By Chaker Houki
Human rights violations in Tunisia are rising alarmingly. When President Kais Saied staged his coup on July 25th last year, house arrests and travel bans were imposed on national figures and businesspeople, whom Saied accused – with no legal basis – of corruption. Today Tunisians face bans on demonstrations, kidnapping, the persecution of bloggers, and the suppression of journalists.
These violations are taking place following an entire decade during which rights and freedom flourished in Tunisia in the wake of its 2011 uprising. Freedom of association and the right to peaceful protest were protected. Citizens took part in national discussions on topics that affected their livelihoods – from freedom of religion to the justice system, from economic reform to inheritance.
Tunisia’s 2014 constitution was internationally hailed as the most progressive across the Arab world, enshrining pivotal human rights such as freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, and women’s rights. Transparent parliamentary and presidential elections were held. Tunisia emerged as an oasis of peace and democracy in a region marked by civil wars, authoritarianism, and sectarianism.
These democratic gains are today being dismantled because President Saied has reversed these them. Since July 2021, he has taken one draconian step after the other to destroy the foundations of democracy in Tunisia.
After taking over the powers of Prime Minister Hisham al-Mashishi, whom he sacked last year, President Saied has suspended parliament with the help of the Tunisian National army, and assumed all powers of the executive and legislative branches. He has brought the judiciary to its knees, dissolved Tunisia’s elected Supreme Judicial Council and replaced it with a council formed according to his personal worldview, enshrining a political system whose populism resembles Gaddafi’s Libya. In less than a year, he has taken the country from democratic transition to dysfunction. If he is not stopped, the consequences for Tunisia and democracy across the Arab world will be catastrophic.
Contrary to Saied’s claims that he would uphold rights and freedom, both are rapidly eroding in Tunisia. Parliamentarians are being tried before military courts. MP Noureddine Bhiri was kidnapped and later placed under house arrest in a public hospital without any legal process, indirectly implicating Saied in the crime of enforced disappearance.
There have been restrictions on “Citizens Against the Coup,” a citizen movement, including national political figures and human rights defenders, that supports democratic transition. More than once, the authorities objected to the right of the movement’s leaders to hold their press conferences. In fact, press freedoms at large are being attacked today in Tunisia. Several opposition media outlets have been prevented from broadcasting, and journalists are being prosecuted.
Saied’s hollow assertions about his commitment to human rights buy time while he executes his draconian political project, all the while leaving room for Tunisian citizens to believe that he will change their conditions for the better, and deluding Western countries into believing that he intends to implement democratic reforms.
The Tunisian people have rejected these blatant assaults on their democracy by taking to the streets since July last year. Academics, political parties, and civil society have expressed their fear that their country is heading towards dictatorship.
It is alarming that Western powers, particularly the Biden administration, are still responding to what is happening in Tunisia with relative indifference, as though they have decided to leave the Tunisian people at the mercy of dictatorship and populism. No Western officials have unequivocally condemned Saied for unleashing a constitutional coup and blatant power grab that is destroying the country.
The United States is the main military and economic aid provider to Tunisia. It has had a major role in arming and training the Tunisian army and helping it confront terrorism. To protect the Tunisian people and their hard-earned democratic gains, the United States should suspend all support to Tunisia’s current regime.
The international community must realize that it does not make any sense to pretend that Saied’s appointment of a female prime minister and his announcements of an electoral calendar are indicative of any real democratic goals. It is clear that his pledges will only be implemented insofar as they keep him in power, dismantle the state’s institutions, and instil a populist regime that ultimately allows him to become the next Gaddafi or Khamenei. The world cannot afford to let that happen.
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