Tunisia’s President Promises Vote on Constitution and Sets Election Date

CAIRO — Tunisia’s president announced on Monday that the country would hold a referendum to amend its Constitution in July, followed by parliamentary elections in December, offeringfor the first time a concrete path out of the country’s political limbo five months after he seized power in what opponents have called a soft coup.

In a speech on Monday posted to his official Facebook page, President Kais Saied said he would hold a series of online consultations open to the public early next year to gather ideas for revising Tunisia’s Constitution, which would then go to a commission to draft amendments. Tunisians would vote on the new Constitution on July 25, 2022, the one-year anniversary of the day Mr. Saied suspended Parliament and took control.

Parliament will remain frozen until new elections on Dec. 17, 2022, he said.

“I assume this responsibility before the people and before God,” Mr. Saied said. “We seek to liberate our people and our country. We want to live in a just and peaceful country.”

Monday’s announcement dispelled some of the uncertainty Tunisians have endured ever since Mr. Saied shunted Parliament aside last summer in what he said was an emergency move to save Tunisia from its cascading political, economic and Covid-19 crises.

But it is less clear whether the referendum and elections will end up strengthening Tunisia’s fledgling democracy, the only one to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring protests that began in Tunisia and swept through the region; or pushing the country toward autocracy under Mr. Saied; or plunging it into yet more political turbulence.

Many Tunisians at first embraced Mr. Saied’s actions, and he was hailed as a savior. Yet as the president consolidated greater power over the summer and fall, suspending much of the existing Constitution and granting himself the right to rule by decree, more Tunisians grew disenchanted with his leadership, or at least skeptical of it.

Regular protests against Mr. Saied’s one-man rule sprang up in Tunis, the capital, as the president stayed largely silent on a political road map, failed to deliver much-anticipated economic reforms, arrested political opponents and shut down critical media outlets.

While long delayed, Monday’s announcement came as little surprise. Mr. Saied has criticized the current Constitution since before it was adopted in 2014 after the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s former dictator.

A former constitutional law professor who was elected in a landslide in 2019, Mr. Saied has long advocated a so-called hourglass-shaped political system that he says would empower the people who drove the 2011 revolution.

Under his proposed system, Tunisians would elect neighborhood-level local councils from which regional and national representatives would be drawn by lottery, while a powerful president would oversee foreign policy, the military and the country’s overall path.

Mr. Saied did not say on Monday whether he would put such ideas forward in the referendum. But he said in an earlier decree that the commission to draft constitutional amendments would be appointed entirely by him, giving him unchecked sway over the final shape of the draft.

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