From January 15, the Tunisian public will be able to participate in the country’s first online referendum on their political future.
To express their opinions on six topics, including education, culture, elections and the economy, locals register on a special website called E-Istichara, or electronic consultation, with their national identity number. Then they receive an access code on their mobile phone and can participate in the survey.
The online referendum, which began a testing phase in early January and runs through March, is part of what Tunisian President Kais Saied has described as a roadmap toward constitutional change.
Digital privacy advocates are concerned because no one knows how secure personal details are on a website
Last July, Saeed suspended parliament, sacked the current prime minister, and granted himself emergency powers. He said he was forced to take over executive power himself due to ongoing political stagnation and corruption, a decade after the revolution that saw Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flee the country.
The seizure of power divided the country. Said’s supporters say what he did was necessary to end the political deadlock and economic impasse. Saied’s critics have called his actions a “constitutional coup,” saying he is a potential dictator who threatens Tunisia’s fledgling democracy.
As a result, “many people in Tunisia and abroad called [Saied] To produce a roadmap to return the country to democratic accountability,” Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, or ECFR, wrote this week.
Critics fear that Tunisian President Kais Saied (centre) has given himself a year to consolidate his power
Saïd’s roadmap, announced last month, includes a constitutional referendum to be held in July 2022. Tunisians will vote on a draft new constitution for Tunisia prepared by Saïd and a panel of experts chosen by him. The project will take into account the results of the online consultation.
At the end of this year, elections are scheduled, with rules based on which electoral system the new constitution favors.
The idea of online counseling has divided Tunisian public opinion in the same way as Said’s other plans for the country. Even the site’s slogan – “Your Opinion, Our Decision” – can be seen as open to interpretation, locals said. Said already said he wanted a presidential-style system with direct democracy at the regional level rather than a national parliament.
“It’s a smart initiative,” Akram Chahed, a bank employee in the capital, Tunis, told DW. “He wants to treat everyone equally and not discriminate against parties or elites. Regardless of the president’s political leanings, we live in a digital world and everyone has to adapt to that.”
Internet coverage is not even all over Tunisia
Rahma Al-Habbasi, an engineer working in the field of communications technology in Tunisia, said, “The problem is not in accepting or rejecting opinions on the Internet.” “There are potential technical hurdles,” he continued, noting differences in internet coverage and education.
Only about 66 percent of Tunisians have a regular internet connection. Earlier this month, Tunisia’s Ministry of Social Affairs announced that nearly 18% of the population – or two million Tunisians – are illiterate.
All this means that the consultation process cannot be truly comprehensive, say its critics.
In addition, IWatch, a corruption watchdog, and Transparency International’s Tunisian partner, condemned the lack of transparency on the site. The organization wrote that no one knows who did it, how secure the personal data is, or who asked the questions in the poll.
“We believe the questions … will be an attempt by whoever prepared them to channel the will of the people in advance and limit their right to self-determination,” Iwatch said in a statement.
Said moved the anniversary of the Tunisian revolution from January 14 to December 17, the day the revolution’s street vendor suicide began
International organizations concerned with digital privacy and internet access, such as Access Now and Freedom House, note that even if the consulting site implements Tunisian data protection laws, these laws are outdated.
Prominent members of the Afaq Tounes party and the Ennahda movement, which had the largest number of seats in the Tunisian parliament until the start of Said’s solo mission to rebuild the country’s political system, also criticized the online consultation.
On his Facebook page, Moncef Marzouki, one of the most vocal critics of Said, the interim president of Tunisia immediately after the revolution between 2011 and 2014, told readers to “ignore them and ignore their foolish advice.” Marzouki warned that the site was fraudulent and would later be used to identify Tunisians who did not agree with Said.
Marzouki himself was sentenced to four years in prison in absentia on December 22 on charges of “undermining external state security”. The 76-year-old, known as a human rights activist, lives in Paris and said his sentence was “political” for his outspoken criticism of Said’s recent actions.
Tunisia suffers from an economic crisis driven by the pandemic, political instability and huge foreign debt
Last Wednesday, Marzouki became one of 19 Tunisians accused of electoral violations dating back to 2019. Members of the group include four former prime ministers and heads of political parties.
But there are also large parts of the population and political parties that support Said’s year-long roadmap. Tunisia’s Ba’ath party said it reflected “a clear and solid will for reform” and the left-wing Popular Front welcomed it as an attempt to remove corrupt Islamist politicians from power.
When Said first closed parliament, many ordinary Tunisians encouraged him. Nine governments over the past 10 years have not resolved their dire economic situation, and opinion polls indicate that a majority thought the country was heading in the wrong direction, before Saeed took over.
But since then, the president’s increasingly authoritarian behavior – such as using the judiciary to silence opponents like Marzouki – has caused more concern.
Before Saeed took over, more than 80% of the population believed the country was not doing well
“What he was doing raised an even greater degree of suspicion,” ECFR’s Durkin explained. “Since seizing power in July, a number of voices that were somewhat sympathetic have become staunchly opposed. [to Saied]. It became clear that he really intended to try to take the country in the direction of a more centralized power.”
That’s why digital consulting divided opinions, too. “On the most basic level, it’s better than people who don’t have a voice at all, but it really does sound like a fig leaf, a nod to the idea of counseling without any real substance,” Dworkin told DW.
It’s important to look at the broader context in which all of this is happening, he added. “And there is remarkably little transparency about how this process is [the road map] It will work. There is no official participation of any other political groups or civil society. And all of this is happening under a political system in which all political forces are currently concentrated in Said’s hands.