TUNIS, Tunisia — Nearly three months after Tunisians toppled their dictator in January 2011 in an explosion of protests that electrified the Arab world, Ali Bosselmi felt nothing but “pure happiness.”
The decade that followed, during which the Tunisian people adopted a new constitution, gained freedom of expression and voted in free and fair elections, brought Mr. Bosselmi its own rewards. He co-founded a gay rights group – an impossibility prior to 2011, when the gay scene was forced to hide deep underground.
But as the high hopes of revolution turned into political chaos and economic failure, Mr. Buselmi, like many Tunisians, said he began to wonder if his country would be better off with a single ruler to work for. would be powerful enough.
“I ask myself, what have we done to democracy?” Mawjoudin’s executive director, Mr Bosselmi, 32, said in Arabic, which means “we exist”. “We have corrupt members of parliament, and if you go down the street, you can see people can’t even buy sandwiches. And then suddenly, there came a magic wand saying that things were about to change. “
That stick was held by Tunisia’s democratically elected President Kais Saied, who on July 25 sealed parliament and fired the prime minister, vowing to attack corruption and return power to the people. It was a power grab that was greeted with joy and relief by the overwhelming majority of Tunisians.
July 25 makes it more difficult than ever to tell an optimistic story about the Arab Spring.
Held by Western supporters and Arab sympathizers as proof that democracy could blossom in the Middle East, Tunisia now looks to many as the final confirmation of its failed promise of rebellion. The birthplace of Arab revolts, it is now ruled by a single man’s decree.
Elsewhere, the wars that followed the insurgency have ravaged Syria, Libya and Yemen. The autocrats strangled the protest in the Gulf. The Egyptians elected a president before adopting a military dictatorship.
Nevertheless, the revolutions proved that even the traditionally top-to-bottom power could be driven through a burning road.
It was a lesson that Tunisians, who recently flooded the streets again to demonstrate against parliament and for Mr. Saeed, have reaffirmed. This time, however, the people attacked democracy, not an autocracy.
“The Arab Spring will continue,” predicted Tarek Magerisi, a North Africa expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “No matter how much you try to suppress it or how much the environment around it changes, desperate people will still try to secure their rights.”
Mr. Syed’s popularity stems from the same complaints that a decade ago prompted Tunisians, Bahrainis, Egyptians, Yemenis, Syrians and Libyans to protest – corruption, unemployment, repression and an inability to make ends meet. Ten years later, the Tunisians found themselves holding back on almost everything except freedom of expression.
“We got nothing from the revolution,” said 48-year-old Hoyum Bukchina, a resident of Jabal Ahmar, a working-class neighborhood in the capital Tunis. “We still don’t know what the plan is, but we live by hope,” she said of Mr. Saeed.
But popular reactions can still pose a threat to autocracy.
Analysts warned that in keeping with the growing grievances of their people, Arab rulers have doubled down on repression rather than addressing the issues, their ruthlessness only inviting more turmoil in the future.
In Mr. Saeed’s case, his bets depend on economic progress. Tunisia is facing an imminent financial crisis, with billions in debt coming in this fall. If the government fires government employees and cuts salaries and subsidies, if prices and employment do not improve, public sentiment is likely to take a U-turn.
An economic collapse would cause problems not only for Mr. Said, but also for Europe, whose coasts attract desperate Tunisian migrants in boats by the thousands every year.
Yet Mr. Saeed’s office has not made any contact with International Monetary Fund officials, who are awaiting talks of a bailout, according to a senior Western diplomat. Nor has he taken any measures other than requesting the chicken vendors and iron traders to reduce the prices, stating that it is their national duty.
“People didn’t necessarily support Saeed, they just hated what Saeed broke,” Mr Magerci said. “When they find out he’s not delivering for them, it will be over very quickly.”
For Western governments, which initially supported the rebellions, then returned to partnering with autocrats in the name of stability, Tunisia served as a reminder to inspire Arab protesters a decade ago. can – and can bring them back on the streets.
While many protesters called for democracy, others raised slogans for more concrete results: an end to corruption, low food prices, jobs.
From the outside, it was easy to appease the hundreds of thousands of protesters who thronged Cairo’s Tahrir Square, easy to forget the millions of Egyptians who stayed at home.
“Parliament, democracy, people pushing for freedom, we were not the biggest part of the revolution,” said Yasin Ayari, an independent Tunisian parliamentarian recently imprisoned after condemning Mr Sayed’s power grab. Gave. “Maybe a lot of Tunisians didn’t want revolution. Maybe people just want beer and security. That’s a tough question, a question I don’t want to ask myself.”
“But I don’t blame the people. We had a chance to show them how democracy can change their lives, and we failed.
The revolution equipped the Tunisians with some tools to solve problems, but not the solutions they had hoped for, Mr. Ayari said. He said he had little patience for the time-consuming mess of democracy, with more needs than experience in governance.
A constitution, ballot boxes and a parliament did not automatically give rise to opportunity or accountability, a situation that may sound all too familiar to Westerners. Parliament descended into name-calling and fighting. Political parties were formed and re-formed without offering better ideas. Corruption spread.
“I don’t think Western-style liberal democracy can or should be something that can simply be parachuted,” said Elizabeth Kendall, a scholar of Arabic and Islamic studies at Oxford University. “You can’t just read ‘Liberal Democracy 101’, assimilate it, write a constitution and expect everything to go well. Elections are just the beginning.”
Arab intellectuals often say that it took decades to convert France into a democracy after the revolution. Eastern Europe and parts of Africa saw similar ups and downs in leaving dictatorships behind.
Opinion polls show that a vigorous majority across the Arab world still supports democracy. But almost half of the respondents say that their own countries are not ready for it. Tunisians, in particular, have evolved to associate it with economic decline and dysfunction.
His experience has left Tunisians still believing in the abstract in democracy, but wanting for now what Tunisian constitutional law professor Adnan Limm called a “short-term dictatorship”.
Still, Ms. Kendall cautioned that it was too early to declare the revolutions dead.
In Tunisia, a rejection of the system that has developed over the past decade does not necessarily lead to an embrace of one-man rule. As Mr. Saeed has arrested more opponents and taken more control, suspended most of the constitution last month and seized the sole right to make laws, more Tunisians – especially the secular, affluent people – are uneasy. are gone.
“Someone had to do something, but now it’s paying off,” said Aza Bel Jafar, 67, a pharmacist in the upscale Tunis suburb of La Marsa. She said she initially supported Mr Saeed’s actions, partly out of fear of the Ennahda, the Islamist party that dominates parliament and many Tunisians blamed for the country’s ills.
“I hope there will be no more Islamism,” she said, “but I am not for dictatorship either.”
Some pro-democracy Tunisians are basking in the idea that the younger generation will not readily surrender the freedoms they have grown up with.
“We haven’t invested in a democratic culture for 10 years without doing anything,” said Zahor Ben Mabarek, a former friend and colleague of Sayed. “One day, they will see that it is indeed their freedom in danger, and they will change their mind.”
Others say there is still time to save Tunisia’s democracy.
Despite Mr Saeed’s increasingly authoritarian actions, he has not proceeded systematically to crack down on opposition protests, and recently told French President Emmanuel Macron that he would engage in talks to resolve the crisis.
“Let’s see if democracy can reform itself,” said Yusuf Cherif, a Tunis-based political analyst.
Mr Bosselmi, a gay rights activist, is concerned about whether gay rights can proceed under one-man rule.
“I don’t know. Will I admit to forgetting my activism for the sake of the economy?” Mr. Bousselmi said. “I really want things to start changing in the country, but we will have to pay a very heavy price.”