Creating new perspectives since 2009

Westminster hears that Tunisia is ‘killing of the last remnants of the Arab Spring’

May 18, 2023 at 7:00 pm

President of Tunisia, Kais Saied (2nd L) attends the Martyrs’ Day commemoration at the Sijoumi district in Tunis, Tunisia on April 09, 2023 [Tunisian Presidency – Anadolu Agency]

Tunisian’s troubling slide back into authoritarianism and the crushing of democracy by President Kais Saied was the focus of a private briefing this week between British parliamentarians, family members of the head of Ennahda Movement, Rached Ghannouchi, legal experts and journalists. Organised by Forward Thinking on the back of Ghannouchi’s arrest, concerns were raised during the briefing over Tunisia’s deteriorating political situation; details were also revealed about a legal campaign against members of Said’s government.

The former chair of the influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Crispin Blunt MP, chaired the briefing. Speakers included Dr Anas Altikriti, CEO and Founder of The Cordoba Foundation; Rodney Dixon KC; Soumaya Ghannoushi; and Seifeddine Ferjani, the son of jailed Tunisian politician Said Ferjani.

READ: Tunisia: detained Ennahda leader begins hunger strike

Opening the discussion, Blunt described events unfolding in Tunisia as a “profound issue” and recalled how, during a visit to the North African country as head of the Select Committee in 2016, he had reached the conclusion that Ennahda represented the best chance of an accommodation with political Islam. When the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East in 2010 and 2011, Tunisia emerged as a shining beacon of hope. The country’s successful transition to democracy was seen as a model for the region.

Prior to Ennahda’s early success, Islamist were crushed by Arab regimes with the approval of the West. Exaggerated and misplaced fears over Islamist parties imposing a theocratic government stifled democratic aspirations. Presented with the false choice between democracy and stability, Western governments invariably sided with autocrats and dictators. It was rarely acknowledged that the instability and chaos which the West feared so much was itself a symptom of the authoritarianism propped up the US and its allies. A barricade of authoritarian rulers was erected, obstructing the pursuit of democracy and silencing the voices of the people.

Tunisia’s backslide into authoritarianism after a successful transition to democracy, for a period at least, underlined the power and influence of the secular elites’ resistance to the principals of governing by popular consent, transparency and the rule of law. “The country is now a fully-fledged failed dictatorship,” said Soumaya Ghannoushi, while speaking of her father’s arrest. He had been appointed speaker of the Tunisian parliament until it was dissolved by Saied. According to Soumaya, the 65-year-old autocratic president “generated crises after crises” to justify his coup and reverse the gains that had helped to nurture a culture of democracy following the Arab Spring.

Saied’s crackdown has been called a “slow-motion coup”. After shuttering the parliament with tanks, he suspended the constitution and dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council. In what has been described as one of his most disturbing moves, Saied also seized control of the independent electoral commission, allowing him to consolidate his rule. “He has dismantled democracy bit by bit,” explained Ghannoushi. She described Saied as a populist leader who has failed to deliver on any of his promises. “He has robbed Tunisians of their freedom and he has robbed them of their needs.”

In a warning to the West about the dangers of ignoring the Saied-led coup and allowing the dictator to consolidate his power, Ghannoushi said that the only option for Tunisians is to get on the boat and head for Europe. To court Western leaders, the Tunisian president has pledged to deal with the flow of migrants from his country. It’s a false promise, argued Soumaya Ghannoushi, who explained that the only way to ensure Tunisians do not flee the country is to help to foster democratic governance and improve the economy. She urged Europe not to provide support to Saied based on pledges he will not be able to keep, and to make aid conditional upon respect for human rights.

Europe’s lack of detachment from the chaos and instability in Tunisia was also highlighted by Altikriti, who described Saied’s coup as the “killing of the last remnants of the Arab Spring.” He called on Western leaders to think of the dangers of the lesson given to Arab youths that every peaceful path to democracy is blocked and that they have no option but to suffer under the weight of tyranny. The Arab Spring was “one of the most transformative moments of our time,” said Altikriti, describing it as a “bloodless revolution to remove autocracy.” He argued that the consequences of destroying the hope of peaceful transition to democracy would not only be calamitous for the Middle East, but also for the West.

READ: 150 Western academics call on Tunisia to release Ghannouchi, political prisoners

“The Coup has not delivered economic prosperity, hasn’t delivered on security, hasn’t delivered on refugees and stability,” Altikriti pointed out, noting the growing political divides in Europe, where the waves of migration from the Middle East have served as a catalyst for deepening divisions and fuelling the rise of far-right movements across the continent. The influx of refugees and asylum seekers escaping conflict, instability and persecution has led to heightened anxiety among certain segments of European societies. These anxieties have been exploited skilfully by far-right groups, who have used anti-immigrant rhetoric to stoke fear and xenophobia.

Details of a number of legal campaigns were revealed by Rodney Dixon KC of Temple Garden Chambers. Dixon is a King’s Counsel barrister specialising in international law and human rights. He acts in cases before all international courts and is currently representing Tunisian opposition leaders who are detained in Tunisia. He has been instructed by the families of detainees and Saied’s political opponents to seek whatever legal remedies there are to end their imprisonment. An application was made to Britain’s foreign secretary in March urging that sanctions should be imposed at the highest level through the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime introduced by the ruling Conservative Party.

This tool for sanctions represents a significant step towards holding individuals and entities accountable for human rights abuses around the world. The framework allows countries to impose targeted sanctions, such as travel bans and asset freezes, on individuals or organisations involved in gross human rights violations. It is designed to serve as a powerful tool to denounce and deter human rights abuses, sending a clear message that such actions will not go unpunished. Russia’s war on Ukraine led to the sanction regime being deployed by Western governments on a large scale. Several countries, including the US, as well as the European Union, have imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and entities responsible for human rights abuses and violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Dixon revealed that letters have been sent to the EU and US to impose sanctions on officials overseeing human rights violations in Tunisia under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime. He urged Western governments not to turn their backs on the people of Tunisia.

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