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Tunisians vote in favor of constitution that gives the president sweeping powers


Tunisians voted overwhelmingly to usher in a new constitution that gives the president near absolute power. The constitution allows President Kais Saied to consolidate his rule, weaken Parliament and appoint judges. And the vote could spell the end to a democracy that was being built following mass protests over a decade ago that sparked regional revolts demanding democratic change. So what does the future look like for Tunisians? Joining us now is Mai El-Sadany. She is the managing director at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and she joins us by Skype. Good morning.

MAI EL-SADANY: Good morning, Leila. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: Thank you for being here. So, Mai, before we get into how Tunisia got to this point, is this new constitution an actual end to democracy in Tunisia?

EL-SADANY: It's a really alarming document, but that's not all. Really, like you mentioned, since Kais Saied declared a state of exception one year ago, he's been taking a number of steps to expand his presidential powers. He's weakened independent institutions. He's eaten away at the strength of the judiciary and the legislature, effectively getting rid of checks on power and has been creating this hyper presidentialist (ph) system, which many fear are quite similar to the autocratic state that was brought about by the 1959 constitution. And so this constitution, this document really threatens to make all of those steps that we've seen over the last year permanent and to normalize all of that.

FADEL: Now, how will these changes impact average Tunisians?

EL-SADANY: They create a climate of fear. They create a climate in which the president, all powerful, in which it's that much more difficult to challenge him, whether on the media or organizing as a civil society advocate or even taking to social media. We've already seen quite a number of alarming steps over the last year. You've seen a rise in the military trials of civilians. You've seen attacks and targeting of journalists. You've seen murmurs that maybe the NGO law will be amended in order to restrict civic space. And this is just what we've seen in the last year. So imagine a climate in which this constitution becomes permanent and sort of paves the way for all of this to occur systemically.

FADEL: So going back really to a similar atmosphere that people protested against back in 2010, 2011, but there has been a lot of disillusionment with democracy, that it didn't bring the promised change in the last decade, right?

EL-SADANY: There certainly has. But I think this has less to do with democracy as a system of governance and more to do on the work that needed to be done by those in power, by political parties and otherwise, to really challenge the economic situation, to deliver on the demands of the people. I think there's a global understanding that democracy is imperfect, but it does guarantee a minimum threshold through which you can engage, through which you can push back, through which you can talk about what you need. And now we threaten both to have economic deterioration and a closing space for any form of engagement and opposition.

FADEL: And we should point out that this - the vote was overwhelmingly in favor, but many people didn't vote. There was a boycott campaign, right?

EL-SADANY: There was a boycott. And it's really important to talk about the process itself, a process that's lacked transparency and inclusivity, even demonstrated in the simple fact that the draft constitution wasn't released till the 30 of June and then updated July 8, just days before people were expected to have read it, understood it, made a decision and in a climate where we lack the space to engage freely or talk about it or ask questions, really.

FADEL: Mai El-Sadany is the managing director of The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Thank you so much.

EL-SADANY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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