Dispatch

The Clock Is Ticking for Tunisia’s Saied

Most Tunisians still support the president, but time is limited.

By , a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.
Protesters hold Arabic signs and wave Tunisia's flag during a demonstration.
Demonstrators protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied's recent steps to tighten his grip on power in Tunis on Sept. 26. Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

TUNIS, Tunisia—He didn’t want to give his name. Surrounded by the thousands of other protesters who had turned out on Sunday to demonstrate against Tunisian President Kais Saied’s July power grab, the young man made his position clear: “I’m here to defend the freedom. I’m here to defend Tunisia and to say no to the president and all the shit he’s doing,” he said, his voice hoarse from shouting. “He doesn’t have the right to decide on behalf of 12 million people. He has to stop what he’s doing and respect his people.”

Whatever the president is doing, he will need to do it quickly. Otherwise, with Tunisians denied jobs, economic progress, or a sense of what the future might hold, the popular storm he summoned on July 25 risks engulfing him.

In the two months since Saied dissolved parliament, fired the prime minister, and gave himself full executive authority, debate has raged over the political future of the country. Meanwhile, jobs and the economy, the principal causes of the protests and demonstrations that have racked Tunisia in recent years, have lain ignored.

TUNIS, Tunisia—He didn’t want to give his name. Surrounded by the thousands of other protesters who had turned out on Sunday to demonstrate against Tunisian President Kais Saied’s July power grab, the young man made his position clear: “I’m here to defend the freedom. I’m here to defend Tunisia and to say no to the president and all the shit he’s doing,” he said, his voice hoarse from shouting. “He doesn’t have the right to decide on behalf of 12 million people. He has to stop what he’s doing and respect his people.”

Whatever the president is doing, he will need to do it quickly. Otherwise, with Tunisians denied jobs, economic progress, or a sense of what the future might hold, the popular storm he summoned on July 25 risks engulfing him.

In the two months since Saied dissolved parliament, fired the prime minister, and gave himself full executive authority, debate has raged over the political future of the country. Meanwhile, jobs and the economy, the principal causes of the protests and demonstrations that have racked Tunisia in recent years, have lain ignored.

Thirty-year-old Yassine Khazia is a case in point. On Monday, one day after the protest, he sat behind a makeshift stall on the side of Avenue de Paris near the Tunis Centre neighborhood, selling phone chargers and other electrical items. Under his table lay a bottle of paraffin, to be used to threaten to set himself on fire if the police attempted to confiscate his goods or force him to move his stall.

Asked if he preferred the president or Sunday’s demonstrators, he sighed. “I honestly don’t care, but if I had to choose, I’d choose the president. The politicians have robbed the country for 10 years,” he told a translator. “There’s nothing good in this country,” he added, saying his only wish was to leave.

Trapped between an ineffective parliament and an increasingly autocratic president, Tunisia faces a bleak set of choices. On Sept. 22, Saied issued decree 117, confirming that the parliament he had suspended would remain shuttered indefinitely. At the same time, he reserved for himself the right to rule by decree, with the body charged with checking the constitutionality of any edict abolished.

He also, after months of speculation, finally appointed a new prime minister, Najla Bouden Romdhane, and tasked her with forming a government. Romdhane, a 63-year-old professor at the National Engineering School of Tunis, will be the first woman to ever serve as prime minister in Tunisia. However, it’s not yet clear how much influence any government might have over the headstrong president.

Human rights groups remain concerned. “This authoritarian drift paves the way for a likely backsliding on human rights and freedoms in the country,” Amna Guellali of Amnesty International told me. “Despite the president’s promise to respect human rights, the lack of checks and balances inherently weakens the protection. There are already many signs of regression, such as the arbitrary travel bans, the house arrests, [and] military prosecutions before civilian courts.”

Nevertheless, despite the draconian nature of his power grab, Saied’s support remains high, if recent polls are accurate (and there are legitimate reasons to question their accuracy). Across the country, the military presence remains low-key, and Tunisians are free to go about their daily business, with even demonstrations, such as the one on Sunday, allowed to go ahead. Critically, the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw Tunisia’s hospitals overwhelmed and the country record the highest per-capita death rate in the region, has—for now—receded.

It’s understandable why many Tunisians might support Saied’s dissolution of parliament. Ten years after the revolution, the hopeful calls for “employment, freedom, dignity” remain largely unanswered by a parliament perceived to have lost interest in the country it was elected to govern.

Before the revolution, in 2010, unemployment ran at around 13 percent. It currently stands at nearly 18 percent. Youth unemployment, a long-standing driver of unrest, has increased from 29.5 percent in 2010 to 41.7 percent today. The global pandemic has only made things worse, shining an unforgiving light on state institutions, such as hospitals, that had been allowed to rot and fester.

Among the public, the cause for their current circumstances is clear, and it sits behind the barricaded walls of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People in Tunis.

But if jobs and the economy are on Saied’s agenda, they’re in very small print. Saied has thus far overlooked warnings from the G-7, European Union, and United States to restore democratic order, which risks jeopardizing current aid levels. Critically, negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to secure a $4 billion loan remain stalled. The president’s economic focus, beyond condemnations of speculators and, for a time, arbitrarily barring several business leaders from leaving the country, has been entirely subservient to his political project.

In the short term, at least, time is on Saied’s side. “Right now, the weather’s warm and people are enjoying the respite from COVID, allied to the hope of a fresh start,” Youssef Cherif, the head of the Columbia Global Centers-Tunis, said. “However, that optimism’s going to decrease as the economy begins to bite. By November, December, it’ll be cold, things will be worse, and parts of the public risk turning against the president.”

According to Cherif, Tunisia’s best hope now lies in dialogue among the country’s powerful civil society groups, unions, and the presidency. However, with the formation of a new government potentially stretching to months, establishing any common forum for debate might not happen anytime soon.

For now, Saied sits sphinx-like in his palace in ancient Carthage, acutely aware of the legacies of autocrats past and no doubt mulling the risks faced by those still to come. All the while, the clock ticks.

Simon Speakman Cordall is a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.

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