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The Guardian view on Tunisia’s new autocrat: Saied’s enablers should stop | Editorial

Supporters hoped the president might help the country to move forward. Instead, he has put it into reverse

The arrest of Tunisia’s leading opposition figure, Rached Ghannouchi, is a bleak moment. Profound disenchantment has been widespread for years domestically, as democratic reforms hit a wall, corruption remained entrenched and the economic picture deteriorated. Nonetheless, the country was an important if imperfect symbol of freedom: not only the birthplace of the Arab spring, but seemingly its sole success story. Tunisia moved from Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s autocratic rule to democracy with a thriving civil society and lively media, while others descended into anarchy, bloodshed and brutal repression. The ascent of Ennahda, which transitioned from Islamist movement to mainstream political party, stood as proof that violent extremism was not the only way to challenge authoritarian rule.

But Tunisia failed to embed democracy with the rule of law – for example, failing to establish a supreme court. Widespread discontent at the state of the country helped to sweep outsider Kais Saied, a conservative law scholar, to victory in 2019 elections. Supporters hoped he would tackle corruption, deal with entrenched problems and kickstart the economy. Even when he suspended parliament in 2021, ousted the prime minister, took on judicial powers and imposed emergency law, he enjoyed significant backing.

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