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As Tunisia’s Democratic Experiment Unravels, Economic Collapse Looms

TUNIS — The last time Tunisia plunged into political crisis — its infant democracy unraveling amid political deadlock, assassinations and mass unrest — it fell to the country’s traditional guardians to find a way forward.

A heavyweight coalition of unions, lawyers and rights activists stepped in to preserve the constitutional system, earning them the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee credited the National Dialogue Quartet, as the groups were known, with protecting the gains of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, which felled the country’s longtime dictator and kindled the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East.

For a decade, Tunisia was the success story that much of the rest of the world wanted. While other Arab revolts withered in civil wars, coups or crackdowns, democracy in Tunisia — a wedge of 12 million people that juts toward Italy from North Africa’s Mediterranean coast — survived the 2013-2014 political crisis and kept advancing.

But a new constitution and several free and fair elections failed to deliver the bread, jobs and dignity that Tunisians had chanted for, and the country is now lurching toward disaster, its economy sapped by mismanagement, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

On July 25, the president, Kais Saied, fired his prime minister and suspended Parliament, and he has since consolidated one-man rule. He has swept aside the Constitution, the legislature and the independence of Tunisia’s judiciary and electoral system. Yet those groups that led the country out of the last big political crisis have done nothing more than sound a few muted notes of caution.

In July, “a lot of Tunisians said, ‘Dictatorship can’t happen here. Civil society is too vibrant,’” said Monica Marks, a Middle East politics professor at New York University in Abu Dhabi who specializes in Tunisia. “But it happened so fast,” she added.

“It’s not that Tunisia’s democracy is threatened. Tunisia’s democracy has been shot in the head,” she said. “So why aren’t they doing anything now?”

Part of the answer lies in the toxic reputation that the country’s young democracy has earned among many Tunisians — not only those who judge their lives no better than before the revolution, but also activists, journalists and other civil society members who thrived after the uprising.

Members of Parliament and political parties who offered few answers to Tunisia’s problems came to be seen as corrupt and ineffectual, none more so than Ennahda, the Islamist party that has dominated the legislature in the post-revolution era. Judges, though supposedly independent, appeared beholden to the politicians who nominated them.

The media, though free, was mostly owned by businessmen linked to the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator deposed in 2011. While a handful of oligarchs continued to control much of the economy, corruption and bureaucracy hobbled other Tunisians’ livelihoods.

“It wasn’t as if we were living in some kind of democratic paradise,” said Thameur Mekki, the editor of Nawaat, an online hub for dissidents under the old regime that evolved into a well-regarded independent media outlet after 2011.

After Mr. Saied’s power grab on July 25, spontaneous celebrations lit up the capital, Tunis, in well-heeled suburbs and poor neighborhoods alike.

Tunisians from many backgrounds saw a potential savior.

Rights activists sought to partner with the president on reforms. Lawyers saw him as a leader with the guts to straighten out the judiciary. Businesspeople calculated that he had the political capital to restructure the economy.

But by Sept. 22, when Mr. Saied began ruling by decree, those hopes were quickly evaporating.

“Nobody wants to go back to the 24th of July,” Mr. Mekki said, “and nobody wants to go to the 26th of July, after everything Kais Saied has done.”

In his campaign to remake Tunisia’s political system, Mr. Saied has dismantled its most important post-revolutionary institutions. After the elected Parliament rejected his actions in a rogue virtual session last month, he simply dissolved it.

Before a planned referendum in July, when Mr. Saied will try to gain approval to rewrite the 2014 Constitution and strengthen the presidency, he announced last month that he would replace most of the independent electoral authority’s members with his own appointees.

This week, he threatened to dissolve political parties altogether, drawing some of the sharpest rebukes yet from civilian watchdogs and the opposition.

Amid all this political turmoil, the government is increasingly unable to pay public salaries. Negotiations over an International Monetary Fund bailout, which would be little more than a stopgap, have stalled. Shortages of staples like flour, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine — a country that supplies Tunisia with much of its wheat — are pushing prices past what many can afford.

At the bakeries, prices are up, baguettes are shorter and long lines form daily. The government recently announced that it would raise fuel prices for the third time this year.

“People are getting sick of the country collapsing. We’re eating half as much bread now,” said Naziha Krir, 44, a house cleaner who said late last month that she had just paid twice what she used to for three loaves at a bakery in Tunis.

“The country has gotten worse and worse” under Mr. Saied, she added.

Polls show the president bleeding support, though he remains by far Tunisia’s most trusted leader. This winter was the first in years when mass protests did not convulse the country.

Tunisians are wavering between what they see as two evils.

“Who can we hold accountable?” said Nawres Zoghbu Douzi, 25, a rights activist. “There’s no real government, no parliament. Who can you go to now?”

Tunisians generally cite just a single gain from the revolution: freedom of expression. But that, too, is now under threat.

The country is still a long way from the dictatorship years, when people feared talking politics even with friends and when a government office dictated journalists’ story lines. But opposition voices have nearly disappeared from state television. And Tunisian journalists are self-censoring as Mr. Saied attacks the news media in speeches, said Fahem Boukadous, executive director of the journalists’ union.

The government has turned increasingly to military courts to prosecute lawmakers and others for criticizing the president, mounting about twice as many such prosecutions since July 25 as in the entire previous decade, according to an analysis by Ms. Douzi’s organization.

“In reality, there’s no freedom of speech,” said Mohamed Ali Bouchiba, 45, a lawyer who defends people on trial in military courts over anti-Saied Facebook posts.

Judges, too, are falling back under the presidency’s sway as Mr. Saied replaces members of the formerly independent judicial oversight body with his own appointees.

Many Tunisians said that they expect the impasse to be broken by U.G.T.T., the storied general labor union that helped shepherd Tunisia to independence from France in 1956 and spearheaded the Nobel-winning dialogue that preserved the constitutional system during the 2013-2014 political crisis.

With more than a million members, the union could single-handedly paralyze the country with strikes.

But analysts and activists say public opinion has kept U.G.T.T., and other leading civil society groups, from more forcefully opposing Mr. Saied.

Reluctant to confront a popular president, the union at first hoped to influence his negotiations with the I.M.F., which will probably require Tunisia to freeze public wages and take other measures painful for union members.

Though U.G.T.T. has gotten tougher on the president, it maintains what Sami Aouadi, its chief economist, called “a position of critical support.”

Mr. Aouadi said U.G.T.T. had resolved to push Mr. Saied toward talks to resolve the political crisis. But the dialogue it has in mind seems far from the inclusive discussions of 2013: Mr. Aouadi Ennahda should be excluded, echoing a common refrain that holds the Islamist party mostly responsible for the destruction of the economy through corruption and mismanagement.

Other opposition leaders say that ignoring the country’s largest political party would disenfranchise Tunisia’s significant Islamist constituency.

Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a secular opposition leader, is looking to build an anti-Saied coalition.

“I’m trying to find common ground with Ennahda because we should look forward, not backward,” he said.

In the end, he said, Tunisians would probably have to accept Ennahda’s participation in any kind of a political resolution.

If economic disaster looms, he predicted, “People won’t have much of a choice.”

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