A Wave of Repression Tunisia's President Turns Back the Clock to Authoritarianism

Over a decade ago, the Arab Spring got its start in Tunisia. Now, the country's president is tightening his authoritarian grip. The Europeans, though, have been largely silent: They need the Tunisian autocrat in the fight against illegal migration.
By Thore Schröder in Tunis
A family in Tunis: Encroaching authoritarianism

A family in Tunis: Encroaching authoritarianism

Foto: Ons Abid / DER SPIEGEL

The family was sitting together in their home in Tunis, breaking the Ramadan fast, when dozens of members of a special police unit showed up. They came for the father of the family, Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist Ennahda Party. "History is repeating itself," says his daughter Yusra.

The police, she says, spent two hours searching the premises, during which they confiscated personal recordings and electronic devices. When they were finished, they took Ghannouchi along as well.

A short time before the raid, Ghannouchi – Tunisia’s most important opposition politician and a former president of the country’s parliament – had said publicly: "Tunisia without Ennahda, without political Islam, without the left" would lead to civil war. The administration of President Kais Saied interpreted the comments as a call for unrest.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 18/2023 (April 29th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

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For the Ghannouchi family, the arrest some two weeks ago was something of a déjà vu moment. The Islamist leader spent two stints in jail in the 1980s and was sentenced to life in prison. His daughter Yusra was still a child at the time, but she has clear memories of visiting him in jail as he stood heavily guarded behind a barrier of mesh wire. He was ultimately released and lived for two decades in exile in London before finally returning to Tunisia in 2011 after the collapse of the dictatorship. A new era, it seemed, had dawned. "I didn’t think that it would happen again," says Yusra now.

Back on an Authoritarian Path

The arrest of Rached Ghannouchi, whose Ennahda Party has been one of the most important political centers of power over the last decade, marks the most recent high-profile instance of oppression in the North African country. It wasn’t all that long ago that Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring got its start, had high hopes for a democratic future. In was in December 2010 that fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, thus triggering the Jasmine Revolution. The people of Tunisia rose up to demand bread, dignity and freedom.

Several other countries from Morocco to Oman followed Tunisia’s lead, with millions of people in the region taking to the streets in 2011 for better living conditions and more rights. In contrast to Tunisia, however, hopes for a better future were dashed quickly in places like Syria, Yemen and Libya, as civil wars broke out and the states collapsed. In Egypt, following a violent overthrow of the country’s leaders, the military soon took back power.

But in Tunisia, a democratic state appeared to take hold once the rule of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali came to an end. Thousands of people were at the airport when Ghannouchi returned from exile. And the Ennahda Party, represented in parliament, was a key element of the developing democracy in the years that followed.

Ever since Saied became president in October 2019, though, the country has once again found itself on an authoritarian path. In 2021, Saied suspended the parliament and froze the elected government, installing his own people instead. He then took steps to unite all power in his hands. But his ire hasn’t just been focused on the opposition. More recently, the president has inveighed against migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, speaking of "hordes" of criminals. Prior to that, there had been reports of violence and oppression aimed at migrants. Many of them now live in fear for their lives.

Incarcerated opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi: "History is repeating itself."

Incarcerated opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi: "History is repeating itself."

Foto: Ons Abid

And the European Union? Brussels has remained largely silent on the issue. After all, Saied is a partner in the effort to reduce irregular migration from Africa to Europe.

"Now," says Yusra Ghannouchi, "have a dictator once again." She says that officials aren’t even making an effort to obtain arrest warrants any longer. "People are just disappearing."

For two days following his detainment, Yusra Ghannouchi says, her 81-year-old father wasn’t provided with access to a lawyer. It has been reported that he suffers from heart problems and Parkinson's. His wife still hasn’t been allowed to see him. DER SPIEGEL spoke with Yusra Ghannouchi via WhatsApp. Because she lives in London, she is able to speak freely, in contrast to other members of her family.

A "Merciless War"

"The EU must move beyond timid expressions of concern, as they have clearly failed to convince Saied to stop or slow down his reckless destruction of Tunisia’s democracy," Yusra Ghannouchi said at a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday, in comments about the EU’s reaction to her father’s arrest. Together with family members of other political prisoners, she demanded that sanctions be levied against Saied and his government ministers.

