With New Constitution, Tunisia Begins Uncertain Chapter

Scouting for plastic refuse along the capital’s broken streets, Mohammed describes brighter days working in Tunisia’s once-booming tourism industry, earning salary, room and board entertaining Europeans.

“Before, Tunisia was the icon of the Arab world,” says Mohammed, lean and deeply lined at 46, who declines to give his last name.

“Of course, it was a police state under Zine el Abidine Ben Ali,” he added of the country’s former autocrat, ousted in a revolution 11 years ago, “but we had work, we lived well. Now, we’re being hit in the stomach.”

As current President Kais Saied solidifies his control of the tiny North African country under a newly passed constitution, he will be challenged to deliver on promises of jobs, bread and stability for citizens such as Mohammed — who today earns roughly 20 cents filling up large burlap bags with garbage for recycling.

“I didn’t vote,” Mohammed said, counting among 70% of eligible Tunisians, out of opposition or apathy, who declined to participate in a July 25 referendum on Saied’s charter, which passed anyway. “I don’t trust politicians.”

The vote came exactly a year after Saied seized vast powers, dismissing his government and ultimately dissolving parliament, in what his opponents call a coup.

Today, Tunisia’s future—and Saied’s—may depend on a raft of factors, observers say: from whether the president can both secure and sell a crucial International Monetary Fund loan and its tough austerity requirements to save the country’s moribund economy, to the calculations of powerful players such as the country’s main trade union and revered army.

Also shaping the country’s trajectory will be whether Saied can retain his fading but still-sizable support — and whether Tunisians have the will and energy to return to the streets if they believe yet another government has failed them.

“We are in real uncertainty,” said Tunis University political science professor, Hamadi Redissi. “If Saied improves people’s economic and social conditions, he will probably be reelected. But if his only obsession is the constitution and elections, the country will probably plunge into crisis.”

A decade of darkness?

What happens next, analysts say, carries important lessons in a region where every other Arab Spring experiment has failed, and disenchantment in multiparty politics appears to be growing.

A recent Arab Barometer poll found falling public faith, including in Tunisia, in democracy as a motor for economic growth. Many here, like Mohammed the garbage collector, are nostalgic about a perceived heyday under Ben Ali’s strongman rule. The country’s bickering and gridlocked parties have only helped to cement their views.

Yet Ben Ali’s 2011 ouster, triggering the broader Arab Spring uprising, was fueled by the same bread-and-butter worries as today. Only now, things are worse.

However flawed and fragile, Tunisia’s democracy has “really, really mattered,” says Monica Marks, assistant professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi. “Tunisian democracy was a strong counter-argument not only to autocracies in the region but also violent extremists.”

Former soldier Mourad Sassi instead sees the years since Tunisia’s revolution as “a decade of darkness.”

“We don’t even have the money to buy things like cooking oil,” he says. “We can’t live another decade like this.”

“You hear the word ‘exhaustion’ more than anything else,” Marks says. “It seems Tunisians under the summer heat are wilting. And their energy to defend the only democracy in the Arab and Muslim world has wilted too.”

Man of the people

Not surprisingly, Saied and his supporters argue differently. The president says he is committed to preserving the revolution’s freedoms and his constitution will better deliver on the demands of the street — in part by creating a so-called Council of Regions as a second chamber of parliament.

Many ordinary Tunisians are proud of their man-of-the-people leader — an unremarkable constitutional scholar from a modest neighborhood, who catapulted to power in 2019 with an unlikely shoestring campaign.

“Kais Saied’s hands are clean,” says taxi driver Mohamed Bokadi. “He’s a learned man.”

Yet Saied has a lean governing resume, shows little appetite for prioritizing the economy and has failed to surround himself with effective political allies, analysts say. His prime minister, Najla Bouden, is a former geologist.

Publicly, Western leaders have offered a low-key response to Saied’s moves. But when Washington last month voiced concern about an “erosion of democratic norms,” Tunisian Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi pushed back, calling the statement an “interference in national internal affairs.”

Civil society groups and political opponents—some of whom question the referendum’s results—say the constitution merely cements a year of eroding rights: from a crackdown on political critics and journalists, to the dismissal of dozens of judges and Saied’s replacement of the independent electoral commission’s executive board just weeks before his referendum.

