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Tunisia appears to be losing its democratic gains, 12 years after its revolution

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Almost 12 years ago, Tunisians overthrew an autocrat and began building a democracy. But today, rights groups worry that Tunisia is throwing out those gains and heading back to autocracy. This weekend's parliamentary elections could cement that fate. Morning Edition host Leila Fadel returned to the place where Tunisia's revolution began to understand how the country got to this point.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: So we're in Sidi Bouzid now?

SHELBY BEN BRAHIM, BYLINE: Yeah.

FADEL: This is central Sidi Bouzid?

BEN BRAHIM: This is the center of Sidi Bouzid. That's the portrait of Mohamed Bouazizi on the wall over there.

FADEL: That's our Tunisian producer, Shelby Ben Brahim, pointing out a portrait of Mohamed Bouazizi that covers the facade of a building. He's the street vendor who set himself on fire in front of the governor's office on December 17, 2010, after a police officer confiscated his fruit cart. The story goes that before he doused himself in gasoline, he asked, how do you expect me to make a living? His desperate act started a revolution that overthrew a dictator.

BEN BRAHIM: That is the exact location here.

FADEL: So right in the middle of the street.

BEN BRAHIM: Right in the middle of the street, in front of the door.

FADEL: Everything started right here. And now maybe everything is destroyed also.

The main memorial is erected in a traffic circle called martyrs' square. There's a giant beige replica of the cart taken from him. It's emblazoned with black graffiti - the date Bouazizi set himself on fire and another date, October 13, 2019.

BEN BRAHIM: That's the date Kais Saied was elected. And there it is written, ash-shab yurid, which is Kais Saied's slogan. That shows how much hope people had in Kais Saied.

FADEL: The political outsider, a retired law professor who ran for president on an anti-corruption platform and won the election by a landslide - people hoped he'd break the political paralysis, the infighting in Parliament and eradicate corruption in the midst of an economic crisis made worse by the pandemic.

BEN BRAHIM: There's another thing I have to show you.

FADEL: Yeah.

BEN BRAHIM: Here it says, Museum of the Revolution. And it has been inaugurated in 2013, but it's just an empty yard inside. Nothing has been done since. So when people in Sidi Bouzid say that they feel neglected by the government, this shows it.

FADEL: Today, Sidi Bouzid is still one of the poorest governorates in the country, and unemployment has crept up over the last decade - not just here but across the country. Tunisia is in a socioeconomic crisis that threatens to bankrupt public institutions. It's only deepened by the war in Ukraine, food shortages, soaring energy prices and rising inflation. Now, Saied's wild popularity is waning. In a town on the outskirts of the city, we meet with Wasseem Jday. He leads the province's unemployment association.

WASSEEM JDAY: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: He takes us to his sister's house for lunch. At 31, like those he tries to help, he can't afford his own home. And he's still single.

JDAY: (Through interpreter) It's all connected. I mean, to get married, you need to have a fixed income. You need to have a house. You need to be capable of spending on your families. There's none of this. I have a degree of sports teacher, but I'm unemployed.

FADEL: How long have you been unemployed?

JDAY: (Through interpreter) Eleven years.

FADEL: Thinking about what you wanted in 2011, has any of it become a reality in 2022?

JDAY: (Through interpreter) I don't want to say that the situation was better before, but the reality is that the situation has gotten much worse, especially for the youth. We are hopeless. We lost hope. There's nothing in the horizon.

FADEL: You know, Tunisia was talked about for the longest time as the bright spot of the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, the place where democracy was being built in a real way. But in the last year, people talk about democracy being dead in Tunisia.

JDAY: (Through interpreter) It's true that Tunisia is the starting point of - they called Arab Spring. I mean, everything started here. And Tunisia have taken few steps towards democracy and democratic transitions. And then we cannot talk about democracy anymore after what happened on July 25.

FADEL: On July 25, 2021, the Tunisian president dissolved the elected Parliament and assumed its powers.

JDAY: (Through interpreter) There was a mixture between happiness and fear; fear because we didn't know where are we going?

FADEL: And the happiness was?

JDAY: (Through interpreter) Because of this change.

FADEL: At first, like Jday, most Tunisians were relieved for the Parliament to go. It was paralyzed by infighting and unable to solve the socioeconomic crisis. But then Saied started to sack government ministers, governors, judges and replace them with loyalists. He suspended the 2014 post-revolution Constitution and then replaced it by referendum. And he implemented laws to suppress his critics.

JDAY: (Through interpreter) We understood then that we are going into a dictatorship. We had a fear of losing the liberty and freedom that was our only gain since 2011.

FADEL: He wanted change, yes, but he didn't want to throw out democracy. And that, he says, is what is happening.

The slogan of the revolution was work, dignity and freedom. Do you have work?

JDAY: No.

FADEL: Do you have freedom?

JDAY: No.

FADEL: Do you have dignity?

JDAY: No.

FADEL: Wasseem Jday is boycotting the election. He says he won't co-sign Saied’s power grab.

Back in the center of Sidi Bouzid, Iman Gharbi tries to find cheap winter coats for her two children at a used clothes stand. Her husband is out of work, and she's sick with cancer.

IMAN GHARBI: (Through interpreter) You cannot even think about how to make money now. All you think about is how to eat.

FADEL: But she doesn't blame the president. She blames the years of bad leadership that came before him.

GHARBI: (Through interpreter) We have big hopes in our president. We expect him to change things. But people around him don't want him to make change. They're trying to get us angry, as angry as possible so that we get mad at him and tell him to leave.

FADEL: What do you want him to change?

GHARBI: (Through interpreter) A lot of people who studied and have degrees and don't get work, but those who have money, they pay bribe and get to work. So we want them to fight corruption.

FADEL: And then what do you say to people who say he's not democratic, he's putting all the power in his hands?

GHARBI: (Through interpreter) No, I think he's very democratic, and he's fighting for the poor ones. And those who claim that he's not democratic are the ones who don't want good stuff for Tunisia.

FADEL: She's voting this weekend. We leave Gharbi and head to a cafe nearby.

Hi.

BAHADINE ENSIRI: Hi.

WAJDI NAJI: Hello.

FADEL: What's your name?

NAJI: My name is Wajdi Naji.

FADEL: He's sitting with his friend, Bahadine Ensiri. They're both in their 20s. They're both unemployed, and they're both not voting. Naji describes their life in one repeated sentence.

NAJI: (Through interpreter) Wake up, smoke, get drunk, sleep, wake up, smoke, get drunk, sleep - that's our life. It's either we think about migrating illegally or about smuggling some stuff to sell it here into the country. And that's it.

FADEL: They say since the revolution, politicians have brought them none of the promises of a better life. And that question that Bouazizi asked on the day he set himself on fire all those years ago - how do you expect me to make a living? - it's still the question so many people ask in his city and his country.

SUMMERS: That was Morning Edition host Leila Fadel reporting from Tunisia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.