“The people” are at the heart of all justifications that Kais Saied has been using since he was first elected president in 2019. “The people wants/demands” was a slogan raised during the 2011 protests, and was perhaps one of the strongest moments of unity for Tunisia. To what extent has that popular slogan become a tool in a single person’s rule? Is there truly a place for people in Saied’s reign? I argue that the citizen participation trajectory that Tunisia has been on since the revolution provides an important reference point for the citizen engagement Saied claims to promote through his proposed roadmap, depicting a bleak image, to say the least. Saied announced on May 1 the creation of a commission to draft a new constitution which will be submitted to a referendum. This development is further evidence that Saied is leading the country using citizen engagement tools to justify his action as his autocratic rule strays away from democratic and legal legitimacy.
A roadmap to exclusion
A national consultation, announced as the first step of Saied’s roadmap, was concluded on Tunisia’s Independence Day, on March 20. The consultation took the form of an online platform that was made available on January 15, providing questions to the public through six categories: Economic issues, development and digital transition, education and cultural affairs, quality of life, social issues, and political and electoral affairs. A seemingly constructive participatory tool of decision-making, the consultation only engaged 535,000 participants despite the 3 million target promised by the minister of technology, and governmental efforts that included the use of state means on a regional, national, and digital levels. The consultation also failed to represent vulnerable groups, with women comprising only 32 percent of respondents, and participants less than 40 years old representing only 44.8 percent.
There were also calls to boycott the consultation by civil society organizations, as concerns were raised around digital security and data protection in using the online platform, the lack of a clear scientific methodology to support the proposed questions, and the possible use of the consultation results to promote Saied’s political agenda, as promised in his electoral campaign. Concerns surrounded specifically the questions under the political and electoral affairs category. Indeed, while all questions in other categories seemed benign and open ended, political and electoral questions were specific and lacked adequate debate and contextualization. For instance, a typical question on economic affairs was: “Do you think the solution for economic and social problems can be found on a local level?”, while one of the political affairs questions was more specific and targeted: “Do you believe the justice system, in its current state, guarantees desired justice?”. A social affairs question inquiring about the main challenges families face had several possible answers, such as: Financial, healthcare, family disintegration, absence of dialogue, other problems, or no challenges faced. In comparison, a political affairs question about necessary reforms to improve political life in Tunisia had much more specific answers, from which three could be picked: Revision of the electoral law, revision of the political parties’ legal framework, revision of the constitution, drafting a new constitution, revision of the legal framework of associations, or no necessary reforms.
Though questions in most categories could serve as a basis for reflection, political and electoral affairs questions were drafted in a manner that directly points toward Saied’s political agenda. Another example of that is the following question: “What reforms should be undertaken to improve politics in Tunisia?” “Drafting a new constitution” was the answer picked by 36.5 percent of respondents, among the other available answers: Amending the law regulating elections, amending the political parties decree, amending the constitution, amending the associations decree, no answer, or no reform is necessary. All were answers framed in a way that would follow Saied’s priorities. The president did not hesitate to refer to the consultation results—almost one month before the consultation even ended—when he dissolved the High Judicial Council. This turned the consultation from a tool for debate and reflection, to one that justifies predetermined decisions and prolongs Saied’s legitimacy, as his popularity slides in parallel with a deteriorating economic situation.
Citizen involvement: A revolutionary victory
Prior to the revolution, citizens had no place in decision-making in Tunisia. Certain laws did clearly stipulate tools for citizens to monitor and participate in the decision-making process, creating access points for citizen participation, like the legal framework governing municipalities, or the laws governing urban planning. However, there was quasi-agreement on the superficiality of these tools and their ability to engage citizens. This was not due to lack of interest on behalf of citizens, but to the inexistence of a democratic practices, which rendered citizen participation in these contexts at best without impact, and at times dangerous, as the public voicing of opinions and criticism would be under a dictatorship.
It comes as no surprise that engaging the public in the decision-making process was among the first demands after the revolution, and the first step to that was guaranteeing the right to access information. Battles were won one by one, first by demanding public access to the constituent assembly’s proceedings through real-time televised coverage. Access to the assembly made it possible for all Tunisians to witness the establishment of the first foundational block of the country’s new democracy: the drafting of the constitution. It also gave Tunisians access to monitor and understand how legal frameworks were discussed and approved, such as observing who was arguing for what and through what vote. This shaped the public debate toward more citizen-owned discussions, as information was accessible to the public, creating fact-based opinions and interactions.
Access to information was the most basic form of participation unlocked after the revolution, upon which other forms of more direct and deep involvement came to be. The opinions and decisions of decision-makers were rendered accessible to the public through public meetings especially in parliament and municipalities, where commission meetings and plenary sessions were open for the public to attend and were broadcasted, unless secrecy was agreed upon through a public vote.
