Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, a Tunisian political activist, was in a cafe in the capital Tunis when two men got out of his car and charged, threatening him and his family.
“They say we know where you live and where your kids go to school,” said Ben Mbarek. “This is the first time someone has threatened me on the street like this. Usually it just happens on social media.”
Ben Mbarek, a left-wing law professor, is vocal against Kais Saied, the populist president who suspended parliament in July and said he would rule by decree, in a public coup wide support.
Saied remains popular but the president’s divisive words have created an atmosphere of intimidation, his critics say. Ben Mbarek said: “He accused protesters of treason and compared those who called for protests to those who deserved to be stoned.
Until Saied’s coup, Tunisia was seen as the only example of a successful democratic transition among Arab states that stood up to the dictatorship in 2011. Tunisians, tired Tired of years of political turmoil under the revolving door of weak coalition governments, he overwhelmingly supports him, polls show. But critics fear he is leading the country into uncharted territory and a return to dictatorship.
Fadhel Abdel Kefi, former investment minister and head of Afek Tounes, a liberal political party, said: “His decrees cannot be appealed and he has declared no time limit. for its exceptional measures.
“We welcome his measures in advance as a necessary shock, and we await his next step. But no matter how common, upright, or capable a person is, he cannot assume all authority.”
Unlike traditional Arab power dictators, who often come from the military, Saied is a former professor of austere constitutional law. As a nonpartisan outsider, he has made it clear that he distrusts political parties and has vague plans for a radical redesign of the political system. According to him, his mission is to clean up corruption.
“The president has restored hope to the Tunisian people,” said Faouzi Daas, a 37-year-old businessman who volunteered for Saied’s election campaign. “It couldn’t have been worse with his measures. The current situation is temporary. I know him well and he is not a dictator. What we had was an illusion of democracy. “
Saied, who won the presidential election in 2019, insists he is not autocratic. But nearly four months after the coup, he has yet to announce a timeline to restore constitutional order or launch dialogue with parties or the powerful Tunisian General Confederation of Labor, UGTT. Also absent is an economic plan to tackle a growing crisis caused by the coronavirus that has exacerbated poverty and added to the country’s debt pile. Instead, the president criticized politicians who accused them of corruption and left people guessing about his next move.
In the first weeks after his coup, a number of politicians and high-ranking officials were placed under house arrest or faced travel bans, although most of these measures have now been withdrawn. However, MPs criticized the president, who previously had congressional immunity, for reactivating corruption cases against them. Two TV stations close to the main parties were closed for operating without a license.
This month, Tunisia issued an international arrest warrant for Moncef Marzouki, a longtime opponent of the dictatorship and interim president of Tunisia after the 2011 revolution. Marzouki, who is in Paris, called on France to end its support for Saied’s government. He described the order as “a threatening message to all Tunisians”.
Rachid Ghannouchi, head of Nahda, the largest moderate Muslim party in the suspended parliament, said Tunisia was still in a “difficult” democratic transition and his party would fight the dictatorship. Nahda wants to have a dialogue about reform. “This is a counter-revolutionary moment,” said Ghannouchi, the speaker of parliament. “I firmly believe that the revolution is not over yet. . . and that is the current populist mood. . . will be defeated. ”
Nahda, a division of most governments since the revolution, has been the target of public anger. Many Tunisians blame that on the deteriorating economy and stalemate that defined parliament ahead of Saied’s coup. It remains the largest and most organized party in the country, but its unpopularity makes it difficult to lead to any action against the president. Saied has signaled that he will exclude it from any dialogue.
On Sunday, thousands of protesters rallied against Saied’s takeover of power near parliament in Tunis. The protesters briefly scuffled with police, who prevented them from going to the conference. Ben Mbarek, one of the protest organizers, complained that police also blocked roads into the capital to prevent protesters from outside the city.
Although Saied is gaining popularity these days, analysts say the honeymoon is likely to come to an end because it is unlikely to deliver the quick economic boost that Tunisians want. Economists say the country’s debt, which accounts for about 90% of gross domestic product, is unsustainable and the public sector wage bill should be capped. The people of Tunisia have seen their purchasing power plummet over the past decade due to the fall in the value of the dinar currency and an 8.2% drop in GDP in 2020 under the influence of the halo. The unemployment rate stood at 17.9% in the third quarter of 2021.
Political analyst Tarek Kahlaoui said: “According to the best-case scenario, Saied will become open to political elites and the UGTT when economic and social issues arise as things can get too overwhelming. chaotic. “This could lead to a new political system perhaps more presidential but with checks and balances.”
But he and others also mentioned the possibility of a more negative turn if anger about economic conditions flared up in the streets. Youssef Cherif, a political analyst who heads the Columbia Global Center in Tunis, said Saied would either have to “repress or negotiate”. In the worst case scenario, he added, the erosion of Saied’s popularity could lead to a coup against him from the military or the police.
“His biggest mistake was that he opened a Pandora’s box without calculating all the risks,” he said. “The danger is that his failure could mean that the worst system will emerge.”