Tunisia: Exploiting Fear and Rivalries, Kais Saied Stands Alone at the Helm

Add restrictions on civil liberties to the looming economic crisis. Several political opponents have been arrested and human rights activists arraigned. Yet far from making people want to organise protests, the situation is marked by a fear of arbitrary persecution and by defeatism.

Kairouan, 26 July 2022. A giant poster of Kais Saied on the facade of a building
Kabil Boussena/AFP

‘Will I be accused of conspiracism if I’m seen with a former MP?’ My question was meant to be ironic as I put it to Nabil Hajji, general secretary of the Democratic Current (a centre-left party) and former MP in the Assembly of People’s Representatives (PR), the Tunisian parliament dissolved by the President of the Republic on 30 March 2022. He answered tit for tat: ‘You’re a journalist and you live in France, I’m the one likely to be accused of secret dealings with a foreign agent!’

The tone of our exchange was meant to be humorous but there was nothing surrealistic about it. Since 11 February 2023, i.e., just a few days after the parliamentary election run-off, ignored by most of the electorate, when several opposition figures and public personalities were arrested. Eleven were charged with terrorism on the basis of a law1 under which a person may be held for 24 hours without the assistance of an attorney. After which, they are still detained by the anti-terrorist pole. Both the Minister of Interior Affairs and the public prosecutor’s office refuse to make statements on these cases.

‘Ben Ali did it better!’

We have been able to examine parts of the prosecution files that have been leaked, the authenticity of which has been confirmed by the attorneys of the accused. The grounds for arrest are astonishing and reminiscent of the darkest periods of our country’s history: ‘conspiring against national security, plotting to assassinate the President of the Republic, endangering the country’s food supply…’ As for the evidence, it could raise a smile if the consequences weren’t so serious. Consisting mostly of screenshots of WhatsApp conversations and eyewitness reports of meetings with foreign diplomats. Civil society activists make jokes: ‘Ben Ali better did it better, he forged actual evidence to undo his opponents!’ Islam Hamza is an attorney and a member of the Committee for the Defence of Prisoners, and as she told us: ‘For the moment, there is nothing new, since they are still putting the dossiers together. There will be more arrests.’

The police concocted an organigram showing photos of the accused alongside representatives of foreign legations, among them the present French ambassador and his predecessor, Olivier Poivre d’Arvor, the Italian ambassador in Tunis and two staff members of the US Embassy. One European diplomat told us that the methods of the police have aroused the anger of many Western chancelleries, and their representatives have protested to the Head of Tunisian Protocol. But the damage is done, and fear is widespread.’We have noticed that our usual Tunisian contacts are avoiding us.’

Terror is spreading

Fear is the corollary of arbitrariness, and the latter has become the norm. There is even talk of lists going round. As Amine Ghali, head of the Al-Kawakibi Centre for a Democratic Transition, observed:

There is fear on two levels: an institutional fear that the laws governing associations will be changed. And the physical fear of being arrested, especially when we see people much better known than ourselves getting gaoled for nothing.

Political opponents and human rights activists have migrated to a webmail service called Signal, considered more secure, with a ‘disappearing message’ option which automatically erases conversations after a specified length of time. Critics of the power structure, previously omnipresent on the social networks are now less public, sometimes limited to a narrow circle of ‘friends.’ Astar Ben Jouira, militant feminist and president of the Intersection Association for Rights and Freedoms confessed to us: ‘Nowadays I read through a status ten times in my head before I publish it’.

Some attorneys expected foreign pressures, especially from Europe, considering that their diplomats had been named in the so-called “conspiracy” file, or simply to save what remains of the 2011 uprisings. But while on 20 March the foreign ministers of the European Union (EU) called upon the Tunisian government to respect ‘the rule of law, human rights, and its promises of major structural reforms,’ this was first and foremost for fear of another migratory crisis in the event of an economic meltdown. As for Italy, currently ruled by neo-fascist Premier Georgia Meloni and Tunisia’s main partner for ‘border externalisation,’ it is urging the UE and IMF to come to the aid of its southern neighbour. How can they refuse to help a country which agrees to accept undocumented migrants deported from Europe and to intercept their small boats?

‘We tested one another’

In this situation, the civil society’s activists feel more isolated than ever. The apathy of their organisations is as plain as day. Faced with an all-powerful president, some experience internal divisions, especially the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), even though several of its members have been arrested. The trade union federation still refuses to challenge the legitimacy of the presidential power grab on 25 July 2021. The fact that its General Secretary, Noureddine Taboubi is now in his third term of office after a modification of the federation’s by-laws which originally allowed for only two, does not encourage criticisms of the Carthage autocrat’s misfeasance. According to one source, the existence of files revealing the corrupt practices of certain union officials limits the leeway of the UGTT, which did nonetheless launch an initiative in favour of a national dialogue in conjunction with the Tunisian League for Human Rights, the Tunisian Bar Association and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights. However, the publication of the road map it meant to issue is constantly adjourned. Moreover, the President is obviously determined to sow discord between the institutions which might counterbalance his authority, as witness the appointment of a former union official as Minister of Education on 30 January 2023.

