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Economic Neglect and Political Instability Unraveled Tunisia’s Democracy

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TUNIS — Nearly 12 years ago, Tunisians fed up with corruption, repression and a lack of opportunity poured into the streets and toppled a dictator, chanting for bread, freedom and dignity. Those chants soon echoed across the Middle East in a chain of Arab Spring uprisings, kindling hopes that democracy could bloom in Tunisia and beyond.

Six years later, Tunisia’s freely elected government granted an amnesty to corrupt former officials who had looted the country before the 2011 revolution. To those who had battled for change, as well as those who had never gotten justice for the former regime’s crimes, the 2017 amnesty came as a slap.

“I felt like, how can you expect me to look my mother-in-law in the eye?” said Sayida Ounissi, a former minister in one of Tunisia’s post-revolution governments whose father-in-law had been tortured under the deposed dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

“You’re actually pardoning people without trials?” she said, recalling the amnesty. “Their victims are still around.”

As the revolts withered over the past decade and authoritarian leaders across the region regained their grip on power, Tunisia remained the Arab Spring’s greatest hope for democratic change — until now, that is.

Disillusioned with the failure of their elected political leaders to make good on the revolution’s promises, Tunisian voted overwhelmingly for an inexperienced outsider for president in 2019. Two years later, in 2021, that president, Kais Saied, swept aside Parliament and most other checks on his power to establish one-man rule.

Last month, he solidified his power grab in a new Constitution approved by a national referendum. More than a decade after Tunisia threw off authoritarian rule, the only surviving democracy to have emerged from the Arab Spring was all but dead.

Though swift, Mr. Saied’s dismantling of Tunisia’s hard-won democratic gains was years in the making. In interviews with veterans of this democracy-building experiment, they pinpointed a series of missteps that erased Tunisians’ faith in the system.

The democratically elected leaders failed to right the former regime’s wrongs or achieve economic progress, leaving Tunisia with greater corruption, higher unemployment, widening poverty and deeper debt a decade after the revolution. The country cycled through 10 prime ministers in 10 years, a constant drum of instability that throttled progress. And it never bridged deep religious-secular fault lines.

“Most of the public still supports the revolution,” said Abdellatif Mekki, a former health minister. “But they’ve been switching from one political party to another, or to a person like Saied, looking for someone who can achieve the revolution’s goals.”

When the ousted dictator, Mr. Ben Ali, fled the country amid mass protests in January 2011, euphoria reigned. But economists at the time sounded a note of caution: The country’s finances needed close attention.

Protesters had demanded action on socioeconomic inequality and high unemployment, especially among young people who made up nearly a third of the population. But with the focus on hammering out a new political system, those demands were largely ignored.

Rejecting the ruthless repression of the previous six decades, Tunisians in 2011 elected a transitional assembly dominated by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which had been brutally suppressed and demonized under former regimes.

The party’s main constituents were the poor, rural, conservative Tunisians who had first powered the uprising. For the moment, at least, Ennahda seemed to stand for the revolution itself.

But as the country began writing a new constitution over the next two years, debates about how prominently Islam should feature inflamed longstanding divides in the society. Under Ennahda, secular Tunisians feared, freedoms such as drinking alcohol and women’s rights — among the strongest in the Arab world — could be lost.

“There would’ve been a lot more attention focused faster” on economic and political overhauls without the growing rancor toward Ennahda, said Monica Marks, a Middle East politics professor at New York University Abu Dhabi who lived in Tunisia after the revolution.

Instead, those priorities took a back seat to concerns that Ennahda, despite its avowals of moderation, would transform the country into something more akin to a theocracy than a secular, liberal democracy.

Most of Tunisia’s post-revolution leaders barely even realized they needed an economic plan.

Their solution to address unemployment and fatten household budgets was speedy, if shortsighted: hiring hundreds of thousands of civil servants, raising government salaries and borrowing from abroad to pay for it all.

That proved a costly mistake, stoking inflation as money poured in and burdening the country with ever-growing national debt. The government became the country’s largest employer, spending half its annual budget on the public payroll.

