The list of critics rounded up by Tunisia’s police is growing. Over the past few weeks the leaders of Islamist and secularist parties were dragged from their homes. Also behind bars are prominent critics, including lawyers, business executives and the director of a popular radio station. Mr Saied has criminalised dissent, hiding behind the absurd conspiracy theory that he was jailing “terrorists” and “traitors”. The president also launched an attack on the judiciary. He declared enemy “accomplices” those judges who might exonerate dissidents of the flimsy charge that they were part of a treasonous cabal.
Presidential scapegoats had included corrupt politicians, speculators and foreign agents. However, it took a repugnant turn into racism when Mr Saied picked on black migrants. Last month, he falsely claimed there had been a years-long plot to bring “hordes” of criminal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa to the country “to transform the demographic composition of Tunisia”.
The demagoguery inspired physical attacks on a tiny, vulnerable minority, many of whom were also taken in custody. While the president won praise from racist French politicians, it drew a sharp rebuke from African neighbours, who began evacuating their citizens last week.
Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab spring – and had been the Arab world’s only real democracy. It is now a one-man show shunned by voters. In December just 11% of the electorate turned out to cast ballots in elections to the new, toothless legislature. Mr Saied came to power because Tunisians had grown disillusioned with a political class that seemed unable to resolve the country’s problems. In the last decade, GDP has not grown more than 1% and unemployment has not fallen below 15%. Tunisia does have resources, both human and natural. But corruption and cronyism flourish.
With fuel and food prices rising, Tunisia is running short of dollars, and turned to the International Monetary Fund for a $2bn bailout. The money won’t be lent to a dictatorial regime without support from civil society – notably Tunisia’s powerful labour union – which Mr Saied has been repressing. If it were then the IMF runs the risk of the debt being repudiated by a new administration. The rising tide of migration from the country to Europe is a warning that the government is failing. Tunisians are likely to be in the streets. In 2010, the army sided with the protesters, not the regime. Whether history repeats itself is a gamble that the president, lacking subtlety or guile, unfortunately appears ready to take.