Economic pain threatens social and political chaos in Tunisia

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TUNIS – President Kais Saied has said he will reshape Tunisian politics in 2022 with a new constitution and parliament after seizing executive power last year in a move his enemies call a coup – but the threat of national bankruptcy could upset his plans.

The country needs an international bailout to avoid a disastrous collapse in public finances, with some state salaries delayed in January. But as time is running out, donors say Saied hasn’t done enough to get them on board.

They want him to embrace a more inclusive political process to ensure the survival of Tunisia’s young democracy and strike a publicly recognized deal with his main rivals on unpopular economic reforms to rein in spending and debt.

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The costs of failure could be catastrophic – terrible hardship for Tunisians, a slide into full autocracy or a social explosion that could ignite a migration crisis and create opportunities for activists.

Saied already faces bolder opposition than at any time since his July moves to suspend parliament and sack the prime minister, but a sharp drop in living standards could cause major unrest among an already sick people years of stagnation.

It would test not only Saied’s ability to achieve his political goals, but also whether he unleashed the increasingly assertive security forces on opponents, despite his pledge to uphold the rights and freedoms won in the uprising. of 2011.

Although there has not been a major crackdown on free speech or a major campaign of arrests, there have recently been signs of a more aggressive stance towards dissent, including the detention of a figure of the opposition and the severe repression of a demonstration.

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“The security apparatus now has a strong hold on Saied,” a source close to the presidency said.

Saied’s main opposition, the big parties in parliament, are themselves deeply unpopular and Tunisians appear bitterly divided over their leadership. Even within Saied’s small squad, there have been rifts between rival camps.

Everything points to a volatile year for Tunisians, who are still trying to solve the puzzle of a president whose uncompromising but unconventional approach has often mystified his supporters, opponents and foreign allies. [LINK TO NEWSMAKER]

PAINFUL REFORMS

Under intense pressure, Saied announced a roadmap out of the crisis in December, launching an online consultation for a new constitution he says a committee of experts will draw up before a referendum in July. The election of a new parliament would follow in December.

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Donors do not believe these measures alone meet their call for a return to normal constitutional order through an inclusive process and want to see the powerful union and major political parties directly involved.

Meanwhile, the Saied government appointed in September is seeking an International Monetary Fund (IMF) rescue package, which the finance minister says he hopes to secure by April, which is needed to unlock almost all other bilateral aid.

Donors believe a deal is highly unlikely before the summer, a timeframe that could be too late to avoid serious problems including pressure on the currency, payment of state salaries and the import of some subsidized commodities.

The economy is a constant source of public unease, though opinions on how the president handles the issue diverge. Tunisians are already complaining about shortages of certain products such as sugar and rice.

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“Democracy is collapsing day by day. Prices have risen sharply. Salaries are less secure every month, says Sonia, 38, a teacher in Tunis.

“The president needs time. He is trying to rebuild a state that was broken when he took power,” said Imed bin Saied, also from Tunis.

However, although Tunisia’s initial presentation to the IMF was described as satisfactory, donors felt that it lacked both detail and – above all – the inclusive political buy-in needed to carry out the promised reforms.

Although Saied met the union chief last month for the first time since July, there is still little evidence that either the president or the union is willing to publicly back reforms on the scale needed with IMF help. .

SPECTRUM OF DISORDERS

Although much of the political elite aligned against Saied’s takeover, the protests so far have been relatively small by historical standards. An economic crisis on the scale of those in Lebanon or Venezuela – which the central bank governor warned of a year ago – would likely cause serious unrest.

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Saied since July has largely allowed protests against his movements, although a January demonstration was banned on COVID-19 grounds and harshly dispersed by police.

Most media outlets, including state news agency TAP, have consistently reported criticism of the president and government, but the journalists’ union says state TV has stopped reporting political parties in discussion programs.

Major unrest or mass protests against the president could test him. Rights groups are concerned about the continued use of military courts for civilians, arrests of some opposition figures and an apparent attack on judicial independence.

A separate source close to the presidency said security concerns were behind the ousting of Saied’s top aide, Nadia Akacha, who resigned last month. The source said the security establishment wanted “a strong approach to imposing what they want”.

Diplomats warn that a failure of Saied’s bid to remake politics may not lead to a return to full democracy, but to a more brazen autocracy emerging from the economic ashes of the 2011 uprising.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall, editing by William Maclean)

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