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Resistance builds in Tunisia as populist leader seeks more power

A year after Tunisian President Kais Saied’s power grab upended the country’s fledgling democracy forged from the Arab Spring, opposition to him is growing as he prepares a constitutional referendum to solidify his one-man rule. File picture: Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP

A year after Tunisian President Kais Saied’s power grab upended the country’s fledgling democracy forged from the Arab Spring, opposition to him is growing as he prepares a constitutional referendum to solidify his one-man rule. File picture: Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP

Published Jun 28, 2022


Tunisia - A year after Tunisian President Kais Saied’s power grab upended the country’s fledgling democracy forged from the Arab Spring, opposition to him is growing as he prepares a constitutional referendum to solidify his one-man rule.

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On July 25, one year exactly after he moved to seize near-total power in what was once the poster child for democratisation in the Middle East, Saied will hold a referendum seeking to formalise his remaking of the country’s political institutions. The draft of the new constitution is expected to be unveiled on Wednesday.

The draft is expected to propose a system based on a strong president who would appoint the prime minister, according to Reuters. Saied has advocated a form of “democracy from below” that gives more power to the president and local government while weakening parliament and political parties. Critics say such a system would create conditions ripe for authoritarianism.

Saied’s announcement on July 25 last year that he was suspending parliament and firing the prime minister was met at the time with cheers on the streets and support from those who had become disillusioned with the country’s young democracy.

Many accused lawmakers in the north African country of failing to deliver on the economic and social improvements the people had demanded when they took to the streets in December 2010, toppling the dictatorship in early 2011 and setting off revolts across the region that became known as the Arab Spring.

In recent months, however, Saied’s increasingly autocratic approach has faced mounting opposition. On June 16, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT by its French acronym) held a general strike in response to planned negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a $4 billion loan in exchange for implementing unpopular austerity measures at a time when poor Tunisian families are already pinching pennies to put food on the table.

Hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers took part. Flights were cancelled, public transportation stopped functioning and government offices were closed.

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Union leaders took pains to portray the strike as driven by economic concerns, rather than opposition to the president. But it was widely interpreted as a show of force intended to convey that the union “remains a major player in town”, said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst focused on north Africa. “They are the only powerful opposition force to President Saied and the ones who can mobilise the street to say no.”

As the president has carried out his slow-burn rollback of Tunisia’s democratic gains, the UGTT - one of the four Tunisian civil society groups that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 - appears to be emerging as a bulwark against a return to authoritarianism.

After the Arab Spring uprisings, Tunisia overcame political turbulence and terrorist attacks to pass a new constitution in 2014 that established a mixed presidential and parliamentary system and enshrined civil liberties. In a region where leaders brook little dissent, the country of 12 million became a place of free speech and political contestation.

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The economy, which sparked the initial protests, however, never improved and unemployment remained high, with many Tunisians feeling that the political class - and democracy broadly - had not yielded a better quality of life. A youth-led protest movement last year decried the post-revolution elites as corrupt and inept and demanded that parliament be dissolved.

A particular focus of protest has been the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which has consistently won large numbers of seats in parliament and formed part of the ruling coalition but has been accused of failing to solve the country’s woes.

Ennahda leaders have acknowledged that Tunisians had legitimate grievances with governance over the previous decade, and that the party bore some responsibility. But they have repeatedly defended their commitment to democracy and called for a return to democratic institutions and processes.

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Saied, who was elected as an outsider in 2019, intensified his war against the political system in September with the announcement he would rule by decree.

“For us, it was the moment of a total rupture between Saied and civil society,” Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesman for the influential Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights, told The Washington Post. “That decree created a very authoritarian regime where the president manipulates all the powers.”

Saied has dismantled state institutions, dissolved parliament and threatened to ban organisations from receiving foreign funding - a prohibition that would “completely annihilate civil society, or at least the vocal civil society watchdogs”, said Lamine Benghazi, a programs co-ordinator with Lawyers Without Borders.

Rights groups have decried the arbitrary arrest and detention of Saied’s opponents, as well as the use of military courts to prosecute civilians. Most recently, former prime minister Hamadi Jebali was arrested last week on suspicion of money laundering, before a judge ordered his release Monday.

Tunisia fell 21 places, to 94th in the world, in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index this year, with the organisation warning that “intimidation of journalists has become normalised”.

The moves have sparked concern in the United States, which once applauded Tunisia’s political path. In May, Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the administration’s budget for next year proposed to lower aid to Tunisia because of the “disappointing turns by the current government, the crackdown on civil society, the move away from the rule of law and from democratic institutions”.

Saied has also gone after the judiciary, unilaterally shutting down an oversight body meant to ensure its independence in February and firing 57 judges in early June. Those dismissals prompted an ongoing, weeks-long judges’ strike.

Yassine Azaza, a human rights lawyer and adviser to the Ministry of Economic and Social Affairs, insisted in an interview with The Post this month that Tunisia is a democracy - because of Saied’s rule, not despite it. The previous governments were corrupt and undemocratic, he alleged, laying the problems at the feet of the Islamists, whom he accused, without evidence, of trying to “bring down the state”.

Public opinion on Saied’s actions is difficult to gauge. Thousands of people joined protests organised by rival political movements in Tunis, the capital, the weekend after the strike - a sign of both dissatisfaction with Saied and the fractured nature of the opposition. But polls continue to indicate that a majority of Tunisians support the president.

For much of the population, apathy appears to have set in, and other than the union’s general strike, there have been few mass protests against Saied or the government.

The union could help form a “civil front against the authoritarian drift that we are currently living through”, said Benghazi of Lawyers Without Borders. “There’s lots of hopes on the shoulders of the UGTT right now.”

Union head Noureddine Taboubi told reporters last week that the government doesn’t have the right to impose austerity measures and he has left open the option to call for a boycott of the constitutional referendum. The union on Monday also announced it would hold a second strike.

“When there is a government produced by institutions and elections, it will have the legitimacy to start negotiations over reforms,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse.

The Washington Post