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Tunisia arrest campaign expands to include opposition figures

February 25, 2023 at 3:05 pm

Jaouhar Ben Mbarek on December 23, during a press conference in Tunis, Tunisia on January 13, 2022 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

The Tunisian police arrested prominent opposition leader Jaouhar Ben Mbarek on Thursday night, as confirmed by his family. This came as part of an unprecedented arrests campaign in the country that includes opposition symbols opposed to President Kais Saied, who monopolises power.

Since the beginning of February, at least ten figures have been arrested, most of them belonging to the opposition and affiliated with the Ennahda Movement and its allies, in addition to the director of a prominent private radio station, an influential businessperson, political activists and judges.

The arrests campaign has sparked widespread reactions from the opposition and civil society human rights organisations that condemned the campaign.

Jaouhar was arrested late last night (Thursday), and we have not yet seen the arrest file,” Mbarek’s sister, lawyer Dalilah Mosaddeq, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Ben Mbarek, 55, is a university professor specialised in constitutional law and a strong opponent who criticises the Tunisian president’s decisions to assume power in the country in 2021, describing them as a “constitutional coup.” He launched an opposition political initiative under the slogan “Citizens Against the Coup.”

Ben Mbarek, a leader in the National Salvation Front (NSFT), the bloc opposed to Saied, was one of Saied’s supporters during his 2019 election campaign.

The Tunisian president accuses the detainees of being “terrorists” and “conspiring against the internal and external security of the state,” while the opposition describes the arrests campaign as “arbitrary”, aiming to strike its ranks.

Opposition from the first ranks

“Everyone must be held accountable, the law must be applied, and judges must apply the law,” Saied conveyed in a video published by the presidency on Wednesday.

The head of the NSFT, Ahmed Najib Chebbi, condemned the arrest and told AFP: “The ill-treatment against political figures from the first ranks will not weaken their determination, nor will it stop the consultations they were conducting to unify the political movement, and it will continue among the various political parties.”

“This is evidence of the confusion of the political authority and its failure to manage political, economic and social affairs and international relations, which will exacerbate and deepen the crisis,” Chebbi added.

READ: France expresses concern about Tunisia wave of arrests

Likewise, the Ennahda Movement also condemned the arrest process. Its statement published on Friday described the authorities as: “Oppressive, violate all law and insist on driving the country towards the most severe disasters.”

On Thursday, Ben Mbarek’s father, Ezzedine Al-Hazqi, an opposition political activist, was also arrested and released hours later.

On the other hand, about 20 police officers in plain clothing arrested the Secretary-General of the Republican Party Issam Chebbi, on Wednesday evening in the city of Ariana, adjacent to the capital, the head of the opposition NSFT told AFP.

On the same night, political activist Chaima Issa was arrested.

In a statement issued on Friday, Human Rights Watch criticised the arrests, asserting: “The message in these arrests is that if you dare to speak out, the president can have you arrested and publicly denounce you.”

Is Tunisia's president Kais Saied like Louis XIV, King of France? - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Is Tunisia’s president Kais Saied like Louis XIV, King of France? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Amnesty International described the arrests campaign as: “A deliberate attempt to restrict the opposition, especially criticism against the president.” The organisation urged the Tunisian president to: “Stop this campaign, which has political purposes.”

Saied seeks to establish his political project based on a presidential system and put an end to the parliamentary system that was approved after the 2011 revolution that overthrew a dictatorial regime and moved the country to a path of a unique democratic transition in the region, in what was known as the “Arab Spring.”

In July 2022, a new Constitution was approved after a popular referendum. It granted limited powers to the Parliament, while the president was granted the majority of executive powers, including the appointment of the government and the prime minister.

At the beginning of this year, parliamentary elections were held, in which about 90 per cent of the voters did not participate.

The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) is working in collaboration with other organisations to formulate an initiative to present proposals for solutions to confront the worsening political, economic and social situation in the country.

But Saied rejected the proposals before they were presented to him.