“It was a race among parties to buy support and votes,” said Ezzeddine Saidane, an economist. Later, when the need to cut the wage bill became obvious, “politicians lacked the political courage to fire thousands of people at once,” he said.

At the time, the country had more urgent problems.

In the years after the revolution, young Tunisians began flocking to join the Islamic State, which had seized large parts of Iraq and Syria. In 2013, two well-known secular politicians were assassinated.

Ennahda, which ultimately rejected mentioning Islamic law in the new Constitution, advocated a moderate, nonviolent form of Islam. But Tunisians’ rising sense that radical Islam was rampant, combined with the former regime’s decades-long vilification of Ennahda, cast a pall of suspicion on the party nevertheless.

By August 2013, tens of thousands of protesters were clamoring for Ennahda’s ouster. The threat of violence loomed.

The crisis ended after Ennahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, and a leader of the secular opposition and former Ben Ali regime official, Béji Caïd Essebsi, met in Paris to resolve their differences. After participating in a national political dialogue, Ennahda ceded power, paving the way for the new Constitution to be drafted and adopted in January 2014.

The world hailed Tunisia as a shining example of peace through consensus, and the two politicians as true statesmen. The quartet of unions and civil society groups that oversaw the national dialogue won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.

In December 2014, Mr. Essebsi swept to the presidency. His secular party, Nidaa Tounes, won the most parliamentary seats after running a virulently anti-Ennahda campaign.

But Tunisia’s electoral system, which had been designed to prevent Ennahda from gaining too much power, limited any party’s ability to claim a majority even after winning an election. Nidaa Tounes needed a coalition partner — and Mr. Essebsi, saying it would stabilize the country, chose Ennahda.

His party members were aghast; 32 lawmakers later resigned.

“Tunisia was headed toward collapse, just like the rest of the region,” Mr. Ghannouchi said in an interview. “Consensus saved Tunisia for five years.”

But the coalition’s shaky foundations dominated the next five years, with neither camp willing to make unpopular economic or political changes that could threaten the consensus.

“What is happening now is a result of all of that,” said Mondher Bel Haj, a co-founder of Nidaa Tounes who resigned over the decision. “Because of the coalition, Tunisians no longer believed in the elections. And we couldn’t make the necessary reforms.”

The fractious coalition could not agree on members of the constitutional court, a Supreme Court-like body that could have declared Mr. Saied’s 2021 seizure of powers unconstitutional. It was never formed.

And all the while, the economic hits piled up.

Turning to the International Monetary Fund for help, successive prime ministers proposed the same neoliberal fixes again and again: Cut the public wage bill, reduce subsidies and sell or overhaul failing state-owned companies.

Sharan Grewal, a Brookings Institution fellow who studies Tunisia, said that had a domino effect.

“Tunisians blamed the poor economy on the political parties and the political system,” he said.

Perhaps no one moment disappointed Tunisians more than Parliament’s approval of the amnesty to former officials accused of corruption — the only legislation that Mr. Essebsi proposed in five years as president.

It showed that Nidaa Tounes “had no interest in democratic or economic reform,” said Amine Ghali, the director of the Tunis-based Al-Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center.

Ennahda, once seen as a champion of the revolution, lent votes to pass the law.

“I congratulate you on the return of the dictatorial state and reconciliation with the corrupt,” the opposition lawmaker Ahmed Seddik said when the amnesty was approved by Parliament in 2017. “Tunisians will not forgive you.”

They never did, for that and much more.

By the 2019 elections, called after Mr. Essebsi died in office, Tunisians had grown even more disenchanted with democracy. Rejecting a field of well-known politicians, voters went in a landslide for Mr. Saied, an austere constitutional law professor with a reputation for championing the poor and underrepresented.

In parliamentary elections that year, Ennahda came first, but resentment of the mainstream secular and religious parties gave rise to destabilizing far-left and far-right parties. For the next year and a half, Parliament was mired in dysfunction.

Palpably disgusted, Tunisians hurled insults at lawmakers in the street and on Facebook.

The economy hurtled toward disaster. Regional disparities sharpened. Youth unemployment rose. Tunisians’ purchasing power fell about 40 percent and the currency, the dinar, lost 60 percent of its value from 2010 to 2022.

