Narrator: This is the direct message Tunisia's youth want to send to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. "Mr. President, people only want to live and their voices are not heard. Go to the street and see with your eye."
Tanzina Vega: You're listening to reporting from the Al Jazeera News Network back in January 2011 as still nascent political uprising was gathering influence in the Northern African nation of Tunisia after a young street vendor set himself on fire to protest treatment by the country's authoritarian government. By the end of 2011, the protests ousted Tunisia's authoritarian president, held the country's first democratic elections in over 60 years, and launched the Arab spring.
The country's transition to democracy was rocky. Poverty and inequality continued. Last week, mass protests erupted in the wake of widespread frustration, a stagnant economy, and one of Africa's worst COVID-19 outbreaks. In response, President Kais Saied dismissed the country's prime minister, froze parliament for 30 days, and instituted a nationwide curfew. Tunisia is the last democracy that emerged from the Arab Spring that is still standing. Now, it appears unstable. I'm joined now by Sharan Grewal, assistant professor at the College of William and Mary, and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Sharan, thanks for being here.
Sharan Grewal: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Tanzina Vega: Talk to me a bit about the events that happened leading up to the president's actions last week.
Sharan Grewal: Yes, there was a revolution in 2011 that succeeded in terms of its political dimensions. They held multiple free and fair elections. They passed a progressive constitution in 2014 by near consensus, but the revolution has not succeeded in its other elements on the social and on the economic front. By most metrics, the economy is even worse than it was under the dictatorship. So those frustrations have led to perceptions that it's the political parties that are responsible, that have either been incompetent in terms of fixing the economy or, at worse, have been corrupt and have been stealing the nation's funds away from the people. That's the context in which this president, Kais Saied, was elected in 2019 in a landslide victory, 73% of the vote.
Despite that popularity and that mandate he was given to come in to office and clean up the political system, he wasn't able to do it in the past year and a half. The primary reason why is because the system that Tunisia set up under its democracy in the 2014 constitution is one in which the President it supposed to share power with the Prime Minister, with the Parliament, and so what we've seen over the past year and a half is instead bickering between the President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of Parliament over their respective powers. Nothing was able to get done, and so that's the events that led up then now to the President freezing the Parliament, dismissing the Prime Minister, and saying, "For the next 30 days, I am going to clean up the political system and fulfill really the second revolution that you have all been asking for to deal with corruption and get the economy back on track."
Tanzina Vega: When I hear words like, "Oh, I'm going to clean up corruption. I'm just going to hold this power for a moment while I do it," certainly in world history, that has typically led not to cleaned-up democracies, but to authoritarian rule.
Sharan Grewal: Yes, it's worrisome. It really depends on what he does now. He has all of the power, there's no institutional checks on him, and so if he is true to his word and he will give up power in 30 days, maybe all will be well and Tunisia will return to a stronger democratic life. On the other hand, it remains to be seen. The military and police seem supportive at this point. In addition, he has a lot of popular support, and so you could really foresee a scenario where he says, "In 30 days, I haven't yet been able to clean up the political system. We've made some strides, but I still need these exceptional powers for even longer." So it remains to be seen what happens.
That said, Tunisians across the spectrum are saying, "Have some faith. We have a strong civil society. We've toppled dictators before. We're not going to let this get out of hand." So, we will see, but at the moment, it appears to be a power grab that really now depends on what he does with it.
Tanzina Vega: Sometimes the expressed desire of a people for democracy is really about rules and institutions and checks and balances and all of that, and sometimes what the people are saying is, "We want to live better. We want to have more dignity. We want to have more say." So, when you're saying that the Tunisian people right now are saying, "Hey, we got this," does that mean there aren't massive protests or that there are massive protests?
Sharan Grewal: There were protests on the day that he then took power. There were protests throughout that morning in particular against the political parties, against the Moderate Islamist Party, Ennahda in particular that many hold responsible for the situation that they've been in in the past 10 years. Then, there were celebrations as well once he announced these decrees that evening, but since then, it's been relatively quiet.
The political parties that have called these decrees unconstitutional, have called it a coup, they've decided not to take to the streets in opposition, The Islamist Party in particular, Ennahda, has expressed some concern that if they did go into the streets, that that would lead to confrontation, that might then lead to violence. Their strategy for now seems to be, "Let's wait and see. Let's put pressure on him vocally and try to make sure in 30 days that the Parliament is reinstated," and they can go back to normal,
Tanzina Vega: Given the strategic geographic positioning as well as just symbolism of Tunisia relative the Arab Spring and democracy, how are the EU and the US currently responding?
Sharan Grewal: The EU countries, notably Germany, France, Italy, as well as the US have all expressed concern over these actions. They have not used the word coup, but they have said that we hope to see a return to democracy soon. They have expressed concern, but it's important I think that they keep up the pressure in the next 30 days and make clear that if he does not give up these exceptional powers when that deadline comes, that military and security aid, for instance, is on the table as something that legally the US would have to spend if there were a coup. That needs to be made clear so that the military and security forces in Tunisia don't support and help Kais Saied in extending that mandate beyond 30 days.
Tanzina Vega: Sharan Grewal is an assistant professor at the College of William and Mary and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Sharan, thank you so much for joining us.
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