On January 20, a Facebook video posted on Tunisian President Kais Saied’s page showed him ina meeting with Interior Minister Taoufik Charfeddine. Saied talked about the country's ongoing political crisis and said that his administration is trying to uphold the law.
Saied vowed to hold “traitors” accountable for an “attack” on Tunisia, especially those who he claimed had sold out to foreign intelligence.
“Freedoms in Tunisia are guaranteed today more than [at] any other time,” Saied said.
That is false.
Tunisia has been in state of political turmoil since July 2021, when Saied suspended the parliament, rescinded its members' immunity from prosecution, arrested officials, removed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and took over the office of public prosecution.
Saied announced in September 2021 that he would rule by decree, allowing him to appoint parliament members and push political reforms that were crafted under the supervision of a committee appointed by him.
Amnesty International, which called Saied’s coup an “authoritarian turn,” denounced his plan.
“Kaïs Saïed can now legislate by decree-law to change laws on the organization of political parties, associations and their financing, on the press and information, on justice, on freedoms and human rights, and even on the Code on Personal Status, which regulates family law in Tunisia. The list is mind-boggling,” Amnesty said.
On January 14, just days before Saied’s Facebook post, police used force, including water cannons, to disperse more than 1,000 people who had gathered in the capital Tunis to protest the president’s moves. A man reportedly died of the injuries suffered at the hands of police.
Security forces also attacked journalists covering the protests. Several reporters said they were assaulted by the police, who seized their equipment and phones. The National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) said it registered 20 cases of journalists attacked by the police, including that of Mathieu Galtier, a reporter for the French newspaper Liberation.
Likewise, Amira Al Jabali, a reporter for the Tunisian newspaper Hakaekonline, was rushed to the hospital after inhaling tear gas. The newspaper said the police examined her phone, including private messages and photos she took at the protests.
On January 18, 21 human rights groups protested the police’s heavy-handed police actions against protesters and journalists.
Yassine Jelassi, the head of the journalists' syndicate, said that freedoms in Tunisia were in “imminent peril.”
“A police and security mentality is running the state,” Jelassi said. “Tunisia has become a country which suppresses freedoms.”
On January 19, Saied issued a new decree curbing the budget for members of the Supreme Judicial Council, a constitutional body monitoring the functioning and independence of the courts.
Members of Tunisia’s opposition called Saied’s decree a move to subvert the council’s independence and consolidate power over all institutions in the country.
Riadh Chaibi, a member of the Islamist Ennahda party, which had the most seats in Tunisia’s parliament, wrote on his Facebook page:
“This means only one thing: Dissolving the judicial council and preventing it from exercising its duties, simply freezing the council. The coup authority [President Saied] is controlling all powers, legislature, executive and judiciary, as Tunisia enters the phase of totalitarianism.”
Saied has targeted the country’s judiciary, which he has vowed to “purify.” In December 2021, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a nongovernmental organization defending human rights and the rule of law worldwide, spoke in defense of Tunisia’s judiciary.
“Attacks and intimidation attempts against the judiciary – currently the last remaining line of defence against the President’s power grab – come at a time when the concentration of powers in Saied’s hands has already profoundly undermined its authority,” ICJ said.
On January 18, Saied extended the state of emergency that the country has been in since 2015 another month. Tunisia declared a state of emergency following a terrorist attack on the resort of Sousse in 2015 that killed 38 foreigners.
Many Tunisians consider the state of emergency unconstitutional. Saied himself said in 2016, prior to becoming president, that the state of emergency was “unconstitutional” and could only be imposed after the president consulted with the parties in the government.
Saied's power grab came after demonstrations took to the streets in the capital Tunis demanding a government change following years of corruption and declining economy.
In December 2021, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Tunisian authorities were prosecuting civilians merely for criticizing Saied or the army. HRW cited five recent cases, including TV host Amer Ayed and MP Abdelatif Aloui, who were taken from their homes.
“Using repressive laws enacted prior to the Tunisian revolution, prosecutors are going after those who criticize Saied and who label as a ‘coup’ his seizure of exceptional powers beginning on July 25, 2021,” HRW said.
Saied, a law professor, won Tunisia’s 2019 presidential election with the support of the Ennahda party. But in recent months, several Ennahda party officials have been detained and charged with corruption and defamation.
In December 2021, plainclothes officers arrested Noureddine Bhiri, an Ennahda party MP and former justice minister, at his home. Bhiri was later accused of possible terrorist acts. Human rights groups criticized his arrest.
After Bhiri’s arrest, Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, voiced concerns over the deteriorating situation in Tunisia and the “abduction, enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention” of critics.
“As well as the actions of the Internal Security Forces, we are concerned at the stifling of dissent in Tunisia, including through the improper use of counter-terrorism legislation, and the increasing use of military courts to try civilians, which raise serious concerns regarding the equitable, impartial and independent administration of justice,” Throssell said.
Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring that toppled several autocratic leaders in the Arab World. It began when a 35-year-old vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire on December 2010 in an act of protest after the police confiscated his street cart. Bouazizi’s death triggered wide protests in Tunisia demanding change. On January 14, Tunisia's 24-year-long ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down and fled the country.