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Tunisia is back to square one and has to put civil freedoms first

Tunisians protest President Kais Saied’s power seizure in Tunis, Tunisia on 14 November 2021 [Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency]
Tunisians protest President Kais Saied’s power seizure in Tunis, Tunisia on 14 November 2021 [Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency]

The defence of civil freedoms in Tunisia is once again a priority for parties, activists and observers, after it was believed that the issue had been settled as one of the constants in Tunisian politics. International human rights organisations and Western democracies have issued warnings that freedoms are under threat, and called upon President Kais Saied to respect institutional democracy.

"The Tunisian democratic revolution was something that inspired hope around the world, and we certainly want it to be preserved in all democratic values," said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on 21 January. He added that the UN has been monitoring the situation in Tunisia "with concern", and that he hopes to see "the full restoration of an institutional democratic framework that works for all Tunisians."

What is the significance of this statement? And what are its implications for Tunisia's image abroad?

It has become clear that freedoms in Tunisia are declining significantly, despite Saied's firm denial and "certainty" to the contrary. He believes that he is waging a clean war against corruption and those conspiring against him and the country; he has not yet realised the seriousness of the violations that accompany the decisions that he has taken, and the measures that he has imposed. Most of the civil society human rights organisations have condemned abuses explicitly, and demanded that the executive authority should abandon them and return instead to having respect for the law, as well as respect for individual and collective freedoms. What the president is doing has been described as enforcing "systematic policies" and changing the rules of the game set by the 2014 constitution.

READ: Tunisia military court frees two opposition lawmakers

We are basically hearing the same warnings that were heard before the revolution. We are back to square one. Then, as now, the president and those supporting him did not realise the danger of restricting freedoms. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali did not care about the explicit positions announced by national and international human rights organisations; he did not see the red lights in front of him, warning of the imminent defining moment in his political life. They warned of Tunisia's deepening international isolation. Ben Ali did not understand this until it was too late.

Former Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis on July 1998 [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]

Former Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis on July 1998 [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]

When Guterres speaks in such clear and unambiguous language, he means that the situation in Tunisia is moving rapidly towards internationalisation. This is very bad for the country; the people will not accept it as they fear that it would damage their national interests and sovereignty. Some parties have already condemned potential "external interference" in Tunisian affairs, but they forget what was happening before the revolution, when state agencies were hiding behind the need to alleviate external pressure and accused opponents of employment and intimidation abroad. This debate continued until the Tunisians rose up, and Ben Ali was forced to flee when he had nobody at home or abroad to support and defend him.

Kais Saied is not a clone of Ben Ali, but it does look as if there are people pushing him in the same direction. Some want to resolve the dispute between the president and his political opponents through exceptional measures, including the security route that usually undermines the legitimacy of presidents, loses them many allies, strengthens their opponents and provides a golden opportunity to change the entire political scene.

READ: Tunisia President extends state of emergency for one month

President Saeed now wants to resolve his issue with the judiciary, and once again he is not paying attention to the means that he has adopted in what looks like open war. He also underestimates what can be done to defend the legitimacy of the judiciary, especially with regard to its independence, which is among the cornerstones of a sound democratic system.

This is a sensitive issue that could occupy a pivotal position in the internationalisation efforts, which are being strengthened daily. When the judges become part of the front against the president's policy, this could bring about fundamental changes in Tunisia. By that stage, neither the foreign minister nor Tunisia's diplomats will be able to convince the world that the judiciary is a profession and not an independent authority, and the supporters of President Saied will not be able to respond positively to all who say that the country is moving rapidly towards a presidential rather than parliamentary system of government.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 23 January 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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