Tunisians go to the polls in an election that will cement the rule of a strong president | Tunisia

Tunisians return to the polls this Saturday, exactly 11 years later self immolation of a salesman sparked the fall of their tyrant ruler and triggered a wave of popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

In the turbulent decade since then, other regional states that once cracked under the stress of popular revolts have increasingly been quelled by counterrevolutions that recaptured the civic gains and political liberties defended by their citizens.

Despite Tunisia The only nation to emerge from the Arab Spring protests with a democratic government, there are fears Saturday’s election will culminate its alliance with democracy and cement the return of strongman rule.

The current president, Kais Saied, who in July last year overthrew the ruling government of Tunisia and since then revamped the constitution to grant itself largely unlimited powershe is executed to preside over a new legislature with little aegis and weakened political parties.

That the elections coincide with the anniversary of Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire to protest his treatment by the authorities is highly symbolic and opens the curtain on an era that came to be known as the Arab Spring, in the place where everything it started.

Tunisian President Kais Saied.
Tunisian President Kais Saied has reformed the constitution. Photo: Johanna Geron/AP

Opposition groups and major political parties have said they will boycott the vote, calling it undemocratic and a fig leaf of legitimacy for a power grab that would shatter hard-won freedoms.

Nejib Chebbi, head of an anti-Saied coalition that includes the Islamist Ennahda party, said the elections, which are taking place during an economic crisis that is fueling poverty, amounted to “a dead farce.”

However, Saied says a referendum on constitutional reform in July provided a mandate to push for change, and says Tunisians are seeking political certainty after a decade of shaky and often crumbling democracy.

“Tunisia is the last domino to fall in the region,” said Hamish Kinnear, Middle East and North Africa analyst at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft. “Looking ahead, however, nothing is inevitable. Saied may be dominant now, but he could face strong domestic opposition to his plans to introduce structural economic reforms.”

For the moment, however, those who support the new Tunisian strongman seem to gravitate towards the certainty he offers.

“What made Saied popular and strengthened his presidential powers is that Tunisians had lost patience with their elected leaders as they watched nine successive governments in 10 years make big promises and constantly waver, particularly on the economic front,” said the professor. Safwan Masri, dean of Georgetown University in Qatar and author of Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly. “But the economic situation has not improved under Saied, and his popularity, always superficial, has been declining.”

Tunisian protesters take part in a demonstration in Tunis last week against President Kais Saied.
Tunisian protesters take part in a demonstration in the capital last week against the president. Photograph: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

In nearby Egypt, whose leadership supported Saied’s takeover, a revolution sparked by the 2011 ouster of Tunisia’s Zine Abidine Ben Ali has long returned to the kind of oppressive state rule that characterized the era of its long-standing tyrant. data, Hosni Mubarak. . While Egypt’s revolutionaries were among the loudest and largest in the region, their quest to forge a political ecosystem in which citizens shaped their destinies was largely overwhelmed by a resurgent police state that capitalized on government failures. short-lived Mohamed Morsi, who he was forced out of office and imprisoned in 2013.

“Forging democracy from the rubble of authoritarian states is a Herculean task,” Kinnear warned. “Hosni Mubarak may have been swept away by a popular revolution and replaced by an elected leader, but other parts of the old regime, like the army, remained intact and later helped restore authoritarian rule. Democracy remains fragile even once established.”

Masri said the jury was still out on whether Tunisia could still succeed in its democratic experiment. “The social foundation of Tunisian democracy, its strong civil society and labor movement, along with its commitment to women’s rights and the visible role women play in public life, cannot be overlooked. As tempting as it is to look at all the countries in the region through the same prism, that can be quite misleading. The situation is quite different from what it is, say, in Egypt, where the army and the labor movement have inverse forces compared to Tunisia.”

HA Hellyer, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the election would not necessarily mark the end of an era. “The post-2011 era has seen revolution and counter-revolution, but by no means a final chapter. What we are seeing are cycles that keep unfolding, where populations insist on pushing and then pulling back, and status quo systems try to manage. Kais Saied is another note in the story in that sense, but I don’t think anything has crystallized yet.”

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