After Tunisia’s president Saied Kaies dismissed his government last week and spent the days after consolidating power, many western governments were left wondering whether a decade on from the Arab Spring the north African nation was reverting to autocracy.
ut for many Tunisians — tired of being applauded as the only democracy to emerge from the protest movement that toppled dictators across the Middle East — the ‘coup’ could not have come soon enough.
Tens of thousands of Tunisians celebrated in the streets.
“It was wonderful to see the people celebrating a decision they have been waiting for so long,” said Bayrem Abdessalem, a 24-year old engineer from the coastal city of Sousse. “We will start all over again — we will make Tunisia our place to live.”
An opinion poll last Wednesday suggested Mr Saied enjoys overwhelming public support, with 87pc of respondents in favour of his dismissal of the government.
How long that will last will depend on his ability to address the concerns of those protesting last Sunday and how quickly he loosens his grip on the reins of power. Promises to address corruption — including by allowing businessmen accused of fraud to avoid jail by returning “the money looted from the people” — are unlikely to satisfy unless they deliver results.
When street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight in the streets of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, his anger at a corrupt state indifferent to the suffering of its citizens resonated.
The following 28 days of intense local protests led to the ousting of Tunisia’s former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 by a young population demanding dignity and a better standard of living.
But how to respond to Jasmine revolution aspirations while building from scratch a democracy that could represent the diverse interests of a profoundly polarised nation posed an almost impossible challenge.
While the nightclubs in Tunis’s coastal suburbs speak to its tolerant urban population, the country also provided the largest number of foreign fighters to the so-called Islamic State and has been afflicted by several high-profile terrorist attacks in recent years.
In the years after the Arab Spring, Tunisian civil society groups worked to bridge the distance between the country’s Islamist and secularist movements, for which they were awarded the 2015 Nobel peace prize.
The award represented the apogee of foreign plaudits for Tunisia, a nation of 12 million that gained outsized symbolism as the beacon of the Arab Spring.
But political compromise fell short of providing an economic plan to reduce chronic unemployment and lift the living standards of the working poor, estimated at over 25pc. Nor could it pass a constitution robust enough to mediate disputes among the government’s competing power centres. These issues came to a head this year as Tunisia faced a pandemic-induced recession and one of the worst Covid death tolls in the region.
“I never felt as much desperation towards my country as the last few weeks,” said Abdessalem.
That despair erupted into protests last Sunday, with demonstrators storming the offices of the Islamist-leaning Ennahda party — the country’s most powerful party that has played a central role in nine successive failed governments — in the cities of Monastir, Sfax, El Kef and Tozeur.
Chants called for Mr Saied, who was elected overwhelmingly in 2019 on an anti-corruption platform, to dissolve parliament and chase corrupt officials.
That evening, the former constitutional law lecturer announced he was sacking the scorned prime minister Hichem Mechichi, freezing parliament, and lifting parliamentary immunity — justifying his power grab under emergency provisions.
Mr Saied’s political opponents accused the president of pushing the country back into dictatorship, while many legal scholars said he had violated the constitution.
The European Union — wary of further waves of migration — called for a “quick return to stability”. The US encouraged Mr Saied to return to “the democratic path”.
©Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2021)
Telegraph Media Group Limited