What next for the birthplace of the Arab Spring?

According to Tunisia's electoral board, 94.6 percent of valid votes cast in Monday's constitutional referendum were in favour of President Kais Saied's constitution. Turnout was, however, low at only 30.5 per cent. What will the future hold for the North African nation where the Arab Spring began over a decade ago?

Tunisia, almost certain to introduce a new constitution following Monday's referendum, is now heading for "dictatorship light" in a decisive break with its troubled post-revolt democratic system, experts say.

The electoral board said on Tuesday evening that 94.6 percent of valid ballots had backed the new constitution with 30.5 percent turnout, citing preliminary results.

So what does the future hold in the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings?

The draft constitution, the brainchild of President Kais Saied, hands almost unlimited powers to his office. It is set to go into effect as soon as final results are announced. Preliminary results were released late on Tuesday, although the electoral board controlled by Saied has until the end of August to announce a definitive outcome.

Little change in the short term

Tunisia expert Youssef Cherif said "little will change in the short term, because Saied is just making official a situation that's been in place for a year". On 25 July last year, Saied sacked the government and froze parliament, and later began ruling by decree, dissolved parliament and seized control of the judiciary. Elections to a largely neutered parliament are set for December.

Protesters demonstrating against President Kais Saied's draft constitution (photo: Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters)
According to Said Benarbia, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, the new constitution would "give the president almost all powers and dismantle any check on his rule". He went on to say that low turnout means "any resulting constitution would not reflect the views of the majority of Tunisians and would lack democratic legitimacy and national ownership," adding that "the process was opaque and illegal, the outcome is illegitimate." Pictured here: before the referendum, people took to the streets to protest at the proposed constitution

Until then, "Kais Saied will have more powers than a pharaoh, a Middle Ages Caliph or the (Ottoman-era) Bey of Tunis," said political scientist Hamadi Redissi. Saied is determined to "press forward unilaterally, and very quickly" to leave "an exhausted opposition which will undoubtedly boycott the next election," he said.

Cherif agreed. Saied "is governing alone, the opposition is sidelined and the population isn't interested," he said. "Tunisia is moving towards a less parliamentary and more presidential system," Cherif said. "Examples from the region and from Tunisian history suggest that this will lead to a hardening of the regime and less democracy."

The pressure-cooker strategy

Redissi predicts a form of "dictatorship light" under what he terms "the pressure-cooker strategy". "This keeps some margin of freedom like in Putin's Russia ... but it is not a real democracy," he said.

Observers have noted that for now, there are few serious threats to freedom of speech in Tunisia – despite some prosecutions of prominent Saied critics. But Cherif said protesters would likely have fewer spaces to operate in during the coming weeks. "The security forces have been strengthened in recent months and their popularity as well as that of the army is still high," he said.

Supporters of President Kais Saied celebrate after the constitutional referendum in Tunisia (photo: AFP)
According to political scientist Hamadi Redissi, the new constitution will give Kais Saied "more powers than a pharaoh, a Middle Ages Caliph or the (Ottoman-era) Bey of Tunis." In June, Sadeq Belaid, the legal expert who oversaw the drafting of the new constitution submitted to Saied, said that the version Saied published had been changed in a way that could lead to a dictatorship

Observers say it is far from clear whether Tunisia's 24,000 civil society associations and political parties, products of the democratic space that opened up following the country's 2011 revolt, will resist Saied. "Until now, the resilience of political actors has been offset by the fragility of Tunisian democratic institutions," Redissi said.

Cherif noted that some opposition remains active, such as the powerful UGTT trade union federation and a multitude of political parties and NGOs that could become more vocal after the summer.

Need for reform could cause economic pain

Tackling the country's deep economic woes will be essential if Saied is to avoid unrest.  The prospect of a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund that could force sweeping reforms and more economic pain for Tunisians could have political implications. But "it will take time, maybe a year and a half, before frustration hits a peak," Redissi said.

Tunisia's opposition is divided, with many anti-Saied forces refusing to do business with the president's nemesis, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, which has dominated politics for the past decade.

But joy among Saied's supporters "will be confronted with the economic realities" soon, giving his rivals a basis for their messaging, Cherif predicted. Redissi, however, pointed out that authorities are preparing a new law on NGOs, political parties and associations.

Saied told supporters in a speech on Monday night that he had no intention of dissolving political parties. But Redissi said: "the parties are already weak and in crisis. Saied will snuff them out with draconian rules on funding and organisation".  (AFP)