Tunisia’s authoritarian president said he would dissolve the country’s elected local authorities in a further dismantling of democratic institutions, just as doubts over a critical $1.9bn IMF loan deal deepened its economic crisis.
Kais Saied has been redesigning the north African country’s political system to concentrate authority in his hands since a 2021 power grab when he suspended parliament and the democratic constitution drawn up following the 2011 uprising against dictatorship.
A new charter, drafted by Saied, was adopted after a referendum last year when fewer than a third of voters cast a ballot. It was followed by the election of a new parliament this year with weakened authority under new rules he put in place.
“We will discuss a decree to dissolve municipalities and replace them by special councils,” Kais said in a video message. A third of Tunisia’s local councils are controlled by the moderate Islamist Nahda party, which was the largest parliamentary bloc before the chamber was suspended.
As well as the attacks on institutions, Saied has in recent weeks escalated his crackdown against perceived opponents with a series of arrests of politicians, activists, businessmen and the head of an independent radio station. This has prompted a series of street protests in the capital Tunis.
Comments by Saied about migrants in the country that were widely viewed as racist led to the World Bank suspending discussions with Tunisia this week.
Saied has alleged a plot to settle sub-Saharan Africans in the country and distance it from its Arab and Islamic links. His words prompted violent attacks against migrants in Tunisia and drew a rebuke from the African Union.
“The safety and inclusion of migrants and minorities is part of our institution’s core values of inclusion, respect and anti-racism in all shapes and forms,” the World Bank said after the pause in talks.
Tunisia has been sinking deeper into economic crisis while reforms needed to secure the IMF loan agreement have been delayed. Saied has offered lukewarm support for the deal, saying in December that the lender did not have the solutions to Tunisia’s problems despite shortages of key imports such as oil and sugar.
Tunisian bonds continued to fall this week, with its dollar bond maturing in 2025 trading at 64 cents to the dollar on Thursday after starting the month at 68 cents to the dollar.
“Bonds sold off on fears of further delays in the IMF timetable due to recent statements from development partners that Tunisia relies on for financing,” said Alia Moubayed, managing director for fixed income strategy at investment bank Jefferies.
“Moreover, institutional investors are surprised by the disconnect between the progress made by the technocratic government on the key reforms needed for the IMF programme; and the rhetoric of the president who holds the ultimate political decision,” she added.
Taoufik Charfeddine, Saied’s interior minister, this week launched an angry and wide-ranging tirade against the president’s critics. “Journalists are mercenaries and traitors . . . businessmen, trade unionists and [political] parties have sold the country and allied themselves against the Tunisian people . . . they’re traitors,” he said.