Leila Toubel is a Tunisian actress and playwright whose plays include Solwen (2015), Huriya (2016), and Yakuta (2021). With a background in the arts, rather than law or politics, Toubel recently participated in President Kais Saied’s consultative committee to create a new Tunisian constitution. This committee, formed in May 2022 with its leadership hand-picked by Kais Saied, met intermittently for approximately one month. Saied loftily describes the new constitution—which passed via an undemocratically organized referendum on July 25— as the product of a “national dialogue,” but ensured that the National Consultative Committee to Draft a Constitution had a limited role and powers. As Toubel explains, its members did not collectively create or even see an advance draft of the new constitution.
Instead, on June 30, President Saied released his own, seemingly single-handedly authored constitution. Five days later, Sadok Belaid—the 83-year-old former law school professor of Saied whom he appointed to head the committee—published his own constitutional draft in Tunisia’s Assaba newspaper. Belaid and another legal expert who led the Consultative Committee, Amin Mahfoudh, vehemently criticized Saied’s constitution as representing a shocking departure from the draft they appeared to have jointly prepared. The two men’s criticism of Saied’s constitution focused especially on its dictatorial aspects and on Article 5, which Belaid publicly decried as so religiously conservative in reformulating Tunisian religion-state relations that it resembles the constitution of Iran.
For members of the Consultative Committee, as Toubel elaborates, these developments felt bewildering and even shocking. Having never seen Belaid’s draft or interfaced with Saied about his proposed constitution’s contents, the release of both documents came as a surprise.
Despite the rushed, haphazard, and non-inclusive nature of this process, Saied rammed through his new constitution in an unconstitutional and highly problematic manner. On July 25, 2022, exhausted and economically aggrieved Tunisians were called to the polls to vote in a simple yes-no plebiscite on whether to replace the 2014 Constitution with Saied’s new document. Officially, nearly 70% ignored or actively boycotted his call. According to the official figures from Tunisia’s partisan elections management body, which Saied took over via presidential decree in April 2022, Saied’s constitution won a landslide of 94.6% amidst an abnormally, and possibly illegitimately, low total turnout of just 30.5 percent. The vote was marred by administrative irregularities, gross mismanagement, and the absence of free and fair competition and was itself the product of an unconstitutional presidential coup. Since shutting Tunisia’s democratically elected parliament with army tanks and seizing all three branches of power on July 25, 2021, Saied has ruled via personal fiat. Polling has consistently shown that, though broad swathes of Tunisians supported Saeid’s takeover in its early days, the population never clamored for an upending of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, but rather for a government that would meet its bread-and-butter needs amidst increasing economic desperation.
Throughout my fieldwork in Tunisia this summer, I have been shocked by the extent of opacity, disorganization, and exclusion in this process. By contrast, the democratically elected Constituent Assembly created Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution through a painstaking, inclusive debate over two years (2012-2014), involving thousands of interactions within and between local and national political parties and civil society organizations—many of which were scrutinized under the watchful eye of media and civil society monitors perched in the upper gallery above the assembly chamber. That inclusive, consultative process led in part to Tunisia’s recognition in the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
By contrast, the National Consultative Committee—a body ostensibly led by Sadok Belaid with assistance from the head of the Tunisian Bar Association, Brahim Bouderbala—was a highly secretive, non-transparent grouping whose membership itself remains unclear. Whilst Toubel repeatedly stated throughout this interview that a total of 42 “personalities,” including individuals and associations, participated on the committee, no local or international media outlet has managed to verify that claim.
Complicating matters further, Kais Saied appointed certain members of the committee without first consulting them or obtaining their consent. Some of these arbitrarily appointed persons and entities, including the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and a former president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), refused to participate. Other groups, like the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH) said they wanted to withdraw from the committee after experiencing division inside it. These jumbled dynamics made it more challenging to determine the total number of persons invited to or participating in the Consultative Committee itself.
This interview constitutes the first long-form, on-the-record discussion with a member of the Consultative Committee. It, therefore, represents a unique window into the secretive and non-inclusive deliberations that underpinned Tunisia’s July 25, 2022 referendum. The process through which the Consultative Committee worked has been almost entirely inaccessible to Tunisians themselves, let alone scholars concerned with documenting its history.
