What “Wait and See” Has Brought Tunisia

President Kais Saied has launched an aggressive campaign to arrest political opponents to distract his people from a country in tatters

What “Wait and See” Has Brought Tunisia
Tunisian President Kais Saied speaks during a press conference in Tunis on Sept. 17, 2019. (Anis Mili/AFP via Getty Images)

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Over the last two weeks, a spate of high-profile arrests has rocked Tunisia, as over a dozen political figures, trade unionists and members of the media have been taken into custody on security or graft charges. Some have been dragged from their homes without warrants; others, put on trial before military courts, despite being civilians. Many are being held in what their lawyers say are inhumane conditions, crammed in cells with scores of prisoners and without beds.

The arrested have little in common — they come from different political parties, centers of power and influence — other than their open criticism of President Kais Saied and his political project, which has systematically dismantled or undermined nearly every independent body in Tunisia, from the Parliament to the judiciary to the elections commission, since he took sole control of the country in a move decried as a coup in July 2021. Saied has said publicly that he personally oversaw the arrests, which represent a major escalation in his efforts to crack down on dissent in his nascent autocracy and his willingness to do so outside the bounds of the law.

The raids also served as an opportunity to deflect attention from Saied’s core conundrum: As he has consolidated power in his own hands, he has also consolidated responsibility for the country’s failing economy and public services, rising prices and food shortages, and the general sense of precarity that pervades Tunisian life. Yet in a late-night lecture — the former law professor’s favored mode of communication — to members of the security services last week, Saied insisted that those arrested in the raids had been conspiring not only to kill him and threaten state security, but to meddle in the food supply and force prices of basic goods ever higher.

Media outlets friendly to the presidency repeated his claims, even as lawyers and families of the accused revealed the actual nature of the interrogations taking place, often without legal representation present. Lawyers for the influential businessman Kamal Latif and the prominent politician Khayam Turki said their clients had been questioned about meetings with Western diplomats in Tunis. Mariem Jlassi, whose father, the former Ennahda politician Abdelhamid Jlassi, was pulled from his home without a warrant, told New Lines he was interrogated about meetings he had with Turkish researchers and an interview critical of Saied which he gave on a local radio station.

More unsettling was the news that Noureddine Boutar, the head of Tunisia’s largest independent media outlet, Mosaique FM, had also been arrested and questioned, not only about the station’s finances, according to his attorney, but about its editorial line as well.

Mosaique’s editorial stance has shifted over the course of Saied’s rule and in many ways mirrored the public mood and understanding of a president whose rise from obscurity to autocracy has relied largely on public exhaustion with politics. In the early days following the coup, many of Mosaique’s top political analysts and prominent guests were sanguine on Saied. The people were sick of political deadlock and, though his techniques were unorthodox, perhaps he could clean up Parliament, perhaps he could straighten out the botched COVID-19 response, perhaps he could get the economy back on track.

The week after Saied’s consolidation of power, I traveled down Tunisia’s coast and back through its interior with my colleague Ghaya Ben M’Barek, talking to folks at bus stations, in cafes and small shops, at their homes and in their fields along the route to understand what the country was feeling. The initial, frenzied elation in the days after the coup had worn off, and the prevailing mood, even among the most staunch supporters of Tunisian democracy, was one of “wait and see.”

“We felt like we’d been suffocating for years,” Saied Shoura told me outside his apartment building in the coastal city of Sfax. “We were patient for 11 years, why not one more month?” Shoura’s cousin had died in police custody earlier that year. Despite the bitterness of the loss, and the lack of accountability from the government — Saied’s government — Shoura still felt Saied was a bet worth taking.

“You can’t undo a decade of corruption in ten days,” Kais Bouazizi told me through a miasma of smoke in a cafe in Sidi Bouzid, where, just over a decade earlier, his cousin Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation became the inciting moment of the revolution and Arab Spring that followed. Kais and four other “children of the revolution,” who had fought street battles with police in the uprising’s earliest days, now sat around — many still jobless and without prospects — prognosticating Saied’s course for the country. Most hoped for accountability for those who had swindled Tunisia out of its prosperity, though who those people were exactly was hard to pin down. Was it the ambiguous group of “corrupt businessmen” Saied had sworn he would bring down during his campaign? Or was it the old politicians? The echo of “Ennahda,” the moderate Islamist party, resounded nearly everywhere.

“What happened was a good step, but there’s a worry that we’ll backslide toward authoritarianism,” Anwar Jawedi, one of the group, told me. When I asked how he would know if Tunisia crossed that threshold, he said, “I can’t describe it, but I’ll know it when I see it.”

Like so many others I spoke to in the weeks and months following Saied’s takeover, as he dismantled Parliament, jettisoned the constitution, dismissed judges and jailed opponents, Jawedi insisted that the Tunisian people had toppled a dictator once, and would not hesitate to do so again if need be.

Tunisians weren’t the only ones waiting to see what Saied might do next. The international community has been markedly milquetoast in its response to his political project, calling for a “return to a democratic path” while continuing to supply financial support, particularly for the security sector. The U.S. and EU are especially shy to condemn Saied, instead issuing statements such as that from U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Yael Lempert, who sought to “reiterate U.S. support for the Tunisian people, underscore the importance of taking steps to strengthen democratic governance, and emphasize the need for inclusive political and economic reforms” during a visit in May amid political arrests and protests.

At a Fourth of July party at the U.S. Embassy last summer attended by politicians, civil society actors and members of the international community, Chargée d’Affaires Natasha Franceschi waxed poetic about Washington’s support for Tunisian democracy in the preceding decade, in between sets from an Elvis cover band. There was no mention of the draft constitution set to replace the country’s historic 2014 charter which Saied had published hours before, so heavily revised by the president himself that even the small circle of allies he had enlisted to help write it said it was nearly unrecognizable.

Saied has managed to push his political project through, albeit with record low voter participation, but has delivered on little else. Grand plans to provide financial amnesty to businessmen caching assets outside the country if they invested in development projects in the interior never materialized; an International Monetary Fund loan package is still in negotiation, two years on from the initial need; shortages of milk, sugar, coffee and flour persist as prices continue to rise.

Many in the country have soured on Saied, including those initial boosters who cheered him after his takeover, and media outlets like Mosaique. But a cohesive opposition that could challenge him has yet to materialize and the recent arrests undercut what weak opposition was coalescing. The red line of what could constitute autocracy that activists like Jawedi said they wouldn’t let Saied cross has been pushed further and further.

On Thursday last week, members of the Tunisian press rallied outside the prime minister’s office, raising the alarm that they faced ever more restrictions on their work and demanding that Boutar, the Mosaique head, be released. The erosion of press freedoms, they said, was particularly worrying in a country with a government that no longer had internal checks and balances. If Saied succeeds in arresting or intimidating the opposition and his critics into silence, when Tunisians tire of waiting for him to deliver, there may be nothing left to see.

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