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Tunisia’s President Holds Forth on Freedoms After Seizing Power

Tunisia’s President Holds Forth on Freedoms After Seizing Power
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Tunisia’s President Holds Forth on Freedoms After Seizing Power

Tunisia’s President Holds Forth on Freedoms After Seizing Power

TUNIS – The man critics warned could become Tunisia’s next dictator and look me in the eye and chant: “Welcome to Tunisia, where freedom of expression is protected without any interference in personal freedoms.”

We were in a formal courtroom in the presidential palace in Tunis around noon Friday, all crystal sconces and chairs with gold edges. I had been summoned to it by President Kais Saied who, five days earlier, had sacked the Prime Minister, suspended Parliament and taken control of the country where, 10 years ago, revolts against the authoritarian regime had broken out. we called the Arab Spring.

“Why do you think that at 67 I would start a career as a dictator? », Declared the president, quoting Charles de Gaulle, the French leader who restored democracy after the Nazi occupation of France. He promised he would not deprive hard-won freedoms in Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the Arab uprisings.

“So there is no fear of losing freedom of expression,” the 63-year-old president promised, “and no fear of people’s right to protest.”

Except that he had banned public gatherings of more than three people, and that the security forces had closed the local office of the pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera.

In the streets of Tunis, however, I found little appetite to protest. There was almost no fear as to the fate of Tunisian democracy; I walked around feeling his lack like a phantom limb.

Tunis continued calmly: shoppers in the streets, translucent sunbathing on the beaches – only a few taxi radios were listening to the news. People seemed to just wait and see what the man they entrusted to their country would do to fix it. It had to be asked whether democracy as seen by the West was what many of them wanted in the first place, or simply to live better, with dignity and more freedoms.

Tunisia was supposed to be the last great hope of the Arab Spring. The fact that his democracy survived even as the rest fell into civil war or counter-revolution inspired people across the region and many in the West.

But a decade of stubborn unemployment, growing poverty, metastatic corruption and political stalemate – and now the pandemic – has shattered confidence in government. This month, Tunisians once again took to the streets to demand change, giving Saied his openness to seize power.

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I had spent several days in the capital when suddenly I got the call to go with two other New York Times reporters to see the president. I thought this might be my chance to have an interview. It turned out that we had been invited for a conference.

The president is a former law professor, and his voice was so resounding and his speech so impeccable that I could immediately imagine him in his old amphitheater. Its formal Arabic echoed across the marble floors as if the room had been built to its acoustic specifications.

At one point, he picked up a wad of papers from a small marble and gold table to his right. It was a printout of the Constitution of the United States, the dignity of which was somewhat diminished by the fact that it was held down by a paper clip.

He had highlighted part of it in yellow, which he now read in French: “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…. “He had studied and taught the document for over three decades,” he said. He respected him. It was a “great” constitution. Just as American leaders like Abraham Lincoln had to take extreme measures to preserve the system, he said, so must he.

When a colleague of mine started translating for me, he was ordered to stop. It was all filmed by a government film crew, and we realized that a video of the entire episode would be posted on the president’s official Facebook page, which is perhaps why it was important that we, the public, keep silent.

“This is not a press interview,” he said when we started asking questions, although he promised to organize a follow-up.

I had taken the earliest possible flight to Tunis from Cairo, where I am based, after the president announced his takeover on television on Sunday evening. I expected to land in the midst of mass unrest.

At that point, the protests would have been difficult to organize: soldiers had blocked parliament and a presidential decree had banned gatherings of more than three people. Yet few seemed inclined to protest.

Almost all of the Tunisians I spoke to seemed satisfied, if not delighted, with what Mr. Saied had done, which is a testament to their fed up.

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“What, a young Tunisian asked me, has democracy done for us?

This is the ballot box that initially brought Mr. Saied to power in 2019. He seemed an unlikely populist, especially among young voters who boosted his campaign on Facebook. Nicknamed “Robocop” for his habit of declaiming in strictly formal Arabic, usually on constitutional matters, he looked even older than he was.

But he was a stranger to the despised political elite. He had lived in the same poor neighborhood for years. He had his coffee in the same dingy cafes as his neighbors.

He was elected in a landslide.

All week, we have tried to analyze the movements of Mr. Saied for the portents of the future of Tunisia.

On Friday, an outspoken pro-revolutionary MP and frequent critic of the military was arrested. Then came a presidential decree saying emergency measures could be extended beyond the 30 days Mr. Saied had originally announced.

On the other hand, he was still involved in civil-sounding talks with unions and other major political actors.

On Wednesday, my two colleagues and I accidentally made history when the police came to pick us up while we were reporting in Tunis. They detained us at the local station while they checked our passports and questioned a colleague of mine. After two hours they let us go with a warning to stop reporting in the neighborhood.

We had no official accreditation, there was no longer a Prime Minister’s office to issue the papers. Yet local journalists were shocked by our experiences. Across the region, journalists are closely watched, blocked in grassroots reporting and sometimes arrested. But not in Tunisia after the Arab Spring, these journalists said. Tunisia was supposed to be different.

Although we requested an interview with the president earlier in the week, it was only after Twitter and local political circles lit up with news of what was called our “arrest” that the head of the Mr. Saied protocol called me on Friday morning. Could we be at the palace in exactly an hour, dressed appropriately?

So we ended up in an ornate anteroom on Friday afternoon, receiving instructions on where to stand, where to sit and when to sit once in the presence of the President. Before entering, I overheard the chief of protocol glancing at my sandals. He asked me for a pair of borrowed too big and closed heels for me to put on.

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Once seated, I crossed my legs on the golden chair, on which I dared not sit with a less than perfect posture. The chief of protocol stood up and waved his arms from the corner behind the president. Uncross your legs, I understood he was telling me.

Mr Saied, oblivious to the leg drama, said that the “difficulties” we, the media, had faced were not intentional. They happened, he said, because “some intend to make the presidency look bad.”

But he was more determined to argue that his actions last Sunday night were constitutional. He said everything had been done in accordance with article 80 of the Tunisian constitution of 2014, which grants exceptional powers to the president in the event of “imminent danger” to the country.

Critics, constitutionalists and political opponents have questioned whether Mr Saied has violated article 80, but without the constitutional court that Tunisia is supposed to establish but never has, there is no one to settle the dispute. .

Mr Saied, who declared himself attorney general, “would respect all legal procedures,” he said, but warned that he would not let anyone “plunder the Tunisian people” – a statement that he had the intention to bring in corrupt politicians. to estimate. Official corruption was one of the reasons he cited for seizing power.

And he made a quick reference to the internal problems of the United States.

“Perhaps you have seen from Washington,” he said, “how the blood was shed,” obliquely comparing the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill with “thieves” in the Tunisian Parliament who had “tampered with »Tunisian institutions and rights.

The ironies were more than obvious: a journalist from a country where democracy is under strain flies off to report on a threat against democracy in another country, only to be recalled by the same man. that could threaten the divide between American ideals and American reality.

On Friday evening, video of the meeting was posted on Mr. Saied’s Facebook page. He didn’t mention our detention or show us trying to ask questions; we were just props.

A colleague translated some of the comments for me. They almost all agreed.

“Teach them,” said one of them, “what freedom means”.

Massinissa Benlakehal contributed reporting from Tunis.

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