Scouting for plastic refuse along the capital’s broken streets, Mohammed describes brighter days working in Tunisia’s once-booming tourism industry, earning salary, room and board entertaining Europeans.
“Before, Tunisia was the icon of the Arab world,” says Mohammed, lean and deeply lined at 46, who declines to give his last name.
“Of course, it was a police state under Zine el Abidine Ben Ali,” he added of the country’s former autocrat, ousted in a revolution 11 years ago, “but we had work, we lived well. Now, we’re being hit in the stomach.”
As current President Kais Saied solidifies his control of the tiny North African country under a newly passed constitution, he will be challenged to deliver on promises of jobs, bread and stability for citizens such as Mohammed — who today earns roughly 20 cents filling up large burlap bags with garbage for recycling.
“I didn’t vote,” Mohammed said, counting among 70% of eligible Tunisians, out of opposition or apathy, who declined to participate in a July 25 referendum on Saied’s charter, which passed anyway. “I don’t trust politicians.”
The vote came exactly a year after Saied seized vast powers, dismissing his government and ultimately dissolving parliament, in what his opponents call a coup.
Today, Tunisia’s future—and Saied’s—may depend on a raft of factors, observers say: from whether the president can both secure and sell a crucial International Monetary Fund loan and its tough austerity requirements to save the country’s moribund economy, to the calculations of powerful players such as the country’s main trade union and revered army.
Also shaping the country's trajectory will be whether Saied can retain his fading but still-sizable support — and whether Tunisians have the will and energy to return to the streets if they believe yet another government has failed them.
“We are in real uncertainty,” said Tunis University political science professor, Hamadi Redissi. “If Saied improves people’s economic and social conditions, he will probably be reelected. But if his only obsession is the constitution and elections, the country will probably plunge into crisis.”
A decade of darkness?
What happens next, analysts say, carries important lessons in a region where every other Arab Spring experiment has failed, and disenchantment in multiparty politics appears to be growing.
A recent Arab Barometer poll found falling public faith, including in Tunisia, in democracy as a motor for economic growth. Many here, like Mohammed the garbage collector, are nostalgic about a perceived heyday under Ben Ali’s strongman rule. The country’s bickering and gridlocked parties have only helped to cement their views.
Yet Ben Ali’s 2011 ouster, triggering the broader Arab Spring uprising, was fueled by the same bread-and-butter worries as today. Only now, things are worse.
However flawed and fragile, Tunisia’s democracy has “really, really mattered,” says Monica Marks, assistant professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi. “Tunisian democracy was a strong counter-argument not only to autocracies in the region but also violent extremists.”
Former soldier Mourad Sassi instead sees the years since Tunisia’s revolution as “a decade of darkness.”
“We don’t even have the money to buy things like cooking oil,” he says. “We can’t live another decade like this.”
“You hear the word ‘exhaustion’ more than anything else,” Marks says. “It seems Tunisians under the summer heat are wilting. And their energy to defend the only democracy in the Arab and Muslim world has wilted too.”
Man of the people
Not surprisingly, Saied and his supporters argue differently. The president says he is committed to preserving the revolution’s freedoms and his constitution will better deliver on the demands of the street — in part by creating a so-called Council of Regions as a second chamber of parliament.
Many ordinary Tunisians are proud of their man-of-the-people leader — an unremarkable constitutional scholar from a modest neighborhood, who catapulted to power in 2019 with an unlikely shoestring campaign.
“Kais Saied’s hands are clean,” says taxi driver Mohamed Bokadi. “He’s a learned man.”
Yet Saied has a lean governing resume, shows little appetite for prioritizing the economy and has failed to surround himself with effective political allies, analysts say. His prime minister, Najla Bouden, is a former geologist.
Publicly, Western leaders have offered a low-key response to Saied’s moves. But when Washington last month voiced concern about an “erosion of democratic norms,” Tunisian Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi pushed back, calling the statement an “interference in national internal affairs.”
Civil society groups and political opponents—some of whom question the referendum’s results—say the constitution merely cements a year of eroding rights: from a crackdown on political critics and journalists, to the dismissal of dozens of judges and Saied's replacement of the independent electoral commission’s executive board just weeks before his referendum.
Tunisians have partly responded with growing self-censorship, analyst Marks says, characteristic of pre-revolution days.
“When Kais took the reins last year, a lot of people just naturally stopped discussing politics on the phone, because they believed the phones were tapped again,” she says.
“Nobody can say no to Kais Saied," says Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s once-powerful Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party. He is being investigated for corruption allegations he dismisses as politically motivated.
“He controls the judiciary, the National Assembly, the administration” Ghannouchi adds, "he rules like a pharaoh.”
Rocky times ahead
Tunisia’s leader faces sizable road bumps ahead. The powerful UGTT trade threatens another strike next week over better pay and benefits—potentially paving the way for an uptick of social unrest.
How much Saied can count on the country’s security forces — including its popular military that sided with the people in the 2011 revolt — is another unknown.
“It does look like he still has the military with him,” analyst Marks says. But if the country tips into the massive protests of a decade ago, “the military might make a recalculation.”
Marks, for one, is not betting on the president.
“I think Kais is destined to become that most unfortunate of creatures – an unpopular populist,” she says. “I think his days are numbered – how long remains to be seen.”
Engineer Rania Zahafi, who did not vote for Saied’s constitution and worries about its fallout, remains confident Tunisians will have the last say.
“It’s up to us to change things,” she says. “We have to make our country a better place.”