Echoes of the Ben Ali era in Kais Saied's Tunisia

Illustration - Analysis - Saied
6 min read
23 February, 2023

Since last week, Tunisian authorities have accelerated a crackdown on dissidents, detaining leading opposition figures and outspoken critics of President Kais Saied, including prominent politicians and influential businessmen. This represents the latest chapter in the country’s descent into one-man rule

Until 2011, Tunisia was an authoritarian state ruled by dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown by the Arab Spring uprisings. It wasn’t until 2019 that Kais Saied would be elected.

In July 2021, president Kais Saied dismissed the rest of the government, changed the constitution and started ruling by decree, causing political opponents and civil society to fear that democracy in Tunisia was coming to an end. In July 2022, Saied adopted a new constitution with wide-ranging executive powers.

"There is a form of 'Ben Ali-ism' in the recent actions of the political power in Tunisia"

Since then, the president has moved to eliminate all opposition. Recently, the situation reached a new level of tension when police arrested the director of Tunisia’s biggest radio, Mosaïque FM. Nouredinne Boutar has been in police custody since 13 February. The national labour union (UGTT) and the journalists' syndicate (SNJT) have condemned the arrest, calling it a major step backwards in terms of press freedom.

Haythem El Mekki is a political commentator on the Mosaïque FM popular programme Midi Show and an outspoken critic of President Saied.

“There is a form of ‘Ben Ali-ism’ in the recent actions of the political power in Tunisia,” El Mekki told The New Arab, referencing the former dictator. “During his detention, the radio general manager has been asked about our editorial line. It’s clearly intimidation,” he added.

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According to the yearly Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, Tunisia dropped 21 spots since 2021 and now ranks 96th in the world in terms of freedom of the press.

Last September, President Saied issued decree-law 54, which legitimises the prosecution of journalists and opens the door to disproportionate sanctions against any critic of the government, by labelling political positions as ‘fake news’. This decree was quickly used against news outlets that were critical of the president, such as the online outlet Business News.

Journalism is not the only industry threatened by the current government in Tunisia. Chaima Issa, a senior official in the National Salvation Front, and Issam Chebbi from the Progressive Democratic Party were arrested on Wednesday. Both are prominent opponents of Saied.

Members of the Tunisian press protest against the government's arrest of journalists and a crackdown on freedom of press in Tunis on 16 February 2023. [Getty]

Abdelhamid Jelassi and Khayem Turki, both political opponents of Saied, were also arrested last week and accused of plotting against the state.

According to his lawyers, a dozen security forces stormed Jelassi’s house and “abducted” the former Ennahda spokesman without explaining to his family where they were taking him. His daughter, Mariem Jelassi, feels the political situation in Tunisia is worse than Ben Ali’s era.

“It saddens me deeply that only 12 years after the revolution we are back to square one and we are fighting, again, for our basic rights,” she told The New Arab. Now living abroad, she fears she will never be able to come back to Tunisia because of the threat of arrest.

Khayem Turki’s arrest also came as a shock to the political landscape in Tunisia; the activist and former member of the centre-left party Ettakatol is accused of plotting against the state due to his meetings with foreign diplomats.

"Saied has dramatically commenced the hard repression phase of his new dictatorship"

Following these arrests, a Tunisian leftist coalition condemned “the instrumentalisation of the prosecutor's office and the security services to intimidate critical voices of the regime”.

Civil society, NGOs, and labour unions have also all condemned the recent arrests. The response from the government was unclear, as they only condemned foreign interference in Tunisian politics without giving transparent reasons about what led to the detentions. 

The recent arrests were conducted under anti-terrorist laws, which give authorities the power to refuse access to lawyers for 48 hours, a method that former dictator Ben Ali often used against his opponents.

For Messaoud Romdhane, a member of the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), there is undoubtedly political involvement from the president in judicial proceedings.

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“The conditions for a fair trial are not met. There is a real return to authoritarian ruling,” explained the activist. He believes Saied’s populistic approach is still supported by a part of the Tunisian people that are fed up with politics and have never believed in the value of democracy.

Foreign influence is a strong tool used by the regime to discredit opponents, and often get rid of them entirely. This weekend, a top European trade union official was expelled by Tunisian authorities. Esther Lynch was ordered to leave the country, “following statements made during the UGTT demonstration that interfered with Tunisian internal affairs,” explained the presidency in a statement.

The treatment of Lynch by the Tunisian police, "is in line with the campaign of intimidation and harassment being waged against trade unions by President Kais Saied,” responded the European Trade Union Confederation. Just last week, President Saied’s witch hunt against political opponents, media officials and trade unions showed a marked escalation in his crackdown.

Kais Saied -- Anadolu
Since last week, Tunisian authorities have accelerated a crackdown on dissidents. [Getty]

“Every night now, hundreds if not thousands of Tunisians lay tense in their beds, waiting, their stomachs knotted. Will Saied come for them or their loved ones next? Saied has dramatically commenced the hard repression phase of his new dictatorship,” Dr Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi, told The New Arab.

Historically, this context brings back bad memories in Tunisia. In 1987, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali organised a coup in order to become president. Back then, he promised to install democracy in the country before launching a massive prosecution campaign against his political opponents just months later.

Two years later, Ben Ali was the only legal presidential candidate and started a 23-year reign of brutal dictatorship. Olfa Hamdi is a major political figure in Tunisia. She believes the conspiratorial state accusations against political opponents of the president are, “just a fancy way to legitimise political prosecution.”

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The leader of the 3rd Republic Party believes Saied does not have the full support of the Tunisian people. “In governments and democracies, silence is not consent.” The silence she referred to could be linked to the participation rate in the last parliamentary elections: only 11% of the Tunisian people voted in those first elections under Saied’s regime, the lowest turnout in the history of Tunisian politics.

“Does the president want to know if he’s supported? Let’s have a presidential election and see,” demands Hamdi, as Saied’s presidential term runs until 2024. “It is an insult to interpret silence as approval,” she added.

Unfortunately, for critics of the president for whom speaking out can have severe consequences, silence seems to be the only option right now.

Amine Snoussi is a political analyst based in Tunis.

Follow him on Twitter: @amine_snoussi