Tunisia detains more dissidents amid growing crackdown

Tunisia detains more dissidents amid growing crackdown
Tunisian authorities arrested more critics of the country's president on Wednesday.
3 min read
23 February, 2023
The police and Interior Ministry have declined to comment on the arrests [Getty/archive]

Tunisian police detained two prominent dissidents and surrounded the home of a third on Wednesday, part of an escalating crackdown on critics of President Kais Saied, who has labelled his opponents traitors and criminals.

The arrests, along with others this month, have targeted some of Saied's most important critics along with other politicians, judges and media figures.

Issam Chebbi, head of the Republican Party, was detained near a shopping centre while he was out with his wife, his family and lawyers told Reuters. Police later searched his home.

Chaima Issa, an activist who took part in the 2011 revolution, was detained after police surrounded her in her car, her lawyer Samir Dilou said.

Police also surrounded the house of Jawher Ben Mbarek to detain him, but the constitutional law professor was not there, his sister and lawyers said.

Speaking in a video published online on Wednesday, Saied attacked the National Salvation Front opposition coalition in which Ben Mbarek and Issa were leaders, along with Chebbi's brother.

He called it "a paid campaign", adding that "Tunisia wants to get rid of these criminals".

Saied shut down the elected parliament in 2021 and seized most powers, moving to rule by decree and writing a new constitution that he passed in a referendum with low turnout last year, actions his foes call a coup.

The president has said the moves were legal and necessary to save Tunisia from chaos, repeatedly calling his critics traitors and enemies of the state.

Last year he also took ultimate authority over the judiciary. In the video released on Wednesday, he said "judges must apply the law and whoever does not implement the law should take responsibility".

Although some prominent politicians had faced court cases after Saied's seizure of powers, there had been no coordinated crackdown on dissent until this month's series of arrests.

Tunisia was seen as the only relative success story of the Arab Spring when it adopted democracy following its 2011 revolution that triggered uprisings across the region.

However, years of political paralysis and economic stagnation left many Tunisians disillusioned and Saied was elected in 2019 as a political outsider vowing to remake the system.

The police and Interior Ministry have declined to comment on the arrests, but lawyers have said some of those detained were accused of conspiring against state security.

Saied had previously said that some of those arrested were responsible for shortages of food and fuel that economists have blamed on a crisis in public finances.

Issa was already facing a military tribunal on charges of insulting Saied but had refused to answer questions during her court appearance, saying she should be tried by a civilian judge.