Tunisians have partly responded with growing self-censorship, analyst Marks says, characteristic of pre-revolution days.

“When Kais took the reins last year, a lot of people just naturally stopped discussing politics on the phone, because they believed the phones were tapped again,” she says.

“Nobody can say no to Kais Saied,” says Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s once-powerful Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party. He is being investigated for corruption allegations he dismisses as politically motivated.

“He controls the judiciary, the National Assembly, the administration” Ghannouchi adds, “he rules like a pharaoh.”

Rocky times ahead

Tunisia’s leader faces sizable road bumps ahead. The powerful UGTT trade threatens another strike next week over better pay and benefits—potentially paving the way for an uptick of social unrest.

How much Saied can count on the country’s security forces — including its popular military that sided with the people in the 2011 revolt — is another unknown.

“It does look like he still has the military with him,” analyst Marks says. But if the country tips into the massive protests of a decade ago, “the military might make a recalculation.”

Marks, for one, is not betting on the president.

“I think Kais is destined to become that most unfortunate of creatures – an unpopular populist,” she says. “I think his days are numbered – how long remains to be seen.”

Engineer Rania Zahafi, who did not vote for Saied’s constitution and worries about its fallout, remains confident Tunisians will have the last say.

“It’s up to us to change things,” she says. “We have to make our country a better place.”

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Polls Open in Kenyan Presidential Election Said to be Tight

Voting was well underway on Tuesday in Kenya’s unusual presidential election, where a longtime opposition leader who is backed by the outgoing president faces the brash deputy president who styles himself as the outsider and a “hustler.” 

The election is considered close, and East Africa’s economic hub could see a presidential runoff for the first time. Economic issues such as widespread corruption could be of greater importance than the ethnic tensions that have marked past votes with sometimes deadly results. 

Kenya is a standout with its relatively democratic system in a region where some leaders are notorious for clinging to power for decades. Its stability is crucial for foreign investors, the most humble of street vendors and troubled neighbors like Ethiopia and Somalia. 

Hundreds of voters lined up hours ahead of polls opening in some locations, often after being summoned by volunteers’ early morning whistles. Voting started late in some areas as materials or polling workers were delayed. 

The candidates

The top candidates are Raila Odinga, a democracy campaigner who has vied for the presidency for a quarter-century, and 55-year-old Deputy President William Ruto, who has stressed his journey from a humble childhood to appeal to millions of struggling Kenyans long accustomed to political dynasties. 

“In moments like this is when the mighty and the powerful come to the realization that it is the simple and the ordinary that eventually make the choice,” a smiling Ruto told journalists after becoming one of the first voters. “I look forward to our victorious day.” He urged Kenyans to be peaceful and respect others’ choices. 

“I have confidence that the people of Kenya are going to speak loudly in favor of democratic change,” Odinga told journalists on his way to vote. 

Outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, cut across the usual ethnic lines and angered Ruto by backing longtime rival Odinga after their bitter 2017 election contest. But both Odinga and Ruto have chosen running mates from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. 

The 77-year-old Odinga has made history by choosing running mate Martha Karua, a former justice minister and the first woman to be a leading contender for the deputy presidency. “Make your voice heard,” she said after voting early in a knitted cap, a sign of the unusually cold weather in parts of the country. 

Rising food and fuel prices, huge government debt, high unemployment and corruption mean economic issues are at the center of an election in which unregulated campaign spending highlighted the country’s inequality. But personalities still matter. 

“We need mature people to lead, not someone who abuses people. Someone who respects elders,” said 55-year-old teacher Rosemary Mulima, who arrived with friends at a polling station on the outskirts of Nairobi to find an estimated 500 people in line before dawn. She had “very high” hopes for Odinga on his fifth try. 

Others predicted a lower turnout than the 80% five years ago and blamed voter apathy. The electoral commission signed up less than half of the new voters it had hoped for, just 2.5 million. 

“The problems from 2017, the economy, the day to day life, are still here,” said 38-year-old shopkeeper Adrian Kibera, who wasn’t sure he would bother to vote. “We don’t have good choices,” he said, calling Odinga too old and Ruto too inexperienced. 

