Tunisia’s political crisis greeted with indifference on streets of capital

Two days after Tunisia’s stumbling democracy ground to a halt, the streets of the country’s capital were quiet, even indifferent on Tuesday, with the presence of army troops near a TV station one of the few symbols of a new and unsettling normal.

Protesters who had raged on Sunday before President Kais Saied sacked the county’s prime minister and suspended parliament were absent from sites that days before had been febrile hubs of discontent. Anziché, passersby seemed to go about their business caring little about the gravity of the moment. In some parts of Tunis, the mood was almost celebratory.

After the storied success of Tunisia’s revolution and decade-long crawl towards democracy, the standard bearer of the Arab spring appears exhausted and uncertain. The slow pace of change has worn down many of its citizens, and the Covid-led global slowdown has led some to defer to the certainty of strongman rule over pledges of a brighter future made by political leaders.

In a popular square, makeshift stalls vied for space with taxis and mopeds. Near a cart stacked with prickly pears, Abderrazak Gasouma, 53, said he supported the president’s decision. “The decisions are 99% correct, I’m just not sure about the methods," Egli ha detto. “They should have been more democratic.

“They’ve lost people’s trust,” he said of the parliament. “They need more youth. Less people fighting. The parliament is needed. You can’t have a country without the parliament, but it needs trust.”

Further along the crowded street, Firas Gallah, a 24-year-old student, suggested the intervention, which has been described by elected officials as a coup, was overdue. “It should have been like this for 10 anni. Those corrupt politicians, they took the money and they did nothing. You have to go and see our hospitals. They would shock you. Look at our hospitals, our houses, our cars. It’s wrong.”

Ha aggiunto: “Democracy is fine, the problem is Tunisian democracy. We’re all fine. We want to live together, and we should. You want to pray, I want to drink beer, so what? Everyone can do what they want.”

The sacked prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, on Tuesday said he would not contest his dismissal, as Saied tightened his grip on the north African state by imposing a nationwide curfew from 7pm to 6am and banning gatherings of more than three people. Movement between cities has also been limited under comprehensive emergency powers.

Saied warned violent protests would be met by force. But there was little immediate sign of anger, or mobilisation against the measures. Tunisia’s political leaders appeared stunned by the president’s move and the absence of police on the streets of towns and villages suggested those who had seized power had little fear of imminent pushback.

Sayida Ounissi, an MP from the ruling Ennahda party, said the suspension of parliament set a foreboding precedent in a country that had fought hard to seed democracy since the overthrow of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali at the outset of the regional revolts that came to be known as the Arab spring. Ennahda, an Islamist democratic bloc, had played a dominant role in the country’s affairs ever since and Tunisia had survived as the only genuine democracy in the region after a decade of turmoil in other parts.

“Is this how you resolve democratic issues?” she asked. “I don’t think closing these institutions is a solution. We have been elected, as has Saied.”

The suspension of parliament followed nationwide protests on Sunday, where demonstrators railed against economic failings, which had been amplified by a response to the coronavirus pandemic that is widely considered to have failed. In recent years unemployment has hovered at about 16%, while the value of the dinar has fallen and living costs have increased. The ruling party bore the brunt of accusations of economic mismanagement.

"[Coronavirus] has been big, very big,” said Ounissi. “It’s one of the main challenges. When the government decided to prioritise the economy over the health situation, this is what happened. All other countries that have done that have never won.”

Speaking by phone from Tunis, Rached Chadli, 34, who was struck by bullets during the uprising a decade ago, said the apparent coup had set Tunisia back. “I don’t care how people want to present this, it’s wrong," Egli ha detto. “We have fought too hard to fade away. What we fought for was worthy. Numbly reverting to the pre-Ben Ali days isn’t. Look at Egypt. Look at Syria. Learn the lessons of history.”

In the years since revolts reverberated through Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, north Africa had become a focal point of regional agendas, with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt lined up against Turkey, Qatar and the remnants of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement in a contest for regional influence.

“Is what happened here because of their rivalries?” Chadli asked. "Non lo so. Time will tell.”

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