As summer fades, Tunisians brace for grim fall

Tunisians wait in line for bread. Subsidized staples like flour and milk are sometimes hard to find. [VOA]

The streets of Tunis seem a bit dustier and more broken as a sizzling summer fades and those Tunisians who can afford vacations return home to an uncertain fall.

A much-needed $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund bailout is on hold. Subsidized staples like milk and butter are hard to find, and a bakers' revolt has only recently been quieted after the government restored flour subsidies. While Tunisia's strongman president, Kais Saied, remains popular, his support appears to be fading as disenchantment grows.

"Arab Spring? More like Arab Hell," one taxi driver scoffed when speaking of Tunisia's 2011 revolution that led to democratic freedoms but also economic and political turmoil.

"The atmosphere is more and more depressing at all levels," said Zied Boussen, an analyst for Pandora Consulting, a Tunis-based research institute. "There's a collective sense of being lost."

How Tunisia's new prime minister will steer the country against fierce economic headwinds is a key and open question.

Earlier in August, Saied fired Najla Bouden, the country's first female head of government, after reportedly being unhappy about her handling of the flour protests. In her place, he appointed Ahmed Hachani, a little-known former Tunisian central bank executive and university colleague.

So far, Hachani has kept a low profile. But that is likely to end soon, as the government and country get back to work.

Some observers have low expectations.

"Saied appoints loyal public servants who are neither powerful ministers nor real deciders," said political scientist and author Hamadi Redissi, describing Tunisia's new prime minister as having "no program."

Redissi oversaw a recently published book, Le Pouvoir d'un Seul (The Power of One) by a group of analysts looking at the two years since Saied's power grab in July 2021. In the ensuing months, Tunisia's president disbanded parliament and began ruling by decree.

Last year, he rammed through a new constitution that cemented his wide-ranging powers and vastly diluted legislative and judicial ones. While Tunisians voted on the new constitution and parliament over the past year, turnout was dismal.

Afraid to speak

Rights activists say recent months have seen the country's hard-won freedoms further rolled back and point to the arrests of journalists, activists and political opponents - including Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Tunisia's once-powerful Islamist party, Ennahdha. Self-censorship, widespread before the country's 2011 revolution, is also making a comeback, critics say.

"Since two years, we have witnessed the dismantling of the rule of law and attacks against critics, opponents," said Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia director for Human Rights Watch. "Now it's getting wider. People who are not really engaged politically are afraid to speak on social media, to criticize the authorities."

For many Tunisians who once headed to the streets by the thousands to rally for democracy, bread and butter issues now dominate. Many blame the country's now-weakened opposition for widespread corruption and political gridlock in the post-revolution years when they held power.

A recent opposition protest in Tunis drew just a few dozen people, as police stood casually by and many pedestrians kept walking.

"Everything related to politics, democracy, human rights - it's not a priority for people," said analyst Boussen. "People just want stability, no matter what the political situation is, no matter who is leading."

At an outdoor market about a kilometer away from the protest, fruit seller Mongi Gaigi was more interested in talking about his plummeting sales. "People don't buy much because things are very expensive," he said.

He is counting on his president to put things right.

"He's working well," Gaigi said of Saied. "Inshallah [God willing], he'll do many things."

Destroying the system

A political newcomer who catapulted to power in 2019, Saied earned kudos from many Tunisians for being morally upright and simply a new face amid widespread disenchantment with the squabbling coalition governments that preceded him. A June poll predicted he would win 68% of the vote in presidential elections expected next year.

Even some of Saied's critics say they are happy to see the upheaval he's wrought.

"We need a total uprooting," said Leila Ben Gacem, a social entrepreneur and former municipal councilor in northwestern Tunisia, speaking about post-revolution corruption she described as widespread. "Today, we're destroying the old system. We need that, even if we're doing it in the worst way."

Still, even among his supporters, Saied's magic appears to be fading.

"A lot of people used to think Kais Saied would straighten things out. Not anymore," said one taxi driver, who gave only his first name, Hassan. "Because there's no bread, no sugar, no flour and no work."

More difficult months lie ahead.

Talks remain on hold with the IMF, whose bailout would require Tunisia to take unpopular measures such as phasing out subsidies for basic staples and dismantling struggling state-owned companies. Saied has dismissed "diktats," suggesting cutting subsidies could spark unrest.

Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that Tunisia risked "falling off the deep end" if the IMF deal fell through. The EU has also made roughly $1 billion in loans conditional to the IMF reforms.

Faced with limited options at home, some Tunisians are searching for answers elsewhere.

"Educated Tunisians and young unemployed - even families with children - are leaving the country," analyst Redissi said.