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Projected win of Tunisia's constitutional referendum poses a threat to democracy

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring, a wave of revolts against autocratic rulers in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2011, anti-government protests opened the door to Tunisian democracy. But exit polls suggest that when voters went to the polls yesterday, they overwhelmingly passed a constitutional referendum giving near-total power to the current president, Kais Saied. Critics had said this constitutional rewrite could effectively end Tunisia's experiment in democracy. Joining me from Tunis is Aymen Bessalah. He's a policy analyst for the non-governmental organization Al Bawsala, which advocates for human rights and transparency in government in Tunisia. Good morning.

AYMEN BESSALAH: Good morning. How are you?

FADEL: Good morning. I'm doing fine. So what does the fact that it looks like it passed mean for the future of governance in Tunisia?

BESSALAH: Well, this constitution basically enshrines what Kais Saied has already been doing according to his Decree 117, passed in last September, and through which he was ruling by decrees, centralizing and mobilizing the legislative and executive powers and also through which he undermined the independence of the judiciary. What this constitution does, it solidifies these powers, makes them constitutional. And still, he will continue to rule by decree until a parliament is elected.

FADEL: So that means then Tunisia goes back to autocratic rule?

BESSALAH: It's a sad moment for us. How long will it last? How will the opposition respond? How long will it take for an expected crackdown and limits on civil society and the civic space in general? All of these are important elements to keep track of.

FADEL: This referendum is high stakes. Only about 1-in-4 eligible voters actually cast a ballot. Why?

BESSALAH: I mean, Tunisians have become generally disenchanted and disillusioned by the discrepancies and the gap between political elites and their grievances and priorities, which are mainly socioeconomic. So there is a general detachment from casting votes. And it is why also 90% of the over 2 million that voted actually voted yes.

FADEL: So people preferring a strongman than the uncertainty of the last 11 years?

BESSALAH: It wasn't just a vote for a strongman or for President Saied himself, but it was also a vote against what is perceived to be a closed political elite system that does not care about the grievances of the citizens.

FADEL: It's been more than a decade since the uprisings of 2011 sparked by Tunisia. And Tunisia has been seen as a bright spot. What do you believe is the legacy of those revolts?

BESSALAH: So Tunisia has been definitely put on the metaphorical pedestal that it was the successful example of the Arab Spring, which wasn't a spring at all. There were revolts, civil wars, foreign interventionism in many countries. So there was, like, this idea of romanticizing and fetishizing the success of the democratic transition to be promoted as something that can be done in the region, which is, in and of itself, somewhat orientalist and reductionist.

FADEL: Aymen Bessalah is a policy analyst of the Tunisia-based NGO Al Bawsala. Thank you for your time.

BESSALAH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.