Kenyans are hoping for a peaceful vote. Elections can be exceptionally troubled, as in 2007 when the country exploded after Odinga claimed the vote had been stolen from him and more than 1,000 people were killed. Ruto was indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for his role in violence, but his case was terminated amid allegations of witness tampering. 

In 2017, the high court overturned the election results, a first in Africa, after Odinga challenged them over irregularities. He then boycotted the new vote and proclaimed himself the “people’s president,” bringing allegations of treason. A handshake between him and Kenyatta calmed the crisis. 

This is likely Odinga’s last try, and Kenyans and election observers will be watching to see how his often passionate supporters react to the results and any allegations of rigging. 

Candidates say they will accept results

Ruto and Odinga have said they will accept the official results — if the vote is free and fair. “It is every Kenyan’s hope,” the president told journalists after voting. 

More than 22 million people are registered to vote. Official results must be announced within a week, but impatience is expected if they don’t come before this weekend. The underfunded Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission is under pressure to ensure an untroubled vote. 

To win outright, a candidate needs more than half of all votes and at least 25% of the votes in more than half of Kenya’s 47 counties. No outright winner means a runoff election within 30 days

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New Constitution Charts Uncertain Future for Tunisia

Tunisia’s new and controversial constitution goes into effect later this month, cementing the vast powers seized a year ago by its author, President Kais Saied — though fewer than three in 10 voters cast their ballots in a July referendum. From Tunis, Lisa Bryant reports the North African country’s future depends on many factors — including whether Tunisians will defend the Arab Spring’s only democracy.

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 Arrest of Zimbabwe Journalists ‘Out of Sync’ With Press Freedom Norms

Zimbabwe has charged two journalists under its cybercrime law in a move media advocates say runs counter to global trends to support and promote press freedom.

Police in Harare have charged two journalists from the national paper, News Day, under provisions of the country’s Cyber and Data Protection Act that cover “false data messages.”

Editor Wisdom Mdzungairi and senior reporter Desmond Chingarande were called in for questioning last week over their coverage of a legal dispute involving local authorities and a memorial park in Harare.

Both deny the charge and Chingarande said he was surprised when police called.

“They allege l published a false statement on internet, but l see this as an intimidation tactic. There were allegations that they are burying people on a part of Glen Forest Memorial Park called Chikomo Chemhute, which is situated at the confluence of Mazowe River, without approval from responsible ministries,” he said.

Chingarande said he sought comment from all sides in the story before publishing. But, with the story now part of a police matter, he says he is unable to say much more.

Mdzungairi and Chingarande are the first journalists charged under new provisions of the cybersecurity law that Zimbabwe enacted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa said such laws are a means to target journalists and citizens.

Tabani Moyo, who heads the regional media watchdog, said, “These are some of the challenges which we continue having in Zimbabwe, where in we make progress in repealing acts such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, then the government claw(s) back using other pieces of legislation to retain elements that will further targets journalists. To have penal or sedition provisions in our statute books that target journalists [is] so out of sync with the global trends toward promotion and protection of media and journalistic expression.”

Zimbabwe is not alone in passing such laws, Moyo said. Zambia, Eswatini and Tanzania enacted cybersecurity laws and Namibia and Lesotho are finalizing similar legislation.

Moyo says heavy penalties, including up to 20 years in prison for those deemed to have shared false news, goes against democratic norms.

“This is an anathema to democratic existence and out of sync with our own constitution which provides for freedom of expression and media freedom, also violating international and regional conventions and tools,” Moyo said.

Ruby Magosvongwe, chair of the Zimbabwe Media Commission — a government-appointed body set up to promote and protect journalism — said she is aware of concerns over violations against the media.

Speaking at a conference on the safety of journalists, organized by UNESCO and media watchdogs in Africa Friday, she called for the government to be more involved in complaints of attacks against the media.

“My wish, my desire, is that in future we include our line ministries so that they get the firsthand reports, because they provide the link between ourselves as media institutions, media entities, with the respective governments from across the continent, across Africa, because examples have been given where journalists have suffered violence but if the line ministries are not involved, then it becomes kind of a conspiracy of sorts,” Magosvongwe said.

