Opponents of Tunisia’s new referendum unable to unite before vote

Referendum on President Kais Saied’s new constitution will be on Monday, opponents call it ‘completely illegitimate’.

Protesters holding banners saying 'stop political trials' behind a barricade in Tunis
Critics say President Kais Saied is moving to cement his one-man rule, and fear recent crackdowns on opponents [Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters] 

Tunis, Tunisia – Opponents of Tunisia’s President Kais Saied are divided on the best line of action to take on Monday’s referendum on his new constitution.

Some say they should take advantage of the general lack of support for the document and vote “no”, while others are of the opinion that the referendum should be boycotted, so as not to legitimise the process.

The movement has struggled to have a united voice; ideological divisions mean that the main anti-Saied grouping, Citizens Against the Coup, has faced difficulty attracting support from some on the liberal left because it includes members of the Ennahdha Party amongst its ranks, as well as other political parties.

Only days away from the vote, opponents of the new constitution are planning on holding separate demonstrations, rather than coalescing around one mass movement.

“I cannot demonstrate alongside Citizens Against the Coup because they’re allied with Ennahdha, and I cannot be with [right-wing politician] Abir Moussi,” said Ahlem Bousserwel, the general secretary of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, who will hold a demonstration with other feminist and human rights groups on Friday.

Many of the people on this side of the debate had previously supported Saied, and welcomed his decision last July to suspend parliament, where Ennahdha was the biggest party and dissolve the government.

Wajdi Mahouechi was serving a prison sentence at the time for his political activism and vlogging.

“When I heard this [that Saied was suspending parliament] I shouted for joy, I was so happy,” Mahouechi said.

However, after winning an appeal for early release, Mahouechi said that he did not find the changes he wanted, and started campaigning online with comedy sketches satirising what he called Saied’s strange behaviours.

His most popular video is called The President Who Cried Wolf, “because he is always saying ‘they want to kill me, but nobody wants to kill him.’”

But like Bousserwel, Mahouechi is not sure whether he wants to join other anti-Saied groups.

“I’m looking for my place, I cannot be with Ennadha, or the PDL [Moussi’s Free Destourian Party] or these other groups or parties,” Mahouechi said, adding that he was debating whether to join a Democratic Women protest and whether he should vote no, or just boycott the referendum.

Push for a boycott

Ennahdha supporters point out that the party has worked with several others in coalition governments, despite emerging as the biggest party in parliamentary elections since 2014.

They feel they have been unfairly blamed for the country’s political and economic woes and have called for the opposition to Saied to unite.

Rached Jaidane, a political activist who was tortured during his 13 years in prison under the rule of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, says there has never been any debate over whether Saied is a dictator and has no problems marching alongside members of Ennahdha at Citizens Against the Coup demonstrations.

Jaidane believes that is where the battle will be won, and not at the ballot box.

“A vote for ‘no’ is a vote for ‘yes’, I’m convinced Saied will falsify the result,” Jaidane told Al Jazeera, confirming that he would be boycotting the vote.

At the 11th hour, Tunisian civil society is rallying against not just Saied’s proposed new constitution but against the whole referendum process that they say is completely illegitimate.

The National Salvation Front, a coalition of opposition parties, has called for a mass protest in the capital, Tunis on Saturday, where they will call for a boycott.

“It is a non-event, and not what the Tunisian people need right now,” said Ahmed Gaaloul, a policy adviser to Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi.

“Our policy as part of the [opposition] National Salvation Front is to boycott this illegal process and it is why we shall demonstrate on Saturday to ask people not to participate in this illegal process,” Gaaloul said.

That position is shared across the divide on the opposition side, with Bousserwel also telling Al Jazeera that she would not just boycott the vote, but actively protest against what she called a “completely illegitimate process”.


Some parties, such as the centre-left Afek Tounes, have been putting up posters calling for people to vote “no” but with little time to campaign, let alone debate options, confusion abounds as to whether it is best to vote “no” or to boycott.

But some are deciding to head out to vote against the referendum, amongst them former supporters of Saied.

One of them, a founder of the Movement of 25th July, a prominent Facebook page set up to encourage Saied to take power back from the government last year, explained why.

“When I heard what the president was going to do, I was so happy,” the founder, who did not wish to be named, said, referring to the constitution.

However, after a year of continued campaigning, the founder was devastated to read the new constitution, which concentrates power in the hands of the president, and has left some secular Tunisians worried about religious conservatism and unchecked political powers.

“Now I regret everything I have done. This is not the constitution that I have been fighting for, I feel betrayed. I think I will vote ‘no’.

Generally, there has been little support for the referendum process, with less than 450,000 Tunisians participating in the online consultation survey, and polls predicting turnout as low as 13 percent. The electoral authority, however, has not set a mandated minimum level of participation.

“Many people who voted for Kais Saied in 2019 have now turned against him,” said Amine Snoussi, a Tunisian political analyst and author.

“There are people who will vote because of societal issues, and there are those who will vote against the constitution because they fear political Islam,” Snoussi said.

Snoussi had warnings for supporters and opponents of a boycott.

“It is going to be a fight against abstention and low turnout,” Snoussi said. “’Yes’ voters are convinced that it will be a landslide victory for the ‘yes’ campaign. It might reduce the ‘yes’ voters and give a chance to the ‘no’ vote.”

Source: Al Jazeera