As Tunisia’s Democratic Experiment Unfolds, Economic Collapse Looms

TUNIS — When Tunisia last plunged into a political crisis — its fledgling democracy collapsing amid political stalemate, killings and mass unrest — it fell to the country’s traditional guardians to find a way forward. to follow.

A heavyweight coalition of trade unions, lawyers and rights activists intervened to preserve the constitutional system, which won them the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee awarded the National Dialogue Quartet, as the groups were known, protecting the gains of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, which brought down the country’s longtime dictator and sparked the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East.

For a decade, Tunisia was the success story the rest of the world wanted. While other Arab revolts have withered into civil wars, coups or repressions, democracy in Tunisia – a wedge of 12 million people jutting into Italy from the Mediterranean coast of the Africa – survived the political crisis of 2013-2014 and continued to progress.

But a new constitution and several free and fair elections have failed to deliver the bread, jobs and dignity Tunisians have been asking for, and the country is now headed for disaster, its economy plagued by mismanagement, pandemic and war in Ukraine.

On July 25, President Kais Saied fired his prime minister and suspended parliament, and he has since consolidated one-man rule. He swept away the Constitution, the legislative power and the independence of the Tunisian judicial and electoral system. Yet the groups that pulled the country out of the last major political crisis have done little more than toss out a few muted notes of caution.

In July, “many Tunisians said: ‘The dictatorship cannot exist here. Civil society is too dynamic,” said Monica Marks, professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi, who specializes in Tunisia. “But it happened so fast,” she added.

“It’s not that Tunisian democracy is threatened. Tunisian democracy has been shot in the head,” she said. “So why aren’t they doing anything now?”

Part of the answer lies in the toxic reputation that the country’s young democracy has earned among many Tunisians – not only those who do not see their lives as better than before the revolution, but also activists, journalists and other members of civil society who flourished after the uprising.

MPs and political parties that offered few answers to Tunisia’s problems came to be seen as corrupt and ineffective, as did Ennahda, the Islamist party that dominated the legislature in the post-revolution era. The judges, although supposedly independent, seemed beholden to the politicians who appointed them.

The media, although free, was mostly owned by businessmen linked to the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator deposed in 2011. While a handful of oligarchs continued to control much of the economy , corruption and bureaucracy hampered the livelihoods of other Tunisians. .

“It wasn’t like we were living in some kind of democratic paradise,” said Thameur Mekki, editor-in-chief of Nawaat, an online center for dissidents under the former regime that became a well-regarded independent outlet after 2011.

After Mr. Saied took power on July 25, spontaneous celebrations lit up the capital, Tunis, in affluent suburbs and poor neighborhoods alike.

Tunisians from all walks of life saw it as a potential saviour.

Rights activists have sought to partner with the president on reforms. Lawyers saw him as a leader with the courage to fix the justice system. Businessmen calculated that he had the political capital to restructure the economy.

But on September 22, when Mr. Saied began to rule by decree, those hopes quickly evaporated.

“Nobody wants to go back to July 24,” Mr. Mekki said, “and nobody wants to go back to July 26, after everything Kais Saied has done.”

In his campaign to remake Tunisia’s political system, Mr. Saied dismantled its most important post-revolutionary institutions. After the elected parliament rejected his actions in a rogue virtual session last month, he simply dissolved him.

Ahead of a referendum scheduled for July, when Mr Saied will seek approval to rewrite the 2014 Constitution and strengthen the presidency, he announced last month that he would replace most members of the independent electoral authority with its own appointees.

This week he threatened to disband political parties altogether, drawing some of the harshest rebukes yet from civilian watchdogs and the opposition.

Amid all this political turmoil, the government is increasingly unable to pay public salaries. Negotiations on a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, which would be little more than a palliative, have stalled. Shortages of staples like flour, exacerbated by war in Ukraine – a country that supplies Tunisia with much of its wheat – are pushing prices beyond what many can afford.

At the bakeries, prices are rising, baguettes are getting shorter and long queues are forming daily. The government recently announced that it would raise fuel prices for the third time this year.

“People are fed up with the collapse of the country. We eat half the bread now,” said Naziha Krir, 44, a cleaner who said late last month she had just paid twice what she used to pay for three loaves in a bakery in Tunis.

“The country has gotten worse and worse” under Mr Saied, she added.

Polls show the president is bleeding support, although he remains by far Tunisia’s most trusted leader. This winter was the first in years where mass protests did not rock the country.

Tunisians hesitate between what they consider to be two evils.

“Who can we hold responsible? said Nawres Zoghbu Douzi, 25, a rights activist. “There is no real government, no parliament. Who can you go to now? »

Tunisians generally cite only one achievement of the revolution: freedom of expression. But that too is now under threat.

The country is still a long way from the years of dictatorship, when people were afraid to talk politics even with friends and when a government office dictated the stories of journalists. But opposition voices have almost disappeared from state television. And Tunisian journalists are self-censoring as Mr. Saied attacks the media in his speeches, said Fahem Boukadous, executive director of the journalists’ union.

According to an analysis by Douzi’s organization, the government has increasingly turned to military tribunals to prosecute lawmakers and others for criticizing the president, mounting about twice as many such lawsuits since 25 July than in the entire previous decade.

“In reality, there is no freedom of expression,” said Mohamed Ali Bouchiba, 45, a lawyer who defends people tried in military courts for anti-Saied Facebook posts.

The judges, too, are falling back into the grip of the presidency as Mr. Saied replaces members of the former independent judicial oversight body with his own appointees.

Many Tunisians said they expected the deadlock to be broken by the UGTT, the legendary general union that helped Tunisia gain independence from France in 1956 and led the award-winning dialogue of the Nobel Prize which preserved the constitutional system during the political crisis of 2013-2014.

With over a million members, the union alone could cripple the country with strikes.

But analysts and activists say public opinion has prevented the UGTT and other civil society groups from opposing Mr Saied more forcefully.

Reluctant to take on a popular president, the union initially hoped to influence its negotiations with the IMF, which will likely force Tunisia to freeze public wages and take other painful measures for trade unionists.

Although the UGTT has become tougher on the president, it maintains what Sami Aouadi, its chief economist, called “a position of critical support”.

Mr Aouadi said the UGTT had resolved to push Mr Saied towards talks to resolve the political crisis. But the dialogue he has in mind seems a far cry from the inclusive talks of 2013: Mr. Aouadi Ennahda should be excluded, echoing a common refrain that blames the Islamist party primarily for the destruction of the economy through corruption and bad management.

Other opposition leaders say ignoring the country’s largest political party would disenfranchise Tunisia’s prominent Islamist constituency.

Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a secular opposition leader, is seeking to build an anti-Saied coalition.

“I try to find common ground with Ennahda because we have to look forward and not backward,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, Tunisians would probably have to accept Ennahda’s participation in any type of political resolution.

If economic disaster looms, he predicted, “people won’t really have a choice.”

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