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West looks away as Tunisia’s Saeid 'dismantles' democracy

Along with expanding his presidential powers, President Kais Saied has nearly picked apart Tunisia's once-fledgling democracy; Western countries have barely responded.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Tunisian President Kais Saied (R).

Abdelhamid Jlassi and his wife, Mounia, were having dinner at their apartment in Tunis' Bardo neighborhood when they heard a knock at the door. Fifteen security officials stood outside. “Before my parents knew what was happening, one of them shoved a search warrant in their faces, seized my mother’s phone, took my dad’s phone, iPad and laptop, then hauled him off without any explanation,” the couple’s daughter, Mariem, told Al-Monitor.

Jlassi, a former senior figure in Tunisia’s beleaguered Islamic-leaning Ennahda party, is among at least 10 people who were arbitrarily arrested over the weekend in part of a systematic crackdown by Tunisia’s aspiring dictator, President Kais Saied, to consolidate the power grab he began last July.

Among those being held at anti-terrorism detention centers in the capital are Noureddine Bhiri, a top Ennahda veteran; Noureddine Boutar, head of Mosaique FM, Tunisia’s main independent news outlet; and Kamel Eltaief, an influential businessman known for his close links to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator who was overthrown in Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine Revolution. Bhiri’s wife wrote on Facebook that 100 security officials swarmed their house to drag her husband away. She said they assaulted her.

Lawyers for the detainees said their clients were being held on vague charges of “assaulting state security.” Evidence of Jlassi’s alleged sedition includes “dining in a fancy restaurant — with an emphasis on "fancy" — and dining with foreign researchers,” his daughter told Al-Monitor. She said the family was not informed of his whereabouts for five days.

Dozens of journalists gathered outside government headquarters in Tunis today to protest the government’s assault on free speech and Boutar’s detention amid a heavy police presence. A lawyer for the National Union of Tunisian journalists confirmed the secular newsman who is critical of Saied will be held in custody for five more days. Boutar was being grilled about his editorial line — a dangerous precedent that impacts media independence, the lawyer said.

The latest wave of arrests marks a chilling escalation. In a late-night visit Tuesday to the Interior Ministry, Saied accused the detainees of being “terrorists” and of plotting to kill him, and of conspiring to “overthrow [the] state.”

The Tunisian General Labor Union (known also by its French acronym, UGTT) — the 1 million-member-strong trade union federation that plays a big role in Tunisian politics — has been muted in its criticism, chiefly because Saied was targeting a common foe, Ennahda. Now it too is feeling the heat.

On Jan. 31, Anis Kaabi, secretary-general of the union's highway branch, was arrested after leading a strike by toll booth workers to protest austerity measures sought by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $1.9 billion bailout for Tunisia. The North African nation of 12 million is struggling with runaway inflation and acute food shortages amid fears that it might default on its sovereign debt.

Today, UGTT leaders called on unions to “mobilize and prepare to defend the rights of Tunisians,” signaling further industrial action in defiance of Saied’s threats.

Until recently, Ennahda, the country’s largest party, was the main focus of Saied’s ire soon after he rode to power on the back of public disgust with a succession of corrupt coalition governments in 2019.

Dozens of party officials — including its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi — are being investigated on thinly evidenced charges that when in power they encouraged thousands of young Tunisians to join the Islamic State and other extremists waging jihad in Syria.

Ali Laarayedh — a former Ennahda prime minister and the party’s No. 2 man — is among those being prosecuted under the so-called “deportation jihadis file” and has been languishing in jail since December 2022. Laarayedh spent 10 years in solitary confinement in the basement of the Ministry of Interior during Ben Ali's years. “He was forced to watch videos of his wife being raped. He himself was raped,” recalled Monica Marks, Tunisia expert and professor at New York University in Abu Dhabi. “He is being retraumatized.”

Jlassi, 62, who spent 17 years in prison under Ben Ali, left Ennahda in 2019 because he felt Ghannouchi had concentrated too much power in his own hands. Those sentiments are growing stronger within the party, and Ghannouchi is expected to step down in a party congress slated to be held in June. “My father is a researcher. He met many people. We never knew that meeting foreign researchers would be considered a threat to the country. We don’t know what triggered this,” Mariem, an only child, said. “He had throat cancer and is being held with smokers; my mother is worried sick about his health,” she added.

Before July 25, 2021, Tunisia was seen as the only democracy to have emerged from the Arab uprisings of 2011. That is when Saied dissolved the parliament, surrounding it with tanks to deny access to dumbstruck lawmakers. In addition to summarily dismissing the government and the Supreme Judicial Council, the body that is meant to assure judicial independence, Saied approved a new constitution vastly expanding his powers. The charter was passed in a referendum held last year with under 30% turnout. Turnout at two rounds of parliamentary elections held in December and January under a new electoral law, with 8.8% and 11.4% participation, respectively, dealt a further blow to Saied’s melting legitimacy.

