April 24, 2023

IntelBrief: Turmoil in Tunisia: Main Opposition Leader Arrested as Crackdown on Dissent Escalates

AP Photo/Hassene Dridi

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Tunisia’s main opposition leader, Rached Ghannouchi, was arrested last week during a raid on his home, the latest in a wave of arrests by Tunisian President Kais Saeid.
  • Tunisia’s minister of interior, Kamel al-Feki, issued a decree prohibiting the main opposition party and coalition from holding meetings, a move the opposition fears is a step toward banning their movement altogether.
  • Tunisia’s increasing role as a transit country for migrants to Europe, most often to the Italian coast, has given it significant leverage in its relations with Europe.
  • Significant increases in migrant flows, coupled with looming economic collapse, may confer continued legitimacy and financial assistance to Saeid despite the recent escalation of his political crackdown.

Last week, Tunisia’s main opposition leader, 81-year-old Rached Ghannouchi, was arrested during a raid on his home, the latest in a wave of arrests by Tunisian President Kais Saeid. Three other prominent party officials were also arrested. Despite reportedly being hospitalized shortly after his arrest, a Tunisian judge has ordered that the opposition leader be detained before his trial on charges of plotting against state security, according to Ghannouchi’s lawyer. During an opposition meeting earlier this month, Ghannouchi warned that the exclusion of certain political inclinations, including political Islam, was “a project for civil war” in Tunisia. This statement was used as justification for his arrest and detention. Hours after Ghannouchi’s arrest, the Tunisian police raided the main offices of Ennahda, the political party founded by Ghannouchi, and closed the headquarters of the National Salvation Front, the main opposition coalition. Tunisia’s minister of interior, Kamel al-Feki, issued a decree prohibiting Ennahda and the National Salvation Front from holding meetings, a move the opposition fears is a step toward banning their movement altogether.

Ennahda dominated politics in Tunisia for years in the aftermath of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, which triggered the Arab Spring protests across the region. The group played a central role in forcing former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to step down and ushered in a brief democratic experiment following his removal. In the intervening years, the influential party became deeply unpopular for its Islamist views, its failure to deliver economic prosperity, and its unwillingness to punish corrupt former officials. A series of other missteps compounded these frustrations, leading many disillusioned Tunisians to vote for Saeid – a political outsider – in 2019. Ghannouchi has been an ardent critic of President Saeid.

Ghannouchi’s arrest is the latest step in Tunisia’s descent toward authoritarianism, a dramatic turn for the nation once considered the “darling” of the Arab Spring. In 2021, Saeid suspended the country’s powerful, Ennahda-led Parliament and pushed through a new constitution centralizing power in the hands of the president. In recent months, President Saeid has actively targeted opponents, including union activists, journalists, lawyers, judges, members of the business community, and political figures. Tunisian authorities have arrested dozens of leading opposition figures, labeling them “terrorists.” Yet, Ghannouchi’s arrest marks a significant escalation in Saeid’s campaign against his critics. Ghannouchi is the most prominent member of the opposition to be targeted thus far. The move indicates Tunisia’s return to the politics of fear, epitomized by the lack of organized protests by activists, leaders, and Ennahda’s base against their leader’s arrest or the ban on meetings. Severe repression under former President Ben Ali is still a fresh memory for many Ennahda supporters, who recounted torture, rape, beatings, and harassment at the hands of the regime to Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission. Saeid’s far-reaching power grab, including the arrests of his perceived opponents from across the ideological spectrum, leads many citizens to believe that those repressive days have returned. “All freedoms are collapsing, and it is arbitrariness that reigns,” said Ahmed Néjib Chebbi, the president of the National Salvation Front, to Le Monde.

The arrests also come in the wake of an incendiary statement by Saeid reminiscent of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, where he claimed irregular migration from other parts of Africa was part of an international criminal plot to change Tunisia’s demographic makeup. The remarks led to a sharp backlash against sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, evictions, job dismissals, xenophobic attacks, and even mob violence against sub-Saharan African migrants. Suddenly finding themselves without shelter, migrants formed an encampment in front of the Tunis offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), protesting daily. Tensions mounted between authorities and migrants refusing to leave the area, culminating in chaos and violent clashes. Police reportedly attacked migrants with tear gas and batons to clear the area, with some migrants reportedly throwing stones in response. Tunisia has become a key departure point for those fleeing poverty and violence in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. The Tunisian Coast Guard has prevented more than 14,000 people from crossing the Mediterranean during the first three months of the year, compared with just 2,900 during the same period in 2022.

The country’s increasing role as a transit country for migrants to Europe, most often to the Italian coast, has given it a significant amount of leverage in its relations with other countries and regional bodies. The European Union relies heavily on Tunisia to stem migration from the African continent, giving Saied powerful influence in Europe and tempering responses to his authoritarian policies. Despite the Tunisian Coast Guard intercepting thousands of migrants before they reached Europe, at least 15,340 migrants and asylum seekers have arrived in Italy from Tunisia this year, according to the UNHCR. As looming economic collapse threatens to create further instability in Tunisia, the possibility of these numbers increasing has motivated some European leaders, particularly members of the far-right government in Italy, to visit Tunis to discuss migration – conferring legitimacy on Saeid despite his authoritarian consolidation of power. Moreover, Tunisia’s bold rejection earlier this month of a $1.9 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has sent Western countries, particularly those bordering the Mediterranean, into a frenzy. The move was a particular blow to Rome; Italian ministers were desperate to overcome an impasse between Tunisia and the IMF and pledged €110 million to the Tunisian budget and small and medium-sized enterprises. Many Western governments, including the United States and the European Union, have issued statements voicing concern over the arrest of Ghannouchi. Yet, the specter of a migrant surge could not only provide Saeid continued leverage in potential aid negotiations, but also means Western partners concerned about migration may be willing to overlook abuses under his presidency.