SOMETIMES it is more frustrating being right than wrong, and as we have watched events in Tunisia this week I’ve been feeling angry that it got to this. Months of simmering resentment over the economy (which shrank by 8% last year) and the hapless government’s response to Covid boiled over this week. Tunisian president Kais Saied dismissed the prime minister Hichem Mechichi, closed parliament and announced a month’s curfew from 7pm to 6am – as well as a ban on gatherings of more than three people.

In a sign of the times, the now former prime minister took to a US corporation to explain his position: “In order to preserve the safety of all Tunisians, I declare that I align myself, as I have always, by the side of our people and declare that I will not take up any position or responsibility in the state,” said Mechichi in a statement on Facebook.

Tunisia had been hailed as the only success story of the Arab Spring, where waves of protest, starting in Tunisia, across the Middle East ousted long-standing dictators, replacing them with varyingly effective democracies. But one by one other strongmen, or warlords in Libya’s case, have returned to fill the vacuum left by the lack of any effective democratic civilian institution.

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Tunisia was more or less hanging on but as one hapless government has lurched to another, the patience of the people was wearing thin. With similarly Francophile Lebanon at the other end of the Mediterranean experiencing an awful time too, things look pretty bleak for democracy in the Arab world.

But the frustration in Tunisia is real. More than 18,000 people in the country of 12 million have died of coronavirus since the pandemic began, overwhelming crumbling public health services and crippling the vital tourism industry. Just 7% of the population has been fully vaccinated. Videos have circulated on social media showing dead bodies left in the middle of wards as morgues struggle to deal with growing deaths.

So is it a coup? I have to say President Saied seems an unlikely dictator. He has been backed by the Tunisian equivalent of the STUC, the Tunisian General Labour Union, saying he had acted “in accordance” with the constitution to “prevent imminent danger and to restore the normal functioning” of the state. Observers, however, are already warning that the decision to invoke article 80 of the constitution, which allows the president to take “exceptional measures in the event of imminent danger”, could allow him to prolong the crisis for as long as it suits him.

The president is an independent, with no political party behind him, though this seems to be his strength at the moment in that the institutions of government, chiefly the army, do seem onside. The biggest party in the parliament is Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party which is being blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the failure of the government. Rached Ghannouchi, parliament’s speaker and the head of Ennahda, condemned the suspension as an assault on democracy and urged Tunisians to take to the streets in opposition. There have been some protests but pro- and anti-government crowds seem equally balanced.

The military surrounded the parliament and government palace, stopping members of parliament and state workers from entering the buildings, as well as the national television station. Al-Jazeera said police raided its Tunis bureau and expelled staff.

But my frustration comes from the fact that it was all too predictable. I visited Tunisia in 2014 to take the temperature but also to go see the ports where the people traffickers left from – taking people across the Mediterranean aiming for just visible Italian islands to get into the EU territory in the hope of a better life, many dying in the process.

It was obvious then that the civilian authorities needed help with capacity-building, training, dialogue and practical help to evolve from a dictatorship to a democracy in a country not used to democracy at all. It was obvious then too that the economy was in trouble and needed modernisation and internationalisation, especially in trade with the EU and with neighbouring countries.

I remember being staggered to hear that barely 5% of trade went between Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria but each traded more than 60% with the EU, often under heavy tariffs.

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Would it have been so hard for us to put some serious money behind such support and trade liberalisation? It is not that nothing was done, but the West offered a series of sticking plasters when what was needed was a Marshall Plan. The pandemic has surely taught us how interconnected we are, if countries have weak and feckless governments then pretty soon their people will get on boats to our shores seeking sanctuary.

If governments cannot provide basic services then they create the best conditions for the new Covid variant. The migration crisis in the Mediterranean has not gone away, and no amount of gunboats or razor wire on beaches will stop it unless we look further up the chain and tackle the reasons shy people are in such desperate straits in the first place.

The people of the world are already joined up and interconnected, their governments are not. We in Scotland know we’re a smaller country, blessed by our geography to live in a pretty stable part of the world. An independent Scotland could bring a truly internationalist approach to foreign policy and not let opportunities like the Arab Spring pass.