Tunisia’s Populist Dictator Seeks More Power, Sparking Resistance
A year after President Kais Saied’s power grab upended Tunisia’s Arab Spring-born democracy, opposition to him is growing as he prepares a constitutional referendum to solidify his one-man rule.
Saied will hold a referendum on July 25 to formalize his remaking of the country’s political institutions, one year after seizing near-total power in the once-democracy poster child of the Middle East. Wednesday should bring the new constitution’s draft.
According to Reuters, the draft proposes a strong president who appoints the prime minister. Saied advocates “democracy from below,” which gives the president and local government more power while weakening parliament and political parties. Critics say this would foster authoritarianism.
Saied’s July 25 announcement that he was suspending parliament and firing the prime minister was met with cheers on the streets and support from those disillusioned with the country’s young democracy.
Post-Arab Spring Tunisia embraced democracy. Economic woes cause discontent.
Many accused lawmakers in the North African country of failing to deliver the economic and social improvements the people demanded when they took to the streets in December 2010, toppling the dictatorship and sparking the Arab Spring.
Saied’s autocratic approach has faced growing opposition in recent months. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) held a general strike on June 16 in response to planned negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a $4 billion loan in exchange for unpopular austerity measures. Poor Tunisian families are already pinching pennies to put food on the table.
Thousands of public workers participated. Flights were canceled, public transit stopped, and government offices closed.
Union leaders tried to portray the strike as economic, not political. It was interpreted as a show of force to show that the union “remains a major player,” said North Africa political analyst Youssef Cherif. “They’re the only ones who can mobilize the street against President Saied.”
The UGTT, one of four Tunisian civil society groups to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, appears to be a bulwark against a return to authoritarianism as the president rolls back Tunisia’s democratic gains.
Tunisia overcame political turbulence and terrorist attacks to pass a new constitution in 2014 that enshrined civil liberties. In a region where leaders tolerate little dissent, the 12-million-person country embraced free speech and political contestation.
The economy, which sparked the initial protests, never improved, and unemployment remained high. Many Tunisians felt the political class and democracy had not improved their quality of life. Youth-led protests last year called post-revolution elites corrupt and inept and demanded parliament’s dissolution.
Tunisia is among the countries suffering from Ukraine’s war.
The moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which has won many parliamentary seats and is part of the ruling coalition, has been a particular target of protests.
Ennahda leaders acknowledged Tunisians’ legitimate grievances with governance over the past decade and that the party bore some responsibility. They’ve repeatedly defended democracy and called for its return.
Saied, an outsider elected in 2019, announced he would rule by decree in September.
“It was a total rupture between Saied and civil society,” said Romdhane Ben Amor of the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights. “That decree created an authoritarian regime where the president manipulates all the powers.”
Saied has dismantled state institutions, dissolved parliament, and threatened to ban foreign funding for organizations, which would “annihilate civil society”
Rights groups have protested Saied’s opponents’ arbitrary arrests and detentions and the use of military courts to prosecute civilians. Former PM Hamadi Jebali was arrested for money laundering last week and released Monday.
Tunisia fell 21 places, to 94th in the world, in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index this year.
The US, which once praised Tunisia’s political path, is concerned. Samantha Power, head of USAID, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in May that the administration’s budget for next year proposed to lower aid to Tunisia because of the government’s “disappointing turns, the crackdown on civil society, and the move away from the rule of law and democratic institutions.”
Saied has also attacked the judiciary, shutting down an oversight body in February and firing 57 judges in June. Dismissals prompted a weeks-long judges’ strike.
Human rights lawyer Yassine Azaza told The Post this month that Tunisia is a democracy because of Saied’s rule, not despite it. Previous governments were corrupt and undemocratic, he claimed, blaming Islamists for trying to “bring down the state”
Saied’s actions are controversial. Thousands of people joined rival political movements’ protests in Tunis the weekend after the strike, a sign of Saied’s unpopularity and the opposition’s fragmentation. Most Tunisians support the president, according to polls.
Other than the union’s general strike, there have been few mass protests against Saied or the government.
Benghazi of Lawyers Without Borders said the union could form a “civil front against the authoritarian drift” The UGTT has high hopes.
Noureddine Taboubi told reporters last week that the government can’t impose austerity measures and he may call for a referendum boycott. Monday, the union announced another strike.
“A government produced by institutions and elections will have legitimacy to start reform negotiations,” he told AFP.
Information from The Washington Post was used in this report