The April 18 arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Tunisia’s main opposition leader, Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Ennahdha party and former speaker of the dissolved parliament, was the most recent and perhaps the most definitive sign of the rapid descent of the country to dictatorship under President Kais Saied.
Arresting Ghannouchi, an 81-year-old man, on the 27th day of Ramadan, one of the holiest nights in the Islamic calendar, and holding him for 48 hours without access to a lawyer, Saied spectacularly announced that he will not hesitate to trample on the human rights of his critics or the rule of law in his country to eliminate all opposition to his authority.
Saied’s use of trumped-up charges and arbitrary detention to silence his leading political opponent was eerily reminiscent of the tactics used by Tunisia’s former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to rein in his critics. As such, last month’s events have convinced many in the country that Tunisia is no more democratic or free today than it was under Ben Ali.
Saied now appears to be even more of a threat to Tunisia’s future than Ben Ali once did. Saied is even more aggressive and unhinged than his predecessor in his quest to quell dissent and consolidate power, and unlike Ben Ali, he is not afraid to attack and erode the foundations of the Tunisian state to defend his advance agenda.
The president follows scorched-earth policies that eliminate any form of opposition, increase polarization, accentuate racial tensions, promote tribalism, and erode public confidence in independent institutions. Step by step he is making Tunisia not only a dictatorship, but also a failed state.
Since taking absolute power in a coup in 2021, Saied has slandered, criminalized and imprisoned his critics and political opponents. He set a target on the backs of sub-Saharan migrants and broke all cooperation, trust and even communication between civilian and political forces.
By questioning the independence and objectivity of the judiciary and targeting judges who refuse to bow to him, Saied also disarmed the only remaining power in Tunisia that could have stopped its power and turned it into yet another tool for its attack rivals. He also turned Tunisia’s leading and once relatively independent news organizations into puppets and began using them in his undemocratic and inhumane attacks on opposition politicians and other critics of his presidency.
Thanks to Saied’s regime, the days are gone when institutions such as the Independent High Authority for Elections or the Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP) news agency were considered reliable and independent.
After being ruled by Saied for only a few years, the Tunisian state is already struggling to fulfill some of its essential responsibilities, such as providing security, basic services and a stable political environment for the Tunisian people.
In recent years, power cuts and water shortages have become a daily struggle for many Tunisians. The mismanagement of resources and the inability to provide basic necessities such as food, water and housing have led to widespread social fear and political disenchantment. This erosion of trust in the state increased as it became clear that Saied and those in his regime put their interests above the common good.
Saied’s rise to power has also created profound political instability and has eliminated all systems of checks and balances – something that will inevitably result in the complete collapse of the rule of law if left unchecked. His ruthless suppression of all political opposition and refusal to establish a constitutional court, meanwhile, has all but guaranteed that a swift and painless transition to democracy will not be possible.
Today there is nothing but uncertainty and instability in Tunisia’s future. For example, if the president, known to suffer from a chronic illness, dies suddenly, there is no way of knowing how the resulting constitutional void would be filled or what would happen to the country.
There is also a growing risk of conflict and violence due to Saied’s erratic and authoritarian style of government and refusal to share power. The ever-expanding environment of fear, mistrust, lawlessness and impunity not only encourages domestic violence, but also outside interference.
Indeed, Saied’s regime is already unable to efficiently control and protect Tunisia’s borders. Internally, the increase in criminal violence and the lawlessness with which the security apparatus oppresses Tunisians testify to the collapse of the integrity of the state and the widespread despair that cripples the people. In Saied Tunisia, the ubiquity of urban crime, the femicide crisis and the prevalence of human trafficking have created a sense of insecurity and disorder that is difficult to break.
In his quest to consolidate power, Saied is also eroding Tunisia’s sovereignty. Convinced of Saied’s usefulness as an ally in the fight against illegal immigration, the Italian government has lobbied local and international powers on behalf of his regime, undermining the sovereignty and independence of the Tunisian state and influencing the influence of the opposition in the process. impaired. By supporting Saied’s regime, both Italy and France have made it clear that Tunisia’s borders, laws and future viability as a democracy are irrelevant to their fight against illegal immigration. Desperate for international aid and an IMF loan, Saied takes whatever help he can get from anyone, without regard to the future consequences of his alliances and choices.
Ghannouchi’s imprisonment was the latest sign that Saied has not only turned Tunisia into a dictatorship, but also put the country on a path to becoming a failed state. If Saied is not persuaded to reverse his attacks on Tunisian democracy, its loss could prove irreversible – with tragic consequences for the people of Tunisia and the region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.