Public debt is now five times what it was in 2010. The government cannot pay salaries or for grain shipments on time, let alone invest in the infrastructure that might juice economic growth.

In July 2021, with Covid further hobbling the economy, Mr. Saied fired his prime minister and suspended Parliament. Tunisians spilled into the streets, cheering, and Ennahda offices across the country were set ablaze.

“Kais Saied is now using the hate a big part of the population has against the political class, especially Ennahda, to say, ‘I’m the savior,’” said Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s first post-revolution president.

“For the average Tunisian, they lost faith in everything.”

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The F.D.A. Now Says It Plainly: Morning-After Pills Are Not Abortion Pills

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The F.D.A. said it made the change now because it had completed a review of a 2018 application to alter the label that was submitted by Foundation Consumer Healthcare, a company that in 2017 bought the Plan B brand from Teva Pharmaceutical Industries. Agency officials said the pandemic delayed the review process and that the timing was not motivated by political considerations.

A spokeswoman for the company, Dani Hirsch, said in an interview that for its 2018 application, the company had not conducted any new studies but had submitted “what was already out there.”

In a statement, the company’s marketing director, Tara Evans, said “the misconception that Plan B works by interfering with implantation can present barriers to broader emergency contraception access. The Plan B labeling correction will help protect continued over-the-counter emergency contraception access and reduce confusion about how Plan B works and further clarify that Plan B does not affect implantation.”

Plan B One-Step and its generic versions — including brands like Take Action, My Way and Option 2 — contain levonorgestrel, one of a class of hormones called progestins that are also found at lower doses in birth control pills and intrauterine devices. The pills are most effective in preventing pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse, although they can sometimes work if taken within five days.

Another type of morning-after pill, marketed as Ella and containing a compound called ulipristal acetate, is only available by prescription and is not affected by the F.D.A.’s label change. There has been less research on this type of pill, but studies suggest that it is highly unlikely to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. In 2009, after months of scrutiny, Ella was approved for sale in overwhelmingly Catholic Italy, where laws would have barred it if it had been considered to induce abortions.

According to data published in 2021 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-quarter of women of reproductive age who have sex with men answered yes to the question: “Have you ever used emergency contraception, also known as ‘Plan B,’ ‘Preven,’ ‘Ella,’ ‘Next Choice,’ or ‘Morning after’ pills?” The agency did not break down the data by the type of pills taken.

As far back as the 1999 approval process, the maker of Plan B — Barr Pharmaceuticals, later acquired by Teva — asked the F.D.A. not to list an implantation effect on the label, The Times reported in 2012.

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Who are Caroline Ellison’s parents? Fraudster’s mom and dad are MIT economists

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This apple fell far from the tree.

Caroline Ellison — who pleaded guilty to fraud charges related to her role in the FTX cryptocurrency scandal, which led to the extradition of Sam Bankman-Fried this week — is the daughter of high-profile economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

According to his curriculum vitae, Ellison’s father, Glenn Ellison, was educated at Harvard, Cambridge and MIT before becoming the Gregory K. Palm (1970) Professor of Economics at the latter. 

In addition to coaching youth softball and his daughters’ middle school math teams, he writes “Hard Math,” a series of textbooks and workbooks about teaching arithmetic to younger students.

Glenn Ellison is also an Elected Fellow of the Society for the Advancement of Economic Theory and American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Caroline Ellison’s parents, Glenn and Sara Ellison, outside their Newton, Mass., home in early December.
Robert Miller

Ellison’s mother, Sara Ellison, is also an accomplished academic. Armed with an undergraduate degree from Purdue University and a mathematical statistics diploma from Cambridge University, her profile shows she completed a doctorate at MIT in 1993. 

Sara Ellison is currently a senior lecturer in the department alongside her husband.

“We were definitely exposed to a lot of economics [growing up],” Ellison, 28, once told Forbes.

Ellison, 28, plead guilty to fraud this week.
Ellison, 28, pleaded guilty to fraud this week.
Twitter / @AlamedaResearch
Caroline Ellison's sister, Anna, now lives in the West Village.
Caroline Ellison’s sister, Anna, now lives in the West Village.
BRIGITTE STELZER

Glenn and Sara Ellison were photographed by The Post outside their home in Newton, an affluent Boston suburb, earlier this month. Armed with several bags, they told reporters they were too “busy” to comment on the FTX scandal.

