Kais in point: Why Algeria's regime is cheering Tunisia's proto-dictatorship
Last January, on the 12th anniversary of the fall of Tunisia's long-time autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, indignant crowds took to the streets of Tunis in demonstrations against current President Kais Saied and the worsening of their living conditions.
Assessing these latest developments against a backdrop of increased political divisions in Tunisia, one may infer that the Tunisian Revolution went up like a rocket, and came down like a stick.
Anybody versed in transitology may be puzzled to discern the current political situation in Tunisia – whether it is a democracy or an authoritarianism/dictatorship. For human rights activist Kamel Jendoubi, “the victory of Kais Saied in October 2019 turned out to be a farce.”
''Muzzling critics, subduing peaceful dissent, and indicting independent journalists and trade-unionists with bogus charges, has become a common practice in president Saied’s Tunisia. And interestingly, this is similar to what is happening in neighbouring Algeria.''
The irony is that this program-free ascetic constitutional-law professor, who was unknown to the local political establishment, and who built his 2019 presidential candidacy around the January 14, 2011 Tunisian Revolution, staged an unexpected power-grab in July 2021.
To justify the unjustifiable, he claims that his decision was to cleanse the system and reinstate the principles of the Revolution he believes were “usurped.”
For many analysts, president Kais is following in the footsteps of Ben Ali, and this does not bode well for Tunisians. His power grab has so far allowed him to sideline the popular Islamist party Ennahda, sack the government, suspend parliament, appoint a new cabinet, and start ruling by decree. He even expanded his control over the media.
But it should be mentioned that the 2011 Tunisian Revolution was not about maintaining a status quo or replacing one dictator with another. It was about change, the redefinition of power, accountability, good governance, and genuine representation.
At first, president Saied’s decisions received wide support from all walks of life, though transgressing the spirit and the letter of the Constitution. Many Tunisians were ready to tolerate his arbitrary and dictatorial decisions as long as there was stability. Nevertheless, two years later, Saied has methodically reversed the post-revolution democratic gains, challenged the independence of the judiciary, and is now ruling the country with an iron fist.
Former US ambassador to Tunisia Gordon Gray has advised Saied “not to take a leaf out of the book” of late Tunisian leader Ben Ali. Yet, there was a brutal crackdown on civil society organisations such as the Citizens Against the Coup coalition. And the president still vilifies associations and NGOs, calling them “traitors.”
Even media outlets such as Al Jazeera in Tunis were targeted.
Besides the travel bans, the politically motivated investigations and arrests, the crackdown involved most of Saied’s political opponents.
Former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki was tried in absentia and sentenced to four years in prison. Rached Ghannouchi, co-founder of the Islamist Ennahda party is still under investigation for “money laundering and incitement to violence” and political activist Turki Khayam has been arrested for “plotting against the state.”
Almost all the candidates who challenged Saied on the campaign trail are being harassed.
The latest target in this ruthless crackdown was Esther Lynch, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). Last week, President Saied ordered her expulsion because she “interfered in the internal affairs of Tunisia” when she addressed a rally organised by the UGTT - Tunisia’s powerful labour union.
Raja Ben Slama, an Arab civilisation specialist and director of the National Library of Tunisia, has also been fired. Tunisian authorities could not tolerate her vocal criticism of Saied’s authoritarianism.
Muzzling critics, subduing peaceful dissent, and indicting independent journalists and trade-unionists with bogus charges, has become a common practice in president Saied’s Tunisia. And interestingly, this is similar to what is happening in neighbouring Algeria.
When tourism collapsed in Tunisia and the government had to face colossal financial difficulties, Algeria’s authorities stepped in. But Algeria’s aid came with strings attached.
In February 2020, the Algerian regime made a deposit of $150 million to the Tunisian Central Bank. This was followed by a $300 million loan in December 2021, and then an additional $200M in 2022.
Officially, this financial assistance to Tunisia – a country suffering from an economic and financial crisis that has been exacerbated by political instability – was to help the country overcome its severe difficulties.
With this aid from Algeria, Saied was able to advance the counterrevolutionary project, hold back a much-needed transitional justice, subvert the rule of law, and systematically erode all the democratic gains that Tunisians struggled desperately to maintain since the ousting of Ben Ali.
A clear example of the effect of this sustained aid to Tunisia is the manifestation of Saied’s high-handed project that he calls “the new republic.” This was inspired by both Egypt's dictator Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s “New Algeria”.
Despite international pressures against president Saied’s actions and urging him to pursue dialogue rather than confrontation, he persists in bringing about a centralised political system where he has huge and unlimited presidential power, and where the president reigns supreme above everyone.
This has also been of cardinal importance to the Algerian regime. The last thing the authorities want is a democratic oasis on their eastern border, or anywhere else in the Arabic-speaking world.
Dr. Abdelkader Cheref is an Algerian academic and a freelance journalist based in the US. As a former Fulbright scholar, he holds a PhD from the University of Exeter, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. His research interests are primarily politics in the MENA region, democratisation, Islam/Islamism, and political violence with a special focus on the Maghreb.
Follow him on Twitter @Abdel_Cheref
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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.