During Ramadan this year, just before nightfall when Muslims break their fast, dozens of Tunisian policemen swooped on the home of 81-year-old Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the country’s biggest political party, Ennahdha, and took him to jail. A few days later he was charged with plotting against state security. On May 15, he was found guilty of incitement and sentenced to a year in prison.
Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, has been targeting Ennahdha politicians, as well as his other critics, ever since seizing power, in 2021. Since February, some 20 opposition leaders, dissidents, activists and journalists have reportedly been arrested. Observers have said the charges are often trumped up and that Saied is hellbent on silencing his critics.
Tunisia’s deteriorating situation was discussed at a specially convened forum in London, on May 18. Seifeddine Ferjani, son of a jailed politician, said, “There are deeply worrying signs of the way Tunisia operates now, such as using anti-terror squads to arrest liberal dissidents... I think that Tunisia is a ticking time bomb.”
Ghannoushi’s daughter, Soumaya, said Saied has devoured Tunisia’s democracy bit by bit, accusing him of manufacturing crises in order to distract the nation from its real problems.
According to Saied, the murder of five people on May 9 outside the el-Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba was intended to sow discord and sabotage the tourist season in the run-up to summer.
In fact, the killings were apparently motiveless. They were carried out by a member of Tunisia’s National Guard stationed at its naval center in the nearby town of Aghir. His murder spree began when he shot a fellow guard and seized his ammunition.
He then made his way to el-Ghriba Synagogue, swarming with hundreds of visitors on the annual Lag Ba’omer pilgrimage. Once there, he fired indiscriminately at security units set up to control the crowds, gunning down three security officers and two visitors, before he himself was shot and killed. Four other visitors and four security officers were also injured.
El-Ghriba, which means “The Mysterious” in Arabic, is one of the oldest synagogues in the world. It is reputed to have been built by Jews who fled Jerusalem after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and tradition maintains that it incorporates a stone or gate brought from King Solomon‘s temple. Its ark contains what is thought to be one of the oldest Torah scrolls in existence.
The synagogue is considered a holy site by both Jews and Muslims, who share it as a place of worship – a practice once common in northwest Africa. In Tunisia, the Jewish community, although much reduced, remains a vibrant part of the country’s culture.
How much longer the liberal atmosphere of Tunisia’s 12-year fledgling democracy will last is anybody’s guess.
The rise and fall of democracy in Tunisia
Between 1956 and 2011, Tunisia operated as a one-party state under an all-powerful president. The national uprising in 2011 is widely thought to have been the spark that triggered the Arab Spring and its greatest success. President Zine El Abidine was swept from power and a multi-party democracy was established. Tunisia’s first democratic parliamentary elections came in 2014 and its first elected president was Beji Caid Essesi. Unfortunately, he died in 2019, and in the subsequent presidential elections, Kais Saied, reputed at the time to be incorruptible, enjoyed a landslide victory.
WHAT FOLLOWED is giving cause for concern. On July 25, 2021, Saied suspended parliament, fired the prime minister and began ruling by decree. Since then, Tunisia has reverted to the sort of authoritarian one-party state of earlier times and the economy has worsened to the point where European economic experts warn of an impending meltdown.
Yet in April, Saied appeared to reject the terms of a much-awaited $1.9 billion (NIS 7 b.) bailout from the IMF. “Diktats from abroad” that would increase poverty were “unacceptable,” he said. Tunisians had to rely on themselves.
Josep Borrell, the European Union diplomacy chief, warned in March that Tunisia was heading towards economic collapse, an assessment echoed by Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, who said the Tunisian economy risks falling off the deep end without IMF help.
As the political atmosphere grows ever more febrile, civil rights organizations that thrived after the revolution say they expect to become the president’s next targets. Romdhane Ben Amor, the spokesman for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, says pro-Saied social media accounts have accused them of being agents and traitors.
“We also receive threatening messages privately which accuse us of serving foreign agendas,” he adds. “Pressures on us have increased since we opposed the president’s February speech against migrants.”
He was referring to a speech by Saied on February 21, during a National Security Council meeting. “Hordes of irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa,” said Saied, had come to Tunisia “with the violence, crime and unacceptable practices that entail.” This was an “unnatural” situation,” he said, and part of a criminal plan designed to “change the demographic make-up” and turn Tunisia into “just another African country that doesn’t belong to the Arab and Islamic nations anymore.”
His remarks not only provoked a crisis with the African Union but triggered street attacks against Black African migrants, students and asylum seekers. In opposition to Saied’s followers, hundreds of Tunisians poured onto the streets to protest. Police officers detained and deported scores.
“President Saied must retract his comments,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa. He must “order investigations to clearly signal that anti-Black racist violence will not be tolerated. The president must stop finding scapegoats for Tunisia’s economic and political woes.”
For two weeks, the authorities denied that racist violence against Black Africans had occurred. When the extent of international opposition became clear, the authorities announced new measures, on 5 March, to facilitate the legal residency of migrants, as well as a process of repatriation for those wishing to voluntarily leave the country.
Unfortunately, the attacks and violence have continued. Where on earth is Tunisia heading?
The writer is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. Follow him at www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.