The eldest of three sisters — including Anna, 25, who now lives in Manhattan’s West Village — Ellison distinguished herself as a precocious math whiz at a young age. 

When she was just 8 years old, she reportedly presented her father with a paper analyzing stuffed animal prices at Toys ‘R’ Us.

Sam Bankman-Fried leaving Manhattan Federal Court on Thursday.
Sam Bankman-Fried leaving Manhattan federal court on Thursday.
Matthew McDermott
Both Glenn and Sara Ellison are economists at MIT.
Both Glenn and Sara Ellison are economists at MIT.
Robert Miller

She went on to compete in the Math Prize for Girls while at Newton North High School before studying mathematics at Stanford University, where former professor Ruth Stackman described her to Forbes as “bright, focused, [and] very mathy.”

Ellison and Bankman-Fried, 30, crossed paths at the Wall Street trading firm Jane Street. Bankman-Fried’s parents are also both university lecturers, at Stanford in California. They became good friends and she joined Alameda Research, the hedge fund arm of the FTX crypto exchange, in 2018. She then became CEO in 2021. However, the company remained owned 90% by Bankman-Fried and 10% by another member of his circle.

In addition to documenting her supposed foray into polyamory on Tumblr, Ellison once boasted about drug use on social media.

Sara Ellison completed a doctorate at MIT in 1993.
Sara Ellison completed a doctorate at MIT in 1993.
Robert Miller

“Nothing like regular amphetamine use to make you appreciate how dumb a lot of normal, non-medicated human experience is,” she tweeted in 2021.

Ellison reportedly admitted to Alameda employees that FTX had used client funds to bail out the fledgeling hedge fund during a video call in November. She was eventually terminated as CEO by insolvency professional and current FTX CEO John J. Ray III after FTX and Alameda filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

She pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges on Monday, and has subsequently been released on $250,000 bail.

Ellison was spotted getting coffee in New York City on Dec. 4.
Ellison was spotted getting coffee in New York City on Dec. 4.
Twitter / @AutismCapital

Although she could be sent to jail for up to 110 years for her part in the FTX-Alameda scandal — which has been said by federal prosecutors to have lost between $1 billion and $2 billion of customers’ cash — she is thought to have struck a deal with the feds for a much lighter sentence in return for her cooperation.

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Iran condemns Zelensky’s remarks to Congress as ‘baseless.’

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Iran has condemned President Volodymyr Zelensky’s remarks to the U.S. Congress, warning the Ukrainian leader against further accusing Tehran of supplying weapons to Russia for use in the war.

Mr. Zelensky told Congress on Wednesday that Iranian-made drones “sent to Russia in hundreds” had been threatening Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, a view shared by American and European officials. In Iran, he said, Russia had found an “ally in its genocidal policy.”

A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, Nasser Kanaani, called Mr. Zelensky’s comments “rude” and “baseless.”

“Mr. Zelensky had better know that Iran’s strategic patience over such unfounded accusations is not endless,” Mr. Kanaani said in a statement on Thursday.

Although Iran has officially denied supplying Russia with the weapons since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. officials have said that the first shipment was delivered in August.

Mr. Zelensky has said that drones used in Monday’s wave of predawn attacks on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities were from a batch recently delivered to Russia by Iran. The strikes came after Biden administration officials said that Russia and Iran were strengthening their military ties into a “full-fledged defense partnership.”

The European Union last week condemned Iran’s military partnership with Russia as a gross violation of international law and announced new sanctions against Iranian individuals and entities over their roles in supplying the drones that Moscow has used to attack Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure. That followed a round of sanctions on Iranians over the drone deliveries in October.

Mr. Kanaani “once again emphasizes” that Iran has not supplied military equipment for use in Ukraine, the statement issued on Thursday added, and urged Mr. Zelensky to learn “the fate of some other political leaders” who were happy with U.S. support. It was not clear which other leaders the statement was referring to.

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