Tunisia’s Saied is a hypocrite on Palestine

The authoritarian president’s fiery rhetoric on Palestine is not backed by any meaningful action.

A demonstrator holds a sign as people protest in support of Palestinians in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Tunis, Tunisia March 30, 2024.
A demonstrator holds a sign as people protest in support of Palestinians in Gazain Tunis, Tunisia March 30, 2024 [Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters]

The chasm between Arab populations’ demand for more decisive responses to Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza and the shameful silence and implicit complicity of many of their leaders has yet again exposed the decades-old trend of authoritarian Arab regimes exploiting public support for the Palestinian cause for political gain – a trend that is currently being spearheaded by none other than Tunisia’s dictatorial President Kais Saied.

At first glance, Saied’s response to the war on Gaza seems to echo the Tunisian population’s unwavering support for the Palestinian cause. Presenting himself as a staunch advocate of the Palestinian liberation struggle since the beginning of his presidency, Saied has repeatedly argued in the past few years that Tunisia has a “duty to stand by the Palestinian people” and that any Arab nation that normalises ties with Israel is a “traitor”. And since October 7, he has been vocal, persistent and unapologetic in his condemnation of Israel’s actions in Gaza, as well as its decades-old illegal occupation and apartheid. His impassioned rhetoric on Palestine resonates with Tunisians who have long stood in solidarity with their oppressed Palestinian brothers and sisters and embraced their struggle as their own.

When you look beyond the fiery statements, however, it becomes blatantly obvious that Saied’s support for Palestine is nothing but a facade. The Tunisian president’s passionate speeches on Palestine are never backed by actions; he is merely exploiting popular support for the Palestinian liberation struggle for political gain.

Saied’s hypocrisy is impossible to miss if you take a closer look at the Tunisian regime’s material response to the war on Gaza in the past few months.

While the president has not missed any opportunity to publicly condemn Israel’s genocidal war on Palestinians, he also consistently opposed all direct political and legal actions proposed against Israel’s atrocities.

For example, he refused to back proposed legislation aimed at penalising normalisation with Israel within Tunisia’s borders and abroad. Such legislation would not only reaffirm Tunisia’s commitment to the Palestinian cause, but also send a clear message to Israel that its occupation of Palestine and oppression of Palestinians would never be accepted. Saied never offered a meaningful explanation for his opposition to such legislation, beyond vague suggestions that it may, somehow, endanger Tunisia’s security or hinder its economic interests.

The truth, of course, is simple: Saied prioritises strategic and economic advantage – however small, ambiguous and inconsequential – over Palestinian liberation and justice.

Beyond refusing to back legislation that would provide material support to the Palestinian cause, Saied has also used the deep public anger against Israel and its Western backers to pass legislation that would curtail the work of the country’s burgeoning domestic NGO community and put their activities under the direct control of Saied’s regime.

By exploiting the pro-Palestinian sentiments of the Tunisian public in this way, Saied has exposed the moral bankruptcy of his authoritarian regime and tarnished Tunisia’s image as a country that champions Palestinian liberation.

After its 2011 revolution, thanks to the pivotal role it played in the Arab Spring, its success in establishing the foundations for a functional democracy on the ruins of a brutal dictatorship, and its consistent support for Palestinian rights, Tunisia was hailed as an emerging bastion of democracy and justice in a region still plagued by tyranny and oppression.

Under Saied’s rule, however, Tunisia has not only experienced unprecedented democratic erosion and reversed all its post-revolution democratic gains, but also abandoned true Palestinian solidarity for empty posturing, ruining this reputation for good.

It needs to be noted again, however, that the Tunisian regime’s hypocrisy on Palestine is not an anomaly or a unique failing in the Arab world. Many authoritarian Arab regimes’ support for Palestine has been hollow and performative, like that of Saied, since long before the beginning of this latest war.

For many years, Arab rulers across the region have professed solidarity with Palestine while engaging in clandestine dealings with Israel and upholding normalisation efforts. In their bid to maintain positive relations with the United States, many ceased all practical efforts to further the Palestinian struggle for liberation, ceding control of all initiatives to resolve the decades-old conflict to Washington – Israel’s principal source of political and diplomatic legitimacy, weapons and military backing.

Today, six months into Israel’s genocide in the Gaza Strip, which has killed well more than 33,000 Palestinians, maimed tens of thousands of others and reduced most of the Palestinian coastal enclave into rubble, many powerful Arab regimes continue to hold the door open for a peace agreement with Israel. Others didn’t even withdraw their ambassadors.

As a result, Arab populations, who see the Palestinian struggle as their own, are feeling angry, betrayed and abandoned. They want their supposedly pro-Palestine leaders to back their passionate rhetoric with concrete actions. They want the Palestinian struggle to be the defining priority of their states’ foreign policy, but struggle to be heard by their leaders.

In fact, in many countries, their demands for immediate, meaningful political, diplomatic and economic action against Israel meet violence. Protests are being dispersed by police and pro-Palestine activists are being criminalised.

Many Tunisians and other Arabs across the region are not only repeatedly traumatised by the daily acts of dehumanisation and genocide against Palestinians, but also by their own leaders’ hypocrisy and inaction.

Saied is a hypocrite on Palestine, and his inaction in the name of maintaining good relations with Palestine’s oppressors and preserving his ill-gained power is harming not only long-suffering Palestinians, but also Tunisia and its people.

This is time for Tunisians, and other Arabs across the region in the same position, to make it clear to their leaders that they are not content with their leaders’ empty posturing on Palestine. It is time for them to show they would not be satisfied with anything other than political, legal, diplomatic and economic actions that would clearly communicate to Israel that Arabs would not turn a blind eye to the genocide of their Palestinian brothers and sisters.

Ending Arab complacency in the devastation of Palestinians, and holding hypocritical and power-hungry leaders like Saied to account is essential not only for bringing peace and justice to Palestine but also ensuring security and stability in the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.