Weary of corruption and poverty, Tunisians celebrated in July after the president took control of the North African country by suspending parliament and dismissing the government. But while many still back Kais Saied, his critics have in recent weeks become more vocal.
In the country’s biggest protests since Saied tightened his grip on power, thousands of people took to the streets in the capital Tunis at the weekend, calling for the “fall of the coup”.
The trigger for these latest demonstrations was Saied’s announcement last week that he would rule by decree while he prepared an amended constitution with the help of a handpicked committee.
More broadly, there is concern about growing autocracy and economic drift in the absence of a government in a country that for years was considered the only example of a successful democratic transformation in the Arab world since the 2010/11 uprisings. A string of weak coalition governments has since failed to address the economic grievances that fuelled the revolution.
The populist outsider Saied was elected president in 2019. Business and political elites in the country were deeply anxious that “fogginess [is] leading Tunisia towards economic catastrophe”, said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst who is head of the Columbia Global Centers in Tunis.
This weekend’s protesters were mainly supporters of Nahda, the moderate Islamist group that was the biggest party in the suspended assembly and an important player in Tunisian politics since the overthrow of dictator President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, said observers in Tunis. They were also joined by well-known pro-democracy figures.
Nahda, a target of popular anger over what is seen as the economic failure of the past decade, has been the biggest loser from Saied’s measures. But criticism of Saied has also come from Tunisia’s powerful 1m-member trade union, the Union Générale de Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), which has warned that he is concentrating too much power in his hands.
The president’s plan to amend the constitution without consultation was “a danger to democracy”, said the union in a statement on Friday. It also called for the quick formation of a government to address the worsening economic situation.
“The union is not necessarily defending democracy, but they are defending their interests. If salaries are not paid their members will be affected and if there is a strong, dictatorial regime, they won’t be able to negotiate and get the usual concessions from the regime,” said Cherif.
For now, the backlash against Saied appears limited. Many Tunisians saw his actions as deliverance from a decade of inept government and economic failure. Saied’s anti-corruption rhetoric and background as a law professor with no partisan affiliation have fuelled his popularity: 85 per cent 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 contributed to an 8.2 per cent contraction of gross domestic product in 2020. Economists predict growth of 3.8 per cent in 2021, making it unlikely the economy will recover to pre-pandemic levels this year. Unemployment reached 17.9 per cent in the third quarter of 2021, according to the National Institute of Statistics, up from 17.4 per cent at the end of 2020. Public debt grew to 87 per cent of GDP in 2020, according to the IMF.
But Saied, who has been accused of showing no urgency about fixing the economy and has given no timeframe for when he will appoint a government or reveal his plans for constitutional change, is bound to eventually disappoint his supporters, say analysts.
“It is inevitable,” said Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a scholar of Tunisian politics at Syracuse University. “His main goal is to change the political system and redesign political institutions. But he is taking too much time, because he does not have a clear plan.”
The president’s main initiative aimed at curbing inflation was to call on businesses to reduce prices, Hammami said.
“He does not give attention to the economy and does not understand its complexities and basic mechanisms,” he added. “As a law expert, he feels more comfortable talking about the constitution and he exaggerates the impact that amending it will have.”
For now negotiations on a crucial loan agreement 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 $1bn coming due later this year.
“Ultimately, I expect Tunisia will need to restructure its debt,” said James Swanston, economist at Capital Economics, the London-based consultancy. “A country without a government means measures to address the debt issue are not being implemented. Restructuring or even default are not out of the question.”