Tunisia descends back into authoritarianism.

Tunisia descends back into authoritarianism.
Kais Saïed, Tunisia’s budding dictator. Courtesy BBC.

The deterioration of Tunisia’s socio-political environment dates back to the anti-authoritarian protests in January 2011 that sparked the Arab Spring. Ousting President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the protests birthed hope for a better future in Tunisia (as well as across the Middle East). A decade later and Tunisian’s are suffering at the hands of Kais Saïed who is slowly dismantling much of the judicial structure of the state, imprisoning and silencing dissenting voices and continuing an arbitrary ‘State of Emergency’ to tighten his grip on power. 


Despite having campaigned on a platform of anti-corruption, social justice, and the decentralisation of power, in July 2021, Saïed invoked Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution in July 2021. This so-called emergency declaration in essence initiated a self-coup under the guise of preserving the identity and security of the nation amidst a three-fold crisis: COVID-19, the declining economy, and political paralysis.


“In the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state, the President of the Republic may take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances, after consultation with the Head of Government and the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People [Parliament] and informing the President of the Constitutional Court.” – Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution


After the coup of 2019, Saied did not hesitate from expanding his totalitarian control over everything from the government to the media, reversing a decade’s worth of democratic progress, backtracking on his presidential campaign, and centralising power. As a result, the state is failing to fulfil some of its fundamental responsibilities, including stable access to water, food, electricity, and healthcare.


In addition, Tunisia hosts over 9,000 UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum-seekers, predominantly originating from the Middle East, sub-Sahara and Africa’s Horn. Mercy Corps’ 2018 report revealed that between 2004 and 2014, the number of non-Tunisian nationals residing in the country rose by 66%, excluding those who are undocumented. Additionally, due to Tunisia’s geographical location, the country has also become a departure gate for those attempting to reach Europe. The 2018 report shows that between 2016 and 2017 the number of sub-Saharan nationals who were apprehended off the Tunisian coast hoping to reach Europe by boat rose from 71 to 271 individuals. In April 2023, Tunisian coastguards recovered the bodies of 41 migrants, and the UN’s migration agency reported that with those departing from the Libyan coast included, 824 people had died so far in 2023.


On April 27, 2023, the agency tweeted:

“We have recorded nearly 300 deaths in the Central #Mediterranean in just the last 10 days. Already in 2023, at least 824 people have lost their lives on this route.”


Instead of opting to aid and protect those in need of refuge, Saïed called for action to halt the flow of migrants into the nation, stating that “the undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” and that opposition had been complicit in a “criminal arrangement made since the beginning of this century to alter the demographic structure of Tunisia”.


The use of racialised language caused, as is the case in any iteration of racial populism, an uproar of nationalist fervour. Discriminatory attacks against all immigrations of sub-Saharan descent have spiked. Mohamed Kony, a Malian construction worker, has experienced the archetypal impact of such rhetoric. Having already been residing in Tunis for five years, he lost his job, home and residency certificate in less than a week. Homeless and desperate, he fears for his and his friends future. 


This crackdown on immigrants is occurring parallel to Saied’s political crackdown aimed at silencing his opponents. In the year 2022, President Saied implemented two decree laws that require imprisonment as a penalty for the dissemination of "fake news" or slanderous remarks. The initial decree, known as Decree-Law 2022-14, establishes prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life, even encompassing public discussions related to the economy. The subsequent decree, namely Decree Law 2022-54, was introduced to enforce prison terms of up to 10 years for the improper use of telecommunications networks to generate, transmit, or propagate false information. Additionally, this measure grants authorities the power to dissolve entities that have been found in violation of the law.


In February, a video publicised on his official Facebook page, the President branded high-profile critics as “terrorists” including politicians, lawyers, former members of government, and, recently the director of a leading radio station. 


Amnesty International’s Regional Director for MENA stated that: 

“President Saïed should call off this politically motivated witch hunt. The authorities should focus instead on finding real solutions to help alleviate the suffering of those hit hard by Tunisia’s crumbling economy.”


With Decree-Law 2022-14 having criminalised public debate of the economy, and limiting their freedom of expression, the law dissuades the Tunisian population from discussing shortages of supplies and food security for fear of incrimination. impACT suggests that instead of instilling fear amongst the population, for discussing current and pressing matters, Saïed should increase their efforts in the dissemination of reliable information and in turn gain the nation’s trust whilst protecting their human rights. This cannot come solely from state sources, maintaining wide public debate is the only reliable method.


As Ramadan Ben Amor, spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights expressed, Saïed’s fixation on his various crackdowns “aims to create an imagery for Tunisians to distract them from their basic problems” and prevent them from discussing them. 


In March 2023, it was announced that the state will be cutting off water supplies to citizens for seven hours a night in response to the drought, and some residents stated that the authorities had been cutting off drinking water throughout the night in some areas of the capital. This is in addition to the formerly introduced quota system for drinking water, its banned use in agriculture in September 2022, and tap water’s increased price. Adding yet another layer to existing social tensions, which have compounded racialised anger as resources become increasingly hard to source, households are already suffering on a multitude of fronts. The weakened economy, dependence on imports amidst increasing strain on it’s largest supplier of grain, Ukraine, only serve to extend misery.


Amidst the significant hardships faced by the Tunisian populace, impACT International appeals to the Tunisian government to halt its ongoing assault on it’s people’s democratic values. Instead of focusing solely on targeting regime opponents, the government should prioritise efforts toward restoring Tunisia's economic stability. This can be achieved by rebuilding trust with its citizens, through the restoration of their rights to free expression, addressing the climate crisis responsible for the droughts, and providing support to those seeking refuge.



Zoe Dales


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