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Most Tunisians support the president, despite his power grab

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We're going to hear now from Tunisia, where the country's young democracy is under threat. Tunisia went first in the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. An uprising cast off the country's autocrat, and Tunisians elected a government. But it's gotten messy, and the president has made a power grab, which has a lot of popular support. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in Tunis and joins us now. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi.

MCCAMMON: So can you tell us, first of all, about what the president has been doing that has raised concerns about the Tunisian democracy?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah. So on July 25, President Kais Saied fired the prime minister and froze the parliament. He said it was a temporary measure to stop corruption and to get the country back on track, and he assumed executive powers to run the country. He had did that using an article in the constitution. He said it was within his powers. He put several opponents under house arrest. Now the international community is very concerned, even though this week he did appoint a new Cabinet. They're concerned because the fate of democracy in, as you said it, the only country where the Arab Spring revolution that was deemed a success is sort of up in the air now. No one knows what's going to happen.

MCCAMMON: When you talk to people there, Eleanor, who support these moves, what are their reasons?

BEARDSLEY: Well, first of all, you might think, coming from a country that had a dictator, people would be alarmed by this. But it just - it seems to be the opposite. People cheered him, and pretty much everyone you talked to supports what he did. Some polls show as much as 80%, young and old - especially young people. They really like him. And the main reason is the parliament was seen as extremely corrupt and completely blocked. The big parties, people say, were blocking the country. Nothing was getting done. The economy's in terrible shape, and the straw that broke the camel's back was COVID, the delta variant. The parliament was very slow to react, and people said they held up vaccines from getting in. So while people were dying, they watched parliamentarians bicker. And I spoke with 52-year-old Hadhami Hachad, education program administrator here in Tunis, and here's what she told me.

HADHAMI HACHAD: I think that most of the people were very happy when he closed the parliament because we have had enough. The country was not advancing at all, you know. On the contrary, we were going backwards. I don't want democracy to be threatened in this country, but we want the country to be better.

BEARDSLEY: So people know they worked hard for their democracy, but they feel like the country needs to get back on track.

MCCAMMON: The president, Kais Saied, is secular, but there are Islamists in what is now the frozen parliament. What role does the Islamist movement play there in Tunisia?

BEARDSLEY: Well, first I'd like to say that Tunisia is a very relaxed Muslim country. Most women don't wear, you know, the head veil. And this party, Ennahda, is a long-time peaceful party. It's not extreme, but they want a conservative Tunisia. And it was actually very persecuted by the Ben Ali regime, the dictator. So right after the revolution, they were seen as superstars, and they were already organized. And so over the last 10 years, if they've not been in power, they've been part of ruling coalitions. And so people can point to them and say, you know, everything that has gone wrong is their fault, and they've done nothing. So now people really - they said they want them out. They want religion out of politics and government. And listen to 25-year-old engineer Hafsia Leghrissi, what she told me.

HAFSIA LEGHRISSI: We are a Muslim country, yes, but we must cut with the political Islam. Religion's - it's a personal thing. We want secular governments.

MCCAMMON: And, Eleanor, are there people who are trying to stand up for the idea of democracy itself?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, there are some activists, especially from the left. They're joining with the Islamist party to call this a coup. They say democracy is at risk, but they are vastly outnumbered. Most people seem ready to go with President Kais Saied and see if he can fix the country.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Tunis. Thanks, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.