Tunisia’s President Holds Forth on Freedoms After Seizing Power

TUNIS — The man who critics had been warning may develop into Tunisia’s subsequent dictator locked eyes with me and intoned, “Welcome to Tunisia, where freedom of speech is protected with no interference in personal freedoms at all.”

We had been in a proper viewers room within the presidential palace in Tunis round noon on Friday, all crystal sconces and gilt-edged chairs. I had been summoned there by President Kais Saied, who 5 days earlier than had fired the prime minister, suspended Parliament and taken control of the country the place, 10 years in the past, the revolts towards authoritarian rule that came to be called the Arab Spring first erupted.

“‘Why do you think that, at 67, I would start a career as a dictator?’” the president stated, quoting Charles de Gaulle, the French chief who re-established democracy after the Nazi occupation of France. He pledged that he wouldn’t strip away the hard-won freedoms in Tunisia, the lone democracy to emerge from the Arab uprisings.

“So there is no fear of losing the freedom of speech,” the president, who’s 63, promised, “and no fear as to the right of people to protest.”

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

On the streets of Tunis, although, I discovered little urge for food to protest. There was nearly no sense of dread in regards to the destiny of Tunisian democracy; I went round feeling its lack like a phantom limb.

Tunis placidly went on: consumers within the streets, sweat-glazed sunbathers on the seashores — just some taxi radios had been tuned to the information. People appeared content material to attend and see what the person that they had entrusted with their nation would do to repair it. You had to wonder if democracy the best way the West sees it was what a lot of them had wished within the first place, or simply to dwell higher, with dignity and extra freedoms.

Tunisia was speculated to be the final nice hope for the Arab Spring. The incontrovertible fact that its democracy survived whilst the remainder fell to civil warfare or counterrevolution gave inspiration to folks throughout the area and lots of within the West.

But a decade of cussed unemployment, rising poverty, metastasizing corruption and political impasse — and now the pandemic — have worn out religion within the authorities. This month, Tunisians once more flooded into the streets to demand change, giving Mr. Saied his opening to grab energy.

I’d spent a number of days within the capital when, instantly, I received the decision to go together with two different journalists working for The New York Times to see the president. I assumed it is perhaps my probability at an interview. As it turned out, we had been invited for a lecture.

The president is a former regulation professor, and his voice was so resounding and his elocution so impeccable that I may instantly think about him in his outdated lecture corridor. His formal Arabic boomed off the marble flooring as if the room had been constructed to his acoustic specs.

At one level, he picked up a sheaf of papers from a small marble-and-gold desk to his proper. It was a printout of the U.S. Constitution, the dignity of which was considerably diminished by the truth that it was held collectively by a paper clip.

He had highlighted a part of it in yellow, which he now learn out in French: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …. ” He had studied and taught the doc for greater than three many years, he stated. He revered it. It was a “great” structure. Just as American leaders like Abraham Lincoln had needed to take excessive measures to protect the system, he stated, so should he.

When one in every of my colleagues began to translate for me, he was ordered to cease. Everything was being filmed by a authorities digital camera crew, and we got here to appreciate {that a} video of the entire episode could be posted to the president’s official Facebook page, which was maybe why it was necessary that we, the viewers, be silent.

“This is not a press interview,” he stated once we started to ask questions, although he promised to rearrange a follow-up.

I had taken the earliest attainable flight to Tunis from Cairo, the place I’m primarily based, after the president introduced his energy seize on tv on Sunday night time. I anticipated to land amid mass unrest.

By then, demonstrations would have been onerous to arrange: Soldiers had blockaded Parliament, and a presidential decree had banned gatherings of greater than three folks. Yet few appeared inclined to protest.

Nearly each Tunisian I spoke with appeared happy, if not outright thrilled, with what Mr. Saied had completed, a testomony to only how fed up they had been.

“What,” one younger Tunisian requested me, “has democracy done for us?”