The interview also offers important insights into arguments commonly used by Saied’s supporters, particularly secularly-oriented supporters who ground their defense of Saied in opposition to the center-right Ennahda party. Despite all the challenges she enumerates, Toubel voted “yes” in last month’s referendum, hopeful—like many other Tunisians—that Saied might yet become the man who delivers on Tunisians’ revolutionary dreams deferred.
This interview was conducted by Monica Marks on 31 July 2022 at the Concorde Hotel in Tunis in a mixture of Arabic, French and English.
Monica Marks (MM): How did you find yourself on the National Consultative Committee to draft a new constitution for Tunisia?
Leila Toubel (LT): Firstly, I want to clarify that I have no political background whatsoever. I’m an independent artist, who has held no membership in or official connection to any political party, non-governmental organization, or civil society organization. My fight is for freedom of expression. I’ve been fighting that fight since [the] December 2010 [Arab Spring protests]. I’m totally independent of any political party.
Forty-two national personalities [and groups] were invited to the National Consultative Committee for Drafting the [New Tunisian] Constitution. These included economists, UTICA [the Tunisian employers’ union], the National Union of Women, and some political parties. I was one of the individual personalities invited. I didn’t go there representing theater workers or women. I simply participated as an individual with opinions. I went there to speak about the Tunisia we had been dreaming about since 2010 and 2011.
I received the initial invitation from Brahim Bouderbala [president of the Tunisian Bar Association and an assistant leader in the Consultative Committee], who first contacted me sometime in May. I had been friends with Sadok Belaid, who headed the Consultative Committee. Sadok suggested my name to Brahim and asked him to invite me.
MM: Which of the committee’s constituent parts (legal, socio-economic, or national dialogue sections) were you part of?
LT: Let me first correct your information, because your question assumed there was some sort of “national dialogue” happening. There wasn’t. There was actually no national dialogue whatsoever going on—zero. It was nothing like [the National Dialogue of] 2013-2014. This is a very important point that needs to be clarified.
It’s false to call any part of this consultation a “national dialogue.” Kais Saied wanted no discussion, no dialogue. He just wanted a small committee to write a draft of a new constitution for the republic and provide a consultative role. So there was no national dialogue, either in theory or in practice.
This helps explain why the UGTT [Tunisian General Labor Union] did not accept [Saied’s invitation] to participate. They did not participate because they wanted to have a decisive role, not a consultative role. The committee operated in an explosive political context, and everything was very delicate. In such a context, and within a consultative mandate, UGTT could not have had a big role in deciding or writing a draft.
MM: I’d like to thank you for speaking so candidly. Does it take courage to speak up like this? Are you afraid to talk critically about the Consultation Committee?
LT: I wasn’t afraid when Ennahda ruled the country in 2012 and 2013. There were real threats at that time. There were jihadists going to Syria. Two MPs [members of parliament, i.e. members of the Constituent Assembly] were assassinated, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. I wasn’t afraid then when the situation was much more dangerous, so I can’t be afraid now. I always knew that Tunisians need to know the truth. I had to share this knowledge with them, then they can do with it whatever they want.
Today, the Tunisian people have the right to choose their [constitution.] I also want to stress the arrogance and injustice against the Tunisian people—who have the total and unconditional right to choose whatever they want and whomever they like to lead their country—of the statements that the US State Department, and more specifically the declarations made by the new US Ambassador to Tunisia [Joey Hood] [in his Senate confirmation hearing] this week. These statements are insulting. I and other Tunisians see these statements as arrogant.
The IMF [International Monetary Fund] and EU [European Union] are using the crisis that Tunisia has lived through for eleven years, even before the revolution, just to advantage themselves.
Tunisians witnessed everything. They saw martyrs die in the streets [during the revolution]. In December 2010 the French Foreign Minister said that France would lend Ben Ali military forces to fight against these Tunisian demonstrations.
Foreign powers sat by and just watched 5,000 Tunisians go to Syria [in 2012-2015] and [they just watched the] political assassinations [in 2013]. But the financial help that they have given to Tunisia since 2011 has only been sent into the Islamists’ bank accounts and was used to help them go fight in Syria. They saw all this, they did not do anything. They did not talk about it, they did not comment about it. Why were the foreign powers so silent about those things? Where have you been for 11 years? Why were you all silent?
I’d also like to add that there’s been a huge campaign against me since I accepted the invitation of Sadok Belaid to participate in the consultative committee.
MM: Have your attackers been opponents or supporters of Kais Saied?
LT: Opponents of Saied, of course!
