Tunis, Tunisia – The heat bears down, mixing with the acrid smell of rotting refuse, 54-year-old Issa Jawadi ignores it, busy at work.
Jawadi is surrounded by piles of rubbish that have spilled out from a skip in which he forages. This is how he earns a living – he has been collecting discarded plastic bottles since the revolution, more than a decade ago. Before that, he served nine and a half years in prison for reasons he does not want to go into.
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But, despite his difficult circumstances – and Tunisia’s continuing problems – Jawadi will not blame increasingly authoritarian President Kais Saied.
Instead, he supports him.
“I just feel free,” Jawadi tells Al Jazeera. “He won’t send me back to prison.”
Jawadi says he does not have much time for politics, but is still sure that Saied is free from the corruption that he believes taints many of the country’s politicians.
“He’s clean,” he says, wiping his hands to demonstrate the point.
Saied’s popularity should be on the floor.
Since suspending the country’s parliament and dismissing its prime minister and government in July 2021 – moves his opponents considered a “coup” – the president has ruled directly. During this period of personal rule, the economy has continued to flatline, shortages in staple goods have become commonplace, and international goodwill – maintained somewhat shakily since the 2011 revolution – has disappeared under a welter of high-profile political arrests and accusations of racism against Black refugees and migrants.
Polls in Tunisia are notoriously unreliable, but most of those conducted still appeared to indicate that Saied has retained significant support.
According to a June poll by Emrhod Consulting, 68.7 percent of those sampled said they would vote for Saied in the first round of any presidential election. On the streets, it is not uncommon to hear approval of the president, despite the country teetering on the brink of potential bankruptcy.
However, the depth of that support remains dubious. Aside from his hardcore supporters, rallies in favour of Saied have typically been underwhelming affairs, and the elections for his new, and much-weakened, parliament saw a record-breakingly low turnout in December.
Instead of blaming the president for the chronic condition of the country, the wider public is encouraged, through various prominent campaigns, to blame: the judiciary, the international community, NGOs, “profiteers”, the state administration, former politicians and undocumented Black refugees and migrants.
It has been part of Saied’s bid to paint the country’s problems as the fault of anyone but the government, and dovetailed nicely with his populist rhetoric.
In 2019, his campaign slogan was “The people want”, a riff on one of the chants of the revolution, was indicative of the former law professor’s attempts to distance himself from what much of the public had come to see as a corrupt and self-serving political elite. In the present, even his speeches on the price of bread are given using the rhetoric of “for ‘the people'”.
Like populist leaders the world over, Saied benefitted from widespread public discontent with the legislature that preceded his power grab.
As he travelled the country, talking to the unemployed and the dispossessed, politicians in the capital concentrated their efforts on pursuing internecine squabbles, publicity stunts and ignoring both the vicious excesses of the security services and an economy whose decline precipitated the revolution that had propelled many to power.
In particular, as the one constant in every post-revolutionary government until 2021, many have continued to blame the self-styled Muslim Democrats, Ennahdha, and their leader, Rachid Ghannouchi for everything from inflation to food shortages.
“It’s Ennahdha,” 30-year-old Bedis Nazri said emphatically while leaning on a white fence in central Tunis.
Despite not being in power for more than two years – and with its leaders in prison – Ennahdha has remained an object of suspicion for many in Tunisia.
“They have lots of money, so they’re using that to buy and store the food, then sell it to the public at increased prices,” Bedis said.
That perception predated Saied’s centralisation of power – there were accusations of corruption and worse against Ennahdha, often without evidence. The party has said the accusations are a legacy of their vilification by other parties and by the pre-revolution regime, when it was banned and its leaders in prison or exile.
Twelve years ago, both Bedis and his 28-year-old cousin Slim travelled from Jendouba, in the country’s northwest, to Tunis for a life that Slim jokingly described being “permanently unemployed”.
Neither has held a permanent job, despite possessing baccalaureate diplomas, and have spent the last decade employed as day labourers or gaining occasional shifts in Tunisia’s sprawling informal economy.
Now, competing for the scraps from an economy that appears almost predestined to fail, every dinar counts and suspicion of foreigners is at a premium.
Consequently, when Saied sought to lay the blame for the people’s suffering at the door of the irregular Black refugees and migrants who come to Tunis from sub-Saharan Africa to seek passage to Europe, it found a receptive audience in Slim and Bedis.
“There are too many of them here,” Slim said. “They’re affecting the job market. They’ll work for, say, 10 to 15 dinars [$3.24-$4.86] a day, which isn’t any good for us. It won’t allow us to feed ourselves.”
Asked if they would also go to Europe themselves, both laughed. “We’d go now,” Bedis said.
In the shopping districts of the capital’s historic medina, whose main streets have remained a draw for tourists, who have returned in numbers to the country’s coastal resorts, concerns were beginning to find air.
Away from the gaze of the public, a storekeeper, who gave his name as Mahmoud Tounsi – or Mahmoud “the Tunisian” – voiced his worries about the country’s direction since he voted for the president.
“Two years ago, we could talk about anything without it being scary. Now, this could be a big problem for me,” he said.
Switching to Arabic, he explained that Saied had fomented a mood across the country that was wary of difference and sought shelter in uniformity. However, while it has appealed to many, it was also coming at a cost, he said.
Tounsi gestured around his shop, at the antiques, some genuine, some shop-bought, that hung from his walls.
“It is hard,” he said. “The tourists are back, it’s true, but business is worse now than after 2011 and after the terrorist attacks of 2015,” when fighters affiliated to ISIL (ISIS) slaughtered tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis and at the coastal resort of Sousse.
“Half my business is with tourists, the other half with Tunisians who travel here from [the affluent suburbs of] Carthage and La Marsa. Now, they’re not coming. They don’t want to spend their money. They’re scared,” he said, “They’re scared of the future. They want to keep their money.”
“Saied’s project relies entirely upon enemies,” said Tunisian essayist Hatem Nafti, who recently published a book on the subject, Tunisia: towards an authoritarian populism?
“It’s the only way he [Saied] can explain the absence of progress,” Nafti said. “His greatest enemy is reality. He has all the power. From July 2021 to March of this year, [when the new parliament first sat] he ruled alone. Government was by decree, but still, there’s been no progress.”
“What we’re seeing is great power without responsibility,” Nafti continued, offering a particularly Tunisian take on the superhero trope, “Everything is to blame, but him. Firstly, it was the pandemic, then it was the old parliament, then it was the governors, then the judiciary, it goes on.”
“Everything is a conspiracy designed to keep the poor, poor,” and, by extension, the president helpless, “It’s working,” he said. “but it’ll only work for the short term. Eventually, people are going to need to see something.”
Support for Saied runs strongest in the urban working-class neighbourhoods, Nafti said, long the victims of both the state violence of the pre-revolutionary president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and the elected governments that followed him.
The arbitrary arrests and beatings of more than a thousand young people by the security services in 2021 – under Saied’s rule – has remained an especially vivid memory.
“[But] people look at the president, shrug, and say he can’t be any worse,” he said.
However, behind the scenes, political necessity has created a more ominous reality, “Because he doesn’t have a political party, he’s had to ally with the army and the security services, who will eventually take aim at those same neighbourhoods, because they always do,” he said. “We’re already seeing that, with individuals from some of the interior regions and Hai Ettadhanem [near the capital] arrested for criticising Saied and his regime,” Nafti concluded.
What this might mean for Jawadi is unclear. Since being released from prison, none of the governments or the country’s presidents has done anything to help him. He just wants to get through the day.
Asked what the future holds, he pauses, “I don’t know,” he said, “I’ll be doing this until I die.”