Hundreds of protesters gathered last week in central Tunis to demonstrate against a referendum that was held last Monday on a new constitution that they reject as illegal. President Kais Saied published the draft constitution, giving himself far more powers, reducing the role of the parliament and judiciary, and removing most checks on his power, less than a month ago. The referendum is the latest move in what his foes call a march to one-man rule since he moved against the elected parliament a year ago, replacing the government and moving to rule by decree in what critics call a coup. “Shut down the coup!”, “Stop autocratic rule!” shouted the protesters on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the main street in central Tunis. “The Tunisian people will deal a major blow to Saied on the day of the illegal referendum and will prove to him that it is not interested in his populist path,” said Nejib Chebbi, the head of the anti-referendum coalition. Saturday’s protest was organised by the coalition, which includes activist group, Citizens Against the Coup and Ennahda, the biggest Islamist party in the dissolved parliament. Despite the protests voters in the referendum overwhelmingly backed the amended constitution, with 92.3 percent voting “Yes” while 7.7 percent voted “No.” But the turnout of voters was just 25 percent, a Sigma Conseil exit poll issued by state TV stated. The new constitution, which, with no minimum participation rate requirement, is now set to become law.

Image accurate as of 19 July 2021.

In a tragically stunning reversal of the very modest gains made during the Arab Spring, President Kais Saied’s move to cement his rule makes a mockery of the letter of the parliamentary system of government in which the President is largely a ceremonial figure. Tunisia, which has been the standout success of the Arab Spring in how it has translated to a proper democracy, has been facing its biggest test since 2011 with Mr Saied’s lust for power. On paper, the good thing about Tunisia is that it has a strong civil society and a vibrant democratic space which allows citizens to voice out where there are oppositions to what they consider as an autocratic move such as the proposed new constitution. But much of Mr Saied’s enablement has come from the lack of a unified opposition whose fractures created the bedrock for the emergence of a wannabe dictator such as himself. The turnout at the referendum is instructive -–not many care enough to follow the direction in which he is taking the country, but in a democracy or in a democratic process where the minimum participation rate is not spelled out, the options before the opposition in trying to oppose this new constitution are relatively slim, reversing the only albeit unstable democracy in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and North Africa region into the path laid by Zine Abidine Ben Ali which is where it all began from in the first place. The international community also needs to put pressure on Mr Saied to turn away from the path toward dictatorship.