• 30 Degree
  • Serrekunda

AU should stand up for democracy, rule of law in Tunisia

The African Union (AU) promotes the concept of an African solution to African problems built on the aspiration of the African people to an integrated, stable, peaceful, secure, and prosperous Africa. However, the continental organisation’s application of this principle varies — as seen in its position on the political and constitutional crisis that emerged in Tunisia more than a year ago, because of the president’s determination to pass a new constitution that reinforces the executive’s powers.

Last month, Tunisians agreed to constitutional reforms that give broader powers to President Kais Saied, with 94.6 percent voting in favour. Only 30.5 percent of eligible voters participated in the referendum, which is no surprise since the process leading up to the vote had been neither inclusive nor transparent.

It followed on from a year during which Saied rolled back the democratic gains Tunisians made in the past decade, since they ousted the 30-year dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Saied froze parliament, suspended the 2014 constitution – internationally hailed for its progressivism – and ruled by decree. He has also jailed opposition figures, stifled the media, and excluded political factions from national dialogue and public decision-making.

How and why are AU members allowing Saied to stray onto such a brazenly authoritarian path, flouting the core policies, principles, and norms of the AU, without rebuking him? How can the AU affirm ‘the necessity of a zero tolerance to policies and actions that have the potential to lead to unconstitutional means of overthrowing oppressive systems’ and yet be deafeningly silent on the current Tunisian constitution that codifies dictatorship?

Since 2014, the AU has called on its member states “to uphold the rule of law and abide by their own constitution especially with regard to constitutional reforms, bearing in mind that failure to respect these provisions often leads to situations of tension with serious political and security imputations; which, in turn, could trigger political crisis”.

No minimum voter threshold was set for the referendum and ultimately, a small percentage of eligible voters adopted a constitution in Tunisia drafted unilaterally by Saied. This is hardly legitimate power. The constitution put to voters is riddled with vague wording that potentially opens the door for yet another open-ended dictatorship in Africa, a continent that is already suffering from a resurgence of coups and coup attempts since 2013.

Tunisia’s new constitution limits the presidential terms to two but does not clarify if the term Saied is currently serving counts among them, or whether he would be entitled to further terms. It allows him to extend his terms in cases of ‘imminent danger’, which he himself has the authority to define. Among other concerns, the document also does not delineate Tunisia as a civil state, an alarming departure from the 2014 constitution.

Tunisia is a signatory to a number of AU treaties, including the Constitutive Act, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the African Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance and has signed up to all its main principles. The AU leadership is mandated to ensure that its norms and principles are respected by its 55-member states, yet has remained silent on Tunisia’s infractions.

Why Tunisia matters on the African continent

Tunisia was one of the first African countries to gain independence from colonial rule. This happened in 1956 and the country has been an exemplar of equality and freedom in Africa and the Middle East region since. Tunisia has always permitted multiple political parties and instituted major reforms since the 1950s that allowed Tunisian women to enjoy rights and freedoms that were denied to women in neighbouring countries.

Tunisia also sparked the Arab Spring movements. Its uprising against dictatorship and corruption inspired millions of Arabs across the region to take to the streets to demand their political and economic rights. Tunisia has always agreed to be bound by AU norms yet is flouting them with no firm reaction from the AU. In 2013, Tunisia adopted the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which other North African countries have not done.

In 2017, it became the first North African country to allow citizens and civil society to have direct access to the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights, thereby granting the court the jurisdiction to hear cases directly presented to it by Tunisians. Morocco, for example, has rejected the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and Egypt does not ratify African treaties. Tunisia has also always played a vital role on the continental level. It was elected to the AU’s Peace and Security Council for 2022-2024, testimony to its ability to participate effectively in helping preserve stability on the continent.

The election, however, further exemplifies the AU’s lack of concern for Tunisia’s democratic backsliding. The continental body granted it membership in February 2022 despite the dictatorial spiral it had been taking since July 2021 when Saied sacked the prime minister and froze parliament, justifying his decision as a response to the government’s poor handling of the economy and the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, he has been consolidating one-man rule.

From Egypt in northeast Africa all the way to Morocco in the northwest, Tunisia is among the few North African countries that have been by and large politically stable. The current polarisation in the country – with divisions between the president, civil society, and powerful groups such as the UGTT (Tunisia’s main labour union, which boycotted the referendum) – can lead to instability, which would impact the whole of North Africa, potentially spilling over to the already unstable and politically volatile Libya and Algeria.

Since Saied instituted his autogolpe in July 2021, the AU’s sole reaction has been a short statement, calling for respect of the 2014 Tunisian constitution, and promotion of political dialogue to resolve the country’s problems.

Neither has happened, even though Article 7 of the Protocol on the Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the AU stipulates that the body, in collaboration with the chairperson of the AU Commission shall “follow-up within the framework of its conflict resolution responsibilities, the progress towards the of democratic practices, good governance, the rule of law, protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for the sanctity of human life by member States”.

One of the main criticisms of the AU is that it has inconsistent responses to political turmoil on the continent and only speaks up if a military seizes power in one of its member states but is quiet on subtler subversions of democracy such as constitutional coups. If the AU refuses to endorse Saeid’s constitution as democratically legitimate and helps bring together Tunisian factions to ensure that the current government acts in compliance with AU norms, it will not only help Tunisians to have a more accountable political system but also show all of Africa that it is indeed committed to upholding its core values. The AU must do more to speed up the slow pace of democratisation in Africa. Its own credibility, and the continent’s security and prosperity, depends on it.

Raed Ben Maaouia is the co-founder of Tunisia’s Social Accountability Association, president of Tunisia’s Hope Makers Association, and a member of Tunisia’s Political Lab (Lab 117) Initiative.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *