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President Kais Saied’s increasingly authoritarian actions since his power grab on July 25, 2021, have international actors and analysts concerned that Tunisia has slipped back into autocracy, eleven years after deposing its last dictator.
In July 2021, Saied suspended parliament, sacked the prime minister and took control of the public prosecutor’s office. Some labeled it akin to a coup but Saied’s actions also enjoyed popular support. But that support is waning as an economic crisis builds steam and Saied tightens his crackdown on political opponents and dissidents.
“Tunisians are slowly coming around to understanding that this president is not fulfilling his duties according to the law and what he’s doing now is extralegal. It’s not something that is within the confines of the prerogatives of his office,” Wafa Ben Hassine, a Washington D.C. based human rights lawyer, told Fanack.
Critics point to Saied’s strongarm tactics of cracking down on critical speech. On December 23, Former President Moncef Marzouki was sentenced in absentia to four years in prison for accusing Saied of leading a coup. Saied’s also imprisoned members of parliament for speech offenses, arbitrarily used house arrest and travel bans on various former officials and lawmakers, according to Human Rights Watch and arrested journalists, allegedly for undermining state security.
Since 2011, the country’s leading political party in parliament has been the Islamist party Ennahda. Tasked with implementing democratic reforms, Ennahda’s critics have accused them of attempts to consolidate their own power while building links with ideological allies in the Turkish and Qatari regimes. Popular disenfranchisement paved the way for Saied’s actions. Even Tunisia’s powerful labor union, the UGTT, part of the quartet of groups awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, initially supported the suspension of parliament.
But as time wears on, popular support for Saied has slowly faded. The UGTT criticized Saied’s road map to exit the crisis earlier this month and reiterated its call for early elections. While 87 percent of Tunisians supported Saied’s actions in July, recent polls show that his popular support has dropped to 55 percent as of late December. Saied’s drop in support is largely down to the precarious economic situation, though corruption and the handling of the Covid 19 pandemic have also contributed to public dismay by wiping out the country’s tourism sector.
In October 2021, Saied appointed Najla Bouden Ramadhane Tunisia’s Prime Minister. While Bouden is the Arab world’s first woman prime minister, critics believe her appointment to be largely ceremonial considering the consolidation of powers accrued by Saied since July.
Saied has laid out a plan for Tunisians to give their feedback on issues related to the electoral process, the health care system, the economy and education through a series of online and in person consultations. These consultations will influence the new constitution set to be drafted by a commission that Saied appoints. But critics argue the process lacks transparency as Saied has failed to outline how the feedback will influence the constitution.
“There was a lack of transparency on the so-called roadmap, there was a lack of transparency around who would be leading the efforts on the road map and there was a lack of transparency about how he chose the Prime Minister to be the new head of government,” Ben Hassine said. “There’s a lack of transparency in every single thing he does.”
“I think it’s just a way to legitimize the decision they’re already going to make,” Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian political researcher and analyst, told the New York Times.
The lack of transparency isn’t the only problem. The economic and security situation in Tunisia could continue to deteriorate in the coming months. Wheat prices have substantially increased globally, meaning the government could struggle to continue subsidizing bread. Around 70 percent of the state’s budget goes to paying the country’s 700,000 public sector salaries. Unemployment is at 18 percent, five points higher than the 2010 figure that led to the protests that eventually unseated Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Meanwhile, various commentators and experts have criticized the European Union and the United States for failing to stand up for Tunisia’s young democracy. The European Union’s main concern seems to be Tunisia’s ability to stop migrants from setting sail for its borders. The EU didn’t send an envoy to Tunisia until September. By that time, representatives from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt – all authoritarian actors who support Saied’s actions – had all visited Tunis.
Saied may not currently have the financial backing that the Ben Ali regime enjoyed at its peak to maintain an iron fist over Tunisia, but his actions since last July have expressed a clear autocratic streak. His populist policies and road map for constitutional reform haven’t satisfied critics, including international rights groups, and unless the economic situation can be substantially improved, dissent against Saied’s leadership may spread into the streets.
Ben Hassine said the fragile economic situation could lead to widespread protests but there is little threat of citizens turning on each other. Even Islamists and non-Islamists are unlikely to turn their ire on each other. But Saied may extend his autocratic tendencies onto protesters, something other post revolution presidents have also done.
“The only violence I worry about is violence from the state,” Ben Hassine said. “The police in Tunisia are very highly trained because it was a police state for over 40 years.”
Saied will have to find solutions for this economic crisis if he wants to maintain popular support and keep a lid on protests – some of which have already begun in the streets of Tunis and other cities. And while Saied’s style of leadership might recall the ghost of the Ben Ali regime, Ben Hassine believes Tunisia has made important progress in the last eleven years of democratic rule.
“[Saied] has been ruling by decree since last July but I wouldn’t say that it’s game over at all,” Ben Hassine said. “Civil society is very strong in Tunisia and there’s always still a certain pride that Tunisians have in their revolution.”
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our bloggers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.