‘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 common job, even when it pays solely about $7.20 a day. Yet though a lot has modified in Tunisia since he began working in cafes greater than a decade in the past, wages haven’t.

Since 2011, his nation has gone from an autocracy to the one democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings because it felled its former dictator. But for him, the principle distinction is that it has gotten a lot tougher to feed his youngsters.

“From what we’ve seen so far, democracy has no value,” he mentioned final week in his hometown, Tebourba, about an hour’s drive from Tunis, the capital. “If someone like me stayed stuck in the same situation he was in before, why did we revolt?”

For many Tunisians, it has been a decade of disappointment — of incurable unemployment, deepening poverty and a rising sense that their leaders don’t care. Young males die at sea whereas making an attempt emigrate throughout the Mediterranean searching for alternatives in Italy and past. Others set themselves on fireplace out of despair.

The boiling level got here late final month when Tunisians, disgusted with official corruption and incompetence, surged into the streets, giving President Kais Saied their backing to grab energy from the remainder of the federal government.

The president suspended Parliament for 30 days, fired the prime minister, appointed himself lawyer normal and mentioned he would start prosecuting corrupt enterprise and political elites.

His political opponents, and lots of Westerners, known as it an unconstitutional power grab, if not a coup. But he appeared to have the support of most Tunisians — almost 90 %, in line with one ballot by Emrhod Consulting, a native agency.

“There’s a perception among lots of people in Tunisia that the institutions of what people call democracy haven’t delivered,” mentioned Monica Marks, a Middle East politics professor at New York University Abu Dhabi who has lengthy studied Tunisia.

“There are no revolutionary dividends for people in Tunisia — the only one is freedom of expression,” she mentioned. “And you can’t eat that.”

Still, it might be untimely to declare Tunisia’s democracy useless.

Most Tunisians look like giving the president the good thing about the doubt, as long as he can deliver change, however that shouldn’t be mistaken for a craving to return to dictatorship.

“Who can fix this situation and at the same time keep the freedoms?” mentioned Mahfoudi Adel, 54, a cemetery employee in Tunis. “We don’t want someone who will kill democracy and freedoms just because we are hungry.”

Mr. Saied could possibly be delivering a much-needed shock to the system by breaking the political logjam. He has pledged that his bid to scrub up the federal government is not going to infringe on democratic freedoms and mentioned that his emergency measures have been momentary, promising to nominate a new authorities inside 30 days.

But he has raised alarm by arresting some critics, banning public gatherings of greater than three folks and suggesting that the 30-day interval to nominate a new authorities could possibly be prolonged. With all the levers of energy now in his fingers, Ms. Marks mentioned, “I think it’s playing with a loaded gun.”

For many Tunisians, Mr. Saied is giving the folks what they need. A former law professor, he was elected by a large margin in 2019 partially due to the notion that, as a political outsider, he was not corrupt.

“We’ve been waiting for this day,” mentioned Beya Rahoui, 65, who sells handmade jewellery to vacationers — the few nonetheless prepared to return in a pandemic — within the blue-and-white seaside village of Sidi Bou Said. “There’s too much injustice and corruption. Nothing is going well. Tourism is kaput. Tunisia is kaput.”

Thanks to the coronavirus, incomes have plummeted, Tunisia is mired in its worst financial downturn since 1956 and its hospitals are overrun.

In the weeks main as much as the president’s energy seize, on July 25, the nation’s Covid mortality price was among the many world’s highest, and there have been intensifying protests over the federal government’s bungling of the pandemic and the economic system. Many known as for the dissolution of Parliament.

But Tunisia was struggling lengthy earlier than Covid, hampered below dictatorship and democracy alike by a commerce deficit, corruption, a labor market that didn’t create jobs for the nation’s many school graduates and an economic system too depending on exterior forces equivalent to tourism and the European market.

Post-revolution, as successive governments didn’t appropriate these issues, costs have risen because the native foreign money misplaced worth. More than a third of younger folks, who make up over 28 % of the inhabitants, are unemployed.

In Tunisia’s rural inside, the place the revolution that launched the Arab Spring erupted after a younger fruit vendor set himself ablaze to protest police harassment, dozens of younger males self-immolate every year.

“Even if you have a job,” mentioned Mr. Mejri, the waiter in Tebourba, “you don’t think about having a car or building a house. You just think about eating.”

He mentioned he had minimize cigarettes, meat and fruit from his price range. The day earlier than, his younger son and daughter had requested for ice cream. He was humiliated to as soon as once more must say no.

“If I could dig a hole and go hide inside it,” he mentioned, “I would.”

As the financial disaster deepened, Mr. Mejri, like many Tunisians, seemed on the political and enterprise elite and noticed solely a corrupt swamp. It didn’t assist that Parliament has lately appeared extra paralyzed and chaotic than ever. Lawmakers denounced each other on the ground as “apes” and “beggars,” even coming to bodily blows.

For many Tunisians, Ennahda, the average Islamist social gathering that leads the coalition dominating Parliament, is a specific supply of resentment. Fairly or not, it has come to signify unhealthy governance and corruption. And many who’re secular-minded view its open dedication to Islamism as a risk to their lifestyle.

“This is the best thing Saied has done since getting into office,” mentioned Ahmed Chihi, 18, who was sitting in a cafe in one of many poorest neighborhoods of Tunis final week, “because people don’t want to give Ennahda power anymore.”

Mr. Chihi mentioned he had utilized for about 50 jobs within the six months for the reason that secondhand clothes market the place he used to work closed down due to coronavirus, with no success. A good friend sitting with him, Mohammed Amine May, 18, had tried to go away by boat for Italy 3 times, solely to be arrested or flip round for lack of cash.

Mr. Chihi is searching for a totally different path to Europe: He is making an attempt to marry the Polish girlfriend he had met on-line.

Analysts say there may be little proof that Ennahda is particularly corrupt or imposing its spiritual imaginative and prescient. But its years in energy have failed to provide outcomes. And it has not helped its case by calling, within the midst of deep financial struggling, to be paid reparations for the torture and imprisonment its members suffered below the dictator deposed within the 2011 rebellion, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

“When the state can’t deliver, who do they blame? They blame Ennahda because Ennahda is always there,” Said Ferjani, a senior Ennahda lawmaker and longtime advocate of Tunisian democracy, mentioned in an interview final week. “We have to look at ourselves and at how to fix ourselves.”

But Mr. Ferjani warned in opposition to trampling democratic establishments below the guise of fixing them. Tunisia’s issues, he mentioned, “can be solved only under the tent of democracy.”

Mr. Mejri, the waiter, mentioned he appreciated among the fruits of the 2011 revolution, together with freedom of speech.

“Everyone wants his country to progress,” he mentioned. But due to the president, he’s extra hopeful now than he can bear in mind being after the rebellion.

“This president feels for the poor,” he mentioned. “He’s doing everything for them.”

Massinissa Benlakehal contributed reporting.



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