Pressure is mounting on the Tunisian president to save the economy

TUNIS – During the pre-dinner rush near the port of Tunis one recent evening, Haji Mourad, 45, owner of a small grocery store on the mai...


TUNIS – During the pre-dinner rush near the port of Tunis one recent evening, Haji Mourad, 45, owner of a small grocery store on the main road, greeted his customers with a smile and a joke.

They laughed as they paid for their canned chicken and tomatoes. But the humor was of the gallows type.

“How about you give us dollars?” And try to get me a visa for America, ”he teased a visiting American, before getting serious. “People are worried, they are afraid,” he said. “Everything has become so expensive – eggs, meat, vegetables. Looks like there’s a monster coming.

This monster would be the threat of economic implosion, which their president, Kais Saied, has sworn to save the country when he suspended parliament and began ruling by decree in July, a takeover that threw Tunisia out ten year old democracy in doubt.

While Mr. Saied directs Tunisia towards a national dialogue and constitutional referendum As critics say he could cement his authoritarian regime, the pressure increases on him to keep his promise. The question is whether he can.

Already heavily indebted and running a large deficit after years of mismanagement and pandemic, the government recently announced that it should borrow nearly $ 7 billion this year. For this, Tunisia must turn to international lenders including the International Monetary Fund, which has demanded painful austerity measures. These could lower the wages of a wide range of Tunisians and cut government subsidies just as the price of electricity and basic foodstuffs rise – a formula that could lead to protests and civil unrest. mass.

“It’s going to be a very painful year,” said Tarek Kahlaoui, a Tunisian political analyst. “It’s going to be unpopular no matter what.”

International lenders have also urged Saied to return the country to more inclusive constitutional governance. But when it comes to his political roadmap, Tunisians live in a worried suspense.

A series of what he described as online and in-person “consultations” with citizens on constitutional amendments, due to begin this month, faces doubts over transparency and security. Members of a commission tasked with drafting a new constitution have not been appointed.

The government has not yet started logistical preparations or the budget for the constitutional referendum scheduled for July 25. Parliament remains suspended.

Authorities have targeted some of Mr. Saied’s critics, prosecuting or detaining several opposition politicians and businessmen. They also shut down opposition media over what the government called licensing issues.

Tunisian security agents arrested and detained Noureddine Bhairi, vice-president of Ennahda, the Islamist political party that once dominated parliament, on Friday and called Mr. Saied’s actions in July a coup.

Ennahda officials said on Sunday that Mr. Bhairi had still not been located and that his health was deteriorating. In a letter addressed to Mr. Saied, Rachid Ghannouchi, the party leader, asked the president to release him or, failing that, to authorize a “medical and human rights team” to visit him.

“I very much doubt that the IMF can put together a program as long as there is so much political uncertainty,” said Ishac Diwan, professor of economics specializing in the Arab world at Paris Sciences et Lettres, in an e- mail. “And conversely, a poorly prepared program with severe austerity will harm the ongoing (and very important) political process.”

In other words, Tunisians feeling their wallets drained might not put up with Mr. Saied’s plans any longer. But despite the erosion of support from the political parties and unions that once backed him, Saied still enjoys remarkable support across the country.

His decision to take power in July drew crowds of jubilant Tunisians to the streets, producing an 87 percent approval rating in a poll at the time. Although the number of Tunisians who say they are satisfied with his performance is plummeting, between 62 and 67 percent in recent polls, that would still appeal to most politicians. (The percentage of those polled who would vote for him in a hypothetical presidential election is even higher, at 76%.)

There were signs of dissatisfaction. In Tunis, the capital, hundreds of people regularly demonstrate against Mr. Saied. In Kasserine, a marginalized province in central Tunisia, hundreds of people recently protested over lack of jobs and high prices, and a protester died in November after inhaling tear gas when riot police raided scattered one protest against an overflowing discharge and waste management issues outside Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city.

Combined with other smaller and scattered protests, the total number of protests in the months since Mr Saied came to power has exceeded that of the same period of the previous two years, according to data collected by the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights.

“It makes the problems worse,” said Dhoha Hamami, 36, who was shopping on a recent afternoon in Tunis’s port district of La Goulette, citing the president’s troubled deployment of a coronavirus vaccination registry and its intention to freeze public sector wages. “He doesn’t live in the real world.

Still, the protests were minor in a country where protests against economic stagnation have become a regular winter feature, especially as the Arab Spring revolution of 2011 failed to deliver on promises of jobs and better lives. .

On the contrary, analysts said they expected more protests amid Saied’s economic bailout promises yet to be kept.

It could still happen, as Mr. Saied’s critics confidently predict.

“When you hold too much power in one hand, it makes you responsible for everything,” said Saïd Ferjani, Member of Parliament from Ennahda. “He has had it for several months and has not given birth.”

To reduce the deficit, the government said last week that it would impose or increase a variety of small taxes, including one on transport and another on paper receipts for buyers, which will add up quickly for Tunisians who already have difficulty in obtaining basic necessities. As wheat prices have skyrocketed around the world and Tunisia’s budget faces a deficit, the country may not be able to continue to subsidize bread for citizens, warn economists.

Tunisia may also need to consider privatizing some of its state-owned enterprises and cutting the huge public sector wage bill, which accounts for more than half of public spending.

Mr Saied’s one-man rule has exempted his actions from oversight, so his budget has not been debated by lawmakers, his economic agenda has been fashioned out of sight and his policy proposals remained obscure. Its authoritarian tendencies and populist rhetoric scared businessmen off, said Issam Ayari, director of Tunisie Valeurs, a financial services company, pushing foreign investment at the end of the third quarter to its lowest level since 2010.

Politically, online and in-person consultations are expected to take place over the next three months, with citizens invited to respond multiple choice questions and offers commentary on topics such as the electoral process in Tunisia, development, the education system, health care and the economy.

But analysts said it was not clear how transparent the process would be, since the government had not announced whether the results would be public or how they would influence the new constitution, which is to be drafted by an appointed commission. by M. Saied.

“I think it’s just a way to legitimize the decision they are already going to take,” Tunisian researcher and political analyst Mohamed-Dhia Hammami said of the consultations.

There are also questions about the safety of online consultations, given that the government has recently struggled to protect its online coronavirus vaccine registry from tampering. (The platform crashed just days before Tunisians were required to show proof of vaccination to enter public places.)

Amid political uncertainty and the deepening economic crisis, Tunisia has also seen what human rights defenders see as a subtle but alarming deterioration in freedoms since Mr. Saied took power, recalling the he time when the former Tunisian dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, ruled the country.

A former president, Moncef Marzouki, was sentenced to four years in prison in absentia after calling Mr. Saied a “dictator” and urging France to stop supporting him.

Gay rights activist beaten up by police in October, showing what activists said to be increased targeting by the police since July 25. Several politicians and social media commentators and a TV host were sued in civilian and military courts for criticize the president – a type of lawsuit that Mr. Saied has publicly approved of.

“If you publicly criticize Saied and call what he has done a ‘coup d’etat’ you invite prosecution,” said Eric Goldstein, acting director for Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. “It’s bad enough to be prosecuted for criticizing the president. Being sued for this in a military court is a double whammy that we have not seen in the worst years of Ben Ali’s presidency.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Pressure is mounting on the Tunisian president to save the economy
Pressure is mounting on the Tunisian president to save the economy
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