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Politics

Tunisia is seeing political changes, and some fear it may be a path to dictatorship

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A fragile democracy had persisted in Tunisia since the country ousted its dictator 10 years ago, but in recent months, the Tunisian president dissolved the Parliament and has ruled by decree. Most Tunisians backed the moves, hoping for someone to sweep out corruption and political stalemate, but others fear the country is backsliding into autocracy. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Tunis.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I'm in front of the Tunisian Parliament, and there are about 30 police in front. There's a big police van. And they've got the street completely blocked off with metal barriers. I can see two military trucks and a couple of Tunisian soldiers in there strolling the grounds.

The police thoroughly checked my papers in front of the shuttered Parliament, where no lawmaker has been allowed since President Kais Saied dissolved it at the end of July. With COVID raging and lawmakers bickering, most people cheered the move, but not everyone.

SAMY ACHOUR: I was like, damn. He could have done it in a smoother way. He could have warned, I'm going to do that if you don't do X, Y, Z.

BEARDSLEY: That's Samy Achour, founder and CEO of a software company. He says he understands why people support Saied. The government failed to contain COVID. There was widespread corruption. And the economy is miserable. In September, Saied took another step, invoking an emergency article in the constitution so he could temporarily rule by decree. Achour says, for now, that's been accepted too because people are so fed up, but it could cause problems very soon.

ACHOUR: That sends wrong signals to foreign investors. No investors are going to put money in a country where they don't respect their own constitution. People are not going to take the risk.

BEARDSLEY: Ten years ago, Tunisians overthrew dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in the first Arab Spring revolution. Since then, Tunisians wrote a constitution and held free presidential and parliamentary elections. Thirty-nine-year-old Omezzine Khelifa returned from her engineering studies in France to play a part in her country's new future.

OMEZZINE KHELIFA: So I think we've accomplished huge steps towards really creating democracy, at least trying to build institutions that would bring checks and balances and wouldn't allow a new dictatorship to come back. But I feel all these pillars are completely shaken today.

BEARDSLEY: Saied was elected with large support in 2019. Khelifa says people have huge trust in the constitutional law professor, who says he would never compromise Tunisia's democracy.

(CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: But that's exactly what's happening, says far-left leader Jaouhar Ben M’Barek, who worries the country could be headed down the same path it traveled toward the Ben Ali dictatorship.

JAOUHAR BEN M’BAREK: (Through interpreter) History is repeating itself. After Ben Ali's soft coup in '87, he was then elected. Then came his oppression of the Islamists, who he said were a danger. And liberals in society let him get away with it because it suited them. And then Ben Ali turned against us all.

BEARDSLEY: Ben M'Barek is one of the few secular figures criticizing the secular Saied. He remembers how the previous regime's persecution of the Islamists turned them into heroes and helped bring their party, Ennahda, to power after the revolution. But today, they've been blamed for the poor economy, and he says they would have eventually been voted out without Saied closing down the Parliament.

BEN M'BAREK: (Through interpreter) But people are in such a hurry. They want Ennahda gone now, and they think Saied is getting rid of the party.

BEARDSLEY: And then they'll want to get back to their democracy, says Ben M'Barek, but by then, it could be too late. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Tunis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.