Tunisia: a referendum and a generation gap

Summary:  today’s referendum vote appears destined to cement Kais Saied’s grip on power but as the country veers back toward dictatorship young Tunisians refuse to abandon the dreams and promise of the 2011 revolution.

We are delighted to welcome Tharwa Boulifi as a contributor and thank her for today’s newsletter. Tharwa is a 21 year-old Tunisian freelance writer who was first published at the age of 15.  She writes in Arabic, French, English and Spanish focussing on women’s rights with an emphasis on Arab and African women, culture and LGBTQ+ rights. Her work has been published widely in, amongst others, Teen Vogue, Herizons, Africa in Motion, The New Arab and Newsweek.

In July last year, Tunisian president, Kais Saied, dismissed the prime minister and froze the parliament’s activity. This historic step by Saied, who was the first president to activate Article 80, received much popular support. I was among the euphoric crowds, who celebrated till late at night the departure of Islamists from power. I didn’t want to believe the warnings of national and international observers about a coup. Like many people, especially youth, who voted for Saied during the 2019 elections, I was relieved that this president finally took action and  in doing so proved he wasn’t the figurehead everyone thought him to be.

The following few weeks were filled with popular hype that Saied nourished with arbitrary arrests and populist discourse. Soon after, the return to reality was hard, as it became clear that the president didn’t know where he was heading. A month after the coup, he extended indefinitely the suspension of the parliament’s activity. After pressure from the outside, especially the EU, Saied finally appointed a woman, Najla Bouden, as head of government, a first in the Arab world. The Tunisian president thus killed two birds with one stone: he increased his popularity and polished up his image abroad. In January, the president launched an online consultation. In doing so he ignored the reality that many older Tunisians either are not familiar with the internet or simply lack access to it. The vagueness of the survey language didn’t help matters and in the end there was a less than 10% turnout. Nevertheless, the president still enjoyed broad popular support.

Tunisia coup
Tunisians march opposing the referendum and coup on Revolution Street, July 23 [photo credit: @PulseTunisia]
However, things changed at the end of last month, when Saied revealed the draft of the new constitution, written by an appointed committee, which is being put to a referendum vote today, 25 July on the coup’s first anniversary. Sadok Belaid, former dean of Tunis law school and member of the committee, revealed that Saied didn’t inform the committee of the amendments made to the published draft. The new constitution, which would give unbalanced power in favour of the president, created controversy among Tunisians. Now, more than ever public opinion is divided.

At first sight, these political differences regarding voting on the referendum can be explained by ideology. However, a generation gap between individuals, who live in different social and political contexts, is the main reason behind the fragmentation of public opinion. For older Tunisians, mostly baby boomers and Gen X (that is people aged 42 and older,) there has been an ever-growing nostalgia for the time before the revolution. This nostalgia is mostly due to the progressive deterioration of the economy and the decrease in the purchasing power that middle-class people have witnessed since 2011. Whatever enthusiasm they had for the revolution has progressively vanished, along with the dreams our nation had of a better future.

After many disappointments with political parties, especially the Islamist Ennahda party, the 2011 revolution became the scapegoat since it had brought the Islamists to power. Older Tunisians had lived under the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes where Islamists were oppressed. Many of them consider that the country won’t have another ‘golden era’ unless Islamists are forever evicted from power. Saied reinforced this perception by demonizing his political rivals, whenever he had the chance. Like any populist dictator, Saied conveys an illusory image but one which many Tunisians have been longing for: he is a unique leader, supported by the people. Ever since he took power, the Tunisian president hasn’t stopped playing to the image, giving  the people in a time of crisis empty promises and false hope. Today, he presents himself as the nation’s only saviour, one who will deliver Tunisia from Islamists. That’s the main reason older Tunisians are voting “yes” today.

On the other hand, younger Tunisians, the Millenials, and Gen Z, who made the revolution or grew up during the first decade after it, see things differently. This is the youth who have grown into adulthood with more openness to the international world; for them, there’s no possible going back to the way things were before 2011, regardless of the political context.

After two years of his rule, younger Tunisians who constituted a big part of Saied’s electoral base, have been disappointed with their president who has proven, after all, to have authoritarian tendencies. Lately, as young activists have been trying to raise awareness regarding Saied’s rising dictatorship, the president’s supporters have accused them of treachery and of being affiliated with Western organizations, who his supporters allege, want the country to plunge into chaos. However, such baseless claims have not stopped young Tunisians from warning people about the danger of voting yes and helping Saied establish a dictatorship legitimized by the referendum. A large group of these youth are boycotting the vote and urging others to do the same, since they believe it’ll be rigged, and voting is only a formality. Unlike older generations, young Tunisians still hold on to the dream of the 2011 revolution.

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