Tunisia's President Kais Saied greets his supporters after a referendum on a new constitution in Tunis, Tunisia July 26, 2022. Tunisian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

How should we understand this? The Tunisians made a revolution in 2010/2011, chased the autocrat Ben Ali out of the country, and were the only country in the Arab world to manage a transition to democracy and coalition governments.

And now over 90 percent are voluntarily voting for a constitution that abolishes the separation of powers and gives the president extreme powers. So you choose a political system that could at any time be expanded into a dictatorship.

Participation in Monday’s referendum was around 27 percent, according to preliminary information from the electoral authority, but higher than expected because many parties had boycotted the vote.

But part of the population cheers and supports President Kais Saied, the professor of constitutional law who came into office as a political outsider and now single-handedly wants to turn Tunisia’s political system upside down.

The Jasmine Revolution was about “dignity” – above all in the sense that one has a self-determined life and prospects through adequate income opportunities. The greed and merciless exploitation of the country by President Ben Ali’s family was the motivation for the 2010/11 uprising for socially disadvantaged sections of society.

Then it was celebrated in the West that, thanks to civil society institutions, the transition to a democratic system was achieved; but the economic dividend in Tunisia itself failed to materialize. Many of the new and old parties have abused their political mandates to get closer to the state’s fodder pots and help themselves in the classic manner. A democratic spirit and a sense of responsibility for the whole were missing.

Although Europe briefly took a critical look at its previous policy with autocrats in the region, it quickly made its own security needs and interests the guideline for action again. And old neighborhood policy instruments continued, which apparently contributed neither to reforms nor to stabilization.

The resentment about the lack of economic prospects, for which the political elites were held responsible, explains the enthusiasm for Saied, who dissolved this corrupt personnel carousel. He is now using this enthusiasm, which initially also included pro-democracy groups, to push through the locally rooted political system he had conceived, in which political parties should play no role.

This backlash is bitter. Nevertheless, not everything was in vain: there is a stronger civil society, there are political groups that stand up for democracy. The genie doesn’t go back into the bottle completely.

It will be decisive whether the President, with all his political power, can achieve an economic upswing in these times of global crisis. Although he can count on the support of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, the Gulf States cannot keep the entire economy running. That’s why it won’t work without new programs and loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF): But the populist Saied is unlikely to push through the austerity program demanded in the public sector.

So will the IMF now turn a blind eye and give new loans without strings attached? That is conceivable, because nobody wants to see Tunisia sink into chaos. But the Tunisian way is no longer a model.