President’s Online “Consultation” on Reforms Ends with Low Participation

A screenshot of the online consultation platform.

The online, national “consultation” survey on reforms ended on Sunday, March 20 with low participation: just over half a million people according to the state news agency TAP, or just under 7 percent of the voting age population. The final day of the consultation coincided with the 66th anniversary of Independence Day and a protest march near the suspended Parliament in Bardo by the “Citizens Against the Coup” group and the Ennahdha party.

“I boycotted the online consultation. I don’t want to be a part of anything [President Kais Saied] does,” said 23-year-old protester Omar. Omar said he had voted for Saied in the 2019 elections but no longer supports him.

“I don’t regret voting for him in the elections, but what he’s doing is wrong. The Parliament was a complete farce, yet it represented me nevertheless. There are MPs who I voted for and who represent me. Kais Saied’s ultimate mistake is that he chose to rule alone. I’m not saying he is a dictator, but having absolute power will create a dictator out of him because that’s human nature,” he told Meshkal at the Sunday protest.

Protesters from Ennahdha and “Citizens Against the Coup” in Bardo, Tunis on March 20, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

In December, President Saied had announced the online consultation would take place followed by a referendum on constitutional reform on July 25, 2022 that he implied would be linked to the results of the poll. The “e-istichara” web platform launched its survey on January 15, 2022 “to give the opportunity to all citizens” to provide ideas for “the development of new visions and approaches that could allow the management of public affairs in their different aspects,” according to the website. Questions on the platform were divided into six sections: political affairs; economy; social affairs; sustainable development; quality of life, and education and culture. Each section had five or six multiple choice questions and “free expression” sections with 200-word limits.

In a video address posted on the Presidency’s Facebook page shortly after midnight on the night the consultation ended, President Saied declared that “the national consultation is the first step in the national dialogue, and it is successful despite all attempts to thwart it.” He claimed that this attempt to “thwart” it included some technical manipulation, bu t he did not specify who he thought was behind these attempts.

Screenshot of President Kais Saied addressing the nation through a video shared on the Presidency’s Facebook shortly after the online consultation ended after midnight on Sunday March 20, 2022.

The Ennahdha party and other political parties that have opposed President Kais Saied’s July 25 decision have condemned the consultation as illegitimate.

“The national consultation is a fraud… It failed miserably,” Mondher Ounissi, a member of Ennahdha’s executive bureau told Meshkal at March 20 protest.

“The president must be ashamed and withdraw the consultation and the road map, restore the suspended institutions, and engage in a national dialogue,” Ounissi said, adding that he believed the Ennahdha party “were the scapegoats on the 25th of July. He [Saied] achieved what he wanted by getting rid of Ennahdha.”

Police at a protest by Ennahdha and “Citizens Against the Coup” in Bardo, Tunis on March 20, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Other Critiques of the Consultation

Meshkal also spoke with non-partisan actors who also did not participate in the consultation for entirely different reasons.

“I didn’t take part in it because I believe that the President already has a political plan that he’s determined to achieve despite the consultation answers,” said 22-year-old Ghailen.

“I didn’t take part in the consultation because reaching a political balance cannot be done through answering a few questions online. The consultation is not taken seriously by the people promoting it, since all they care about is getting as many people as possible to register in the survey without emphasizing how important their replies must be and that they should answer seriously. That made me question the credibility of the whole thing,” said Lokman, a 23-year-old teacher.

Others expressed concerns over the online platform’s capacity to secure people’s personal data entered into the system.

“As a software development engineer, it is important for me to know how the collected data will be handled and will the platform protect my personal information or not. There are no guarantees that the collected database won’t be used elsewhere for other reasons. No expert explained this to the public,” said 27-year-old Houssem.

Still others pointed to the consultation as a distraction from other more pressing issues.

“The consultation is a complete farce and the country is on a slippery slope. We keep heading towards worse, economically and socially. We’ve been suffering from the shortage of basic goods and struggling to provide our families with the necessities for a proper livelihood. We are being starved because of the constant increases in prices. The consultation is not our priority right now,” a history teacher present at the demonstration told Meshkal while declining to give her name.

A sign at a protest by Ennahdha and “Citizens Against the Coup” in Bardo, Tunis on March 20, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Meshkal also spoke with 23-year-old Zied who did participate in the consultation. For his part, Zied said he believed in the consultation, but he conceded that it was set-up to support President Kais Saied’s political project.

“I took part in the consultation as I found it is the only way for me to voice my opinion. The choices were limited and I believe that it was done strategically, since answers need to be directed according to what the president thinks would work best for his political project that I consider to be a national project that everyone should participate in. I believe in the national consultation, and that’s why I participated,” said Zied.

Only 168,705 women, or 32 percent of respondents to the online survey, were women. Sunday’s protest gathered roughly 1000 people, although the Ministry of Interior put the number lower at 800 while Riadh Chaibi, an Ennahdha member and advisor to Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi,  boasted to the crowd using a microphone that they had gathered “30,000 here in Bardo.”

Ennahdha member Riadh Chaibi addresses protesters in Bardo, Tunis on March 20, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.