Second Spring

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Commerce and public services ground to a halt in Tunisia recently as the country’s massive Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) went on strike to protest President Kais Saied’s economic plan.

Saied has proposed wage freezes, subsidy cuts and other steps that the International Monetary Fund requires in order for the North African country to receive a $4 billion loan to avert a financial crisis, Reuters reported. Tunisia is in danger of defaulting on its debt, the Washington Post noted.

Saied assumed office in 2019 on an anti-corruption and reform platform that appealed to younger voters. Tunisia, remember, was the birthplace of the Arab Spring of 2011. The UGTT was co-recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for its role in rebuilding the country as a democracy after the Arab Spring. But a year ago, Saied froze parliament, sacked the cabinet and assumed direct control of the country.

Critics said he had pulled off a coup. As Al Jazeera wrote, Saied claimed he had to rule by decree in order to root out corruption and enact real reforms. At around the same time, he sacked 57 judges over corruption allegations. Meanwhile, Saied is writing new election laws and has slated new elections for December. In September, he also appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane as Tunisia’s first female prime minister.

And on July 25, he will oversee a referendum on a new constitution.

The new constitution would mix a presidential and parliamentary system, explained France 24. The text of the new document has yet to be released to the public, however, leading many Tunisians to think that the president’s referendum and other proposals will simply ensure that his autocratic rule continues.

This summer will be “critical for determining whether President Kais Saied consolidates power or yields to a renewed democracy,” wrote Sharan Grewal, a nonresident foreign policy fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Grewal believed that Saied would unveil a draft constitution that would serve his needs and his needs alone. He has been writing it himself, after all, with little help from respected law professors or similar advisors.

At African Arguments, Ben Maaouia, the co-founder of Tunisia’s Social Accountability Association, argued that the country’s democracy was slipping away. Ordinary Tunisians initially welcomed the president’s power consolidation. They were disillusioned with the government that they established after 2011. Now, however, they don’t envision the president ever leaving office.

It’s hard to say what might happen if Saied wins politically but fails to receive sufficient IMF assistance to govern. It’s possible Tunisians remember back to 2011’s ouster of their longtime dictator and think, ‘If we did it before, we can do it again.’

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