Tunis, Tunisia – President Kais Saied has made a mark since coming into office in 2019, from his suspension of parliament and dismissal of the government in 2021 – seen by his opponents as a “coup” – to the imprisonment of many opposition leaders, reduction of the independence of the judiciary and rhetoric that has been blamed for a wave of anti-refugee and -migrant violence in Tunisia.
Over his time in office, the economy has continued to weaken. Prices have risen, and the subsidised food that many rely on is scarce. Refugees of all stripes continue to depart in their thousands, trying to get to Europe on treacherous boats.
Saied had the constitution redrafted to put more power in the hands of the president. It passed in a referendum, but set a record for low voter turnout.
International observers have been paying close attention to the developments, watching as the country transformed from the hope of the Arab Spring protests in 2011 to a place rights groups repeatedly warn about as democratic freedoms are curtailed and people are increasingly at risk of hunger.
The country’s currency, the dinar, currently stands at a fraction of its former value, and Tunisia continues to operate with a budget deficit. As of March, government debt stood at $37.7bn.
Potential lifelines, such as a near $2bn bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a June aid package agreed with the European Union, depend on reforms and stipulations being met. But Saied has so far showed little indication that he plans to do so.
The consequences are falling hardest on Tunisia’s poor, who rely on subsidised staple goods.
While Tunisia is seeking to join the expanding BRICS bloc of emerging economies, the United States and Europe have historically had more influence in the North African country.
Moreover, as the chief shareholder in the IMF, US political opinion matters.
Nevertheless, Saied has at times appeared to go to pains to alienate one of his principal allies.
Rebuffing any criticism from the US in favour of a fixation on the country’s sovereignty, his actions have led to US plans to cut aid to Tunisia and halt numerous development projects.
A congressional aide to Chris Murphy, chairperson of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, told Al Jazeera that a number of senators in Congress were “incredibly concerned by the democratic backsliding that has occurred in Tunisia over the last two years”.
“What was a once-promising democracy has now all but collapsed into an autocracy,” the aide said.
However, according to analysts such as Tunis-based Hamza Meddeb of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, international misgivings over the political direction of Tunisia predate Saied’s dismissal of parliament.
While many in the West had championed what was lauded as Tunisia’s post-revolution democratic transition, concerns from bodies such as the IMF over the country’s entirely unreconstructed economy, national debt and the endless factionalism of politicians were expressed before 2021.
At that time, despite significant misgivings, some abroad came to view Saied’s power grab as almost inevitable. “Many hoped that the strongman would take charge and finally reform the economy, and why not?” Meddeb said.
Many in the West, including the EU, “pressed the president to enter into dialogue with his opponents and publish his roadmap for reform, rather than objecting to the way he took power”, Meddeb added.
Instead, Saied actively resisted calls for reform.
“There seem to be two different things going on,” said former US ambassador to Tunisia Gordon Gray, who helped shape American policy on the country through the tumultuous years from 2009 to 2012. “On the one hand, it’s as if he has no awareness of the importance of the international community to Tunisia. On the other hand, I struggle to accept that an educated man could believe that. Perhaps a better question would be, does he care, and looking at his economic policies, I’d say no, he doesn’t.”
Saied’s one saving economic grace appears to be migration.
According to the Italian Ministry of Interior, 42,719 people have left for Europe from Tunisia this year. As the boats have landed, populist politicians from across Europe, not least Italy, have fanned the flames of panic, pushing Tunisia to the top of the European policy agenda, irrespective of the president’s authoritarian ambitions.
While large numbers of those making the treacherous crossing into Europe are Tunisians escaping the economic cul-de-sac many regard their country as having become, others come from sub-Saharan Africa, fleeing Tunisia after the president referred to efforts to change Tunisia’s demography in a February speech, which has been widely denounced as racist. Saied accused sub-Saharan Africans of bringing “violence, crime and unacceptable practices” to Tunisia. A wave of attacks against refugees and migrants has followed.
While that speech, dismissed as a “misunderstanding” by Tunisian authorities, drew intense criticism from around the world, including the African Union, the issue of migration has bought Tunisia a little bit of time.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, visited Tunisia in June and announced that the EU would give it 105 million euros ($113m) to help bolster its border security. The commission has also included 150 million euros ($161m) to maintain its economy.
But the move has been controversial. The announcement was blasted by many in the European Parliament, including Dutch member Sophie in ‘t Veld, who called Saied “cruel” and a “dictator” whose actions had increased the number of departures.
Another, Michael Gahler of the German Christian Democratic Union, told Al Jazeera what the EU now expected of Tunisia.
“They will, of course, continue to accept our financial support, de facto intended to limit migration from their shores, but not follow any [of the European Parliament’s] demands to remedy the political issues, foremost the return to the constitutional order.”
The European Commission has been consistent in framing the deal as business as usual. “Our partnership is based on the principles and values of democracy, rule of law and human rights,” a spokesperson told Al Jazeera. “It is on [these] strong premises that we are addressing the political, socioeconomic and migration challenges in Tunisia.”
Saied, however, is constantly accused of undermining those values, thereby isolating the country.
“Taken on its own, Tunisia is a small and relatively marginal state,” Meddeb said. “It had democracy, which was the only thing that put the country under the spotlight and increased its relevance. He’s got rid of that and reduced it to a pariah state.”
“There was a cliche that Tunisia had got lost in transition. It still is. Tunisia is still lost in transitions,” Meddeb said. “It’s not a democracy, and it’s not a functional authoritarian state.”