Tunisia’s president Kais Saied (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

Tunisia’s president looked set to tighten his grip on the country’s political system on Monday—exactly one year after launching a counter-revolution.

Results of a referendum on a new constitution concentrating power in the hands of president Kais Saied were set to be announced as Socialist Worker went to press.

The referendum came a year after he launched a coup against the elected parliament. It was an assault on the last democratic gains of the Arab revolutions a decade ago. Under the cover of protests, Saied—backed by the police and the army—sacked the prime minister, froze parliament, and handed himself sweeping new powers last year.

Since then, he has dissolved the parliament completely and took control of judicial and electoral authorities. And he launched a crackdown on opposition party figures, including opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi, who faces charges of money laundering and “financing terrorism.”

Saied’s new constitution—shifting from a parliamentary to a presidential system—is an attempt to formalise this one-man rule. Yet Saied is already starting to run into trouble. When he launched the coup last year he was able to rely on widespread popular support.

Many ordinary people in Tunisia felt disillusioned by the parliamentary system installed after the 2010 revolution. Rather than fix the poverty and unemployment that drove the revolution, successive Tunisian governments pursued the free market policies that caused these in the first place.

Faced with an economic crisis, they accepted loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In return the IMF demanded cuts and reforms that benefitted big business but impoverished ordinary people. Corruption spread and unemployment rose. Saied presented his coup as a crusade against the corrupt parties that allowed a few at the top to enrich themselves while ordinary people suffered. 

In reality it was an attempt to find a way out of Tunisia’s political crisis for the country’s ruling class.

Saied has also failed to solve the economic crisis punishing ordinary people. He is in the middle of negotiating yet another loan from the IMF—which in turn has demanded yet more austerity. Support for Saied is crumbling as a result.

Public sector workers in the powerful UGTT union staged a one-day general strike last month after Saied froze their wages to appease the IMF. Strikes by the UGTT were central to overthrowing dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the 2010 revolution. And last month’s strike was one of the biggest challenges to Saied’s rule so far.

There is even some resistance to Saied from within the state. Judges struck after Saied sacked 57 of them as part of his moves to take control of the judiciary. The referendum result and turnout may not give him the veneer of legitimacy he wants.

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