For News Day journalists Mdzungairi and Chingarande, they are now waiting to hear from court officials on when a trial in their case will take place.

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Blinken Gives US-Africa Strategy Address in Pretoria 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech on the key U.S. strategy for sub-Saharan Africa at the University of Pretoria on Monday, on the first leg of his Africa trip.

Blinken stressed the value of democracy and the threats to it in his address, saying Africa was an “equal partner” that the U.S. wanted to work with and would not “dictate to.”

“By 2050, 1 in 4 people on the planet we share will be African. They will shape the destiny, not only of this continent, but of the world,” he said.

Blinken spoke about the blow the pandemic has dealt to Africa and economies on the continent, as well as food insecurity he said had been deepened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

He also addressed a wide range of issues, including conflict prevention, misinformation online, science and technology, as well as climate change and clean energy.

VOA spoke to several South African students, asking their thoughts on the address by America’s top diplomat.  

Zaphesheya Dlamini, who has just finished a master’s degree in political science, was skeptical.

“Listen — every single foreign policy, every single national interest, is always going to be their national interest. It’s not ours, we know that. But then don’t try and present it like it’s a shared interest,” Dlamini said.

She also thought Blinken didn’t address how U.S. domestic politics influence the rest of the world. She referenced the overturning of the U.S. landmark case Roe v. Wade, which protected a woman’s right to an abortion, and the Global Gag Rule, which prohibits foreign nongovernmental organizations that receive U.S. funding from providing legal abortion services or referrals, as examples of things she thought he should have spoken about. 

International relations student Billy Botshabelo Manama, 22, said Blinken’s speech heavily promoted good governance, which he acknowledged had sometimes been a problem on the continent.

“Look — a lot has been mentioned on democracy, rightfully so, looking at the history of Africa,” Manama said.

Manama added that he believed that like the U.S., South Africa also stood for equality and human rights.

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Five Southern African Countries Kick-Start Elephant Census

Five southern African countries, with more than half the continent’s elephants, are conducting a first-ever aerial census to determine the elephant population and how to protect it. 

Light aircraft will fly simultaneously across the plains of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe — in a conservation area known as the Kavango-Zambezi Trans-frontier Conservation Area (KAZA) — in an exercise that will run until October 20.

KAZA is home to an estimated 220,000 elephants, and the five countries are keen to know the exact figures and the animals’ distribution patterns. 

More than 130,000 of the animals are found in Botswana, which has the world’s largest elephant population. 

Botswana’s National Parks and Wildlife director, Kabelo Senyatso, said the population count will be key in the management of the elephants. 

The data primarily will be used to guide decision-making by the five partner states, Senyatso said, including land-use planning, managing human-elephant conflict, hunting, and tourism.

Senyatso said the exercise is critical for a region with a high number of trans-boundary elephants. 

“It is important that as managers of the resource, we have a clear understanding of where they are and how they are distributed across the landscape,” Senyatso said. “It is an exciting project, the first of its kind. We expect the data on the patterns to be analyzed starting early 2023 such that by quarter one of 2023, we would already be having preliminary data that we can share with the public and for our decision-making.”      

KAZA’s executive director, Nyambe Nyambe, said the elephant count will determine a scientific approach to the management of the elephant populations.      

“It is highly anticipated that it will generate science-based information on the population distribution and other factors and is a reaffirmation of the KAZA partner states’ commitment to the joint pursuit of science-led conservation supported by accurate and reliable data,” Nyambe said. “The results from this survey will become the cornerstone for the long-term protection and management of Africa’s largest trans-boundary elephant population.”     

Botswana-based conservationist Map Ives said revealing the elephant migration patterns across the five countries’ borders is key. 

“We hope to see what the results come up with,” Ives said. “What we will be interested in seeing is not only how many elephants there are but the distribution, therefore, and what the likelihood of those elephants moving between countries is. We know that this population is one single contiguous population.”          

While elephant populations are increasing in the KAZA region, elsewhere on the African continent the numbers are decreasing due to loss of habitat and poaching. 


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