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Monday, September 20, 2021

With gatherings banned amid turmoil, Tunisians can only watch. and wait.

Tunisia is the sole remaining democracy of those that emerged from the popular revolutions that swept the Arab world a decade ago.

By: New York Times | Tunis |
Updated: July 28, 2021 11:08:41 am
People at a market in Tunis, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (Sima Diab/The New York Times)

Written by Vivian Yee

With large gatherings banned by a president intent on expanding his power, signs of the political crisis that might end up scuttling Tunisia’s democracy have been kept from the capital’s streets, where daily life continued Tuesday in a pale imitation of normal.

Public assemblies of more than three people are now forbidden, and a pandemic curfew has been extended, quieting a capital that just days ago was alive with protest.

The main downtown boulevard, where throngs of cheering Tunisians greeted President Kais Saied after he announced he was firing the prime minister and suspending Parliament on Sunday night, was sleepy in the cloudless heat. Shopkeepers in the Old City rolled down their shutters well before the 7 p.m. curfew, leaving the local cats to prowl through the litter of plastic bags shoppers had left behind.

Near Parliament — where hundreds of demonstrators, some cheering Saied, others denouncing him, had faced off earlier — a cafe that ordinarily caters to government workers was almost entirely full of bored, dark-uniformed police officers looking for a place to charge their phones.

The seeming placidity of the city was perhaps deceptive.

In part, it reflected the crackdown ordered by Saied, who Monday not only banned large gatherings but also extended by an hour Tunisia’s curfew, originally designed to contain the coronavirus, which is overwhelming hospitals across the country.

But the torpor also reflected the haze of uncertainty into which Tunisia lurched after Saied’s power grab. Everyone is waiting to see what he might do next, and wondering whether it will help resolve Tunisia’s economic, political and health troubles — or only worsen the impasse.

Tunisia is the sole remaining democracy of those that emerged from the popular revolutions that swept the Arab world a decade ago. But Tuesday, many Tunis residents seemed satisfied to hand the reins to Saied, who was elected in a landslide in 2019 and has now claimed full executive power.

“What he did was right, and it should’ve happened a few years ago,” said Hedeya Kalboussi, 23, a pediatric nursing student sitting outside the Old City of Tunis with her family.

Of the rest of government, Parliament and its dominant political party, Ennahda, she said: “They gave nothing to Tunisia for 10 years. They don’t deserve the power they got.”

Her mother, Aisha Mouelhi, 53, who works for the ministry of social affairs, was less sanguine.

“Everything is obscure now,” she said. “We hope that what he did is good, but after this, what will happen?”

Saied said Sunday night that he intended to appoint a new government within 30 days, and Tuesday, in a meeting with civil society representatives including Tunisia’s powerful trade union federation, the president reiterated that the measures were temporary. To those who have accused him of executing a coup, he pointed to Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, which grants the president extraordinary powers in cases of “imminent threat” to the country.

“I’m surprised by how some people are talking about a coup,” he said in the meeting, a video of which was posted on his official Facebook page, noting that he himself had studied law. “I don’t know in which law faculty they studied.”

Saied’s opponents, led by the Parliament speaker, Rachid al-Ghannouchi of Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, have argued that Saied failed to meet the conditions of Article 80. He has said he met with al-Ghannouchi and the former prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, before moving to seize power, as required by Article 80; Al-Ghannouchi denied having been consulted.

But for all his talk of his law degree, Saied is making a political, not a constitutional, argument: Someone had to step in to save the country.

“None of the institutions were working anymore, and the corruption was widespread,” Saied said, vowing in his remarks to bring corrupt officials to justice.

He also promised to stem the Covid-19 surge that has been battering the country. “Some days, 400 people or more die,” Saied said. “Isn’t death an ‘imminent threat’? Isn’t the dissolution of the state an ‘imminent threat’?”

People eat ice cream in a square near the old markets in Tunis, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Days after their president staged a power grab, threatening their young democracy, many Tunisians are banking on the hope that things cannot get much worse. (Sima Diab/The New York Times)

Many Tunisians evidently agree with him.

Hassan Zaidi, 32, supported the revolution a decade ago that sank Tunisia’s ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and went on to ignite other uprisings across the Arab world. Like many protesters then, he hoped for more freedoms — but more important, better opportunities.

Ten years later, Zaidi is done with the revolution. The off-and-on construction work he relied on to support his family has dried up, and he is sleeping on the street, separated from his wife and their 3-year-old daughter, who are living with his wife’s parents.

“All the people — you can see — are fed up,” he said. “People are dying from hunger, people are begging, people are sleeping in the street, people can’t feed their families.

“Yes, freedom of speech is a good thing. That’s all. After that, there’s nothing. Give us work so someone can have a life and feed his family.”

Zaidi paused.

“At certain points,” Zaidi went on, “you get these thoughts that you want to kill yourself, because it’s too much.” But with Saied’s actions this week, he said, he thinks there may be a way out: “There’s hope, there’s hope, there’s hope.”

There is much, however, to fix: Stubbornly high unemployment, especially among young people. A COVID-19 death rate that is among the world’s worst, and a bungled coronavirus lockdown and vaccine rollout. Stagnant living standards. Political deadlock that has kept the country from addressing the economic crisis. A government the vast majority of Tunisians view as corrupt and incompetent.

When protests intensified over the last month, leading the police to violently suppress some demonstrations, Saied seized his chance. He announced his takeover after a day of protests calling for the dissolution of Parliament on Sunday.

One of those protesting outside Parliament on Sunday was Insaf, 30, an architect who on Tuesday afternoon was having a beer with friends at a bar downtown. (She declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals.)

“I was so, so happy and relieved,” she said of Saied’s announcement, “because every day I was waking up very angry, very frustrated, very stressed, because the government was not representing what we wanted.”

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