Kais Saied clamps down on opposition
Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda Party, which has been a crucial political force for the past ten years, was recently arrested, adding to the list of prominent cases of oppression in the North African nation. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, had once aspired to a democratic future, but that seems like a distant dream now.
Tunisia’s uprising in 2011 inspired many other countries, including Morocco and Oman, to take to the streets demanding better living conditions and more rights. Unfortunately, the hope for a better future was short-lived in places like Syria, Yemen, and Libya, as civil wars erupted, and states collapsed. Egypt faced a violent overthrow of its leaders, and the military quickly regained power.
In contrast, Tunisia appeared to establish a democratic state after dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown. The Ennahda Party, which was a part of the developing democracy, had significant representation in parliament. However, since President Saied came into power in 2019, Tunisia has taken an authoritarian turn. In 2021, Saied suspended parliament and the elected government, installing his own people instead. He has taken steps to centralize power, not only targeting the opposition but also attacking migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa.
Yusra Ghannouchi, the daughter of Rached Ghannouchi, claims that her father, who suffers from heart problems and Parkinson’s, was denied access to a lawyer for two days following his detention. Furthermore, his wife hasn’t been allowed to see him yet. Since February, more than 20 people, including opposition politicians, journalists, union leaders, and activists, have been imprisoned for political reasons. Saied refers to them as “traitors” or “terrorists” and threatens his opponents with “relentless war.”
Isabelle Werenfels, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), believes that “all of the loud voices linked to democracy are now being cleared away.” The situation in Tunisia is dire, and the country seems to have returned to authoritarian rule. Many people fear for their lives, and officials aren’t even making an effort to obtain arrest warrants anymore, causing individuals to disappear. Yusra Ghannouchi warns that Tunisia has a dictator once again.
Tunisia’s economy has encountered various hurdles since the country’s transition to democracy in 2011 after the Arab Spring, with the poorer segments of society being hit the hardest. The revolution brought about a spike in unemployment, rising to an alarming 18.33 percent, along with inflation that rose by 1.4 percentage points. The country’s trade balance also hit an all-time low in 2014, which continued to decline and reached its current low in 2018.
In response to the dire economic situation, the IMF issued two separate loans to Tunisia in 2013 and 2016, totaling $1.74 billion and $2.9 billion, respectively. Unfortunately, these loans did not have the desired impact on the economy, as unemployment remained high, inflation persisted, and economic growth was sluggish. To make matters worse, Tunisia has faced fuel and food shortages, leading to long queues at gas stations and empty supermarket shelves, a situation further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Given the worsening economic and financial conditions, many people believe that an IMF loan is necessary to prevent total collapse. Failure to secure the loan could lead to catastrophic consequences, such as the inability to pay public wages, keep schools running, and ensure hospitals continue to function.
Algeria has applied to join BRICS and Tunisia is expected to follow suit, according to bin Mabrouk. However, Sharan Grewal, a nonresident fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, notes that the bid did not come from any governmental official, but rather a small political movement in support of President Kais Saied. The Tunisian government is currently struggling to secure a $2 billion IMF bailout package, and Grewal suggests that Saied may view BRICS as an alternative mechanism for foreign aid and support. China has stated that the BRICS organization supports membership expansion.
Dr. Sabina Henneberg, Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, suggests that Tunisia needs to undertake significant structural economic reforms to avoid long-term debt and resume pre-2011 levels of GDP growth. She notes that Tunisia must also acquire more international economic clout and demonstrate stronger anti-West credentials, given its historical ties to the US. Alexandra Blackman, assistant professor of government at Cornell University, notes that President Saied’s guiding principle is the rejection of foreign interference, which has been reiterated during IMF negotiations.
IMF loan to Tunisia requires the elimination of subsidies on fuel and food, which have been in place for decades. This has led to protests in the past, with the government using military force to stop the unrest, resulting in hundreds of deaths and widespread economic damage. Removing subsidies will also exacerbate economic inequalities between coastal and interior regions, hindering growth in the latter.
Protests and opposition
Opposition parties in Tunisia organised a rally in the capital, Tunis, calling for the release of over 20 political opponents and personalities, including former ministers, businessmen, and trade unionists, who have been arrested since February. Approximately 300 demonstrators waved Tunisian flags and held signs with images of the detainees.
The National Salvation Front, the main opposition coalition, organised the rally. Several local and international human rights groups have criticised the arrests. At the rally, politicians and lawyers called for a national dialogue to save Tunisia and return to the democratic path.
They noted that the peaceful unity of the opposition will be the resistance to the coup. Opposition members called the arrests an attack on the opposition and restriction of freedom of expression, organisation and demonstration. They stressed that the opposition will resist the coup in a peaceful, civil, public, and democratic manner.
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s recent comments about Algeria’s “participation” in the Tunisian national dialogue have caused controversy in Tunisia. Some see this as an attempt by Algeria to interfere in Tunisia’s affairs. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Tebboune stated that Algeria wants stability for Tunisia and tries to participate in the political dialogue in a friendly manner, without intervening in favor of any party, to unite all factions. He also emphasized the importance of Tunisia for Algeria, saying that Tunisia is a security extension of Algeria and vice versa.
Tebboune’s statement sparked a wave of debate in Tunisia, with political analyst Ibrahim Al-Waslāti calling on the foreign ministry to issue a statement urging Algeria not to interfere in Tunisian affairs. Al-Waslāti expressed his rejection of foreign intervention in his country’s internal affairs and awaited a response or clarification from Tunisian authorities regarding Tebboune’s statements. He continued by stating that relationships between countries are about interests and that Tunisia’s need for Algeria is as great as Algeria’s need for Tunisia.
Tunisia is expected to continue experiencing protests and unrest until at least late May due to several factors including high unemployment, rising inflation, and the opposition parties’ calls for demonstrations against the government. President Kais Saied’s decision to rule by decree and the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions have also contributed to the protests, which have seen thousands of protesters taking to the streets in Tunis and other major cities.
The recent arrest of Rached Ghannouchi, president of the opposition party Ennahda, and the closure of all offices of the Salvation Front, the opposition coalition to which Ennahda belongs, has been viewed as a further attempt by Saied to silence opposition. This has led to widespread criticism of the Tunisian government’s authoritarianism.
In response to the ongoing protests, authorities are expected to maintain heightened security measures. Security personnel may be deployed to additional locations as new demonstrations arise, and protests may disrupt major road routes, access points to ports of entry and exit, as well as transport and businesses in the vicinity of future demonstrations and associated clashes.