London, England – After the Arab Spring protests in the early 2010s, Tunisia experienced a brief spell of democracy.
But that changed in July 2021 when President Kais Saied froze parliament and sacked the government in a dramatic move.
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Since then, the North African country has seen an intense crackdown on opposition leaders, critics and activists.
Since February this year, more than 20 people – including opposition politicians, journalists and business figures – have been arrested under various charges such as “plotting against state security” and “terrorism”.
Among those arrested are Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist Ennahdha party, its member Said Ferjani, and prominent radio journalist Zied el-Heni, who many believe penned the term the “Jasmine Revolution”.
While freedom of speech and media were critical gains for Tunisians after the Arab Spring revolution led to the overthrow of then-leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, activists and journalists say those freedoms are threatened under Saied’s rule.
Speaking at a forum in London on post-Arab Spring Tunisia on Friday, Maha Azzam, head of the Egyptian revolutionary council, said, “Tunisians and Arabs have known nothing but tyranny for decades except for a short hiatus in the Arab Spring.”
Azzam said what is happening in Tunisia is not unlike other post-revolution countries where vested interests avoid political accountability by a regime of oppression.
“The Arab Spring was round one. It was an intifada if you like. It was an uprising, it was an incomplete revolution, but there will be other cycles like with other revolutions. It was peaceful, and I hope it will remain peaceful,” she said.
Soumaya Ghannouchi, daughter of the jailed Ennahdha chief, said Saied “robbed the Tunisians of the hard-won freedoms”.
“You are hounded by your sick suspicions, your power, greed, your fear. Ghannouchi haunts you,” she said in a message to the Tunisian president. “Try as you may, you will never lock Ghannouchi away. You are the prisoner, not him.”
Soumaya added: “He [Saied] gave them [Tunisians] not only dictatorship but also poverty and state bankruptcy.”
Tunisia’s economic crisis has been worsened by stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund for a loan of $1.9bn. Without a loan, the country faces a severe payments crisis.
Opposition parties say Saied’s action against the opposition leaders is politically motivated as they call for the authorities to release political prisoners.
But Saied alleges those imprisoned were “terrorists, criminals and traitors”, and judges who free them would be endorsing their alleged crimes.
Kaouther Ferjani, daughter of jailed politician Said Ferjani, said when her family asked a judge why her father was in prison, the judge replied, “It was either me or him.”
“My father in prison said we have shifted from the independence of the judiciary to the use and abuse of the judiciary,” she said.