The worst fears of Tunisia's President Kais Saied's political opponents turned into bleak reality this month, when at least a dozen politicians, activists, and critics weredetained and labelled as traitors or criminals by Saied.
Among those arrested by the Tunisian police were Issam Chebbi, head of the opposition Republican Party, prominent Saied-critic Ezzedine Hazgui, and Chaima Issa and Jaouhar Ben M’barek, both leading members of the National Salvation Front, Tunisia's coalition of oppositional parties.
Also this week, Saied targeted the country's minority migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, alleging that undocumented immigration from African countries was changing Tunisia's demographic composition. Dozens of migrants were detained, in a move harshly criticized by human rights organizations and activists.
The president even went so far as to expel Esther Lynch, the Irish general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, or ETUC, after she called on Tunisia's government to release Anis Kaabi, an official within the Tunisian General Labour Union's (UGTT).
"I am here in Tunisia to say to President Saied: The world sees what you're doing — Stop your attacks on trade unions now," Lynch had told a UGTT rally in the port city of Sfax.
In response, Saied accused her of "blatantly interfering in Tunisian affairs," and gave her 24 hours to leave the country.
"The expulsion of the union official reflects the shrinking space for democracy in Tunisia," Sami Tahri, UGTT deputy secretary general, told DW. "Tunisia's interests and its foreign relations will be certainly affected, as countries require a minimum level of democracy in their relations."
However, Ibrahim Bouderbala, a member of parliament and supporter of President Saied, doesn't expect international repercussions. "Ties with other countries are based on respect for the principle of sovereignty, and Tunisia does not interfere in other countries' judicial matters either," he told DW.
The country's current political crackdown on dissent is a 180-degree turnaround from what developed after the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. For years, Tunisia was seen as beacon of democratic transition in the Middle East.
In 2019, when the former law professor Kais Saied won the country's presidential election, he enjoyed wide support among a population pinning its hopes on economic improvement and an end to corruption.
However, on July 25 2021, Saied suspended the elected parliament, dismissed the then-Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and dissolved or suspended democratic institutions like the Supreme Judicial Court. According to what he called his democratic roadmap, he held a referendum on a new constitution which consolidated the president's powers. The new constitution was approved in July 2022, despite a low turnout and a boycott by several political parties.
Meanwhile, recent parliamentary elections in December and January ended with a record-low voter turnout of around 11%.
"Europe should say farewell to its own projections and wishful thinking of Tunisia as the poster child of the Arab Spring," Heike Löschmann, director of the Tunis office of the German Heinrich Böll Foundation, told DW.
However, Anthony Dworkin, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), pointed out that Kais Saied is a "comparatively isolated figure within Tunisia, as he doesn't have an institutional base or a party behind him, only the backing of the security forces." In turn, he doesn't see "this as a kind of stable, long-lasting new political settlement."
Yet a lack of public support for Saied's political opponents has played a crucial role in the recent crackdown, and Tunisia's opposition remains deeply fractured.
"The entire political class in Tunisia has been somewhat delegitimized by their failure to deal with the country's economic problems," Dworkin told DW.
Tunisia has been grappling with a string of economic crises for years, a situation that was further exacerbated by the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The current inflation of around 10% could also rise in the coming months due to higher taxes, lower food and energy subsidies, and the halted funding by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Three previous agreements, which were struck by Saied and the IMF, had fallen through due to the resistance of the labour union as they refused to cut the salaries of their some one million workers.
But for Heike Löschmann "democratic transition cannot be successfully sustained without improving the economic situation of the people that stood up in the first place to get jobs and strive for prosperity," she told DW.
Meanwhile, European countries have been reluctant to use their ties to exert pressure on Saied's move towards authoritarianism, despite the fact that "Kais Saied is very ready to take steps that appear confrontational with Europe," Dworkin said.
"Europe's concern is that this would affect the well-being of Tunisia's population, and Europeans really want to avoid anything that creates further instability in the country," Dworkin told DW. "This could potentially lead to increased migration towards Europe."
Nevertheless, he feels that "European leaders should not hesitate to call out what is clearly taking place in Tunisia, which is a strong move away from democracy and an increasingly repressive environment."
Meanwhile, German government spokesperson Wolfgang Büchner said at a press conference on February 17 that "the German government views with great concern that many representatives of the Tunisian opposition, politicians, journalists and activists have been arrested in recent days."
He also said that "Tunisia is in a difficult economic and social situation, and we do not want to leave the Tunisian people alone, but to help overcome the challenges."
However, he then highlighted Tunisia's own responsibility when it comes to tackling their economic situation. "In our view, the best way out of the crisis is through an International Monetary Fund program. Tunisia should complete this quickly."
DW reached out to the Tunisian Presidency but hasn't received an answer by the time of the publication.
Tarek Guizani in Tunis contributed to this report.
This article was updated on February 27, 2023, to amend Anis Kaabi's job title within the UGTT.