Fears of a Lurch to Dictatorship Blight Arab Spring’s Last Hope

Fears of a Lurch to Dictatorship Blight Arab Spring’s Last Hope

TV talk-show host Amer Ayad was expecting a backlash after he used his platform to portray Tunisia’s president as an aspiring dictator. But even he was stunned by its severity.

Police seized him from his home in his pajamas, bundled him at dawn into a car in front of his wife and young sons, and hauled him before a military court, where he was charged with defaming President Kais Saied and damaging the army’s morale. He was in jail for seven weeks. 

“I knew then that the coup had begun to enact its dictatorial project,” recalled Ayad, who was detained for his on-air recital of an Iraqi poem whose author dreams of questioning a tyrant. Months after his Oct. 3 arrest, he’s back home in the Mediterranean city of Monastir, awaiting trial and banned from international travel. 

Saied has denied he’s seeking one-man rule and has vowed to protect freedoms. Nonetheless, many have taken Ayad’s treatment as a flashing-red warning for the state of Tunisia’s fledgling democracy, one of the few lasting achievements of the 2011 popular uprising that ousted a longtime dictator and inspired years of tumult across the Arab world.

After a landslide election win in 2019, the former law professor is accused of crushing the revolution with a power grab and crackdown on dissent that stirs echoes of the days of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

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An austere figure who delivers addresses in slow, formal Arabic, Saied has defended his July moves, taken as protesters rallied against parliament, as necessary to save the country from chaos and corruption.

Fears of a Lurch to Dictatorship Blight Arab Spring’s Last Hope

"As General De Gaulle once said, I can't at this age start a career as a dictator,"  Saied told reporters in Brussels on Thursday when asked about the accusations against him. Walid El-Hajjam, a spokesman for the presidency, did not return calls nor respond to a text message seeking comment for this report.

As freedoms shrivel and the economy sputters, unrest threatens to explode across the country once more. 

If Tunisians once reveled in their newfound freedom of expression, Saied’s critics can now face trial for a mere Facebook post, as happened to one lawmaker who was sentenced Friday to 10 months in absentia for describing the president’s moves as a coup.

Protests, a staple of the political landscape for the past decade as successive governments struggled to address economic ills, face more frequent crackdowns. Secret detentions of perceived opponents have multiplied, according to Human Rights Watch.

Fears of a Lurch to Dictatorship Blight Arab Spring’s Last Hope

It comes at a crunch time for the North African nation’s tourism and agriculture-led economy. Years of mismanagement combined with the coronavirus pandemic have authorities seeking an International Monetary Fund bailout that would likely need an agreement across the political divide on painful spending cuts.

Gross domestic product declined 8.8% in 2020 and expansion was limited last year. The central bank has warned 2022’s recovery prospects are “timid.” Inflation hit a more than two-year high in December.

While critics wait for the knock on the door, Saied is also hacking away at Tunisia’s democratic institutions. What started in late July with his suspending parliament and firing the prime minister has extended to his taking control over prosecutions, ruling by decree and appointing his own cabinet with fewer powers. 

This month, he replaced the Supreme Judicial Council, a guarantor of judiciary independence, with a new body under his tutelage. On Tuesday, he fired the head of national radio. The head of the National Syndicate of Journalists warned in an interview of the “seriousness” of Tunisia’s human rights situation.

This month the United Nations and Western powers made a rare call for Saied to respect judicial independence but there’s been little international pushback so far.

As he consolidates power, Saied is jettisoning long-time associates and becoming more isolated. He’s set parliamentary elections for December and a referendum on revisions to the 2014 constitution in July. 

He’s surrounded himself with smart people, “but the unpredictable character of his rule stymies their independence in implementing any strategy,” said Youssef Cherif, director of Columbia Global Centers in the capital, Tunis. “Those who think about the economy are not in his closest circle,” while security figures, police and law experts and activists who backed his campaign are, he said.

Saied’s approach has shocked Abderraouf Betbaieb, a former adviser who quit in 2020, later joining a movement dubbed Citizens Against the Coup. “I no longer know the man I lived beside for 40 years,” he said in an interview. 

Fears of a Lurch to Dictatorship Blight Arab Spring’s Last Hope

Even lawmaker Mabrouk Korchid, who made waves in 2021 by calling for a benign dictator to take tough decisions and move the economy forward, is disappointed. “The president doesn’t think about development, he is only able to create conflicts with others,” Korchid said. 

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So far, Saied has benefited from a deeply divided opposition. The largest party in the frozen parliament, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, has been unable to build an alliance with other political groups with whom it bickered for years as the economy stagnated. 

Others don’t want to be associated with Ennahda’s “reverse Midas touch,” said Monica Marks, an assistant professor of Middle East politics at New York University, Abu Dhabi. 

The one player that could mobilize opposition, the powerful UGTT trade union, hasn’t taken a consistent position on his moves. “They have in a way been enabling him,” Marks said.

More than a decade after Tunisia gave birth to the Arab Spring, there’s a danger of another outpouring of real, widespread anger -- especially if the economy doesn’t rally. 

“Saied’s claim that the people are with him is a big lie,” said TV host Ayad. “There is another street that wants something else.”

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