Middle East experts had long predicted that Tunisia—birthplace of the Arab Spring 11 years ago—would be the first country in the Arab world to truly embrace democracy.
But after voters overwhelmingly approved a July 25 constitutional referendum that gives even more power to President Kais Saied—centralizing executive control while removing checks from the legislative and judicial branches—the consensus is that Tunisia is backsliding, and fast.
The referendum sailed through with 94% of Tunisians voting yes. But only 30.5% of eligible voters cast ballots, mainly because most of those opposed vowed to boycott the exercise altogether, in order to avoid lending legitimacy to the much-criticized process.
Amnesty International warned several days before the vote that if the new draft constitution won approval, it would let Saied declare an open-ended state of emergency in the North African nation of 12 million, and “allow the authorities to restrict human rights based on vaguely worded religious grounds.”
“The one-year anniversary of President Saied’s power grab [in July 2021] serves as a signpost of an ever-growing dismantling of human rights protections,” said Heba Morayef, AI’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “Ruling by decree and without oversight or review, the president has undermined several key human rights achievements that the country has made in the 10 years following the 2011 revolution that ended the rule of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.”
Morayef added: “The actions of the Tunisian authorities raise serious concerns about the future of human rights in Tunisia. President Saied and others have dealt blow after blow to human rights and undermined the independence of the judiciary in particular. While not resorting to mass crackdowns, the authorities have targeted high-profile critics and political opponents through criminal investigations, prosecutions, and in some cases even arrests, sending a clear signal about how the president feels about dissent.”
Tajouri Bessassi says referendum reflected the ‘will of the people’
That, of course, isn’t at all how Ambassador Hanène Tajouri Bessassi sees it.
Appointed by Saied as Tunisia’s envoy to the US in October 2021—only a few weeks after he dismissed her predecessor without explanation—Tajouri Besassi is the first woman ever to run her country’s Washington embassy. She dismissed the poor turnout as “an acceptable rate for a summer election because it was a holiday period for most Tunisians.”
“Roughly three million voters participated openly and freely expressed themselves. Our highest authorities attested that the referendum was managed safely and transparently, with the presence of national and international observers,” the ambassador told Al-Monitor in a recent podcast.
“The sovereign vote of the Tunisians was obvious,” she said. “They endorsed the political reform process announced one year ago by the president—a process that aims to establish a healthy and sustainable democracy that can finally meet the needs of the Tunisian people, fight effectively against corruption and show the economic dividends of being a democracy in daily life.”
Tajouri Bessassi added: “This loud voice reiterates our firm will to turn the page of the political impasse that has handicapped the normal functioning of Tunisia’s institutions and amplified a feeling of frustration and disappointment among the population. They feel betrayed by the politicians who focus only on their very narrow interests. They don’t really care about the real needs of the Tunisian people.”
Ambassador: Tunisia’s economy is ‘terrible’
A career diplomat, Tajouri Bessassi earned a master’s degree in law in 1995 from the Faculté des Sciences juridiques, politiques et sociales de Tunis (FSJPS), and a graduate diploma in 1998 from Tunisia’s National School of Administration (ENA).
Among other things, from 2005 to 2010, she was deputy chief of mission at the Tunisian Embassy in Portugal; deputy director in charge of the Tunisia-EU relationship (2010-13); head of congressional affairs and later deputy chief of mission at the Tunisian Embassy in Washington (2013-18), and Tunisia’s ambassador to Germany (2020-21).
Married with three children, Tajouri Bessassi—who speaks fluent Arabic, French and English—conceded that Tunisia’s economic situation is “terrible,” with GDP growth this year barely expected to reach 2% and tourism devastated by coronavirus beginning in early 2020.
“It was further aggravated by the COVID pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine. The current government is trying to implement essential reforms to put Tunisia back on the path of growth and prosperity, and for that, we are now negotiating with the IMF,” she told The Washington Diplomat in an interview at her official Chevy Chase residence.
Tajouri Bessoussi took up her post last December, only two months before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of his smaller neighbor. She said more than 60% of her country’s wheat supply traditionally comes from Russia and Ukraine.
“This war shows us just how dependent we are,” she said. “Before this, no one was aware of the importance of this country in Europe—even though the war is far from us.”
Is the US-Tunisia honeymoon over?
It was Tunisia, after all, where on Dec. 18, 2010, a young fruit vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest police corruption and mistreatment, sparking a wave of unrest in part because of food shortages that quickly spread to Algeria, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen. Within months, Tunisian strongman Ben Ali had fled to Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had resigned after 30 years in power. Civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen endure to this day, all stemming from the unrest triggered by the original protests.
And today, climate change, extreme drought and supply chain disruptions resulting from the pandemic have exacerbated food shortages throughout North Africa and the Middle East, adding a dangerous element to the already unstable mix.
“I was here to witness the large bipartisan support the United States gave to our nascent democracy. But 11 years later, the results are disappointing,” she said. “The revolution was indeed about liberty and dignity, but also economic dignity. Unfortunately, people haven’t felt the change in their daily lives. They’re looking for jobs and a decent life, and they took to the streets to show their anger.”
Relations with Washington soured in July 2021, however, when Saied suspended Tunisia’s parliament, sacked his prime minister, granted himself prosecutorial powers and invoked a national emergency.
That prompted a sharp reaction from Congress. In September 2021, three Democrats—Gerry Connolly of Virginia, Tomasz Malinowski of New Jersey and Rashida Tlaib of Minnesota—claimed in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Saied was undermining Tunisia’s democracy through “the imposition of a manufactured constitutional crisis.”
Their letter also urged Blinken to demand that Saied “stop prosecuting, harassing, and restricting the travel of members of parliament and activists engaged in free speech and peaceful protest activities.”
What’s next for Saied and his opponents?
Tajouri Bessassi makes no secret of her disappointment with the change of heart on Capitol Hill.
“I’m going to be frank with you,” she said. “This is a very challenging time in the US-Tunisia relationship. There’s a misperception of what’s happening in Tunisia by our friends here. My priority as ambassador here is to try to reassure our friends within the administration, in Congress and at think tanks. And it hurts me a little to see the same people who were supportive now calling for cutting assistance to Tunisia.”
On the plus side, Tajouri Bessassi said that despite sporadic terrorist attacks—in June, an assailant with a knife stabbed two policemen outside the Grand Synagogue of Tunis—“our security forces are doing a great job, partially thanks to our fruitful partnership with the United States.”
Now that the referendum is behind him, the question remains: what will Saied do next?
Fadil Aliriza, a nonresident scholar with the Middle East Institute’s North Africa and Sahel Program, said Saied’s next priority is changing Tunisia’s electoral system.
“Saied has been criticizing the electoral system established in 2011 for even longer than he’s been criticizing the 2014 constitution,” wrote Aliriza, who’s also founder and editor-in-chief of Meshkal.org, an independent news website. “He has criticized the list system, which up until now has put MPs at the mercy of party heads before the voters have a say, and he has expressed a desire for recalling elected officials should they fail in their duties.”
Saied may also try to extend and consolidate his control over the security sector, said Aliriza, though the opposition isn’t exactly sitting still either.
“They will continue to challenge the legitimacy of not only the referendum but of the constitution as well. It is highly unlikely this will result in anything substantive given that even Saied’s most vocal critics concede that the ‘yes’ vote did indeed overwhelmingly win at the polls,” Aliriza wrote. “However, parties will likely use this questioning of the referendum procedures to further tarnish Saied’s international image — perhaps in the hopes that criticism by the United Nations, the United States or the European Union will be a check on Saied’s powers.”