Pro-Saied demonstrator. Avenue Bourguiba, December 17, 2022. Credit: Tarek Laabidi

President Kais Saied’s national consultation officially opened on January 15. Hosted on the web portal e-istichara.tn, the polling mechanism became operational on January 1 « as a test run to evaluate the site’s performance and make any necessary rectifications to better respond to the aspirations of Tunisians », explains Sana Yousfi who works within the Ministry of Technology. Much like the sweeping decisions announced by the president on July 25 and his approach to running the country decree by presidential decree, Saied’s national consultation was conceived « in the name of the people ».

Little inclusion, too much inequality

In order to have a voice in the consultation, participants must be over 18 years old, have internet access and a cell phone number registered to his or her name. No luck, unfortunately, for the many individuals who committed the fateful error of obtaining a SIM card through a parent or other relative. Out of luck also are the Tunisians who don’t know how to navigate the internet or don’t have access to it. Citizens in this situation, which reflects 45% of the population according to an estimate by the Tunisian Economic and Social Rights Forum (FTDES), will have no say in how new « democratic » institutions are to be set up.

The same is true for Tunisians living abroad, for whom there is still no procedure to enable their participation. Regarding concerns around what is supposed to be a « participative » consultation process that reflects « a common vision of Tunisia’s future », Minister of Technology Nizar Ben Neji has a ready reply: those who don’t have internet or computer access can head to youth centers. Other participation mechanisms, we are told, will be put in place to help citizens without the technical means to make their voices heard. What about citizens without the cognitive ability to understand the consultation in its form and content? Tunisia’s illiteracy rate, according to the minister of social affairs, is 17.7%, or some 2 million citizens.

To participate in the consultation, internet users must sign up on the web portal using their personal ID card number. A secret code sent via SMS enables users to respond to consultation questions. This operation is highly secured, « ensuring the personal and confidential » participation of each citizen, Sana Yousfi tells Nawaat. Indeed, it is the Ministry of Technology in collaboration with the country’s telephone operators and the National Cyber Security Agency (ANSI) who are in charge of running the initiative. According to Yousfi, these actors signed a partnership agreement with the involvement of the National Authority for the Protection of Personal Data (INPDP).

Representatives of collaborating institutions attend the signing of the partnership agreement. Tunis, January 4, 2022.

Saied, clear sailing into the future

Once they have accessed the online platform, participants must enter their age, gender, education level, activity and governorate. At this point, they can respond to the multiple choice questions (QCM) organized into six categories: political affairs, quality of life, economy, social affairs, sustainable development, education and culture. A single answer is accepted for some questions, whereas others allow for a maximum of three responses. There is one field open for participants to elaborate on their opinions in writing.

Questions in the consultation’s first section, which concerns political and electoral reforms, are rather vague. In one question regarding a vision for the future of the country, participants are asked to choose between a country that is « modern, tolerant and open to the world », « a democratic Tunisia devoted to security and sovereignty », « a state of law », or else « a country that guarantees work, freedom and national dignity ». Anyone who aspires to a future that encompasses all of these qualities must nevertheless choose just three of them. Less confusion, however, clouds one’s choice for political regime: on this question, participants may decide between a parliamentary, presidential or mixed regime. Saied just wanted to make sure that no one would lose his bearings on this point.

As for political reform in Tunisia, participants have two options: amend the Constitution, or else elaborate a new one. One can choose between reforming the electoral law that governs political parties, or else maintaining the status quo. This section also polls Tunisians about the possibility of withdrawing their confidence from a deputy who has not carried out his mission.

Criticism expressed by a number of civil society actors regarding the national consultation have evidently not swayed the president’s determination to see the initiative through to completion. And as for the people: Tunisians have until March 20 to support or reject it. The results of the project are to be complemented by the work of a committee of experts, and constitutional reforms to be put to referendum on July 25. As of February 2, a total 119,385 Tunisians had participated in the consultation, including 92,307 men and only 27,078 women.

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