Tunisians watch and wait after president carries out a power grab.

With large gatherings banned by a president intent on expanding his power, signs of the political crisis that might end up scuttling Tunisia’s democracy have been kept from the capital’s streets, where daily life continued Tuesday in a pale imitation of normal.

Public assemblies of more than three people are now forbidden, and a pandemic curfew has been extended, quieting a capital that just days ago was alive with protest.

The main downtown boulevard, where throngs of cheering Tunisians greeted President Kais Saied after he announced he was firing the prime minister and suspending parliament on Sunday night, was sleepy in the cloudless heat. Shopkeepers in the Old City rolled down their shutters well before the 7pm curfew, leaving the local cats to prowl through the litter of plastic bags shoppers had left behind.

Near parliament – where hundreds of demonstrators, some cheering Saied, others denouncing him, had faced off earlier – a cafe that ordinarily caters to government workers was almost entirely full of bored, dark-uniformed police officers looking for a place to charge their phones.

The seeming placidity of the city was perhaps deceptive. In part, it reflected the crackdown ordered by Saied, who on Monday not only banned large gatherings but also extended by an hour Tunisia’s curfew, originally designed to contain coronavirus, which is overwhelming hospitals across the country.

Pedestrians walk the streets of Tunis. Shops were shuttered in the city ahead of a newly extended curfew. Photograph: Sima Diab/The New York Times

Pedestrians walk the streets of Tunis. Shops were shuttered in the city ahead of a newly extended curfew. Photograph: Sima Diab/The New York Times

But the torpor also reflected the haze of uncertainty into which Tunisia lurched after Saied’s power grab. Everyone is waiting to see what he might do next, and wondering whether it will help resolve Tunisia’s economic, political and health troubles – or only worsen the impasse.

Arab Spring

Tunisia is the sole remaining democracy of those that emerged from the popular revolutions that swept the Arab world a decade ago. But on Tuesday, many Tunis residents seemed satisfied to hand the reins to Saied, who was elected in a landslide in 2019 and has now claimed full executive power.

“What he did was right, and it should’ve happened a few years ago,” said Hedeya Kalboussi (23), a paediatric nursing student sitting outside the Old City of Tunis with her family. Of the rest of government, parliament and its dominant political party, Ennahda, she said: “They gave nothing to Tunisia for 10 years. They don’t deserve the power they got.”

Saied said on Sunday night that he intended to appoint a new government within 30 days, and on Tuesday, in a meeting with civil society representatives including Tunisia’s powerful trade union federation, the president reiterated that the measures were temporary. To those who have accused him of executing a coup, he pointed to Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, which grants the president extraordinary powers in cases of “imminent threat” to the country.

“I’m surprised by how some people are talking about a coup,” he said in the meeting, a video of which was posted on his official Facebook page, noting that he himself had studied law. “I don’t know in which law faculty they studied.”

Saied’s opponents, led by the parliament speaker, Rachid al-Ghannouchi of Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, have argued that Saied failed to meet the conditions of Article 80. He has said he met with al-Ghannouchi and the former prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, before moving to seize power, as required by Article 80; Al-Ghannouchi denied having been consulted.

But for all his talk of his law degree, Saied is making a political, not a constitutional, argument: Someone had to step in to save the country.

“None of the institutions were working anymore, and the corruption was widespread,” Saied said, vowing in his remarks to bring corrupt officials to justice. He also promised to stem the Covid-19 surge that has been battering the country. “Some days, 400 people or more die,” Saied said. “Isn’t death an ‘imminent threat’? Isn’t the dissolution of the state an ‘imminent threat’?”

The government has banned public gatherings of more than three people. Photograph: Sima Diab/The New York Times

The government has banned public gatherings of more than three people. Photograph: Sima Diab/The New York Times

Freedoms and opportunities

Many Tunisians evidently agree with him. Hassan Zaidi (32) supported the revolution a decade ago that sank Tunisia’s ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and went on to ignite other uprisings across the Arab world. Like many protesters then, he hoped for more freedoms – but more important, better opportunities.

Ten years later, Zaidi is done with the revolution. The off-and-on construction work he relied on to support his family has dried up, and he is sleeping on the street, separated from his wife and their three-year-old daughter, who are living with his wife’s parents.

“All the people – you can see – are fed up,” he said. “People are dying from hunger, people are begging, people are sleeping in the street, people can’t feed their families.

“Yes, freedom of speech is a good thing. That’s all. After that, there’s nothing. Give us work so someone can have a life and feed his family.”

Zaidi paused. “At certain points,” Zaidi went on, “you get these thoughts that you want to kill yourself, because it’s too much.”

But with Saied’s actions this week, he said, he thinks there may be a way out: “There’s hope, there’s hope, there’s hope.”

People eat ice cream in a square near the old markets in Tunis. Photograph: Sima Diab/The New York Times

People eat ice cream in a square near the old markets in Tunis. Photograph: Sima Diab/The New York Times

There is much, however, to fix: Stubbornly high unemployment, especially among young people. A Covid-19 death rate that is among the world’s worst, and a bungled coronavirus lockdown and vaccine rollout. Stagnant living standards. Political deadlock that has kept the country from addressing the economic crisis. A government the vast majority of Tunisians view as corrupt and incompetent.

When protests intensified over the last month, leading the police to violently suppress some demonstrations, Saied seized his chance. He announced his takeover after a day of protests calling for the dissolution of parliament on Sunday.

‘Happy and relieved’

One of those protesting outside parliament on Sunday was Insaf (30), an architect who on Tuesday afternoon was having a beer with friends at a bar downtown. (She declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals.)

“I was so, so happy and relieved,” she said of Saied’s announcement, “because every day I was waking up very angry, very frustrated, very stressed, because the government was not representing what we wanted.”

Asked if Tunisia’s young democracy was under threat, she said she did not believe Ennahda’s dominance in politics over the last decade was democratic, given that its Islamist values did not match hers or her friends’.

At another table, Amina Ouederni (28), who works for a management advisory firm, said Tunisians had so utterly lost faith in government that they were willing to place their bets on Saied, even if they did not want him to take charge forever.

“For now, in my opinion, he’s the best man for the job,” she said. “If he says he can do it, go ahead.” And if the president does not appoint a new government within the month, instead keeping power for himself, she said, Tunisians could pour into the streets to kick him out, too.

“I’ll go out if there’s a protest,” she said. “If I have time, of course.” – New York Times

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