MM: Why did they attack you? Were they claiming that the Consultative Committee helped install a new dictatorship in Tunisia?
LT: The people who are talking about dictatorship now are wrong. Just give me proof—one piece of proof—that a new dictatorship is coming in Tunisia. Those saying that dictatorship is coming back in Tunisia aren’t speaking to Tunisians—they’re speaking to outside powers.
MM: Are you referring to Tunisian critics or foreign critics?
LT: Both. The Tunisians who talk about a dictatorship coming back aren’t talking to Tunisians. They’re talking to foreign powers. None of these critics are speaking with Tunisians.
MM: Did you participate in preparing the Belaid draft?
LT: Yes. I actually did a lot of work to help prepare it, much more than they [Belaid and Bouderbala] asked of me. I even asked some of my friends, including revolutionary figures, for their views. I actually contacted them and asked them for their opinions. They sent me their suggestions. I then forwarded their emails, which contained their views, to Belaid and Bouderbala. So I felt that I did my part to get their voices heard.
MM: What kinds of revolutionary figures did you reach out to?
LT: Leftist activists living in France. They are friends of mine. For example, the activist Ghassen Maktoumi, the journalist Amel Bilhout, and professor Khaled Kchir.
I did as much as I could do working within a 72-hour time period. We only had a three-day window to give feedback on some of the suggestions we were talking about concerning freedoms.
My friends supported my participation on this committee. They wanted to make their voices heard. I’m the sort of person who will go and speak up even if I do not get support from my circles, but my friends pushed me forward. They encouraged me because they felt a real thirst to talk about this Tunisia that we had been dreaming of.
MM: When did the Consultation Committee start meeting, and how many times did it meet?
LT: I received the initial invitation to join the committee in May. We started meeting in May, and our last meeting was on June 18. We met a total of six times, and our meetings were in-person.
MM: So I imagine that, at some point during those six meetings, you saw the full draft that Belaid and other legal experts had prepared based on your feedback and the input from your friends?
LT: No, actually. This was the biggest problem with the Consultation Committee’s work. We did not receive any copy of the draft whatsoever. Belaid and Bouderbala said they were afraid of having the information leaked, and that they did not share any draft with us because they were concerned it might be published prematurely. So we never received, or even saw, any draft of the new constitution.
Kais Saied’s constitution was published on June 30 at 9:00 pm. We had no idea whether that copy was the same as what Sadok Belaid and Amin Mahfoudh had given to Saied. A few days after Saied released his constitution, Belaid published his own draft—that he had supposedly handed to Saied—in the Assabah newspaper. We [the Consultation Committee members] did not even know if that was the same as Saied’s constitution or not. We had nothing to compare Saied’s constitution with. Since we never received a copy of any draft, we did not know anything.
MM: That’s shocking.
LT: Yes it is. I stayed in bed sick for three days at home because of all this. It came as a giant shock to me.
Belaid and Mahfoudh actually shut off their phones after Saied released his constitution. They said Kais Saied had betrayed them. Then I made a post on a Facebook page saying that I myself felt betrayed. I gave my trust to Belaid and Mahfoudh. But both of these men were untrustworthy. Instead of communicating with us [members of the Consultative Committee], they simply shut their phones off and went to the media with what they claimed was their own draft.
They had all our email addresses, obviously. They should have sent us [the Consultative Committee members] their draft before taking it to the media! Or, at the very least, when Saied published his draft at 9 pm, they could have emailed us at 10 pm saying let’s meet or let’s at least discuss this. But they didn’t.
After he saw my post on Facebook, Amin Mahfoudh reached out to me to say that Kais Saied is proud of you and the other committee members for the work that you did, and that he’s praising you. I told him, in very clear terms, that I don’t want to be praised or thanked. I want to be respected because the people gave me their trust and I don’t care about anyone else except them. Since they gave me their trust, and I gave you my trust, you have to respect me. After that, I never contacted or saw any of them [the Consultative Committee leaders] again.
So all this really affected me. It was more than just an emotional shock for me, actually. I was truly sick in bed for three days.
MM: Do you feel betrayed by both Kais Saied and the two legal experts who did not share their draft, i.e. Sadok Belaid and Amin Mahfoudh? Or do you only feel betrayed by Belaid and Mahfoudh?
LT: When I wrote that post on Facebook, I was talking about Belaid and Mahfoudh, because they’re the ones with whom I was in direct contact. I had no direct contact with Kais Saied at all. I was invited onto the Consultative Committee by Sadok Belaid, whom I actually voted for when he was a candidate in the Constituent Assembly elections back in 2011.
