On Monday, Tunisians voted on a new constitution proposed by President Kais Saied that vastly expands the powers of his office. While turnout was low, many Tunisians “support what the president is doing … they are voting based on one specific objective, which is to improve economic and social conditions,” says USIP’s Elie Abouaoun.

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Julie Mason: Dr. Elie Abouaoun is director of the United States Institute of Peace's North Africa program and the MENA regional hub in Tunisia. Here to talk about what is up in Tunisia today, which is a lot. Doctor, good morning.

Elie Abouaoun: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

Julie Mason: Tunisia is still a very unsettled issue. What are they voting on today, sir?

Elie Abouaoun: Officially, they're voting on a new constitution with a text that has been revised in the last few weeks on the demand of the president, but in reality, my own interpretation is that the Tunisians are voting about the last 10 years, basically. And they're voting to express disappointment about what happened in the last 10 years in terms of the economic and social developments.

Julie Mason: Well, I think a lot of people around the world, not just in Tunisia, thought that when they sparked that Arab Spring movement, that it was going to mean really good things for the people, but it has not delivered.

Elie Abouaoun: It has not delivered on the economic side. Politically speaking, Tunisia, and other countries as well, I think, broke the ice of the last 40 years in 2011 by moving on to a different political system. However, all the measures that were required to reform the economy and improve on the delivery of the social services and achieve social justice, were not taken actually by the new governments after 2011. And this caused a huge level of disappointment among the populations in the region.

Julie Mason: So, the president is looking for more power, which it seems like, is never a good thing.

Elie Abouaoun: Yes, the president is looking for more power, but for the, you know, Tunisian average citizen, the drive to support what the president is doing is basically to have a more effective governance system. So, people are looking at the parliamentary system as being too slow to deliver and, you know, too complex to navigate, basically. And they attribute the fact that there were no reforms in the last 10 years to this parliamentary system. So, the expectation of the population today, I don't necessarily agree with this, is that with a centralized strong presidential system, the reform agenda will be pushed forward more quickly. I don't think this will be the case. But this is how other citizens in Tunisia are looking at the matter.

Julie Mason: It reminds me a lot of how Russians look at the matter too. Not, hashtag not all Russians, but some perceive that like with a strong leader, with a strong man, like our life will be better, like things will get done.

Elie Abouaoun: Yes, and this is not exclusive to Tunisia. This same feeling is shared by a lot of people in the region. If you look at how an average Iraqi citizen thinks today and how an average Libyan citizen thinks today, etc., you will notice that there are a lot of similarities in how they look at the governance systems in general. So, the ambition, or the expectation of people in the region is just to have effective and transparent governance systems. So that they can basically move on to, you know, an improved or a better daily life. This is all what people are aiming at, at this stage, after 10 years of tribulations in the region.

Julie Mason: It's so interesting. I mean, I think, in the United States, we have so much faith in the, you know, so much faith in democracy to cure problems and to be a force for good, but in these countries, you mentioned -- Iraq, Tunisia, Syria, etc. -- where there isn't a strong democratic tradition, it's hard to impose democracy and see good things come out of it right away. There was like a French president who gave a speech once saying, "you can't just put democracy in and think it's going to cure everything." You know, democracy has to evolve.

Elie Abouaoun: Definitely not. It has to be a bottom-up process. And as one European ambassador in Tunisia last year said, in, you know, any social function, he said, democracy works in democratic societies.

Julie Mason: Yes.

Elie Abouaoun: So, if the social norms in a society are not accepting of the democratic values, then the system will not work. And this is yeah, I mean, this is part of the problem is that the social norms in the region do not necessarily comply with the democratic values. So, there is a long-term social change endeavor that needs to be worked out as well.

Julie Mason: But at the same time, there have been some very robust protests in Tunisia, heading into this referendum. Can you tell us about that?

Elie Abouaoun: Yes. Well, I mean, there are some political groups that are opposed to the president himself, but also to the fact that he's trying to change the constitution. So, they mobilize their supporters. But you know, as someone who lives in Tunisia, I can tell you that the measures that were taken by the president in the last year are still, you know, being supported by a majority of Tunisians. So, there's definitely a minority of Tunisians who are against and they are raising very good points, because there has been some decisions in the last year that basically reminded people of the pre-2011 era. And this is something that a lot of Tunisians are somehow traumatized about. But still, as I told you before, the fact that the last 10 years did not generate an effective governance system is driving mostly the electoral behavior of the Tunisian's today.

Julie Mason: So, Tunisians could actually, at the end of this, give the president one man rule in the country, which seems, you know, from our perspective, to be a bit of a backslide. What's your view of it?

Elie Abouaoun: Yes, I mean, the constitution is missing a lot of checks and balances. So, as it is, the constitution can be used to reinstall an authoritarian system. However, I can also see that there are a lot of elements of resilience among the nations not to backslide to that type of regime. So, you know, any president, this one or any future president, who is going to use the constitution to reestablish a strong authoritarian regime might not get away with it because as it was, the Tunisians today, are voting based on one specific objective, which is to improve the economic and social conditions. If this constitution is used for other purposes, then there will be a bigger backlash.

Julie Mason: Interesting. I mean, do you think that the president has the power to improve economic conditions? Ours certainly doesn't.

Elie Abouaoun: Improving the economic and social conditions does not depend on decisions by the government alone, or by the president alone. It requires an overhaul of the system in general, that requires the buy-in and the participation of most of the social actors and the economic actors. So, this includes the private sector, the unions, and other actors, as well. And this is what has been missing in Tunisia for the last 10 years. The social actors, most notably the unions, were not ready, at least up until recently, they were not ready to sit at the table and seriously discuss what reforms need to be taken and how they can support this reform agenda. So, it was all attributed to a few decisions by the government, which is basically not accurate. It's, you know, no government, not this president, not any government can resolve the economic situation in Tunisia by himself or herself. It requires much more than this. And most of the actors up until recently, were not ready to embrace this role.

Julie Mason: Doctor, thank you so much for joining me this morning. Great to talk to you.

Elie Abouaoun: Thank you. Have a good day. Thanks for having me.

Julie Mason: You too. Take care.

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