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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Pressure builds on Tunisian president to save economy

TUNISIA. One evening during a pre-dinner rush near the Tunisian port, 45-year-old Hadji Murad, owner of a small grocery store on the main road, greeted his customers with a smile and a joke.

They laughed as they paid for chicken and canned tomatoes. But the humor was from the category of the gallows.

“How about you give us a few dollars? And try to get me a visa to America,” he teased the visiting American before turning serious. “People are worried, they are scared,” he said. “Everything has risen in price – eggs, meat, vegetables. Looks like a monster is coming.”

That monster will be the threat of the economic collapse that their president, Qais Syed, vowed to save the country from when he suspended parliament in July and began to rule by decree. This power grab has thrown decades of Tunisian democracy into question.

As Mr Said leads Tunisia towards a national dialogue and a constitutional referendum, which critics say could cement his authoritarian rule, pressure is mounting to keep his promise. The question is, can he.

The government, already heavily indebted and running a large deficit after years of mismanagement and the pandemic, recently announced that it expects to borrow nearly $7 billion this year. To do this, Tunisia must turn to international creditors, including the International Monetary Fund, which has demanded painful austerity measures. This could cut the wages of a wide range of Tunisians and slash government subsidies just as prices for electricity and basic foodstuffs rise, a formula that could lead to protests and riots.

“This year will be very painful,” said Tarek Kalawi, a Tunisian political analyst. “It’s going to be unpopular no matter what.”

International lenders have also called on Mr. Syed to return the country to more inclusive constitutional governance. But when it comes to his political roadmap, Tunisians live in suspense.

The series, which he called “consultations” with citizens online and in person on constitutional amendments due to begin this month, is facing doubts about transparency and security. Members of the commission to draft a new constitution have not been appointed.

The government has yet to begin logistical preparations or a budget for a constitutional referendum scheduled for July 25. The work of Parliament is still suspended.

Authorities targeted some of Mr. Syed’s critics, prosecuting or detaining several opposition politicians and businessmen. They also shut down opposition media outlets due to what the government called licensing problems.

On Friday, Tunisian security officials seized and detained Noureddine Bhairi, deputy chairman of Ennahd, the Islamist political party that once dominated parliament, and called Mr. Syed’s July actions a coup.

Ennahda officials said on Sunday that Mr Bhairi’s whereabouts have yet to be found and that his health is deteriorating. In a letter to Mr. Saeed, party leader Rashid Ghannouchi urged the president to release him or, failing that, allow a “team of medical and human rights activists” to visit him.

“I very much doubt that the IMF will be able to put together a program while there is such political uncertainty,” Ishak Diwan, an economics professor specializing in the Arab world at Paris Sciences et Lettres, said in an email. “Conversely, a poorly prepared austerity program will hurt the current (and very important) political process.”

In other words, Tunisians who feel their wallets are empty may not support Mr. Syed’s plans for much longer. But despite waning support from the political parties and unions that once supported him, Mr Said still enjoys significant support across the country.

His attempt to seize power in July drew crowds of cheering Tunisians to the streets, giving him an 87% approval rating in one poll at the time. Although the number of Tunisians who say they are satisfied with his work has plummeted to between 62 and 67 percent in recent polls, this will still please most politicians. (The percentage of those polled who would vote for him in a hypothetical presidential election is even higher, at 76%).

There were some signs of discontent. In the capital, Tunisia, hundreds of people regularly demonstrate against Mr. Sayed. In Kasserine, a marginalized province in central Tunisia, hundreds recently protested a lack of jobs and high prices, and one demonstrator died in November by inhaling tear gas when riot police broke up a protest against an overflowing landfill and waste problems. outside of Sfax, the second largest city in Tunisia.

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Combined with other, smaller, scattered protests, the total number of demonstrations in the months since Mr Syed came to power exceeded those in the same period in the previous two years, according to data compiled by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights. .

“He’s making things worse,” said Dhoha Hamami, 36, who shopped groceries in Tunisia’s La Goulette port area recently afternoon, citing the president’s troubles with rolling out a coronavirus vaccine registry and plans to freeze public sector salaries. “He doesn’t live in the real world.”

However, the protests were minor in a country where demonstrations against economic stagnation have become a regular winter phenomenon, especially since the country’s 2011 Arab Spring Revolution failed to deliver on its promises of better jobs and a better life.

If anything, analysts say they expected more demonstrations as Mr. Syed’s promises to save the economy go unfulfilled.

It could still happen, as Mr. Syed’s critics confidently predict.

“When you have too much power in one hand, you are responsible for everything,” said Said Ferjani, an MP for En Nahda. “He had it for many months and didn’t give birth.”

To cut the deficit, the government said last week that it will introduce or raise a host of small taxes, including one on transport and another on paper receipts for shoppers that will pay off quickly for Tunisians who are already struggling to afford basic necessities. Economists warn that with wheat prices soaring around the world and Tunisia’s budget running a deficit, the country may not be able to continue subsidizing bread for citizens.

Tunisia may also have to consider privatizing some of its state-owned companies and cutting the huge public sector wage bill that accounts for more than half of government spending.

Mr. Syed’s one-man rule freed his actions from oversight, so his budget was not discussed by legislators, his economic program was hidden from view, and his political proposals remained vague. His authoritarian leanings and populist rhetoric have spooked businessmen, said Issam Ayari, director of financial firm Tunisie Valeurs, pushing foreign investment at the end of the third quarter to its lowest level since 2010.

On the political front, online consultations and face-to-face consultations with citizens are planned over the next three months. invited to answer multiple-choice questions and comments on topics such as the Tunisian electoral process, development, education, health and the economy.

But analysts say it’s unclear how transparent the process will be, as the government hasn’t announced whether the results will be made public or how they will affect a new constitution to be drafted by a commission appointed by Mr Syed.

“I think it’s just a way to legitimize the decision they’re about to make,” Mohamed-Dia Hammami, a Tunisian political scientist and analyst, said of the consultations.

There are also questions about the safety of online consultations, given that the government recently struggled to protect its online registry of coronavirus vaccines from tampering. (The platform collapsed just days before Tunisians were required to show proof of vaccination to enter public spaces.)

Amid political uncertainty and a deepening economic crisis, Tunisia has also seen what human rights activists say is a subtle but disturbing deterioration in freedoms since Mr Said seized power, recalling the days when former Tunisian dictator Zine El- Abidin Ben Ali, ruled the country.

Former President Moncef Marzouki was sentenced in absentia to four years in prison after calling Mr. Sayed a “dictator” and urging France to end his support.

In October, police beat a gay rights activist, indicating that activists say the police have stepped up their crackdown since July 25. Several politicians and social media commentators, as well as a TV presenter, have faced civil and military courts for criticizing the president. the type of prosecution that Mr. Syed has publicly endorsed.

“If you publicly criticize Said and call what he did a ‘coup’, you are provoking prosecution,” said Eric Goldstein, acting director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. “It’s bad enough to get on trial for criticizing the president. Being prosecuted for this before a military tribunal is a double whammy that we have not seen in the worst years of Ben Ali’s presidency.”

World Nation News Deskhttps://www.worldnationnews.com
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