Saeid, who labels his opponents “cancerous cells” that need to be dealt with using “chemical methods,” blamed the poor showing on popular distrust of the parliament.

Saied on Wednesday accused the latest detainees of being responsible for the chronic lack of sugar, cooking oil, pasta and other kitchen essentials that is plaguing the country. “The recent arrests have shown that a number of criminals involved in conspiring against the internal and external security of the state are the ones behind the crises by distributing foodstuff and raising their prices,” Saied said during a meeting with his trade minister, according to a video posted online.

There is mounting worry that the former constitutional law instructor, an unabashed advocate of capital punishment, will resort to even harsher measures to deflect attention from his failure to fix the country’s ailing finances.

“There has been a systematic dismantling of checks and balances. Individuals are being arrested without any legal foundations, without even being informed of the reasons of their arrest or the charges against them,” said Said Benarbia, MENA regional director for the Geneva-based International Center for Jurists.

“Without a strong reaction internally and externally, the government is unlikely to reverse course,” Benarbia told Al-Monitor. Neither has been forthcoming.

Ordinary Tunisians are exhausted and hopeless. Demonstrations against the government remain scattered, and “a lot of Tunisians feel they tried democracy and it failed,” Marks noted. The opposition remains fractured over Ennahda’s role, with some parties more exercised about its perceived attempts to overturn Tunisia’s secular order than Saied’s success in battering its fledgling democracy.

The European Union, the United Nations and the United States have, alongside numerous rights watchdogs, condemned Saied’s actions. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Wednesday, “We are deeply concerned by the reported arrests of multiple political figures, business leaders and journalists in Tunisia in recent days.” But he stopped short of calling for their release. The Biden administration is talking about halving the $85 million allotted for aid to Tunisia in the next fiscal year. Few are impressed.

“The EU and the US have not clearly drawn red lines and in failing to do so have tacitly aided and abetted the regime,” Marks said, echoing widespread criticism of their limp response. “There is no greater example of this than the State Department’s messaging on Saied’s most recent farce election for a rubber stamp parliament in December and January,” she added. After both rounds, the State Department said they represented “steps toward democracy.” No Western government has denounced Laarayedh’s arrest on nakedly political charges. “It’s shocking.”

The EU’s main worry is that political upheaval could trigger a fresh influx of illegal migrants from the country. The United States frets that if it’s too critical it might leave a void for China and Russia to fill. Sharan Grewal, an assistant professor of government at the College of William & Mary and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in Tunisia, disagrees.

“If China and Russia were truly going to jump in, they would have already done so. The only way you would get a country to ally with the United States against China and Russia is through a shared commitment to human rights,” Grewal noted during a webinar organized by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy on Wednesday.

Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the recently published “The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea,” takes an even dimmer view. “With the exception of Trump, the Biden administration is the worst US administration on democracy in the Middle East since at least the 1990s,” he told Al-Monitor. “It has no distinctive or identifiable Middle East strategy.”  

However, this is consistent with the “entire edifice of America’s role in the Middle East” over the past seven decades — one that is “designed and dependent on authoritarian regimes,” Hamid said.

Large sums of Western money to help Tunisia’s security forces combat jihadi terrorists may have made matters worse. The Ministry of Interior was for decades at the core of repression and corruption under Ben Ali. Little has changed, Marks commented, with Ben Ali holdovers still in place and “many others hired and trained in those logics.” “They jump at the chance to provide institutional ballast for Kais Saied’s new dictatorship,” Marks said.

Some contend that the most effective lever to change Saied’s behavior is IMF funding. Hamid said, “Kais Saied might be on a suicide mission. But there’s nothing to suggest that the rest of the Tunisian state is willing to go down with him."

“The United States, as the largest shareholder in the IMF, has the ability to compel IMF officials to pause talks with the Tunisian government. If the United States and its partners don’t act in the coming weeks and months, it could very well end up being too late,” he added.  

Grewal agrees. “Providing money doesn’t create a strong, committed ally but just creates an ally who is willing to sell out to the highest bidder,” he said.

This week’s pronouncements by the IMF’s managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, bode ill, however. She opined that Tunisian authorities had made “very good progress” on the steps needed to approach the fund’s board for approval for the proposed bailout package. She said she expected the finishing touches to come “in the next weeks — not months,” paving the way for a green light from the international lender.

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