Ever since President Kais Saied announced measures allowing him to rule by decree on July 25, 2021, the pace of Tunisia’s democratic backsliding has accelerated.
Saied’s first act was to dismiss the Government and the parliament. Then, in 2022, Saied changed the constitution and secured his consolidation of power by an August referendum in which just 30 percent of eligible voters participated.
Before the last parliamentary elections in December 2022, he altered the electoral law to enable candidates to run as independents instead of on party lists. Thus, the majority of Tunisia’s opposition boycotted the elections, resulting in a weak, obedient legislature. At the same time, Saied has presided over a period of rising restrictions on freedom of expression and intensified populism.
Human Rights Watch reports that three more critics of Saied have been arrested in the previous week, increasing the total number of critics imprisoned to twelve. Politicians from the opposition, members of civil society, and journalists are among those incarcerated. Saied has been giving speeches in which he labels his opponents “terrorists” and portrays them as a threat to national security, setting the path for arrestees to receive harsh penalties.
The security agencies and armed forces of Tunisia have thus far complied with Saied’s orders. After the ousting of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the country’s 2010-2011 revolution, these state agencies have been implementing a variety of security sector reform programs without formal political involvement. In the years since then, however, they have not abstained from abusing civilians. And after Saied’s declaration of what he termed “exceptional measures” in July 2021, the security forces resorted to excessive force against protestors of the power grab. In contrast, they did not intervene when Saied’s supporters staged demonstrations.
In addition, the judiciary, which is now de facto under Saied’s control, is abusing its mandate. Amnesty International reports people, including lawmakers and journalists, being tried in military courts. Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the opposition Ennahda party, appeared in a civil court last week on terror-related accusations after being accused of referring to the police as “tyrants.” Saied has made public threats against judges in an effort to prevent them from acquitting persons accused of terrorism, claiming that doing so would make them accomplices of those who pose a threat to national security.
Moreover, restrictions on mobility are increasing. I spoke with members of the Tunisian civil society last week, and many expressed concern about being detained at the airport when attempting to leave or return to the country. Some individuals are concerned they will discover they have been banned from traveling. Due to fear, some people choose to maintain a low profile in public. This is in sharp contrast to the scenario in Tunisia in the decade preceding July 2021, when many civil society organizations chose Tunisia as their regional operations base because it afforded more freedom of movement and expression than other MENA nations.
The most recent case of a crackdown on freedom of expression is the arrest of Noureddine Boutar, the director of Tunisia’s most popular radio station, Mosaique FM. Boutar, was not charged with terrorism, but rather with “money laundering and illegal enrichment.”
Last Thursday, Saied added to the tense atmosphere by claiming that sub-Saharan African migrants entering Tunisia are part of a plot to alter the country’s demographics. He had made similar claims previously. Two days earlier, there was a public outcry over identical remarks, with critics labeling them racist; this classification was refuted by Saied on Thursday. The majority of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who arrive in Tunisia do not intend to live there, but rather utilize it as a transit point to Europe. Yet, there is a Black minority community in Tunisia that frequently speaks out against racial prejudice.
The African Union published a letter on Friday condemning Saied’s “racialized hate rhetoric.” On Saturday, hundreds of Tunisian activists opposed Saied’s remarks. Many Tunisians are currently concerned about where Saied’s intolerance may take the country. Reassuringly, the civil society figures with whom I spoke do not believe that the Tunisian military would participate in widespread violence against the population if large-scale protests against Saied were to occur.