We have no direct proof of what Kais Saied’s constitution says vs. what Belaid and Mahfoudh’s constitution said. We have no trace of the truth. And I blame Belaid and Mahfoudh for that.
MM: Did you vote in the referendum last week [on Monday, July 25]?
LT: Yes, I did.
MM: And would you mind sharing how you voted? I know it’s a personal question, so if you’d rather not say I respect that.
LT: I voted “yes.”
MM: Some people might find that surprising, given all the problems you just discussed. After all these problems on the Consultative Committee, how were you able to vote “yes?”
LT: My “yes” vote represented a “yes” to correct and reform the true revolutionary path.
In this country, many people had started wishing that [former dictator] [Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali could come back, even despite all the hardships they had experienced under Ben Ali when he was alive. In this country, 23,000 people died of Covid because the government was so preoccupied fighting Ennahda, which was busy trying to get money to give its members to compensate them for everything they had experienced [under Ben Ali’s dictatorship]. In this country, documents are being stolen from courts in [connection to the Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi] assassination cases.
So I supported someone who is at least known for having clean hands. Kais Saied is from this country, he belongs to this country. He is the real mileh al-watan—salt of the nation. For eleven years he has been going around Tunisia explaining his ideas. He is not a mafia person like the ones who are surrounding us.
I believed Kais Saied because he is like the people. He represents their will. I’ve worked with people who are working with him. They are my friends, I know them [the people surrounding KS], and I know they share with him a left-wing philosophy on life—a philosophy that stresses the importance of having direct contact with the citizens.
This constitution is better than the constitution of 2014. Even Article 5 [of Kais Saied’s new constitution] is not a problem. The 2014 constitution was more dangerous.
MM: As an anti-Islamist woman in theater, who cares deeply about freedom of speech and women’s rights, why doesn’t Article 5 frighten you? It calls Tunisia part of the “umma Islamiyya” [Islamic umma] and gives the state total power to interpret Islam for citizens. Sadok Belaid even went so far as to compare it to provisions in the Iranian constitution. As a feminist, I’m honestly a bit scared of Article 5!
LT: It is legitimate to have fear. But the Taliban and Iran actually did not have any constitution that allowed them to do the things they did. ISIS did not have a constitution, and that did not prevent it from forcing women to wear the niqab. So constitutions do not prevent abuses of women’s rights. Look at the situation of American women right now—they are being banned from getting abortions, despite what their constitution said!
Honestly speaking, those who are against this constitution are really just against Kais Saied’s plan.
Besides, the 2014 Constitution calls Tunisia a state that has Islam as its religion. Even [former president of Tunisia] [Habib] Bourguiba couldn’t remove that [formulation of religion-state relations], but Kais Saied did! The 2014 Constitution also contains the word “ umma” [nation] and the phrase “maqasid al-Islam” [higher purposes of Islam]. The phrase “adeb al-‘ama” [public morals] is also in the 2014 Constitution.
So all of this shows that the people who are criticizing this constitution are against Kais Saied’s project. They’re not against this constitution itself. By opposing Kais Saied’s project, these critics are opposing the bonheur [well-being] of the Tunisian people.
And let Sadok Belaid say whatever he wants, because like it or not we [the Tunisian people] were a Muslim community before Ennahda ever came. We had our own Islam. We had religious people in our families. But Ennahda came and wanted to impose [their version of] Islam.
MM: Did you ever ask yourself, “Why am I on this committee? I’m an artist, not a legal or constitutional expert?”
LT: No. I always said that my career focus isn’t relevant because I’m organically connected to all the experiences this country has been going through. Our job [on this Consultation Committee] was not to write this constitution. Our job was to give an image of and build a vision for the Tunisia we had been dreaming about and hoping for.
And I’m a person who writes about hope every day. It’s as if I own a little hanout al-amel [hope shop] that serves the people. During the day, I sell hope, and at night I sell dreams. My community calls me sultanat al-amel [the sultan of hope].
I would never put myself in a place where I don’t feel comfortable. I’m in direct connection with my country, I’m engaged in everything my country is experiencing. I have done theater. I put myself in places where I feel I am defending justice. If only one human being feels injustice I would go defend them. That’s something I love doing.
