WASHINGTON — The State Department voiced concern Wednesday over the arrest of Rached Ghannouchi and other Tunisian opposition figures whose detentions come as part of a broad crackdown on President Kais Saied’s perceived critics.
On Monday evening, Tunisian authorities arrested Ghannouchi, the unpopular face of the moderate Islamist-inspired Ennahda party and the last parliament speaker before Saied dissolved the legislative body nearly two years ago.
According to Ennahda, some 100 plainclothes police officers searched the 81-year-old politician’s home in the capital, Tunis, and detained Ghannouchi for interrogation in what his party condemned as a “dangerous development.” His detention appears linked to recent comments, in which he suggested the Tunisian government’s crackdown on the political opposition could lead to “civil war.”
Tunisian authorities have since detained three more prominent Ennahda officials and raided the party’s main headquarters. Reuters reports the security services also banned Ennahda from holding meetings, and closed the office of the wider anti-Saied coalition known as the National Salvation Front.
In a statement issued two days after Ghannouchi's arrest, State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel called the recent clampdown "fundamentally at odds with the principles Tunisians adopted in a constitution that explicitly guarantees freedom of opinion, thought, and expression."
Critics say that the constitution, which was approved in July following a widely boycotted referendum, reversed the many hard-won democratic gains in the country that birthed the Arab Spring and further cemented Saied's one-man rule.
The latest arrests, combined with the closure of Ennahda's headquarters, the banning of meetings held by certain opposition groups — “and the Tunisian government’s implication that these actions are based on public statements — represent a troubling escalation by the Tunisian government against perceived opponents," Patel said.
Ennahda was the Tunisian parliament’s biggest political party before Saied froze parliament and sacked his prime minister in a July 2021 power grab the Tunisian leader said was necessary to tackle corruption and economic mismanagement.
But Saied has failed to turn the economy around as promised. Inflation is sitting at 11% and food is becoming increasingly scarce across Tunisia. A wave of arrests that began in mid-February targeting journalists, judges, activists and other political opponents is widely seen as Saied’s attempt to deflect attention from the country’s economic woes.
Monica Marks, assistant professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi, said this week’s events represent a “giant leap towards completely eliminating any form of political pluralism in Tunisia.”
“Saied has long articulated a belief that political parties in general represent corrupt, divisive threats to Tunisian society,” Marks added.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month, a group of House Democrats warned Saied’s continued crackdown, as well as his recent anti-migrant rhetoric, raised “serious concerns” about the US relationship with Tunisia.
Biden officials have grappled with how to respond to Saied’s authoritarian lurch in Tunisia, once seen as a model for the region’s popular democratic movements. In March, the Biden administration proposed a significant reduction in economic assistance to Tunisia next year to “signal the United States' continued concern over the weakening of democratic institutions.”
Washington has financial leverage over Tunis, but experts question whether that’s enough to shape Saied's behavior.
“Unfortunately, he seems fairly impervious to either logic or to external pressures, so I don’t think there are too many tools that the US administration has at its disposal,” said Gordon Gray, the US ambassador to Tunisia from 2009 until 2012.
Some have suggested the Biden administration use its influence on the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) executive board to hold up Tunisia's proposed $1.9 billion loan package. But it’s unclear whether Saied would even permit the bailout, which would require subsidy cuts from Tunisia’s government.
Earlier this month, Saied pledged his country would not accept foreign "diktats" coming from the IMF. Without a loan, experts have warned Tunisia may default on its debt as soon as August.