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‘You Just Think About Eating’: Why Tunisians Backed a Presidential Power Grab

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TEBOURBA, Tunisia — Aroussi Mejri, a 40-year-old waiter, is lucky to have a regular job, even if it pays only about $7.20 a day. Yet although a lot has changed in Tunisia since he started working in cafes more than a decade ago, wages have not.

Since 2011, his country has gone from an autocracy to the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings as it felled its former dictator. But for him, the main difference is that it has gotten much harder to feed his children.

“From what we’ve seen so far, democracy has no value,” he said last 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 growing sense that their leaders do not care. Young men die at sea while trying to migrate across the Mediterranean in search of opportunities in Italy and beyond. Others set themselves on fire out of despair.

The boiling point came late last month when Tunisians, disgusted with official corruption and incompetence, surged into the streets, giving President Kais Saied their backing to seize power from the rest of the government.

The president suspended Parliament for 30 days, fired the prime minister, appointed himself attorney general and said he would begin prosecuting corrupt business and political elites.

His political opponents, and many Westerners, called it an unconstitutional power grab, if not a coup. But he appeared to have the support of most Tunisians — nearly 90 percent, according to one poll by Emrhod Consulting, a local firm.

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

Still, it would be premature to declare Tunisia’s democracy dead.

Most Tunisians appear to be giving the president the benefit of the doubt, as long as he can deliver change, but that should not be mistaken for a yearning to return to dictatorship.

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

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Mr. Saied could be delivering a much-needed shock to the system by breaking the political logjam. He has pledged that his bid to clean up the government will not infringe on democratic freedoms and said that his emergency measures were temporary, promising to appoint a new government within 30 days.

But he has raised alarm by arresting some critics, banning public gatherings of more than three people and suggesting that the 30-day period to appoint a new government could be extended. With all of the levers of power now in his hands, Ms. Marks said, “I think it’s playing with a loaded gun.”

For many Tunisians, Mr. Saied is giving the people what they want. A former law professor, he was elected by a huge margin in 2019 in part thanks to the perception that, as a political outsider, he was not corrupt.

“We’ve been waiting for this day,” said Beya Rahoui, 65, who sells handmade jewelry to tourists — the few still willing to come in a pandemic — in 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 economic downturn since 1956 and its hospitals are overrun.

In the weeks leading up to the president’s power grab, on July 25, the country’s Covid mortality rate was among the world’s highest, and there were intensifying protests over the government’s bungling of the pandemic and the economy. Many called for the dissolution of Parliament.

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But Tunisia was struggling long before Covid, hampered under dictatorship and democracy alike by a trade deficit, corruption, a labor market that failed to create jobs for the country’s many college graduates and an economy too dependent on outside forces such as tourism and the European market.

Post-revolution, as successive governments failed to correct those problems, prices have risen as the local currency lost value. More than a third of young people, who make up over 28 percent of the population, are unemployed.

In Tunisia’s rural interior, where the revolution that launched the Arab Spring erupted after a young fruit seller set himself ablaze to protest police harassment, dozens of young men self-immolate every year.

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

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He said he had cut cigarettes, meat and fruit from his budget. The day before, his young son and daughter had asked for ice cream. He was humiliated to once again have to say no.

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

As the economic crisis deepened, Mr. Mejri, like many Tunisians, looked at the political and business elite and saw only a corrupt swamp. It did not help that Parliament has recently appeared more paralyzed and chaotic than ever. Lawmakers denounced one another on the floor as “apes” and “beggars,” even coming to physical blows.

For many Tunisians, Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that leads the coalition dominating Parliament, is a particular source of resentment. Fairly or not, it has come to represent bad governance and corruption. And many who are secular-minded view its open commitment to Islamism as a threat to their way of life.

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

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Mr. Chihi said he had applied for about 50 jobs in the six months since the secondhand clothing market where he used to work closed down because of coronavirus, with no success. A friend sitting with him, Mohammed Amine May, 18, had tried to leave by boat for Italy three times, only to be arrested or turn around for lack of money.

Mr. Chihi is seeking a different route to Europe: He is trying to marry the Polish girlfriend he had met online.

Analysts say there is little evidence that Ennahda is especially corrupt or imposing its religious vision. But its years in power have failed to produce results. And it has not helped its case by calling, in the midst of deep economic suffering, to be paid reparations for the torture and imprisonment its members suffered under the dictator deposed in the 2011 uprising, 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, said in an interview last week. “We have to look at ourselves and at how to fix ourselves.”

But Mr. Ferjani warned against trampling democratic institutions under the guise of fixing them. Tunisia’s problems, he said, “can be solved only under the tent of democracy.”

Mr. Mejri, the waiter, said he appreciated some of the fruits of the 2011 revolution, including freedom of speech.

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“Everyone wants his country to progress,” he said. But thanks to the president, he is more hopeful now than he can remember being after the uprising.

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

Massinissa Benlakehal contributed reporting.

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