Fears Ghannouchi arrest will lead to more crackdowns in Tunisia

Opposition worried what President Kais Saied’s next step will be with a number of opposition figures in prison.

Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist Ennahda party and speaker of an elected parliament that Tunisian President Kais Saied formally dissolved last year, arrives at a court for questioning in Tunis, Tunisia February 21, 2023. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui
Opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi was brought in by Tunisian authorities for questioning a number of times this year before being arrested this week [File: Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters]

Tunis, Tunisia – Rached Ghannouchi finds himself behind bars this week, leaving the Tunisian opposition leader’s daughter worried for his health, and his party worried about what happens next.

“They insisted that he can be held for 48 hours without lawyers present,” Yusra Ghannouchi said, detailing her father’s initial interrogation on Monday.

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied had chosen one of the holiest nights on the Islamic calendar to make his latest move against the Tunisian opposition – the 27th of Ramadan. Ghannouchi was detained, and the offices of his self-described “Muslim Democrat” Ennahda party, as well as the opposition coalition National Salvation Front, were shut.

The ostensible reason for Ghannouchi’s detention was a video in which he made comments warning about the potential for civil war if Tunisia’s various political currents, including political Islam and leftists, were excluded.

The authorities have responded by charging Ghannouchi with “conspiracy against state security”, and have kept him in prison on pre-trial detention.

Yusra Ghannouchi said her father’s words have been taken out of context to create the charges.

“My father stated that one of the main successes of the National Salvation Front is to go beyond political and ideological polarisation, [he said:] ‘anyone imagining Tunisia without this or that group, a Tunisia without Ennadha, without political Islam, without the left or any of its components, would be laying the ground for civil war’,” Yusra Ghannouchi said.

Tunisian political essayist Hatem Nafti said Saied used the opportunity of Rached Ghannouchi raising the prospect of a civil war to justify his arrest, one that had been used to crack down on the opposition under Tunisia’s former leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

“Ben Ali eliminated the Islamists under the pretext of preventing a civil war,” said Nafti.

Saied’s supporters have also seized on the comments.

“Personally, I am for [Ghannouchi’s] arrest,” said Oussama Aoudit, a leader in the nationalist Echaab party. “It is an implicit call for this partisan to go out and start a civil war. He wants to destroy everyone who took part in the [political] actions since July 25 [2021].”

Saied, who became president in 2019, with the backing of Ennahda, dissolved the democratically-elected parliament on July 25, 2021, and has since seized more power for himself, including by changing the country’s constitution. His opponents have decried his moves as being part of a coup.

Ahmed Gaaloul, Ghannouchi’s chief adviser, told Al Jazeera he fears the latest episode is another step towards banning Ennahda completely.

“There is no systematic harassment of party members … [but they live] in a psychological state of terror,” Gaaloul said.

“Everything you send or receive, or even send to a journalist, could be used as evidence of some conspiracy,” he added.

An easy target

Monica Marks, assistant professor of Middle East Politics at NYU Abu Dhabi, said Saied had taken advantage of Ghannouchi’s declining popularity in recent years, particularly among many Tunisian secularists.

“[They have] accepted what has ostensibly been a series of authoritarian moves by Saied since July 25, 2021,” Marks said.

Marks added Ghannouchi’s arrest has been “the red meat that Saied’s supporters have been craving for some time. This buys him some time, especially on the Tunisian left, who have been suspicious of Ghannouchi for decades”.

While the arrest of Ghannouchi, a former longtime exile who only returned to Tunisia following the overthrow of Ben Ali in 2011, has been welcomed in some quarters, a former top official of the secular Nidaa Tounes party believes that it will only increase the perception internationally that Tunisia is headed down a dark path.

“This path will strengthen the isolation of the Tunisian regime internally and externally, and will lead Tunisia into the unknown,” said Khaled Chouket, who also served as a minister. “This is a dangerous indication that things are slipping in the direction of striking political pluralism and restricting public freedoms and human rights.”

Chouket noted to Al Jazeera that Saied had failed on his promises to combat corruption and improve social welfare, and instead focused on arresting political opponents, “creating an image that frightens investors at home and abroad, in addition to the hate speech that continues to divide Tunisians”.

Marks, meanwhile, said Western countries are too concerned with fighting migration and the threat of Russia and China establishing bases in the Mediterranean, so “will not push for political pluralism or supporting human rights in Tunisia”.

“Saied’s populist project is the end of politics,” said Natfi. “It is not just the end of political parties, but also risks the end of civil society, associations and unions.”

Source: Al Jazeera