Tunisia′s first digital political consultation divides opinions | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 12.01.2022

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Middle East

Tunisia's first digital political consultation divides opinions

The country's first-ever digital consultation on a new constitution is part of Tunisian President Kais Saied's path out of a political crisis. But like Saied himself, online innovation has received mixed reactions.

Hundreds of Tunisians gather at Bardo Square near parliament to protest President Kais Saied's power seizure in Tunis.

Saied Kais' actions have divided opinion, with some Tunisians calling his power grab a coup

From January 15, the Tunisian public will be able to participate in the country's first-ever online referendum on their political future.

To express their opinions on six topics, including education, culture, elections and the economy, locals register on a special website called E-Istichara, or e-consultation, with their national identity number. They then receive an access code on their mobile phones and can take part in the survey.

The online referendum, which started a test phase in early January and which will run until March, is part of what Tunisian President Kais Saied has described as a roadmap towards constitutional change.

A still from the YouTube video showing Tunisians how to use an online digital consultation website, called E-Istichara.

Digital privacy advocates are worried because nobody knows how safe personal details are on the website

Constitutional coup?

Last July, Saied froze the country's parliament, dismissed the sitting prime minister and granted himself emergency powers. He said he had been forced to take control of the executive himself because of ongoing political stagnation and corruption, a decade after the revolution that saw Tunisian dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, flee the country.

The power grab divided the country. Saied's supporters say what he did was necessary to put an end to the political gridlock and economic impasse. Saied's critics described his actions as a "constitutional coup," arguing that he is a potential dictator endangering Tunisia's nascent democracy. 

As a result, "many people in Tunisia and abroad have called on [Saied] to produce a road map to return the country to democratic accountability," Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, or ECFR, wrote this week.

Tunisian President Kais Saied chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia.

Critics worry that Tunisian President Kais Saied (center) has given himself a year to consolidate his power

December elections

Saied's roadmap, announced last month, includes a constitutional referendum to be held in July 2022. Tunisians would vote on a new draft constitution for Tunisia that was prepared by Saied and an expert committee he has selected. The draft would take into account the results of the online consultation.

At the end of this year an election is planned, with rules based on whatever electoral system the new constitution favors.

The idea of the online consultation has divided Tunisian opinion in the same way that Saied's other plans for the country have. Even the website's slogan —"your opinion, our decision" — could be seen as open to interpretation, locals said. Saied has already said he wants a presidential-style system with direct democracy at the regional level rather than a national parliament. 

"It is a smart initiative," Akram al-Shahed, an employee at a bank in the capital, Tunis, told DW. "He wants to treat everyone equally and does not privilege parties or elites. Regardless of the President's political inclinations, we live in a digital world and everyone should adapt to that."

A road marker on a highway passing through a massive salt lake in southern Tunisia.

Internet coverage is not even throughout Tunisia

"The problem is not in accepting or refusing online opinions," Rahma al-Habbasi, an engineer working in communications technology in Tunis, said. "There are possible technical obstacles," he continued, noting the differences in internet coverage and education.

Only around 66 percent of Tunisians have regular internet access. Earlier this month, Tunisia's Ministry of Social Affairs announced that almost 18% of the population — or 2 million Tunisians — are illiterate.

All of this means that the consultation process cannot be truly inclusive, its critics say.

Unknown origins

Additionally, IWatch, a corruption monitoring organization, and Transparency International's Tunisian partner, condemned the lack of transparency on the website. Nobody knew who made it, how safe personal data was, or who came up with the questions in the referendum, the organization wrote.

"We believe the questions … will be an attempt by whoever prepared them, to direct the will of the people in advance and limit their right to self-determination," IWatch said in a statement.

A memorial shows Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 and became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution.

Saied moved the Tunisian revolution anniversary from January 14 to December 17, the day a street vendor's suicide started the revolution

International organizations concerned with digital privacy and internet access, such as Access Now and Freedom House, have noted that, even if the consultation website applied Tunisia's data protection laws, these are long outdated.

Senior members of the Afek Tounes party and the Ennahda movement, which had the most seats in Tunisia's parliament until Saied's one-man mission to rebuild the country's political system began, also criticized the online consultation.

Identifying opponents

On his Facebook page, one of Saied's most vociferous critics, Moncef Marzouki, interim president of Tunisia straight after the revolution between 2011 and 2014, told readers to "ignore them and their idiotic consultation." Marzouki warned that the website was a fraud and would later be used to identify Tunisians who didn't agree with Saied.

Marzouki himself was sentenced to four years in prison, in absentia, on December 22 for "undermining external state security." The 76-year-old, who is known as a human rights activist, lives in Paris and said that his sentence was "political" because of his outspoken criticism of Saied's recent actions.

People shop at a market in Tunis, Tunisia November 20, 2019.

Tunisia is suffering from an economic crisis driven by the pandemic, political instability and large foreign debt

Last Wednesday, Marzouki became one of 19 Tunisians accused of electoral violations dating back to 2019. Others in the group include four former prime ministers and the heads of political parties.

Growing concern

But there are also large parts of the population and political parties that support Saied's year-long road map. Tunisia's Ba'ath party said it reflected "a clear and solid will for reform" and the left-wing Popular Front greeted it as an effort to remove corrupt Islamist politicians from power.

When Saied first shut down parliament, many ordinary Tunisians cheered him on. Nine governments over the past ten years hadn't resolved their dire economic situation and polling suggested that a majority thought the country was headed in the wrong direction, well before Saied took over.

However since then, increasingly autocratic behavior from the President — such as using the judiciary to silence opponents like Marzouki — has been causing more concern.

Supporters of Tunisian President Kais Saied endorse his decision to further freeze parliament until the new legislative elections on December 17, 2022.

Before Saied took over, over 80% of the population thought the country was not doing well

Democracy-washing?

"What he has been doing has raised a greater degree of skepticism," the ECFR's Dworkin explained. "Since his power grab in July, a number of voices that were originally somewhat sympathetic have become quite opposed [to Saied]. It's become clear he really does intend to try and take the country in the direction of more centralized power."

That's why the digital consultation has also divided opinions. "At a basic level, it's better than people having no voice at all," Dworkin told DW, "but it really looks like a bit of a fig leaf, a gesture towards the idea of consultation without any real substance."

It's important to look at the broader context within which all this is happening, he continued. "And there's remarkably little transparency about how this process [the road map] is going to work. There's no formal involvement of any other political groups or civil society. And it is all taking place under a political system in which all the political power is currently concentrated in Saied's hands."

Watch video 04:21

Tunisia's democracy in crisis: Analyst Mariam Salehi speaks to DW