Two years after vaulting to power as a nerdy, conservative outsider, Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, tests another paradox: Can he save the Arab Spring’s only democracy through arguably undemocratic means?There is no immediate answer, more than halfway through a 30-day suspension of parliament that Saied ordered last month — and later hinted at extending — after seizing emergency powers amid Tunisia’s many crises.Since then, the 63-year-old president has moved swiftly to crack down on alleged corruption, lifting parliamentary immunity and arresting officials tied to the phosphate industry, but also targeting lawmakers critical of him. He enlisted the army, which so far appears to support him, for a major COVID-19 vaccination drive to fight a galloping pandemic.But Saied has yet to replace the government he ousted in late July or offer a comprehensive plan for emerging from the political and economic turmoil gripping the North African country.Some hoped he might set milestones Friday, which marked an important date for Tunisian women’s rights. But instead of making a keynote speech, he visited female artisans.FILE – Tunisians walk past a military armored personnel carrier at Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, July 30, 2021. Political turmoil in Tunisia has left its allies in the Middle East and West watching to see if the fragile democracy will survive.As many Tunisians and some hardline Arab governments root him on, rivals decry a coup. Rights groups and pundits worry about shrinking freedoms and a restrained response thus far from Western governments — although a U.S. delegation visiting Tunis on Friday urged Saied to “urgently” appoint a new prime minister and swiftly restore the country’s parliamentary democracy.“The question is: What will Saied do now?” said Brahim Oumansour, a North Africa analyst for the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, a Paris-based research organization.“Will he really carry through the big reforms he promised Tunisians, and keep these new powers temporarily to deal with the crisis? Or will he keep them long term?”Unlikely candidateA constitutional scholar with no political party backing him and a penchant for long-windedness, Saied seemed an unlikely presidential candidate in 2019, as he bucked Tunisia’s establishment politics.He waged a shoestring campaign on the streets and online.Seemingly stiff and austere, he earned nicknames like RoboCop and Robespierre, after the French revolutionary, yet rocketed to victory, capturing nearly three-quarters of the runoff vote.Saied’s clean image also earned him the backing of young voters fed up with growing corruption — and despite his conservative stances in areas like homosexuality and gender equality in inheritance.But he clashed with the country’s gridlocked parliament and its most powerful member, the moderate Islamist Ennahdha party that has been a major player in post-revolution Tunisia.FILE – Tunisian President Kais Saied waves to bystanders as he strolls along the Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, Aug. 1, 2021.”His conservative stances could have facilitated dialogue with Ennahdha,” analyst Oumansour said, comparing Saied unfavorably with his experienced predecessor, Beji Caid Essebsi. “It could have helped him reach a consensual outcome to better steer the country, but he chose to feed divisions within parliament to reinforce his powers.”Popular for nowFor now, many ordinary Tunisians see Saied as a savior, not a spoiler. Instead of getting better, life has gotten harder since the euphoric revolutionary days a decade ago, which touched off the wider Arab Spring revolt.The coronavirus pandemic — driving Tunisia’s death rate to the highest in the Middle East and Africa — deepened poverty, unemployment and the country’s fiscal crisis. Many blamed the government’s shambolic pandemic response on bickering parties, starting with Ennahdha. Saied’s power grab followed anti-government demonstrations and attacks on Ennahdha offices.FILE – Tunisia’s President Kais Saied presides at a security meeting with members of the army and police forces in Tunis, July 25, 2021.“Kais Saied has opened the door on the unknown … and a breath of fresh air,” Tunisian writer Emna Belhaj Yahia opined in France’s Le Monde newspaper, describing Tunisians as asphyxiated by their myriad woes. “Only this possibility can explain their joy.”“I think the president has a bit of a grace period when it comes to the streets,” Fadil Aliriza, editor in chief for Tunisian news website Meshkal, said in a recent forum hosted by London policy research group Chatham House.But unless Saied brings other political and social actors on board, Aliriza added, “his political capital may diminish very quickly.”The president already has dismissed Ennahdha’s call for a national dialogue, which helped Tunisia emerge from an earlier crisis, saying at least when it came to the Islamist party, no discussion was possible with “cancerous cells.”Critics say sidelining Ennahdha, representing a still sizable chunk of Tunisian voters, does not bode well for democracy.Tougher response?Rights groups also are alarmed at the closure of news channel Al-Jazeera’s Tunis office a day after Saied’s power move. And while a number of Western governments, including former colonial power France, have called for restoring democracy and the rule of law, analysts urge a sharper response.The United States and European nations need to “take tougher lines, even if behind the scenes,” said the International Crisis Group research organization, to commit Saied to a detailed road map by October for getting democracy back on track.Others suggest conditioning Tunisia’s receipt of International Monetary Fund assistance, now under negotiation, to adhering to democracy markers like rule of law and accountability.Yet Western concerns about maintaining stability and security in the Arab world have traditionally outweighed pro-democracy rhetoric, analyst Oumansour noted.“Western leaders have a key role to play to support Tunisia,” he added. “For the moment, Tunisia is a democracy that’s succeeded, despite its fragility and uncertainty.”Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

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