11 years after ‘disastrous’ revolution, many Tunisians see Arab Spring as a failure

Despite being only country to emerge from uprisings as a democracy, quite a few feel new system was bungled, welcome president’s autocratic reforms

Tunisians line up to cast their ballots at a polling station in Tunis, December 17, 2022. AP/Hassene Dridi)
Tunisians line up to cast their ballots at a polling station in Tunis, December 17, 2022. AP/Hassene Dridi)

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — To the outside world, Saturday’s elections in Tunisia raise several red flags: Many opposition parties are boycotting them, foreign media are banned from talking to candidates and critics say the new electoral law makes it harder for women to compete.

But many Tunisians believe their country’s decade-old democratic revolution has failed, and are exasperated with its political elites. They welcome their increasingly autocratic president’s political reforms and see the vote for a new parliament as a chance to solve their financial crisis.

“The last 10 years have been disastrous for all Tunisians,” said 41-year-old Aymen Yaakoubi, who works as a chef. “It was not a revolution, but a quagmire, because the state disintegrated.”

The North African country was the only nation to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring protests with a democratic government, which replaced longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But there’s been much backsliding since.

Parliament last met in July 2021. President Kais Saied then froze the legislature and dismissed his government after years of political deadlock and economic stagnation. He dissolved parliament in March. Since then, Saied, who was elected in 2019 and still enjoys the backing of more than half of the electorate, also curbed the independence of the judiciary and weakened parliament’s powers.

In a referendum in July, Tunisians approved a constitution that hands broad executive powers to the president. Saied, who spearheaded the project and wrote the text himself, made full use of the mandate in September, changing the electoral law to diminish the role of political parties.

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied casts his ballot as he participates in the legislative elections in Tunis, December 17, 2022. (AP/Slim Abid)

The new law reduces the number of members in the lower house of parliament from 217 to 161, who are now to be elected directly instead of via a party list. And lawmakers who “do not fulfill their roles” can be removed if 10% of their constituents lodge a formal request.

Saied’s critics accuse him of an authoritarian drift and of endangering the democratic process. But many others believe that scrapping the party lists puts individuals ahead of political parties and will improve elected officials’ accountability.

“We hope to get out of this quagmire after these elections,” said Yakoubi, the chef.

Critics say the electoral law reforms have hit women particularly hard. Only 127 women are among the 1,055 candidates running in Saturday’s election.

Neila Zoghlami, president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, said the electoral law “does not meet the aspirations of Tunisian women.” She argued that using lists of individual candidates — instead of party lists — boosts male candidates because many Tunisians are still reluctant to vote for women.

“We know very well the social and cultural environment in which men dominate,” Zoghlami said. “We are acutely aware that Tunisian or Arab women still suffer from discrimination and inequality before the law.”

A man pulls a wheelbarrow in a damaged street of La Marsa, outside Tunis, December 14, 2022. (AP/Hassene Dridi)

Then, in the last days of campaigning, Tunisia’s Electoral Authority issued a decree that prohibits foreign journalists from interviewing candidates. It argued that, by filming and quoting certain candidates, the media favored them at the expense of others The Association of Foreign Press Correspondents protested but failed to overturn the measure.

Many see Saturday’s vote as a chance to elect a local candidate who will tend to their community’s needs in the national legislature, thus breaking a circle of broken promises from central candidates who care little for their constituents’ fortunes.

“Many candidates came from afar asking (us) to vote for them and we elected them,” said Faouzia Tlili, 60, who runs her own fast-food restaurant in Ariana, a northern suburb of the capital, Tunis.

“They promised to employ our children and repair the roads, and when they became lawmakers they forgot their promises,” Tlili said. “We want a person from the region who is known to all the inhabitants of the neighborhood and is close to the citizens.”

Malika Mahfouf, 43, another Ariana resident, said she was more concerned with soaring food prices and shortages of basic goods than with deteriorating rights for women — who she said prove themselves equal to men in the daily battle for survival.

“They both work and they fight, especially in the current situation of economic crisis which is severe,” Mahfouf said.

A plastic picker works in La Marsa, outside Tunis, December 14, 2022. (AP/Hassene Dridi)

With many opposition parties boycotting the polls, including the Salvation Front coalition that the popular Ennahda party is part of, it’s not clear that the elections will lead to the political and economic stability that the president is seeking to create.

Sghaier Zakraoui, like the president himself, is a prominent law professor. He was one of the first to come out in support of Saied’s moves to concentrate power in his own hands. But over the past year, he has changed his mind. He describes Saturday’s polls as a “non-event.”

The election is part of the president’s “personal adventure,” Zakraoui said. “He imposed his constitution and his electoral law which will lead to a failure of the president.”

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