MM: Some Tunisians will ask, “How does this new constitution represent the Tunisian people, given that the committee [charged with drafting it] itself was not represented [in the drafting process].” What would you say to them?
LT: In my personal opinion, 42 personalities cannot possibly represent everyone. But more importantly, this constitution came as a response to a demand from the public, from the Tunisian people, when they came out onto the streets on July 25, 2021, and even before that, when they came onto the streets in the summer of 2013 and in December 2010. [On all these occasions] the people were announcing they wanted to end the previous regime. The people were expressing total hatred against the elites ruling from the castle. They wanted those elites to get out of the country and stop ruling it. They were vomiting out the elites, rejecting them.
This constitution came as a response to that. It gets its legitimacy from that marhala thawriya [revolutionary stage] and from the accumulation of eleven years of all the bad things that had been going on.
So it’s important to understand that we can’t just stop here.
 Toubel repeatedly said that the body’s official title was “ al-Lajna al-Wataniya al-Isteshriya li-Kitabat al-Destour ,” or “National Consultative Committee for Drafting the Constitution.” Amnesty International and others have reported the body’s official title as the National Consultative Body, or National Consultative Committee, for the New Republic. This slight confusion over the exact title of the committee itself likely reflects the abrupt pace at which it was organized and the absence of clear communication concerning its work.
 Saied set no minimum turnout threshold for Tunisia’s referendum on his new constitution—a striking departure from global standards for nationally binding referenda, and for constitutional referenda in particular. Some countries have pegged the lowest possible threshold needed to achieve a legitimating result in a constitutional referendum at 40% turnout, though scholars more frequently argue that clear majorities, or even supermajorities of turnout, should be the standard. According to Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Ph.D. student at Syracuse Unversity, Tunisia’s July 25, 2022 referendum received the second-lowest turnout of any constitutional referendum in history after Algeria’s 2020 constitutional referendum.
 A shorter interview with the Consultative Committee’s leader, Sadok Belaid, conducted by French journalist Frédéric Bobin appeared in Le Monde on July 3.
 On July 27, 2022 incoming US Ambassador to Tunisia Joey Hood testified at his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing. In his remarks, Hood criticized Saied’s leadership for having eroded democratic norms and fundamental freedoms in Tunisia, and stated that the United States will support efforts to normalize relations with Israel in the Arab world. These comments were criticized as offensive and interventionist by Kais Saied and his supporters.
 Michele Alliot-Marie, who was France’s Foreign Minister when the protests that led to Tunisia’s revolution began in December 2010, resigned in February 2011 over her contacts with the former Tunisian regime. She was heavily criticized for having initially offered the Ben Ali regime French help to quell the protests.
 According to the Soufan Center, which tracks global jihadist violence, nearly 3,000 Tunisians—not 5,000—went to fight in Syria.
 These are unverified claims. Despite the widespread prevalence in Tunisia of rumors to this effect, there is no substantiated evidence that the so-called Islamist Ennahda Party, to which Toubel is referring, channeled funds to Tunisian jihadists who fought in Syria. Moreover, numerous foreign powers expressed concern about jihadist recruitment in Tunisia during the period to which Toubel refers.
 Over 20,000 Tunisians had indeed died of Covid by the beginning of August 2021. The Covid crisis peaked in Tunisia at precisely the moment Kais Saied seized power, and certainly contributed to the public outrage against the government that Saied capitalized on to justify his coup. In fact, Tunisia’s Covid mortality rate by early August 2021 had, according to Euronews, become the worst recorded mortality rate of any country on the planet. However, evidence to substantiate Toubel’s claim that Ennahda exacerbated the crisis by allegedly seeking reparations for its members, many of whom experienced torture and were blacklisted from employment under Ben Ali, does not exist.
 These are unverified claims. Evidence does not suggest that Tunisia’s Covid deaths happened because the governments of 2020-21 were distracted by Ennahda’s alleged efforts to seek reparations for their members. And, while the Committee for the Defense of Chokri Belaid, of which Leila Toubel is a member, has claimed that Ennahda deliberately engineered the stealing or burial of court documents related to those investigations, verified evidence of these allegations has not been proven.
 Iran has a written constitution. The Taliban had a constitutional draft that was never ratified.
 ISIS had a constitution published in 2014, around the time it launched its Caliphate State, and published a “contract” articulating legal duties and rights of the population it sought to govern in 2016. These “rights” ranged from extremely limited to entirely nonexistent, as the scholar Mara Revkin’s research has shown.