‘What did democracy do for us?’ Tunisians keep faith with populist Saied

Unable to find work, Faouzi Brahmi, a day labourer, plays dominoes with friends in a café in the town of Sidi Bouzid, birthplace of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.

The father of four, whose family lives hand to mouth, said he yearned for the days of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator ousted by the uprising. “Life was a lot cheaper then,” he said. “We dreamt of a better future after the revolution, but what came was worse than before.” 

Sidi Bouzid, capital of a province of the same name in the impoverished interior of Tunisia, is where Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself on fire in protest against humiliating treatment by municipal officials, sparking an explosion of anger that engulfed the country and toppled Ben Ali.

A massive portrait of Bouazizi still covers the facade of the post office building on the main street of Sidi Bouzid. But the townspeople, like most Tunisians, are deeply disillusioned with the past decade of economic deterioration under a string of weak coalition governments which failed to address poverty and unemployment — the grievances that fuelled the revolt.

Until July, when Kais Saied, Tunisia’s elected populist president, seized all powers and shuttered parliament, the country was viewed as the only successful democratic transition to have emerged from the revolutions and regional turmoil of 2011.

A huge portrait commemorates Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation led to the uprising that ushered in democracy © Anis Mili/AFP via Getty Images

Millions now pin their hopes on Saied, who has yet to articulate an economic policy. He remains popular, even as he suspended the constitution and announced he would rule by decree. His biggest challenge, however, will be delivering the economic salvation expected by a long-suffering population, analysts say.

“We want factories, jobs, investments and a university in Sidi Bouzid,” said Saied Bakkari, a café owner. “I have three siblings, all graduated as English teachers, but they are all unemployed.” Zuhour Freiji who co-ordinates demonstrations by young graduates to press the government to employ them, has been jobless since 2017 when she left higher education with a degree in videography. “I want a civil service job because here in Sidi Bouzid there is no private sector,” she said.

Stuttering for years, the Tunisian economy took a bad hit as a result of Covid-19, with gross domestic product shrinking by 8.2 per cent in 2020 according to the IMF. The pandemic damaged the crucial tourism industry and reduced exports to traditional trading partners in Europe. Thousands of small businesses shut down. The national unemployment rate at the end of September was 18.4 per cent according to Tunisia’s National Statistics Institute which put youth joblessness at 42.4 per cent.

Anouar Jaouadi, an engineer who works for a vocational training agency in Sidi Bouzid, blamed high unemployment in the interior provinces, home to a third of the 12m population, on the absence of state investment in infrastructure. “Development is the key to addressing entrenched unemployment because it would attract the private sector,” he said. “People are fed up and we are now waiting for the [new force] that would realise the big aims of the revolution, which were primarily work, then freedom and dignity.” 

But Saied, who has lambasted business and political elites over corruption, has yet to give an inkling of what his economic programme might look like. At one point he said he would put in place a system whereby the “most corrupt businessmen” in the country would be forced to invest in developing the poorest regions. Talks have started with the IMF on a new agreement but that is likely to include provisions such as reducing subsidies and capping the public sector wage bill — measures that previous governments have found hard to implement and that are likely to hurt Saied’s popularity.

Tunisia needs to find about $4bn to plug the gap in its public finances but given its risk profile, interest rates are too high for it to borrow on the international market, economists say. Increased government spending to address the coronavirus emergency has driven up public debt to almost 88 per cent of GDP — described as unsustainable by the IMF. This adds to pressure on the state budget already struggling with a public wage bill that amounts to almost 18 per cent of GDP, one of the highest levels in the world.

Olfa Lamloum, Tunisia director of International Alert, a UK-based civil society organisation, said 10 years after the revolution, nothing had changed for the poorest provinces. “The highest poverty and unemployment rates are still in the same locations,” she said, adding that there was also an increase in the age of the long-term unemployed, “who graduated 10 years ago and have never had a job”.

Tunisia has had “no real development strategy” since the revolution, she said, and the solutions offered were the same as in the Ben Ali era — buying off people in poor places through aid or temporary low-paid contracts for cleaning and gardening jobs.

Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesman for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, a think-tank, said Saied risked stoking anger if he failed to deliver. “After a while, they will want him to live up to their expectations, and the danger to him from his supporters is greater than from his opponents. He has no economic or social vision.”

For now, however, many people like Radhia Jilali, a teacher in Sidi Bouzid, appear willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt despite his authoritarian tendencies. “What did democracy do for us?” she said. “Life is still expensive, but I am giving Saied a chance, and so are all Tunisians.” 

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