Tunisian president faces backlash after takeover

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Tired of corruption and poverty, Tunisians celebrated in July after the president took control of the North African country by suspending parliament and sacking the government. But while many still support Kais Saied, his critics have become more vocal in recent weeks.

In the biggest protests in the country since Saied tightened his grip on power, thousands of people took to the streets of the capital Tunis over the weekend, calling for the “fall of the coup”.

The trigger for these latest protests was Saied’s announcement last week that he would rule by decree while he prepared an amended constitution with the help of a hand-picked committee.

More generally, there are concerns about the growth of autocracy and economic drift in the absence of a government in a country that has for years been regarded as the only example of successful democratic transformation in the Arab world since. the uprisings of 2010/11. Since then, a series of weak coalition governments have failed to address the economic grievances that fueled the revolution.

Populist outsider Saied was elected president in 2019. The country’s economic and political elites were deeply anxious that “the fog [is] lead Tunisia towards economic catastrophe, ”declared Youssef Cherif, political analyst at the head of the Columbia Global Centers in Tunis.

Protesters over the weekend were mostly supporters of Nahda, the moderate Islamist group that was the largest party in the suspended assembly and a major player in Tunisian politics since the overthrow of dictator President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, observers in Tunis said. They were also joined by well-known pro-democracy figures.

Nahda, the target of popular anger over what is seen as the economic failure of the past decade, was the biggest loser of Saied’s measures. But Saied’s criticism has also come from Tunisia’s powerful one-million-member union, the General Union of Tunisian Labor (UGTT), which has warned that it is concentrating too much power in its hands.

The president’s plan to amend the constitution without consultation was “a danger to democracy,” the union said in a statement Friday. He also called for the rapid formation of a government to deal with the deteriorating economic situation.

“The union does not necessarily defend democracy, but it defends its interests. If salaries are not paid, their members will be affected and if there is a strong dictatorial regime, they will not be able to negotiate and obtain the regime’s usual concessions, ”Cherif said.

For now, the backlash against Saied seems limited. Many Tunisians saw his actions as deliverance from a decade of inept government and economic failure. Saied’s anti-corruption rhetoric and his experience as a law professor without partisan affiliation fueled his popularity: 85 percent of Tunisians approved his actions, according to a July poll.

Their frustration with the elite is rooted in a dire economic situation. The coronavirus pandemic has contributed to an 8.2% contraction of gross domestic product in 2020. Economists forecast 3.8% growth in 2021, making it unlikely that the economy will return to pre-crisis levels. pandemic this year. Unemployment reached 17.9% in the third quarter of 2021, according to the National Institute of Statistics, against 17.4% at the end of 2020. Public debt rose to 87% of GDP in 2020, according to the IMF.

But Saied, who has been accused of showing no urgency in fixing the economy and has given no deadline to appoint a government or reveal his plans for constitutional change, will eventually disappoint his supporters, analysts say.

“It is inevitable,” said Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a specialist in Tunisian politics at Syracuse University. “Its main objective is to change the political system and rethink political institutions. But he’s taking too long, because he doesn’t have a clear plan.

The president’s main initiative to curb inflation was to call on companies to cut prices, Hammami said.

“He doesn’t pay attention to the economy and doesn’t understand its complexities and basic mechanics,” he added. “As a legal expert, he feels more comfortable talking about the constitution and he exaggerates the impact its change will have.”

For now, negotiations on a crucial loan deal with the IMF have stalled and cannot resume without a government in place. Economists say Tunisia may not be able to meet its debt repayment obligations, which include $ 1 billion due later this year.

“Ultimately, I think Tunisia will have to restructure its debt,” said James Swanston, an economist at Capital Economics, the London-based consultancy. “A country without a government means that the measures to solve the debt problem are not being implemented. A restructuring or even a default is not out of the question.


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