It was the poll field that initially introduced Mr. Saied to energy in 2019. He appeared an unlikely populist, particularly among the many younger voters who boosted his marketing campaign on Facebook. Nicknamed “Robocop” for his behavior of declaiming in rigidly formal Arabic, normally about constitutional points, he appeared even older than he was.

But he was an outsider to the despised political elite. He had lived in the identical not-very-well-off neighborhood for years. He took his espresso on the similar shabbyish cafes as his neighbors.

He was elected in a landslide.

All week, we tried to parse Mr. Saied’s strikes for omens of Tunisia’s future.

On Friday, an outspoken pro-revolution member of Parliament and frequent critic of the navy was arrested. Then got here a presidential decree saying that the emergency measures may very well be prolonged previous the 30 days that Mr. Saied had initially introduced.

On the opposite hand, he was nonetheless concerned in civil-sounding talks with labor unions and different main political gamers.

On Wednesday, my two colleagues and I by accident turned a part of the story when the police picked us up whereas we had been reporting in Tunis. They held us on the native station whereas they checked our passports and questioned one in every of my colleagues. After two hours, they allow us to go together with a warning to cease reporting within the neighborhood.

We had no official accreditation, with there not being any prime minister’s workplace to concern papers. Still, native journalists had been shocked at our experiences. Across the area, journalists are tightly monitored, blocked from primary reporting and generally arrested. But not in Tunisia after the Arab Spring, these journalists stated. Tunisia was speculated to be completely different.

Though we had requested an interview with the president earlier within the week, it was solely after Twitter and native political circles lit up with information of what was being referred to as our “arrest” that Mr. Saied’s chief of protocol referred to as me on Friday morning. Could we be on the palace in precisely one hour, dressed appropriately?

So it was that we discovered ourselves in an ornate antechamber on Friday afternoon, being instructed on the place to face, the place to sit down and when to sit down as soon as within the presence of the president. Before we went in, I caught the chief of protocol glancing down at my sandals. He despatched for a pair of borrowed, too-big, closed-toe heels for me to place on.

Once we had been seated, I crossed my legs within the gilded chair, on which I dared not sit with lower than good posture. The chief of protocol sprang up and waved his arms at me from the nook behind the president. Uncross your legs, I spotted he was telling me.

Mr. Saied, oblivious to the leg drama, was saying the “difficulties” that we, the information media, had confronted had been unintentional. They had occurred, he stated, as a result of “some intend on making the presidency look bad.”

But he was extra intent on arguing that his actions final Sunday night time had been constitutional. He stated that it had all been completed in accordance with Article 80 of Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution, which confers distinctive powers on the president in instances of “imminent danger” to the nation.

Critics, constitutional specialists and political opponents have questioned whether or not Mr. Saied overstepped Article 80, however with out the constitutional courtroom that Tunisia is meant to determine however by no means has, there isn’t any one to adjudicate the dispute.

Mr. Saied, who has declared himself legal professional basic, would “respect all the judicial processes,” he stated, however he warned that he wouldn’t go away anybody “to loot from the Tunisian people” — a declaration that he meant to carry corrupt politicians to account. Official corruption was one motive he had cited for seizing energy.

And he made a glancing reference to the United States’ in-house troubles.

“Maybe you saw from Washington,” he stated, “how the blood was spilled,” obliquely evaluating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot with “thieves” in Tunisia’s Parliament who had “tampered” with Tunisian establishments and rights.

The ironies had been greater than apparent: A journalist from a rustic the place democracy is underneath pressure flying in to report on a menace to a different nation’s democracy, solely to be reminded by the very man who is perhaps threatening it of the hole between American beliefs and American actuality.

On Friday night time, the assembly video went up on Mr. Saied’s Facebook web page. It didn’t point out our detention or present us attempting to ask questions; we had been solely props.

A colleague translated a couple of of the feedback for me. They had been nearly all approving.

“Teach them,” one stated, “what freedom means.”

Massinissa Benlakehal contributed reporting from Tunis.

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