When Tunisians rose up against the dictatorship a decade ago, Hichem Jelassi joined other young protesters who burned tires and clashed with police in Tadamon’s poor district of Tunis, a focal point during the revolution.
Now forced to sell melons at a market stall after the coronavirus pandemic hit his livelihood in tourism, Jelassi, 30, said he had “no regrets” about the revolt – but he is happy of the recent seizure of power by Kais Saied, the populist president of whom the critics accuse make a coup d’etat in the only democracy of the Arab world.
“He did a very good thing,” Jelassi said. “I’m with Kais Saied and everyone else. Do you understand the meaning of poverty and marginalized youth? Feel our pain. ”
Tunisians have seen their standard of living fall since the 2011 revolution, which sparked uprisings in the Arab world. Several coalition governments have already struggled to manage the economy and the country has been devastated by the pandemic, with the government heavily criticized for its response.
Last week Saied provoked a political crisis when he ousted the prime minister and suspended parliament for 30 days. The president also regained the powers of the state prosecutor and announced a crackdown on corruption.
Opponents, including the moderate Islamist Nahda, the country’s largest party, have accused Saied of reporting the rule of a man. But many Tunisians consider him a savior who freed them from a jagged barrage of inept and corrupt politicians. More than 84 per cent of those interviewed by local pollster Emrhod said they approved of the president’s moves.
Tunisia’s democratic transition, widely seen as the only success story to emerge from the Arab insurgency, has been experienced by many of its 12m people as a nightmare of failed governance and deepening the misery.
“We do not fear the loss of freedom and democracy,” said Aliaa Qaliee, at her small confectionery in Tadamon. “It’s not freedom but exploitation when politicians rob us and ruin our lives. Maybe it’s Ben Ali. [the dictator ousted in 2011] it had been, we would not have reached this state. “
The Tunisian economy fell 8.8 percent last year under the impact of the coronavirus. Prior to the pandemic, annual growth since 2011 averaged 1.8 percent. The political revolution, revolving door governments – 10 in the last decade – and terrorist attacks targeting tourism in 2015 and 2016 have all taken their toll.
Weak coalitions backed by parties with conflicting priorities have been unable to push through reforms or conclude a crucial loan agreement with the IMF. Protests often stem from high unemployment and prices, and there are widespread perceptions of corruption.
To the advantage, elections were held regularly and the results reflected the will of the voters. Saied’s surprise move in 2019, despite being a political foreigner with no campaign funds, government position or party machine, would have been unthinkable elsewhere in the region. The country has a vibrant civil society and freedom of expression. All this could be in danger, some fear.
For now, the intentions of the usurer, a 63-year-old former constitutional law professor, remain a mystery. It is unclear whether he will reinstate parliament or instead deepen the rift by imprisoning parliamentarians accused of corruption.
“I can see a scenario where even if we don’t end up with complete autocracy, as in Egypt, it will no longer be possible to call Tunisia democracy,” said Monica Marks, an expert on Tunisia at New York University in Abu Dhabi.
The upcoming elections won by the former constitutional law professor, a foreign politician, should warn established politicians, analysts say.
Lotfi Zeitoun, a former Nahda official who broke it in 2019, has criticized politicians for not approaching the millions of people who regularly avoid elections. “There are … unemployed young people, but neither Nahda nor the other parties have been able to find solutions for them,” he said. “If they had, they would have broadened their base [and strengthened democracy]. “
Nahda has seen his vote drop from 1.5 million in 2011 to 500,000 in 2019. Much of the road rage has been earmarked for the party, whose offices were attacked last week. Nahda officials claim that they have not been in power alone or all the time, but many dispute that the party has had the most influence.
“Political parties have just focused on their struggles and letting go of the interests of the people, who are now really tired,” said Jamal, a local council official in Tadamon. “Saied acts for the people.”
A compromise in 2013 between Nahda and the former factions of the regime prevented a descent into civil conflict at the time. But, Zeitoun said, the subsequent policy of “consensus” advocated by Nahda and his new partners to avoid conflict between them provided cover for “the emergence of nepotism and corruption lobbies”.
Mouheb Garoui, founder of I Watch, an anti-corruption civil society group, said: “Hundreds of corruption cases are on the desks of judges, but most are pending because the judiciary is part of the political game. .People read the reports published by state agencies and civil society and know where the corruption is, but they see no action. ”
Nahda backed a reconciliation law in 2015 that gave an amnesty to officials involved in corruption under the previous regime.
“They brought people who were suffocating Tunisians and reconciled with them and let them rule the country,” said Mahmoud, owner of a clothing store.
While Tunisians await his next move, Saied has been adamant that he is not a dictator and has acted to save the country.
“For now most people are with him, but they have to be careful about what they want,” Garoui said. “We’re asking for a clear way forward and control over their decisions.”