The April 18 arrest and consequent imprisonment of Tunisia’s main opposition leader, Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Ennahda party and former speaker of the dissolved parliament, was the latest and perhaps the most definitive sign of the country’s swift descent into dictatorship under President Kais Saied.
Indeed, by 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 announced in spectacular fashion 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 keep his critics in check. As such, last month’s events convinced many in the country that Tunisia today is not any more democratic or free than it was under Ben Ali.
In fact, Saied now appears to be posing a bigger threat to Tunisia’s future than Ben Ali ever did. Saied is even more aggressive and unhinged than his predecessor in his quest to stifle dissent and consolidate power, and unlike Ben Ali, he is not afraid to attack and erode the very foundations of the Tunisian state to further his agenda.
The president is following scorched earth policies that are eliminating opposition of any kind, widening polarisation, accentuating racial tensions, promoting tribalism and eroding the public’s trust in independent institutions. He is, step by step, turning Tunisia into not only a dictatorship but also a failed state.
Since assuming absolute power in a 2021 coup, Saied has slandered, criminalised and jailed his critics and political opponents. He put a target on the backs of sub-Saharan migrants and broke all cooperation, trust and even communication between civil and political forces.
By questioning the independence and objectivity of the judiciary and targeting judges who refuse to bow down to him, Saied also disarmed the only remaining power in Tunisia that could have checked his power and turned it into yet another tool to attack his rivals. He also made Tunisia’s leading and once relatively independent news organisations into puppets and started using them in his undemocratic and inhumane attacks on opposition politicians and other critics of his presidency.
Thanks to Saied’s regime, gone are the days when such institutions as the Independent High Authority for Elections or the Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP) news agency were considered trustworthy and independent.
After just a few years of being governed by Saied, the Tunisian state is already struggling to fulfil some of its essential responsibilities, such as providing security, basic services and a stable political environment for the Tunisian people.
In the last few years, for many Tunisians, power blackouts and water shortages have become a daily struggle. The mismanagement of resources and the inability to provide necessities such as food, water and housing have caused widespread social anxiety and political disenchantment. This erosion of trust in the state further deepened as it became clear that Saied and those in his regime prioritise their interests over the public good.
Saied’s power grab has also promoted profound political instability and eliminated all systems of checks and balances – something that will inevitably result in the complete breakdown of the rule of law if left unaddressed. His relentless suppression of all political opposition and refusal to establish a constitutional court, meanwhile, has all but guaranteed that a swift and painless transition back to democracy will not be possible.
Today, there is nothing but uncertainty and instability in Tunisia’s future. For example, if the president, who is known to be suffering from chronic illness, passes away 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 the growing risk of conflict and violence stemming from Saied’s erratic and authoritarian governing style and refusal to share power. The ever-deepening environment of fear, distrust, lawlessness and impunity is not only encouraging domestic acts of violence but also external interference.
Indeed, Saied’s regime is already unable to efficiently control and protect Tunisia’s borders. Internally, the growth of criminal violence and the lawlessness with which the security apparatus oppresses Tunisians testify to the breakdown of the state’s integrity and the widespread desperation crippling the people. In Saied’s Tunisia, the ubiquity of urban crime, the femicide crisis and prevalence of human trafficking have instilled a sense of insecurity and disorder that is hard to shake.
In his quest to consolidate power, Saied is also eroding Tunisia’s sovereignty. Convinced of Saied’s utility as an ally in the fight against undocumented 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 weakening the influence of the opposition in the process. By supporting Saied’s regime, both Italy and France have made it clear that Tunisia’s borders, laws and future feasibility as a democracy are irrelevant to their fight against undocumented immigration. Desperate for international support and an IMF loan, Saied is taking any help he can get from anyone, not considering the future consequences of his alliances and choices.
Ghannouchi’s imprisonment was the latest sign that Saied has not only transformed Tunisia into a dictatorship but also put the country on the path to becoming a failed state. If Saied is not persuaded to roll back his attacks on Tunisia’s democracy, its loss may prove irreversible – with tragic consequences for the people of Tunisia and the region.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.