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PoliticsMiddle East

Repression in Tunisia grows as election looms nearer

March 29, 2024

A new wave of repression against journalists, politicians, lawyers and activists is seen as a strong indicator of President Kais Saied's plan for the presidential election later this year.

Tunisian political parties took the streets and demonstrate against Tunisian President Kais Said
Tunisians have been protesting against the power grab by Tunisian President Kais SaiedImage: Hasan Mrad/DeFodi Images/picture alliance

The upcoming presidential election in Tunisia has so far neither been pinned to a specific date between September and December 2024, nor has Tunisia's incumbent President Kais Saied announced whether he would run for office again.

Despite this lack of information, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that Saied will stand for reelection.

Yet it's not campaigning but an intensified crackdown on journalists, political opponents and civil society that is being widely seen as an indicator of Saied's plan to clinch another five-year term as president.

Saied, a 66-year-old former law professor, was democratically elected as president in October 2019. However, in July 2021, he began to focus on consolidating his power and has since dismantled most democratic bodies.

Tunisian President Kais Saied stands at a lectern next to the Tunisian flag, expressionless
President Kais Saied is widely considered to be sure to run for a second term Image: ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

Saied suppressing challenges to his power

"President Kais Saied's latest wave of repression appears to be intricately linked to the upcoming presidential elections in Tunisia," Marwa Murad, spokesperson of the Swiss human rights organization Committee for Justice,  told DW. 

Murad said by repressing civil society and curtailing freedoms of expression and association, Saied aims to bolster his power and limit potential challenges to his authority ahead of the election.

Lamine Benghazi, an expert on rule of law and the judiciary at the Washington-based think tank Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, agrees.

"The electoral year for Tunisia is deeply marked by fear, repression and the absence of rule of law, given that the electoral body in charge of supervising the election has lost its independence," he told DW.

"With independent bodies dismantled, the judiciary's autonomy severely compromised, a significant portion of the political opposition incarcerated or facing legal action and the media subjected to draconian censorship, there are grave concerns that civil society may be the next target in Kais Saied's campaign to dismantle counterpowers," he added.  

The president of Tunisia's Free Destourian Party, Abir Moussi, speaking into microphones, with a crowd in the background
The head of Tunisia's Free Destourian Party, Abir Moussi, has already announced her intention to run for president Image: Zoubeir Souissi/REUTERS

Another Washington-based think tank, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, also seems to have no hope that Tunisia's upcoming presidential election could be transparent or fair

"Saied has prohibited international electoral observers from monitoring the 2024 polls," the think tank recently stated on its website.

'Systematic policy of silencing journalists'

Earlier this week, Tunisia's public prosecutor detained the popular TV journalist and Saied critic Mohamed Boughalleb after he was interrogated by a cybercrime unit in the suburbs of Tunisia's capital, Tunis.

According to local media, a female employee of the Religious Affairs Ministry accused Boughalleb of "damaging her honor and reputation" in Facebook posts.

"The detention of Mohamed Boughalleb reflects a systematic policy of silencing journalists and violating legal procedures," Ziad Dabbar, head of the Tunisian Journalists Syndicate, told DW.

"By keeping Boughalleb in detention, Decree 117, which regulates the freedom of press, is violated," he added.

Sub-Saharan migrants trying to cross to Italy are intercepted and blocked by the Tunisian National Guard off the coast of Sfax in Tunisia.
Under a deal with the EU, boats with migrants are increasingly being intercepted by the Tunisian National Guard Image: Hasan Mrad/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

The Switzerland-based nonprofit human rights organization Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor is also increasingly concerned about a "dangerous expansion of government repression in Tunisia." The organization voiced this view after Ghassan Ben Khalifa, the editor-in-chief of the Inhiyaz website, was recently sentenced to six months in prison, accused of being behind a Facebook page opposing Saied.

The rights organization is also worried about this week's summoning of Lotfi Mraihi, the secretary-general of the Republican People's Union party, because of statements he made on a private radio station criticizing Saied.

"The pursuit and targeting of Mraihi exemplify the systematic government crackdown that has been ongoing for two years against political figures in the country, especially before the presidential elections scheduled in Tunisia at the end of this year," the group stated on March 24.

Economic upswing despite repression

However, Uta Staschewski, who leads the Tunis office of the German Hanns Seidel Foundation, points out that despite the repression, "Saied's administration still enjoys visible approval within the population, which indicates a strong response to his policies."  

Officially, Tunisia's economy has become more stable in the past year after being strapped for cash in 2021 and 2022.

According to government data, foreign debt has been reduced without resorting to international loans, and the business climate is positive as tourism has returned to pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, remittances have further stabilized the economy.

According to the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics, inflation decreased to 7.8% in March 2024.

Furthermore, a recent report by British daily newspaper Financial Times said the European Union announced plans to allocate up to €164.5 million ($177.74 m) to Tunisian security forces over three years. The funding is related to a migration deal that was signed in 2023.

However, observers have pointed out that the country's economic model remains unreformed despite the economic stabilization.

"There is also a discrepancy between the official economic achievements and the everyday reality of the Tunisian population, which is characterized by economic bottlenecks," Staschewski told DW.

Tunisians protest rising prices

Earlier in March, Tunisians took to the streets to protest their deteriorating living standards.

According to the rally's organizer, Tunisia's influential General Labor Union, or UGTT, the state's ability to service its foreign debt in 2023 had been to the "detriment of the people and resulted in shortages of basic products," as the UGTT's head Noureddine Taboubi said in a speech at the rally.

Tunisian supporters of the National Liberation Front, carrying Tunisian flags and photographs of political prisoners
In March, people protested once more against deteriorating living conditions.Image: Hasan Mrad/DeFodi Images/picture alliance

Chokri bin Nsir, an employee at a public printing press, confirmed this observation.

"Prices have at least tripled, and now in Ramadan, a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of red meat exceeded 42 dinars (€12.40/$13.47)," the 36-year-old told DW. He and his wife can only make ends meet because both of them work.

The situation is worse for Aicha Ben Attia, a retired employee who lives alone. "I am not able to pay for my medicines," the 68-year-old told DW. "I have chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and I would be already dead if my neighbors and family hadn't helped me financially to pay for surgery."

So far, however, neither bin Nsir nor Ben Attia have given up hope for a better situation in their country — one of the key promises all presidential candidates will likely make before the election later this year.

Edited by: Timothy Jones

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa