Tunisia remains in limbo more than a week after President Kais Saied fired the prime minister, froze parliament and took on executive powers. Some citizens worried about what comes next, and when it will happen, as pressure for decisions mounts.
A former constitutional law professor, Saied has denied claims that he mounted a coup d’etat, saying his sweeping moves adhere strictly to the constitution. Local polls have shown support for Saied's actions by the vast majority of respondents, but the waiting game is leaving some citizens and allies feeling anxious.
The president, though, seems unconcerned. He strolled on Sunday down Avenue Bourguiba, the iconic main axis in the capital, chatting with passersby, Radio Mosaique reported.
Accountant Zied Amar, 36, was cautiously optimistic.
“I mostly think that Kais Saied’s decision was right, even if we take into consideration the accusations,” he said, sitting on La Marsa beach with his wife and baby on a scorching weekend. “But we need a decision that will let the people feel less anxious, let them feel hope — hope in one person who will defend their rights,” he added. “The citizens are afraid that someone could steal their freedom.”
Clues about Saied’s next moves were few, but there were some. He took action after a day of nationwide protests last Sunday over the North African nation’s deteriorating social and economic situation — topped by the raging coronavirus epidemic — and began ruling by decree.
Last week, he appointed a new interior minister, in charge of security, the first replacement among the dozens of top officials he had fired. He also pledged to fight corruption and tackle crooked businessmen, requested that traders, wholesalers and pharmacies lower prices, and on Saturday asked banks to lower interest rates. And he banned gatherings of more than three people and set a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Middle Eastern European allies and the United States now worry about the future of Tunisia, the nation that triggered the Arab Spring a decade ago, chasing out its longtime autocratic leader. The revolution ricocheted to other countries, but Tunisia was the only success story, putting in place a democratic system, still not fully cemented.
Most people encountered on a walk through the capital seemed without worries about their nation’s future, trusting their president.
“I’m with Kais Saied. Thanks be to God” said Jamel Diwen, a street cleaner.
But not everyone was so certain. Several people were seen watching playbacks of Saied’s speeches on their phones amid heated discussions in cafés and bars. Wejden Ben Alaya, a 26-year-old sales executive sitting at one beach bar, said that she felt a lot of the support for Saied was “emotional.”
“Because of the country’s social dilemma and economic problems … people were fed up. Kais Saied presented himself as a saviour and it makes sense that people would align with that emotionally,” she said.
Ben Alaya said she voted for Saied, an unknown with no political experience, in the 2019 presidential elections because he seemed the best among bad options. Now, “I’m not comfortable with these measures. I don’t know where this will lead, given that he is not backed by a clear system or a clear entity such as a party or a movement. I think it’s concerning.”
The United States, which just donated 1 million vaccine doses to Tunisia, seems to be on the same wavelength, urging quick but smart action.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke Saturday with the Tunisian leader, conveying President Joe Biden’s strong support for the people and for Tunisian democracy, National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a White House press release.
However, it said that the phone call "focused on the critical need for Tunisian leaders to outline a swift return to Tunisia’s democratic path.” Sullivan “underscored that this will require rapidly forming a new government, led by a capable prime minister to stabilize Tunisia’s economy and confront the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as ensuring the timely return of the elected parliament.”
Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahdha, the dominant party in parliament, and speaker of the now-frozen legislature, called Saied’s actions a coup, and said in an interview last week with The Associated Press that his party would pressure the president “to demand the return to a democratic system.” Ennahda has been blamed for widely perceived government ineptitude, and Ghannouchi conceded the party must carry out an internal review, like other parties.
Ghannouchi, 80, was briefly hospitalized Saturday for tests after a fainting spell, but returned home later in the day, the official TAP news agency reported.