Growing polarisation in Tunisia

Karam Said, Friday 3 Mar 2023

Western countries including France and the US are increasingly intervening in political life in Tunisia against a background of growing polarisation.

Growing polarisation in Tunisia


Tunisia is witnessing a growing wave of arrests of opposition voices that have included politicians, judges, media personalities and former ministers.

Last week, Tunisian police arrested National Salvation Front founder Jaouhar bin Mbarak, a prominent critic of Tunisian President Kais Saied, and judicial investigations were opened into several leaders of the Ennahda Movement whose leader, Rashid Al-Ghannouchi, is being investigated on terrorist charges.

The clampdown is one facet of the sharpening political polarisation in the country. On 23 February, Saied proclaimed a tougher war on corruption, which “gnaws at the country like cancer,” while at the same time taking the opportunity to lash out at the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), saying that the real problems of the Tunisian people were misery, poverty, and marginalisation and that these would not be treated by the dialogue demanded by UGTT officials.

The UGTT, a powerful political force, responded with a call to all its members to rally for a protest march in the capital Tunis on 4 March. On 3 February, it launched a series of protests against the economic situation in the country and “attempts to target union activity”.

In this increasingly fraught climate, international players have also begun to intervene, with Esther Lynch, head of the European Trade Union Confederation, flying to Tunis earlier in February to take part in a protest demonstration in the southern Tunisian city of Sfax organised by the UGTT.

On 16 February, Saied ordered her to be expelled from the country for “blatant interference in Tunisia’s internal affairs.”

A number of foreign ambassadors also met with officials of the Tunisian Journalists Syndicate at its premises in Tunis. On 23 February, the international rights group Amnesty International called on Saied to stop the prosecution of civilians in military courts and to cease what it said were attacks on the right to a fair trial.

It stressed the need to refrain from enacting laws that threaten the freedom of expression and reported that a military court in Tunisia was prosecuting Shaimaa Eissa, a political activist and Salvation Front leader, under Decree-Law 54/2022 that concerns “crimes related to information and communication systems.” She has also been barred from travelling abroad.

In a press briefing on 24 February, the French Foreign Ministry expressed its “concern regarding the recent waves of arrests in Tunisia” and urged the Tunisian authorities “to ensure that individual liberties and civil liberties are respected, in particular the freedom of expression.”

“Since 2011, Tunisia has made considerable progress with regard to the rule of law and civil liberties. These democratic advances must be preserved,” it said.

There is nothing new about the behaviour of foreign powers towards the crisis in Tunisia. In mid-February, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price said that “we are deeply concerned by the reported arrests of multiple political figures, business leaders, and journalists in Tunisia in recent days.”

Last August during a meeting in Stuttgart, Germany, on changes to the US AFRICOM Command, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said his government was concerned by the “headwinds” against the democratic aspirations of the Tunisian people.   

He said that Tunisia’s “dream of self-government was in danger” in the course of what he described as a battle between “those who support democracy and freedom and the rule of law” and “the forces of autocracy, chaos and corruption”.

The Western powers are justifying their interventions in the Tunisian crisis on the grounds of what they describe as a worrisome backsliding in democratic standards and basic rights and freedoms in the country. They note the 11 per cent turnout in the last legislative elections in Tunisia in December 2022 and the consolidation of powers in the executive.

The Western actions, deemed flagrant interventions in Tunisia’s domestic affairs by the Tunisian authorities, extend beyond expressions of concerns over the course of democracy. Some foreign parties have spoken in terms of notching up the pressure on Saied to compel him to respond to the demands of the Tunisian opposition.

The effect of such interventions has been to deepen the polarisation in Tunisia and arouse anger in official circles and public opinion. Saied himself said in mid-February that “we are not under colonial rule. We are an independent sovereign state, and we know very well what we are doing in the framework of the respect for the law.”

The Tunisian Foreign Ministry has also denounced unwarranted interventions in Tunisian domestic affairs as have a number of political parties and sectors of society that support Saied’s policies. They argue that the West does not understand the situation in the country or appreciate the efforts the government has made since 25 July 2021 to reestablish political life on secure foundations.

Political forces opposed to the foreign interventions have denounced the meetings that some Tunisian political forces have had with Western parties, saying that they are designed to legitimise foreign meddling in Tunisian affairs. They also accuse the opposition political parties and forces of using the interventions to present the Tunisian authorities as authoritarian.

As Tunisia appears to be heading towards greater tension and uncertainty, President Saied may succeed in increasing his popularity by capitalising on the theme of Western meddling in his country’s affairs, regardless of how this might affect Tunis’ relations with the Western powers.

The opposition forces, meanwhile, might try to use the Western involvement in order to turn up the heat on the government and distract it from implementing the provisions of the roadmap it introduced in July 2021.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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