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PoliticsMiddle East

Tunisia: Torn between anger and hope

October 19, 2022

Tunisians have taken to the streets to protest against President Kais Saied. His future depends on whether he is able to find a solution to the economic crisis, say analysts.

People take part in a demonstration by the National Salvation Front against President Kais Saïed
Thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to protest against President Kais Saied last weekend Image: Hassene Dridi/AP/picture alliance

Tunisian President Kais Saied's hopes are probably turned towards Washington at the moment. A Tunisian delegation and the International Economic Fund (IMF) just signed a preliminary agreement on a $1.9 billion (€1.94bn) loan.

Tunisia desperately needs the funds if it is to meet its enormous economic challenges. However, the loan still has to be approved by the IMF's Executive Board, which is scheduled to discuss this in December.

Whether the deal will be able to soothe the current discontent of the population remains to be seen.

Last weekend, thousands of citizens took to the streets of the capital Tunis to voice their anger against the president. "Get out, get out," they chanted, according to media reports.

"What is happening is a natural result of the sedative phenomenon that President Kais Saied symbolizes," Salim Boukhdhir, a left-wing political activist and dissident, told DW.

For him, it is clear that "the president has turned his back on the country's real problems, adopted a populist political rhetoric and isolated Tunisia from the modern international community."

Boukhdhir is not alone with this opinion.

In the eyes of many protesters, Saied is not only responsible for the political deterioration of the country, which they say he only exacerbated by dissolving parliament earlier this year and his ousting of the prime minister in July.

In their view, he has proved incapable of halting the ongoing economic decline, from which the country has suffered for years, and which has been exacerbated by the consequences of Russia's war against Ukraine.

Higher energy and wheat prices have already made life more difficult for the Tunisian population but it could get worse with the IMF loan, which if it is approved, comes with certain conditions, including for example the abolishment of sanctions, more regulation and taxation of the informal labor sector. The IMF argues that this will help to boost tax revenues.  

It is concern about the present and the future that is driving protesters onto the streets. "We expect the protests to reach their peak in the months of December and January next year," Abderrahmane Hadhili, president of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, told DW.

Police, protesters and tear gas
There were also clashes with the police during the demonstrations last weekendImage: Yassine Gaidi/AA/picture alliance

Uneasy alliance

But Maite Gaier, the head of the Tunisia office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, said that it was not certain that the protests currently carried enough momentum to mobilize people in the long term.

"The rallies were organized by two camps," he told DW. The first, he explained, is the Free Destourian Party (PDL), a populist party that draws primarily on the legacy of former President Habib Bourguiba, as well as that of his authoritarian successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia between 1987 and 2011.

The second, he said, is the National Salvation Front, an alliance of parties and organizations that includes the leftist initiative Citizens against the Coup and the Islamist Ennahda party.

He said that though the organizers had managed to draw several thousand people onto the streets, this was not that impressive in terms of numbers. He said that parties were less able to mobilize citizens than in the past, "as a consequence of the closure of the parliament, as well as the negative image of political parties because of the economic stagnation."

Moreover, he said, there were divisions within the protest movement itself. "The PDL and Ennahdah have a certain natural incompatibility," he said.

This meant that other key players had more potential to mobilize people, he suggested. He said that "how many Tunisians take to the streets [...] regardless of their political preferences" would largely depend on the National Trade Union Federation (UGTT). "People are primarily concerned with economic grievances," he added.

Shelves of some sugar products as biscuits are empty in a supermarket in Ariana, suburb of Tunis
Certain staple foods are scarce or not available at all in TunisiaImage: Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Economic disappointments

In wake of the economic setbacks of previous years, many citizens had initially hoped that Saied's appointment in 2019 would help to improve the country's economic situation.

But quite the opposite has happened. In supermarkets, there are shortages of flour, milk, butter, vegetable oil, sugar, coffee, rice and other staple foods. In the north, there is often no fuel to be found at gas stations.

The population is also struggling with inflation,  which in September was officially 9.1%, according to Tunisia's National Institute of Statistics.

Tunisia's President Kais Saied
President Kais Saied's political future depends on whether he can find solutions to the economic situation Image: Jdidi Wassim/SOPA/ZUMA/picture alliance

President under pressure

Saied's reputation will depend largely on whether he is able to surmount the  economic crisis. If approved, the IMF loan, even if it is considerably lower than the original $4 billion hoped for, will play a key role but it will not suffice for now, explained Malte Gaier of the Adenauer Foundation.

"The country also has to deal with the enormous problem of a completely overstretched civil service," he said. "This will have to be cut back but that will further exacerbate the economic crisis." 

"The country faces enormous problems and the future of Kais Saied's presidency will also depend on how he deals with them."

Is Tunisia on a path to dictatorship?

Tarak Guizani contributed to this report.

This article was translated from German by Jennifer Holleis.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East