In Tunisia, Saied uses Gaza to distract from autocratic rule

In Tunisia, Saied uses Israel's war on Gaza to distract from his authoritarian rule
5 min read

Tharwa Boulifi

20 March, 2024
As Tunisia marks Independence Day, President Saied exploits Israel's war on Gaza to divert from political repression and economic crisis, writes Tharwa Boulifi.
This year's Independence Day, a cherished occasion for Tunisians, won't be celebrated as it usually is amid Israel's war on Gaza, writes Tharwa Boulifi. [Getty]

Since 7th October, the ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza has thrown the world into turmoil, and has shaken the conscience of the international community.

While the Western world's politicians shamelessly stand by Israel’s deadly war, the rest of the world has called out their double standards. Those most outraged at the mask of the Western world coming off are the people of the MENA region, who are all too familiar with this hypocrisy.

Across the region, people launched a massive boycott movement against Israeli products, services, and companies funding the Israeli military. The diaspora also organised pro-Palestine protests in Europe and the United States that were heavily repressed by the authorities.

Today, Tunisians should be celebrating our country’s 68th independence day on 20th March. Tunisians are well-known for our support for the Palestinian cause, from digital activism through hashtags and posts on social media, to the many pro-Palestine protests that fill the streets, the last of which took place on the first day of Ramadan.

But as Israel’s war on Gaza rages on unabated, this year’s Independence Day, a cherished occasion for Tunisians, won’t be celebrated as it usually is.

Like Tunisians’ solidarity with Palestine, president Kais Saied has been outspoken in criticising Israel’s war on Gaza. 

The authoritarian leader’s pro-Palestine statements were a major factor that helped him win the 2019 presidential elections, and since 7th October he has pounced at the opportunity to speak about Palestine to distract from the dire socioeconomic conditions of his rule.

For the last five months, the war in Palestine became a predominant topic on the Tunisian Presidency's Facebook page and in the President’s speeches, where he said the war is “a historical turning point for Tunisia and for the world.” Saied has used every opportunity to focus on the resistance in Palestine and his accusations against Israel.

The Tunisian government opted for a similar populist discourse, using Gaza to gain popularity among the increasingly unhappy population; wounded Palestinians were brought to Tunisia to receive treatment and were filmed as soon as the plane landed by cameras of the Tunisian presidency's Facebook page.

In the video, authorities didn’t even bother to hide the fact that they were telling the Palestinian guests what they should say in front of the cameras.

In one video of Saied visiting Palestinians in hospital, Saied told a computer engineering student that he will get him a laptop.

As expected, the Tunisian people reacted positively to the government’s and the president’s actions. But during the parliamentary vote on the bill criminalising normalisation with Israel, the president of the assembly interrupted the session to announce that Saied objects to the bill, claiming it would be a threat to “Tunisia’s external security.”


Even though this law was Saied’s main electoral promise in 2019, his latest stance didn’t trigger much anger, especially after he addressed the people in a solemn message and informed them that it was “counter-productive to criminalise an entity that Tunisia doesn’t recognize.”

Tunisians, impressed by their president’s big words, were satisfied with such an explanation.

The actions of President Saied and his government over the course of the last 166 days of genocide in Gaza are intended to distract the Tunisian people from the country’s economic crisis, such as scarcity of basic foodstuff and high prices.

It is also a distraction from Saied’s crackdown on political opposition, activists and dissidents. Since October, activists protesting for the release of political prisoners have become irrelevant to local media, which predominantly focus on pro-Palestine protests and neglect the rest.

Another way that Gaza has served President Saied is by amplifying his scepticism and hostility towards the West, which can often be heard in his speeches and has now been adopted by Tunisians, since Israel’s war has created a brutal rupture between the Global North and MENA countries.

By using a populist discourse that aligns with Tunisians’ stance regarding the genocide happening in Palestine, the Tunisian president, using his usual demonisation strategies, knew which sensitive chords to strike, and succeeded in distracting his people from their country’s problems.

Tunisians, known for their commitment to the Palestinian cause and affected by what has been happening in Gaza, have willingly shifted their anger and resentment towards the powerful Western countries, the current big enemy of Arabs and Muslims.

President Saied’s tactic is working. With presidential elections expected later this year, polls confirmed Saied’s hegemony, with 68.7% intending to vote for him.

This year’s Independence Day will take place in a very difficult international political context and under an authoritarian regime.

But despite the tragedies happening in Palestine, Tunisians shouldn’t be driven by their emotions and must not let the government instrumentalise Israel's war on Gaza to brighten the image of the president.

If there is anything Tunisians can celebrate, it should be their independence and emancipation from Western countries’ propaganda and double standards.

Tharwa Boulifi is a Tunisian freelancer who writes about feminism, human rights, and social justice. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Newsweek, the New African, African Arguments.

Follow her on Twitter: @TharwaBoulifi

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.