As for the political class, they are caught between the hostility of a population which has not seen their daily lives improve one bit after twelve years of ‘democratisation,’ and their own incapacity to take a hard look at themselves in a mirror. Nabil Hajji, whose party has known major defections, that of its former general secretary Ghazi Chaouachi, now under arrest, had this to say:

If only Ennahda had agreed to reconsider its positions, if Rached Ghannouchi had resigned, we might have considered making common cause. But they absolutely will not admit to their responsibility for the present situation.

To join or not to join the National Redemption Front, which includes most particularly the main figures of the last coalition in power in 2021 (Ennahda, Al-Karama and Qalb Tounes), this quandary is still a key fault line among the political opposition. And the embarrassment felt by certain civil society organisations when faced with the gaoling of Islamists is perfectly obvious. We are a far cry from the Front formed on 18 October 2005 which brought together the Islamists and part of the left against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali: ‘Since then, we have tested one another,’ Hijji observes. The tattler is also perfectly lucid as to the political parties’ inability to imagine an economic model and respond to society’s expectations since 2011, because they so seldom have any roots among the people: ‘An economic vision? We haven’t even been able to maintain the level of production we had under Ben Ali!’ Maher Hanie, publicist and political activist, points to a major structural problem:

The political parties are utterly self-satisfied. They have no regional task forces, they don’t organise debates on political or social issues. There is no reflection. What with the train of events since 2011, they are into movement for its own sake.

Supporters and ‘critical supporters’

The deliberations of the new Assembly, elected with a turnout of scarcely 11%, began officially on 13 March 2023. They are boycotted by the organisations which have been monitoring parliamentary proceedings for the past ten years, like the NGO Al-Bawsala. Despite all its failings, Astar Ben Jouira regrets the period before 25 July 2021:

With the Islamists at least there was a little leeway. We were able to pass laws like Act 50 which criminalises racist offences or Act 58 against violence to women. Today, everything is blocked. We used to be able to do advocacy towards opposition MPs who shared our ideology. In the new Assembly, Kais Saied has only supporters and “critical supporters.”

The low turnout in that legislative election is symptomatic of the level of indifference in this liberticidal climate. The revolutionary élan has undeniably waned. But this disenchantment with politics is also fuelled by runaway inflation (officially 10.4% in February), as well as temporary but recurring shortages which force large sectors of the population to reconsider their priorities.

Few people are upset by all those arrests. ‘There are even some who are glad, an activist observes. ‘They arrested the right people but on the wrong charges’ is a tune you hear often enough’.

Polls taken at the end of February show 52% of Tunisians satisfied with the record of the current tenant of Carthage Palace, which is four points more than in December 2022, but far below the 82% of August 2021, a few days after his coup! ‘In twelve years, democracy has been used on all sides as a way of staying in power’. And people like to hear the President talk about a so-called all-round cleanup.

Astra Ben Jouira has in common with Mahdi Jelass, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, that she has been indicted on several counts, among them for having demonstrated – having covered the demonstration – against the constitutional referendum set by Saied on 25 July 2022. Several foreign NGOs are planning to leave the country, sceptical as they are about being able to pursue their activities in the months ahead. Under the grotesquely authoritarian Third Republic,2 the police will once again be all-powerful, and the courts will just follow orders. The young woman waxes sarcastically to ward off her fear: ‘The job of magistrate has become insecure. The banks won’t even lend them money anymore, since they can be fired at the drop of a hat.’

The elusive shared narrative

Between isolation and fragmentation, Mehdi Elleuch, who does research for the NGO Legal Agenda, draws an uncompromising assessment:

The civil society should look at itself in a mirror. We haven’t measured up to the situation; we’ve taken comfort in our activism, completely cut off from what is happening on the ground and from politics in the strongest sense of the word.

Maher Hanime agrees with this, stressing the incapacity of the historic organisations to renew themselves after 2011, and the parties’ inability to develop a new rhetoric capable of reaching a broader audience.

There is no space where any fermentation is taking place, any intellectual bubbling. Nor any political platform capable of creating any collective awareness. The classical structures, created before the revolution, have never evolved. As for the political parties, young people can’t feel at home in them. We have not been able to fill the ideological void with a shared narrative. It was easy to address the proletariat, the texts had already been written. But what about today’s audience? It’s a universal problem, of course, but its impact is worse in a country with fragile institutions.

And to reach beyond one’s class, one’s microcosm and address an active population, nearly half of whom work in the informal economy is a challenge which the parties have not even tried to meet.

On a Thursday evening, inside the Ibn Rachiq cultural centre in downtown Tunis, several dozen people, some young, some less so, have come together as they do each week for the Cheikh Imam fan club. Combining emotion and enthusiasm, students still in their teams belt out at the top of their lungs the prison lyrics of the popular Egyptian singer:

However long they may endure, prison and repression,
However, far it may go, our jailer’s vice,
Who can imprison Egypt, even for one hour?

A few hundred metres from the Ministry of Interior Affairs where Kais Saied now likes to make his speeches, the song has the ring of wishful thinking in the throes of a long night which has only just begun.

1Passed in 2015, following the terrorist attacks at Bardo and Sousse, by the parliamentary majority of the period composed of Nidaa Tunes and Ennahda, that law severely criticised at the time by the human rights organisations.

2Kais Saied’s constitution, officially adopted on 17 August 2022 inaugurated a Third Republic in Tunisia.