‘You Just Think About Eating’: Why Tunisians Backed a Presidential Power Grab
TEBOURBA, Tunisia – Aroussi Mejri, a 40-year-old waiter, is fortunate to have a regular job, even though he only earns around $ 7.20 a day. Yet although much has changed in Tunisia since he started working in cafes over a decade ago, wages have not changed.
Since 2011, his country has gone from an autocracy to the only democracy to emerge from the uprisings of the Arab Spring as it toppled its former dictator. But for him, the main difference is that it has become much more difficult to feed his children.
“From what we have seen so far, democracy has no value,” he said last week in his hometown Tebourba, about an hour’s drive from the capital Tunis. . “If someone like me got stuck in the same situation as before, why did we rebel?”
For many Tunisians, it has been a decade of disappointment – of incurable unemployment, deepening poverty and the growing sense that their leaders don’t care. Young men are dying at sea trying to migrate across the Mediterranean in search of opportunities in Italy and beyond. Others have sacrificed themselves in desperation.
The boiling point came late last month when Tunisians, disgusted by official corruption and incompetence, took to the streets, giving President Kais Saied their support to seize power from the rest of the government .
The president suspended parliament for 30 days, sacked the prime minister, appointed himself attorney general and said he would start prosecuting corrupt businesses and political elites.
Its political opponents, and many in the West, have called it an unconstitutional takeover or even a coup. But he seemed to have the support of most Tunisians – nearly 90%, according to a poll by Emrhod Consulting, a local company.
“There is a perception among many people in Tunisia that the institutions of what people call democracy have not worked,” said Monica Marks, professor of Middle Eastern politics at New York University Abu Dhabi who studied Tunisia for a long time.
“There are no revolutionary dividends for the Tunisian people – the only one is freedom of speech,” she said. “And you can’t eat this.”
However, it would be premature to declare Tunisian democracy dead.
Most Tunisians seem to give the president the benefit of the doubt, as long as he can make changes, but this should not be confused with a desire to return to dictatorship.
“Who can remedy this situation and at the same time keep freedoms? Said Mahfoudi Adel, 54, a cemetery worker in Tunis. “We don’t want someone who will kill democracy and freedoms just because we are hungry.
Mr. Saied could bring a much needed shock to the system by breaking the political impasse. He vowed his attempt to clean up the government would not infringe on democratic freedoms and said his emergency measures were temporary, promising to appoint a new government within 30 days.
But he sounded the alarm by stopping some critics, banning public gatherings of more than three people and suggesting that the 30-day period for appointing a new government could be extended. With all the levers of power in her hands, Ms Marks said, “I think it’s playing with a loaded gun.”
For many Tunisians, Mr. Saied gives the people what they want. A former law professor, he was elected by a large majority in 2019, in part thanks to the perception that as a political outsider he was not corrupt.
“We were waiting for this day,” said Beya Rahoui, 65, who sells handmade jewelry to tourists – the few still ready to come in the event of a pandemic – in the blue and white seaside village of Sidi Bou Said. “There is too much injustice and corruption. Nothing is going well. Tourism is kaput. Tunisia is kaput.
Thanks to the coronavirus, revenues have fallen, Tunisia is plunged into its worst economic recession since 1956 and its hospitals are overwhelmed.
In the weeks leading up to the President’s takeover on July 25, the country’s Covid death rate was among the highest in the world, and protests escalated against the government’s mess in the face of the pandemic and the ‘economy. Many have called for the dissolution of Parliament.
But Tunisia was in trouble long before Covid, hampered under dictatorship and democracy by a trade deficit, corruption, a job market that failed to create jobs for the country’s many university graduates and an economy too dependent on external forces such as tourism and the European market.
After the revolution, while successive governments failed to correct these problems, prices rose as the local currency lost value. More than a third of young people, who represent more than 28% of the population, are unemployed.
In rural Tunisia, where the revolution that sparked the Arab Spring erupted after a young fruit seller set himself on fire in protest against police harassment, dozens of young men set themselves on fire every year .
“Even if you have a job,” said Mr. Mejri, Tebourba’s waiter, “you don’t think about having a car or building a house. You are just thinking about eating.
He said he cut cigarettes, meat and fruit out of his budget. The day before, his young son and daughter had asked for ice cream. He was humbled to have to say no again.
“If I could dig a hole and go and hide in it,” he said, “I would.
As the economic crisis deepened, Mr. Mejri, like many Tunisians, leaned into the political and business elite and saw only a corrupt swamp. It didn’t help that Parliament recently seemed more paralyzed and chaotic than ever. Lawmakers have denounced each other on the ground as “apes” and “beggars”, even going so far as to receive physical beatings.
For many Tunisians, Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that leads the coalition dominating parliament, is a particular source of resentment. Fairly or not, it has come to represent bad governance and corruption. And many of those with a secular spirit see his open commitment to Islamism as a threat to their way of life.
“It’s the best thing Saied has done since taking office,” said Ahmed Chihi, 18, who was sitting in a cafe in one of Tunis’ poorest neighborhoods last week, “because people don’t want to give power to Ennahda anymore. “
Mr Chihi said he had applied for around 50 jobs in the six months since the second-hand clothing market where he worked because of the coronavirus closed, without success. A friend sitting with him, Mohammed Amine May, 18, had tried three times to leave by boat for Italy, only to be arrested or turned around for lack of money.
Mr. Chihi is looking for another route to Europe: he is trying to marry the Polish girlfriend he met online.
Analysts say there is little evidence that Ennahda is particularly corrupt or imposes his religious outlook. But his years in power have not yielded results. And he did not help his case by calling, amid deep economic suffering, for reparations for the torture and imprisonment suffered by its members under the toppled dictator in the 2011 uprising, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. .
“When the state can’t deliver, who do they blame? They blame Ennahda because Ennahda is still there, ”Said Ferjani, Ennahda’s top lawmaker and longtime defender of Tunisian democracy, said in an interview last week. “We have to look at ourselves and how to fix ourselves.”
But Mr. Ferjani warned against trampling democratic institutions under the pretext of fixing them. Tunisia’s problems, he said, “can only be solved under the tent of democracy”.
Mr. Mejri, the waiter, said he appreciated some of the fruits of the 2011 revolution, including free speech.
“Everyone wants their country to progress,” he said. But thanks to the president, he has more hope now than he remembers having been after the uprising.
“This president feels for the poor,” he said. “He does everything for them.
Massinissa Benlakehal contributed reporting.
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