Anxious but hopeful Tunisians wait for what comes next

President Kais Saied enjoys broad support for move his critics and opponents call a coup

Despite the political uncertainty, life in Tunis continues very much as usual on Wednesday.

Tunisians burst on to the street in a moment of jubilation on Sunday night after President Kais Saied announced he was firing the prime minister, suspending parliament for 30 days and taking the reins of the country.

Shouts and cheers were heard between the sounds of car horns and the pops of fireworks as thousands of people responded to the prospect of political change.

Five days later, little has shifted politically. Mr Saied has yet to appoint a new head of the government or set out a plan for what comes next, but the public's enthusiasm for what Mr Saied’s opponents called a coup has not waned.

“I absolutely support Kais Saied’s decision,” said Belhassan, 41, who was shopping in central Tunis on Thursday morning. “I hope this is the first step in making Tunisian lives better.”

Despite concerns from civil society about the lack of next steps, an opinion poll released on Wednesday demonstrated overwhelming support for Mr Saied. It showed that 87 per cent of respondents were in favour of his move to take control of the government and 3 per cent were opposed.

Mr Saied, a populist outsider, won a landslide victory in 2019. His approval ratings have remained high ever since, even as the population decried the failures of successive governments he appointed.

For many Tunisians, the exasperation with the government is largely economic. Years of failed policy have pushed unemployment up and the value of the dinar down. This summer, thousands of Tunisians have tried to cross the Mediterranean with hopes of better prospects in Europe.

For Monia, 54, who lives in the working-class neighbourhood of Agba, Mr Saied's gambit “was the best move for the country”.

“Have you seen how expensive life has become?” she asked, gesturing to her groceries.

In May, a delegation led by now former prime minister Hichem Mechichi went to the International Monetary Fund in Washington to discuss a loan package of up to $4 billion – Tunisia's fourth since the 2011 revolution.

One of the austerity measures the delegation proposed to secure that loan was a cut in subsidies on basic food items such as flour and sugar. Those began in June and Tunisians are feeling the squeeze.

“I think Saied will empathise with regular people, poor people. I hope he can follow in Ben Ali’s footsteps in that way,” she said, referring to the former dictator who enjoyed broad support despite deep-rooted corruption.

On Wednesday Mr Saied announced a plan to reconcile with 460 business figures accused of corruption during the Ben Ali era who, he said, stole 13.5 billion dinars ($4.8bn) of public money. The scheme, which was part of his 2019 campaign platform, would provide amnesty from corruption charges in return for investing in projects such as hospitals or schools in underdeveloped parts of the country.

"I call for a reconciliation,” Mr Saied said in a video posted by the presidency. “This money must return to the Tunisian people"

In the conservative Tunis suburb of Kram, Haisan Arafa, 58, said he hoped Mr Saied had a plan in mind for smaller businesses left to fend for themselves during the pandemic.

“It would be good if Kais Saied would give small and medium businesses fiscal amnesty, too,” he said. That could allow those businesses to start paying overdue taxes.

A transition like this, rooting out corruption and setting up a new system, could take a year or two, maybe more
Wael Mansuri

“After 2011, small and medium businesses got hit hard by higher taxes and it made it hard to make a living,” he said, adding that he had to close his machine parts shop in 2019 because he could not afford to stay in business.

Despite the plan for reconciliation, many Tunisians are hoping Mr Saied keeps his promises to prosecute corruption. As part of the "state of exception" measures announced on Sunday he has installed himself as the head of the public prosecutor’s office.

The state of exception will last 30 days, although Mr Saied can extend it.

“We aren’t expecting too much within 30 days,” said Belhassan, “but we are hoping Saied will prosecute people who have exhausted the country’s resources”.

Wael Mansuri, 35, who was drinking coffee in the shade outside a cafe, was less sanguine about the timeline.

“I don’t think 30 days will be enough,” he said. “A transition like this, rooting out corruption and setting up a new system, could take a year or two, maybe more.”

When asked what several years of consolidated power under Mr Saied would mean for democracy in Tunisia, Mr Mansuri took a long draw from his cigarette.

“You’re talking about democracy? What’s democracy when people are hungry?” he said.

Updated: July 31, 2021, 12:36 PM