society forever.

The other interns and I at a conference organized by the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, Lawyers Without Borders, and civil society organizations developing an action plan to challenge Kais Saied’s proposed constitution.

I cannot really describe the atmosphere in Tunisia right now, other than feeling both eerily normal and alarmingly tense. Tunisia is at the precipice of a democratic collapse, and civil society is scrambling to save it. The next few weeks and months will be full of uncertainties. What is certain however is that grassroots organizations like Aswat will continue to work tirelessly to restore democracy, protect human rights, and honour the hopes and dreams of the 2011 revolution.

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