Fears of a lurch towards dictatorship dash the last hope of the Arab Spring

TV talk show host Amer Ayad expected a backlash after using his platform to cast Tunisia’s president as an aspiring dictator. But even he was stunned by her severity.

Police seized him from his home in his pajamas, picked him up at dawn in a car in front of his wife and young sons, and dragged him to a military court, where he was charged with defaming President Kais Saied and for damaging the morale of the army. He was in prison for seven weeks.

“I knew then that the coup had begun to implement its dictatorial project,” recalls Ayad, who was arrested for reciting an Iraqi poem on the air whose author dreams of interviewing a tyrant. Months after his arrest on October 3, he is back at his home in the Mediterranean city of Monastir, awaiting trial and banned from international travel.

Saied denied that he sought one-man rule and pledged to protect freedoms. Nonetheless, many saw Ayad’s treatment as a flashing warning for the state of Tunisia’s nascent democracy, one of the few lasting achievements of the 2011 popular uprising that toppled a longtime dictator and inspired years of turmoil across the Arab world.

After a landslide victory in the 2019 elections, the former law professor is accused of crushing the revolution with a power grab and crackdown on dissent that echoes the era of ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

An austere figure who delivers speeches in slow, formal Arabic, Saied has defended his July measures, taken as protesters gathered against parliament, as necessary to save the country from chaos and corruption.

Tunisian then-presidential candidate Kais Saied and his wife Ichraf Chebil react after the announcement of the results of the exit polls from the second round of the presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia, October 2019. | Reuters

“As General De Gaulle once said, I cannot at this age start a career as a dictator,” Saied told reporters in Brussels on Thursday when asked about the charges against him. Walid El-Hajjam, a spokesman for the presidency, did not return calls or respond to a text message seeking comment on the report.

As freedoms shrink and the economy crumbles, unrest threatens to flare up again across the country.

If Tunisians once reveled in their newfound freedom of expression, Saied’s critics can now be tried for a simple Facebook post, as was the case for an MP sentenced Friday to 10 months in absentia for calling the measures of the coup president.

Protests, a staple of the political landscape for the past decade as successive governments struggled to address economic ills, face more frequent crackdowns. Secret detentions of suspected opponents have increased, according to Human Rights Watch.

It comes at a critical time for the North African nation’s tourism and agricultural economy. Years of mismanagement combined with the coronavirus pandemic have led authorities to seek an International Monetary Fund bailout that would likely require agreement across the political divide on painful spending cuts.

Gross domestic product shrank 8.8% in 2020 and expansion was limited last year. The central bank has warned that recovery prospects for 2022 are “timid”. Inflation hit a more than two-year high in December.

While critics wait for the knock on the door, Saied also attacks Tunisia’s democratic institutions. What began in late July with his suspension from parliament and the dismissal of the prime minister extended to his taking control of the prosecution, ruling by decree and appointing his own cabinet with fewer powers.

Tunisian President Kais Saied gives a press conference at the start of the second day of a European Union (EU) and African Union (AU) summit at the European Council building in Brussels on Friday.  |  AFP-JIJI
Tunisian President Kais Saied gives a press conference at the start of the second day of a European Union (EU) and African Union (AU) summit at the European Council building in Brussels on Friday. | AFP-JIJI

This month, he replaced the Superior Council of the Judiciary, the guarantor of judicial independence, with a new body under his supervision. On Tuesday, he sacked the boss of the national radio. The head of the National Syndicate of Journalists warned in an interview about the “seriousness” of the human rights situation in Tunisia.

This month, the United Nations and Western powers issued a rare call for Saied to respect judicial independence, but there has been little international reaction so far.

As he consolidates his power, Saied gets rid of his longtime associates and becomes more and more isolated. He has set legislative elections for December and a referendum on revisions to the 2014 constitution for July.

He surrounded himself with smart people, “but the unpredictability of his reign hampers their independence in implementing any strategy,” said Youssef Cherif, director of Columbia Global Centers in the capital, Tunis. “Those who think about the economy are not in his closest circle,” while the security figures, law enforcement and legal experts and activists who supported his campaign are, he said. -he declares.

Saied’s approach shocked Abderraouf Betbaieb, a former adviser who resigned in 2020, later joining a movement dubbed Citizens Against the Coup. “I no longer know the man I lived next to for 40 years,” he said in an interview.

Even lawmaker Mabrouk Korchid, who made waves in 2021 calling on a benign dictator to make tough decisions and push the economy forward, is disappointed. “The president does not think about development, he is only capable of creating conflicts with others,” Korchid said.

So far, Saied has benefited from a deeply divided opposition. The largest party in the frozen parliament, moderate Islamist Ennahda, has been unable to build an alliance with other political groups it has bickered with for years as the economy stagnated.

Others don’t want to be associated with Ennahda’s “reverse Midas touch”, said Monica Marks, assistant professor of Middle East politics at New York University, Abu Dhabi.

The only actor who could mobilize the opposition, the powerful union UGTT, has not adopted a coherent position on its steps. “They kind of allowed it,” Marks said.

More than a decade after Tunisia gave birth to the Arab Spring, there is a danger of another real and widespread outpouring of anger – especially if the economy does not recover.

“Saied’s claim that people are with him is a big lie,” TV host Ayad said. “There’s another street that wants something else.”

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