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What has democracy done for us? Tunisians remain loyal to populist Saïed

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Unable to find work, Faouzi Brahmi, day laborer, plays dominoes with friends in a cafe in the city of Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the Tunisian revolution of 2011.

The father of four, whose family lives hand to mouth, said he misses the days of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator overthrown by the uprising. “Life was much cheaper then,” he said. “We dreamed of a better future after the revolution, but what happened was worse than before.”

Sidi Bouzid, 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 to protest the humiliating treatment inflicted by the municipal authorities, triggering an explosion of anger that engulfed the country and overthrew Ben Ali.

A huge portrait of Bouazizi still covers the facade of the post office building on the main street of Sidi Bouzid. But city dwellers, like most Tunisians, are deeply disappointed by the past decade of economic deterioration under a chain of weak coalition governments that have failed to tackle poverty and unemployment – the grievances that fueled the uprising. .

Until July, when Kais Saied, Tunisia’s populist president-elect, seized all power and closed parliament, the country was considered the only successful democratic transition to have emerged from the regional revolutions and unrest of 2011.

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

Millions of people are now placing their hopes in Saied, which has yet to formulate an economic policy. He remains popular, even though he suspended the constitution and announced that he would rule by decree. Its biggest challenge, however, will be providing the economic salvation long-suffering people expect, analysts say.

“We want factories, jobs, investments and a university in Sidi Bouzid,” said Saied Bakkari, a cafe owner. “I have three siblings, all graduated as English teachers, but they are all unemployed.” Zuhour Freiji, who coordinates protests by young graduates to pressure the government to hire them, has been unemployed since 2017, when she left higher education with a degree in videography. “I want a job in the public service because here in Sidi Bouzid, there is no private sector,” she said.

Stammering for years, the Tunisian economy has been hit hard by the Covid-19, with an 8.2% drop in gross domestic product in 2020 according to the IMF. The pandemic has damaged the crucial tourism industry and reduced exports to traditional trading partners in Europe. Thousands of small businesses have closed. The national unemployment rate at the end of September was 18.4 percent according to the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics, which estimated youth unemployment at 42.4 percent.

Anouar Jaouadi, an engineer who works for a vocational training agency in Sidi Bouzid, blamed the high unemployment in the interior provinces, which are home to a third of the 12 million inhabitants, on the lack of investment by the ‘State in infrastructure. “Development is the key to tackling entrenched unemployment because it would attract the private sector,” he said. “People are fed up and we are now waiting for the [new force] which would achieve the great objectives of the revolution, which were mainly work, then freedom and dignity.

But Saied, who has lambasted business and political elites for corruption, has yet to give an idea of ​​what his economic agenda might look like. At one point, he said he would put in place a system whereby the “most corrupt businessmen” in the country would be forced to invest in the development of the poorest regions. Talks have started with the IMF on a new deal, but which is expected to include provisions such as cutting subsidies and capping the public sector wage bill – measures that previous governments have struggled to implement and which may undermine the popularity of Saied.

Tunisia needs to find around $ 4 billion to fill its public finance deficit but given its risk profile, interest rates are too high for it to borrow on the international market, economists say . The increase in public spending to deal with the coronavirus emergency has pushed up public debt to nearly 88% of GDP – described as unsustainable by the IMF. This adds to the pressure on the state budget already grappling with a public wage bill that stands at nearly 18 percent of GDP, one of the highest levels in the world.

Olfa Lamloum, Tunisian director of International Alert, a UK-based civil society organization, said 10 years after the revolution, nothing had changed for the poorest provinces. “The highest rates of poverty and unemployment are still found in the same places,” she said, adding that there was also an increase in the age of the long-term unemployed, “who obtained their graduated 10 years ago and have never had a job “.

Tunisia has not had a “real development strategy” since the revolution, she said, and the solutions offered were the same as in Ben Ali’s time – buying people in poor places by through aid or poorly paid temporary contracts for cleaning and gardening work.

Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, a think tank, said Saied risked stirring up anger if he did not keep his promises. “After a while they will want him to live up to their expectations, and the danger to him from his supporters is greater than that from his opponents. He has no economic or social vision.

For now, however, many people like Radhia Jilali, 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’m giving Saied a chance, and all Tunisians are too. ”

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