In addition to transparency within elected structures, constituent assembly members were put in direct contact with citizens on a local level, and discussions were led around the pressing and controversial topics around the drafting of the constitution. While those meetings did not, and could not, cover the entirety of the Tunisian territory, other access points were made available. For example, the civil society organized events between decision-makers and citizens, held debates with citizens, and collected their opinions in a form of consultation. Online platforms were developed to gather opinions of citizens, by state actors and non-governmental organizations, although there was a significant shortcoming to this measure: The internet is not accessible by all Tunisians, or simply not used in that way by those who do access it.
National stabilization and local dynamism
With the pseudo stabilization after the 2014 elections came a decline in public interest and monitoring of decision-making. More specialized interest remained, mainly sustained by the civil society and the media. Participation opportunities on a central level were also reduced to some civil society actors, such as participating in public hearings within parliament commission meetings. This shift in participation practices can be explained by the ending of a constituent phase that required broad agreement and discussion of principles and orientations, and the start of a more technical phase that was based on passing bills and establishing institutions. The gear-switching in citizen participation on a central level was not mirrored on a local level, which had witnessed the opposite dynamic. Participatory democracy was, in fact, thriving on a local level. Not only were formal access points further strengthened, but civil society organizations were introducing new tools, such as participatory budgeting or participatory planning.
These experiences made their way to the national discussion on the decentralization bill (known as Code of Local Collectivities), and an entire chapter in the code was dedicated to participatory democracy, in alignment with article 139 of the constitution which clearly stipulates that citizens and civil society be involved in development and urban planning within local government structures. Participatory planning was generalized in all 350 municipalities by the Local Authority Loans and Support Fund (Caisse des Prêts et de Soutien des Collectivités Locales) as a prerequisite for non-earmarked central development funding, and municipalities’ efforts to engage citizens were evaluated and a national ranking was developed.
From a national perspective, all Tunisian municipalities engaged in some form of citizen participation. On a local level, each municipality had its own participation experience, which depended on the perspectives of different stakeholders, including elected officials, local administration, civil society organizations, and citizens. The experience is far from perfect as limitations did stem from multiple factors, such as the lack of adequate funding to respond to citizen expectations, the need for more experience and understanding of local communities, and varying political commitment to actual engagement of citizens. However, it undoubtedly shaped the popular expectation of being part of decision-making and to be heard.
Failure is dismissing a decade of experience
The national consultation that was conducted by Kais Saied through the use of state platforms and means was dismissive of past citizen involvement efforts and participation experiences.
On a national level, consultations that are solely dependent on digital platforms fail to reflect the insights of all citizens, as technology remains a barrier. This was first witnessed in September 2012 when a public consultation was made available digitally to collect opinions around reforming the administrative timeframes. Digital public consultations were used sporadically on a public website that is no longer available, the last of which being on a governmental decree governing the use of drones. Leveraging such platforms has given decision-makers a pretense upon which to blame citizens for lack of interest, rather than admitting that there was a failure to develop better engagement tools. National level consultations that have succeeded previously—meaning truly gauged people’s opinions and reflected them in issues of consultation—have provided physical spaces for citizens to convene, made information available to citizens on the subject matter as well as their role, and connected experts on the topics with citizens directly, in partnership with intermediary structures like civil society organizations and political parties. The most prominent example is the discussion of the draft constitution between 2012 and 2013, the reform of the electoral law in 2016, and the drafting of the local collectivities code in the same year.
Saied’s consultation claims to have reduced the link between citizens and the state to a basic digital connection—literally—with all physical efforts being put into inciting citizens to participate, rather than actually creating a space for debate and conversation.
On a local level, the basic sin has been to adopt a generalized approach to citizen participation across all local communities, and the sole remedy has been adapting participation tools to local specificities. This was done to take into account the variations in demographics, urbanization, economic realities, and interests. This was successful in integrating citizens in the decision-making process, because of the flow of information in the direction of citizens and municipalities. Citizens were provided with diagnostics of their municipality, both technical and financial, to understand the different aspects that impact local decisions. They were also provided with opportunities to discuss the diagnosis in real life during public meetings. Citizens also had direct access to public meetings, to both pose questions and gather information. Municipalities were able to gather information from citizens, regarding their interest, concerns, and what tools they preferred to use and how to adapt them. Saied’s national consultation has failed to build upon the local experience of municipalities, in alignment with his dismissal of local governance, but also in a classic top-down approach which is in striking contrast with what he had promised.
One can say that the organization of the national consultation is simply clumsy because it is a new approach in engaging citizens. But this would only hold as true if no other examples were undertaken across central and local structures in post-revolutionary Tunisia over the last few years. This in turn pushes us to pose one critical question to which the answer appears to be a resounding “no”: Is the consultation truly designed to include citizens? Criticism of claims for inclusion and participation are not only voiced by fronts opposing Saied’s usurpation of power, as demonstrations continue to take place and gain momentum. Contestation now comes from strategic actors as well, such as the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), which refused to participate in any superficial form of dialogue. With the announcement of a national dialogue that excludes all actors who were critical and opposed to the July 25 state-of-exception-turned-coup, the roadmap is reinforcing the creation of a pyramid that points to Saied only, with the national consultation as a loose cover-up to all the layers coming in between.
Chaima Bouhlel is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on decentralization in North Africa.