Tunisia vote marks a death of a dream for some Arab Spring protesters

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Wael & Jewahar
Wael and Jewaher protested together during the Arab Spring

After dismissing parliament and largely ruling by decree a year ago, Tunisia's President Kais Saied is asking people to vote on Monday on a controversial constitutional referendum that will increase his powers. While he has some support, many Tunisians see this is a betrayal of the Arab Spring.

Short presentational grey line
Short presentational grey line

Wael and Jewaher locked eyes and ran towards each other. He had just been released from a police cell, and she'd spent the last 20 hours outside, singing protest songs while she waited for his release.

As they hugged tightly, someone in the crowd handed him a fresh T-shirt to replace the torn one he'd been wearing since his arrest at an anti-referendum protest the night before.

Tunisia is no stranger to demonstrations. Back in 2011 the Arab Spring was born here, before spreading across the Middle East.

Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man without a job, was selling vegetables on the street to make ends meet. When the police told him he had to stop, he set himself on fire. It was an image of desperation which resonated so deeply that crowds of people began to gather together. They too were sick of economic hardship, political corruption and their autocratic ruler.

After 23 years in power, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced out, and a new chapter began for Tunisians.

Arab Spring protests in Tunisia in 2011
Ben Ali was forced out in 2011

Now though, the country's freedoms are moving in reverse. A year ago, in July 2021, Tunisia's President Kais Saied made sweeping changes. He sacked the prime minister, dissolved the government and suspended parliament. On Monday Tunisians will vote on a new constitution that gives him even more control over the country.

That's why Wael and Jewaher are demonstrating once again.

"We were in a parliamentary system," Wael tells me. "Now we are in a presidency, a system for Kais Saied to hold all the power in his own hands."

The pair protested together in the original Arab Spring marches in 2011, as a young couple, not yet married. Now they have a son, Yasar, which translates in English to "left", in honour of their political views.

"We have been protesting for 11 years for the same demands," explains Jewaher. "That is what's frustrating. It's a pattern we have to repeat. Here every year we have to protest for our freedom and dignity and rights.

"The regime is in power with the force of the police, with the force of dictatorship, with the force of violence. So nothing ever really changed".

Saied Supporters
To many of Kais Saied's supporters, he is a saviour

But to focus only on the protests doesn't show the full picture here.

In the narrow alleys of Tunis's bustling Medina market, among piles of gold leather sandals and colourful rugs hanging overhead, people have firm ideas about what's best for their future. Once again they're poor and struggling, but they see Kais Saied as a saviour - not a dictator.

Even though the new constitution has been internationally criticised for not protecting people's rights, they're still voting for it.

I meet Mohsen strolling with his son among the fountains in the square. He is, like many here, a big supporter of the president.

"Kais Saied is a straightforward man, he loves Tunisia," he tells me. "I like the constitution very much, it will improve the situation in the country. I will be the first one to go and vote".

"I will vote yes, yes, yes," exclaims Ali, standing among the racks of traditional women's clothes in his shop. "The president will improve our conditions, I pin high hopes on Kais Saied'.

Saida Shoe Shop Owner
Saida believes the president is a good person

Saida, surrounded by shoes at her market stall, has no doubts.

"He's a good person. I have faith in him. He does not do bad things. He does not steal or anything. I hope all people are like him. He's working to improve the situation, he's purging the state. I will go and vote yes in the referendum so that the country moves forward. This is for the future of our kids".

For some people, Kais Saied's power grab has been life-changing. Two months ago the president granted himself the ability to fire judges at will, and immediately dismissed 57 of them.

Mohamed Al Kenzari sleeping
Mohamed al Kenzari hasn't eaten in more than a month

Mohamed al Kenzari and two of his colleagues are among them, and now they're on a hunger strike to protest at the way they've been treated. I meet them at the judges' club in Tunis, where they're now living in a darkened room filled with posters promoting their cause.

Mohamed hasn't eaten for 33 days, and is now so weak he can't stand up. He lies on a mattress on the floor, covered by a thin pink floral sheet.

"I'm so exhausted. You try to resist as much as you can, but nobody feels you. You call for your rights, but nobody feels you," he tells me, and starts to cry. He says he won't end his strike until the decree which led to the judges' dismissal is reversed.

More than 80% of Tunisians have registered to vote in the referendum on Monday 25 July. In many ways, this is a ballot on democracy, rights and freedoms, and whether they continue to have oxygen here.

And for the people who demonstrated a decade ago - sparking a movement that enveloped a region - it simply signals the death of a dream.