“What has democracy done for us?” Tunisians keep faith with populist Said

Unable to find work, Faouzi Brahmi, a day laborer, plays dominoes with his friends at a café in the town of Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the 2011 Tunisian revolution.

A father of four, whose family lives hand in hand, said he longs for the days of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator who was toppled by the uprising. “Life was much cheaper at the time,” he said. “We dreamed of a better future after the revolution, but what came was worse than before.”

Sidi Bouzid, the capital of a province of the same name in the impoverished interior of Tunisia, is where Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself on fire in protest of degrading treatment by municipal officials, sparking an outburst of anger that swept the country. Ben Ali was overthrown.

A huge portrait of Bouazizi still covers the facade of the post office building on the main street of Sidi Bouzid. But the townspeople, like most Tunisians, are deeply disillusioned with the economic decline of the past decade under a series of weak coalition governments that have failed to tackle poverty and unemployment – the grievances that fueled the rebellion.

Until July, when Tunisia’s elected populist president, Kais Saied, seized all power and closed down parliament, the country was seen as the only successful democratic transition to emerge from the 2011 revolutions and regional turmoil.

A huge portrait commemorates Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation led to the uprising that heralded democracy © Anis Mili / AFP via Getty Images

Millions are now pinning their hopes on Said, who has yet to formulate economic policy. He remains popular even after he suspended the constitution and announced that he would rule by decree. Analysts say his biggest challenge will be achieving the economic deliverance that long-suffering populations expect.

“We want factories, jobs, investments and a university in Sidi Bouzid,” said Café owner Said Bakari. “I have three brothers, they all graduated as English teachers, but they are all unemployed.” Zohour Freiji, who coordinates demonstrations for young graduates to pressure the government to hire them, has been unemployed since 2017 when she left higher education and got a degree in videography. “I want a job in the civil service because here in Sidi Bouzid there is no private sector,” she said.

The Tunisian economy, which has been faltering for years, has been hit badly by the coronavirus, with GDP shrinking by 8.2 percent in 2020 according to the International Monetary Fund. The pandemic has destroyed a vital tourism industry and reduced exports to Europe’s traditional trading partners. Thousands of small businesses have closed. The national unemployment rate at the end of September was 18.4 percent, according to Tunisia’s National Statistics Institute, which estimated youth unemployment at 42.4 percent.

Anouar El Gawadi, an engineer with a vocational training agency in Sidi Bouzid, blamed the high unemployment rates in the interior provinces, home to a third of the population of 12 million, on a lack of government investment in infrastructure. “Development is the key to addressing the ingrained unemployment because it will attract the private sector,” he said. “People are tired of waiting now [new force] It would achieve the great goals of the revolution, which were mainly work, then freedom and dignity.”

But Said, who has criticized businessmen and political elites over corruption, has yet to offer any idea what his economic program might look like. At one point, he said he would institute a system whereby the country’s “most corrupt businessmen” would be forced to invest in the development of the poorest regions. Talks have begun with the International Monetary Fund on a new agreement, but that will likely include provisions such as subsidy cuts and the bridging of the public sector wage bill – measures that previous governments have found difficult to implement and likely to hurt Saeed’s popularity.

Economists say Tunisia needs to find about $4 billion to fill the gap in its public finances, but given its risk profile, interest rates are too high to borrow from the international market. Increased government spending to respond to the coronavirus emergency has pushed public debt to nearly 88 percent of gross domestic product – which the International Monetary Fund has described as unsustainable. This adds to the pressure on the state budget, which already suffers from a public wage bill of nearly 18 percent of GDP, one of the highest levels in the world.

Olfa Lamlum, director of International Alert, a UK-based civil society organisation, said that 10 years after the revolution, nothing had changed for the poorest provinces. “The highest rates of poverty and unemployment are still in the same locations,” she said, adding that there has also been an increase in the age of the long-term unemployed, “those who graduated 10 years ago and never got a job.”

She said Tunisia had not had a “real development strategy” since the revolution, and the solutions offered had been the same as under Ben Ali – buying people in poor places through aid or low-paid temporary contracts for cleaning and gardening work.

Ramadan Ben Omar, a spokesman for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, a think-tank, said Said risks stoking anger if he fails to do so. “After a while they want him to live up to their expectations, and the danger to him from his supporters is greater than the danger to him from his opponents. He has no economic or social vision.”

But for now, many people like Radhia Djilali, a teacher at Sidi Bouzid, seem willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt despite his authoritarian tendencies. “What has democracy done for us?” She said. “Life is still expensive, but I give a chance to Said, as well as all Tunisians.”

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