Those who once supported the president and his coup are starting to doubt his ability to rescue the country amid an economic crisis.
TUNIS—In 2019, Kais Saied won Tunisia’s early presidential elections with an overwhelming majority: more than 72 percent of the vote. Unaffiliated with a political party, the constitutional law professor seduced Tunisian voters because of his eloquence in literary Arabic and, especially, his apparent political integrity, since he never held any political position.
During the first two years of his mandate, the newly elected president seemed to be more of a figurehead than a political decision-maker. This can be partially explained by Tunisia’s semi-presidential regime, which limits presidential powers and gives more power to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People. Tunisians, however, criticized the president for his silence over the fiasco caused by the assembly’s deputies. Discontent among the public kept growing; and after a day of demonstrations on Republic Day, July 25, 2021, Saied dissolved parliament in a coup that he claimed was backed by the country’s constitution.
Tunisians, taken by surprise by the unexpected move, flooded the streets and celebrated. The next few days were filled with enthusiasm as Tunisians welcomed the post-coup era with more optimism; a number of young people organized neighborhood cleanup campaigns, and some grocery stores lowered their prices.
In the initial period following his coup, Saied seemed to fulfill his electoral promises of bringing to justice those accused of corruption by placing many judges and legislators under house arrest and a travel ban. In parallel, Saied, leveraging people’s excitement about his coup, began gradually establishing an authoritarian regime; journalists and activists who criticized the president were arrested while some assembly members who became opposition figures were tried in military courts.
Saied’s intentions to assume power and rule alone were confirmed after he changed the 2014 constitution to serve his own interests and put it to a referendum vote. The new constitution was approved despite the high abstention rate (69.5 percent). This low turnout didn’t discourage the Tunisian president from organizing legislative elections, the second round of which took place on Jan. 29, with a record low voter turnout of 11.3 percent. (By contrast, in the 2019 presidential elections, young people organized Saied’s electoral campaign, and around 90 percent of Tunisians ages 18 to 25 voted for him during the second round.)
Young people organized Saied’s electoral campaign in 2019.
They are now abandoning him.
However, young voters now seem to be abandoning Saied; those over age 46 accounted for 77 percent of the voters in January. Foreign Policy spoke to young Tunisians who supported Saied’s coup in 2021 but switched sides after more than two years under his rule. (All of those interviewed for this article requested that only their first names be published.)
Syrine, 24, working in a call center in the capital of Tunis, said she was impressed with the boldness of Saied’s move back in July 2021. “No president before him dared to take this sensitive step,” she said. “Personally, I was very optimistic since I saw in this controversial decision a strong political will to change things for the better.”
For Elyes, who works in a travel agency, supporting Saied’s coup was a default choice, since he, like many Tunisians, opposed the assembly. “I didn’t vote for him during the 2019 presidential elections, and I wouldn’t under any more stable context,” the 27-year-old said.“In 2021, given the circumstances and the decadent political class, he wasn’t the best alternative—rather, the least bad option.”
Other young Tunisians who used to support Saied believe that he answered the people’s call. “Two years ago, Saied symbolically helped the Tunisian people exercise their sovereignty; on Republic Day, protests all over the country demanded the dissolution of the parliament,” said 22-year-old Jamil, an undergraduate business student. “It was like a second [Jasmine] Revolution; the people wanted, and the president executed.”
Those who voted for Saied in the 2019 elections were the most fervent supporters of the coup, and they ignored the many local and international observers who expressed their concerns regarding the possible drift toward authoritarianism. Nesrine, who voted for Saied in both rounds of the 2019 presidential election, said the president’s coup made her finally feel that she made the right choice in 2019. “The last decade taught us that this country needs a leader who rules it with an iron fist,” the 28-year-old banker said. “Regardless of how drastic his decision was, it was about time to end the assembly’s fiasco and polish Tunisia’s image.”