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Tunisia's President Saied makes moves to become more powerful

NOEL KING, HOST:

Tunisia was the first country to overthrow its dictator during the Arab Spring in 2011. And it is the only democracy to have emerged from that period. And yet Tunisia's president recently moved to dissolve parliament and consolidate his own power. But many Tunisians are standing behind him.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley explains what's going on.

LEILA BEN GACEM: (Speaking Arabic).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Leila Ben Gacem is an entrepreneur who runs a guesthouse in the Tunis Medina. She describes the reaction this summer when Tunisia's president, Kais Saied, said he was dissolving parliament, firing the prime minister and would run the country himself.

BEN GACEM: All you hear is cars in the streets beeping - bamp, bamp, bap-bap, bamp (laughter). We were sitting on the beach with my family. The whole beach started singing the national anthem, I swear (laughter). Even my mom started dancing (laughter).

BEARDSLEY: That's because the economy was plunging, COVID was exploding and lawmakers squabbling says Ben Gacem. She likens Tunisia's parliament to a souk where votes were bought and sold. So far from believing the country is on a path toward dictatorship, a majority of Tunisians feel the president has hit the reset button and is saving the country. Here are two of them - Amina Saharaoui and Ahmed Ouali.

AMINA SAHARAOUI: Kais is our hope to Tunisia to be better.

AHMED OUALI: Is the only man which we have hope, unfortunately.

SAHARAOUI: We are students. And we vote for him - we voted for him.

BEARDSLEY: Young people voted overwhelmingly for Saied when he ran for president in 2019 because he was outside the political party system.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEARDSLEY: Ensconced between the old craftsmen in the tiny alleyways of the Medina is Ali Aman's trendy, pink frozen yogurt shop called Candy. The 38-year-old started the chain three years ago.

ALI AMAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Aman says Saied is nothing short of a miracle. He points to the mismanagement of the last decade and says political parties had their corrupt fingers in every pie until Saied ended it all in one day. The one getting most of the blame is the Islamist party Ennahda. They've run the country for most of the past decade. They emerged after the revolution as the leading party because their members were particularly persecuted by dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But Tunisians say Ennahda squandered that goodwill because of nepotism and corruption.

Shokran. So we're at the headquarters of Ennahda. And we had to take a temperature test to get in. Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi. Thank you very much (ph).

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor.

Ahmed Gaaloul is a top Ennahda official. He says his party was not able to meet the high expectations after the revolution and accepts some of the blame. But the way the president has usurped power is only going to make things worse, he says.

AHMED GAALOUL: What the president has done is a coup. And one cannot give any legitimacy to a coup d'etat or to a dictatorship or despotism. President could have called for elections. And then he could have given the right to the people to decide.

BEARDSLEY: A few thousand Islamists and far-leftists protested Saied's power grab last week. But they're still a minority.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Unintelligible).

BEARDSLEY: Software company CEO Samy Achour says the real problem is the country's economy, which has deteriorated since the revolution.

SAMY ACHOUR: People here, if you feed them and they can send their kids to school and they have health care and they have a place to stay, you know, they'll be happy, believe it or not, even if they have a dictatorship, as long as they have an acceptable standard of living.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT KAIS SAIED: (Speaking Arabic).

BEARDSLEY: Last week, President Kais Saied named a new government. And he's being applauded for appointing Tunisia's first woman prime minister.

Software developer Achour says while support for this new government is enormous, it won't last long if there aren't economic results very soon.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Tunis.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "REFLECTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.