Tensions rise in Tunisia

Karam Said, Tuesday 25 Apr 2023

Tensions have been rising in Tunisia following last week’s arrest of Islamist Ennahda Movement leader Rached Al-Ghannouchi, writes Karam Said

An archival photo of Saied with Al-Ghannouchi
An archival photo of Saied with Al-Ghannouchi


Tensions have spiked again in Tunisia following the arrest of Rached Al-Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Movement, on 17 April on the grounds of “incitement against state security.” 

At a meeting of political opposition forces two days earlier, Al-Ghannouchi said that “there is an obstruction to intellectual and ideological thought in Tunisia that is laying the foundations for civil war.” 

“No conception of Tunisia is complete without this party or that. Tunisia without Ennahda, without Political Islam, without the left or any other component, is a project for civil war.”

Following Al-Ghannouchi’s arrest, the tensions in the country intensified with its condemnation by the Western countries. The US State Department described the Tunisian government’s actions as “a troubling escalation,” and the German authorities said they viewed Al-Ghannouchi’s arrest with “the greatest concern.” 

In a statement on 18 April, Nabila Massrali, EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, said that “we are following with great concern the latest developments in Tunisia, in particular the arrest last night of Mr Rached Ghannouchi as well as the information concerning the closure of the headquarters of the Ennahda Party in Tunis.”

The arrest of the Ennahda leader, a former speaker of the Tunisian parliament, comes amidst ongoing demonstrations organised by Ennahda and the National Salvation Front in Tunisia (NSFT) against the policies of President Kais Saied. 

Ennahda has also stepped up its calls questioning the legitimacy of the legislative elections of 17 December 2022 and 29 January 2023, which ushered in a new parliament more aligned with the executive. 

The new parliament is a critical part of the political and constitutional process that President Saied launched last year when he dismissed the government and parliament and vowed to reform political life in the country. Ennahda, which had been the largest bloc in the previous parliament, fears that the new parliament will facilitate the implementation of Saied’s vision for reform. 

In addition to the political reform process, the Tunisian President also launched a drive to fight corruption. Since 11 February, the Tunisian authorities have arrested more than 20 political party leaders, judges, political activists and businessmen on charges of corruption, harming the national economy and conspiring against the security of the state. 

Foremost among them are Noureddine Beheiri, a former minister of justice and the third highest official in Ennahda, and Khayam Turki, a former finance minister who has been implicated in corruption cases in Tunisia and abroad. 

The Tunisian authorities’ actions cannot be seen independently from the government’s ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a $1.9 billion assistance package for the country. 

Earlier this month, Saied said that he would not bow to the IMF’s “dictates” to lift subsidies in Tunisia and lower wages. His government simultaneously signalled its intention to join the BRICS bloc of emerging economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

BRICS offers “a political, economic and financial alternative that will enable Tunisia to open up to the new world,” said Mahmoud bin Mabrouk, spokesperson for the pro-Saied July 25 Movement in Tunisia. 

The Tunisian authorities also see the BRICS group as an avenue to more financing opportunities, yet without the political strings and outside intervention in domestic affairs that come with IMF arrangements.

Despite the currently fraught situation in Tunisia against the backdrop of mounting political polarisation and dire economic straits that have been politically exploited by the opposition forces, there remain opportunities to reduce the tensions. 

Civil society organisations have led the way, with the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) launching a national dialogue initiative as a means to forge a consensual solution to the political crisis. At the same time, the Ennahda-NSFT opposition may be losing steam of its own accord, judging by its limited success in mobilising significant grassroots turnout for demonstrations.

Meetings between the UGTT and the Tunisian presidency in order to work out differences and find common ground on various issues could also help to diffuse tensions. On 4 April, the UGTT announced that it would meet with civil society organisations like the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights, the National Lawyers Association, and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights to discuss an initiative to present to the presidency. 

President Saied appears to be keen to find a rapprochement with the UGTT. His statements on 6 April rejecting IMF dictates to lower wages and reduce subsidies were mainly addressed to the UGTT, which naturally opposes such measures. 

He took the opportunity to underscore the potentially destabilising nature of such measures, reminding the public that the last time subsidies were lifted they sparked the 1984 riots. “Civil peace is not a game,” Saied said, with observers interpreting his remarks as a signal to the UGTT that they share the same views, at least on this issue. 

Saied has also turned to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to help Tunisia through its financial difficulties. As it seeks closer ties with the GCC nations, Tunis has moved to align itself with GCC policies. 

One example has been the Tunisian government’s openness to restoring diplomatic relations with Syria, the last step towards which was the visit by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad to Tunisia last week to meet with counterpart Nabil Ammar.

Ennahda and the political forces aligned with it may come to the conclusion that their approach to the aftermath of the exceptional measures President Saied took in July 2021 may have backfired. 

They have refused to deal with his government across the board, did not take part in the online forum over the shift from a parliamentary to presidential system in Tunisia, and boycotted the constitutional referendum and legislative elections in 2022. 

As a result, they have found themselves increasingly marginalised. 

However, Tunisia could still be on course towards further polarisation, unrest and socioeconomic distress, as the opposition, energised by Al-Ghannouchi’s arrest, intensifies calls for protest as the government is assailed by criticisms of the “increasing authoritarianism” of President Saied. 

But a number of factors could weaken or derail the opposition’s efforts to force the president to abandon his political reform project or go for early elections. Prime among them are Ennahda’s inability to muster sufficient grassroots support and the prospects of a rapprochement between the UGTT and the president’s camp.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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