More than 20 people are currently behind bars in Tunisia for political reasons. Since February, opposition politicians, journalists, union leaders and activists have been locked away. Saied refers to them as "traitors" or "terrorists," and has threatened his opponents with "relentless war." Isabelle Werenfels, a Maghreb region analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), says "all of the loud voices linked to democracy are now being cleared away."

Tunisian President Kais Saied: A populist devoid of charm.

Tunisian President Kais Saied: A populist devoid of charm.

Foto: Fethi Belaid / AFP

At first glance, 65-year-old Kais Saied does not seem like a typical autocrat, more of a populist devoid of charm. Even before the 2019 presidential elections, he had earned himself the nickname "Robocop" because of his jerky movements and the way he often stares blankly into the middle distance. But the former constitutional lawyer, who had been unknown even to some insiders, has rebuilt the state step by step. When he fired the government and suspended parliament on July 25, 2021, at the peak of the pandemic, many applauded the move. Since then, though, he has essentially ruled by decree.

Instead of taking to the streets in protest, though, most Tunisians have chosen to hunker down. In the second round of parliamentary voting in January, only 11 percent of those eligible to vote actually cast their ballots. "It’s as if the entire society is taking a siesta. It is total political exhaustion," says one diplomat, who asked not to be identified by name.

Sihem Bensedrine has a different explanation for the failure of democracy in the country. Had people listened to her, she says, things would have developed differently. As head of the Truth and Dignity Commission, she was tasked in 2011 with examining and finding a way to come to terms with the atrocities committed by the former regime. But, she says, the "deep state" stood in the way.

Bensedrine, a tiny woman of 73, speaks in a mixture of English, French and Arabic. She was once a journalist and a human rights activist, even spending time in prison during the Ben Ali era before going into exile. She spent some of her time abroad in Hamburg, where she developed a passion for green tea. As she heats water for a fresh pot, she points out to the beach in front of her home in a coastal village northwest of Tunis. "Andalusia on the left, Carthage on the right," she says. In between, a pack of feral dogs trots through the underbrush.

A Suspect of the State

Piano music is playing quietly in the background. It calms her, says Bensedrine. A book by Hanna Arendt lies on the stool next to her. This smart woman knew how dictatorships develop, says Bensedrine: "Just like now in Tunisia. The first thing that happens is that good and evil are reversed." Which explains, she says, why she has also now become the target of an investigation for alleged corruption and falsification – and has been banned from leaving the country. Once a key figure in the country’s attempt to leave dictatorship behind, she has now become a suspect of the state.

The commission she led identified 50,000 victims of the former regime and submitted 173 cases to the judiciary. She also spoke out against the "system of corruption, oppression and dictatorship." She says she went toe-to-toe with people who still wield tremendous power. Indeed, many of those who committed crimes during the Ben Ali regime have received amnesty.

Sihem Bensedrine: Powerless against the "deep state."

Sihem Bensedrine: Powerless against the "deep state."

Foto: Ons Abid / DER SPIEGEL

Sihem Bensedrine could face difficulties because much of her work was done at a time when Ennahda was in government. Ghannouchi’s party was involved in the country’s ruling coalitions almost continuously in the years following the overthrow of the dictatorship and is thus considered responsible for the fact that the revolution against Ben Ali has not proved beneficial to the people of Tunisia. Ennahda can thus partly be blamed for the return to autocracy. "Many people held the misconception that democracy automatically translates into economic opportunity," says analyst Isabelle Werenfels. She says that Ennahda went from being a reform party to a party of stasis – and cut a poor figure in government. Part of the problem, she adds, was Ennahda’s inability to stand up to the old economic elite.

The difficulties faced by Tunisia in recent years weren’t solely the product of domestic developments. Conditions in neighboring countries also presented significant challenges. Libya collapsed, terrorist attacks hurt tourism in Tunisia and a number of young Tunisians joined the jihad, with Ennahda being accused of supporting radicals traveling to Libya and Syria. Then came the pandemic, which came on top of the severe drought that has gripped Tunisia in recent years. Water is being rationed in the capital, while the olive harvest is expected to collapse by 50 percent this year, and the wheat harvest by 70 percent.

Many Tunisians are struggling to cope with rising prices in the country. At a sandwich stand in the Tunis district of El Aouina, 38-year-old Aziza Binsaleh fumes about the difficulty she now has finding the products she needs. She says she almost had to fight for the single package of flour she is now using to bake her flatbread. "Our lives are so difficult," she says. "We frequently don’t even have electricity." Sweat drips down Binsaleh’s forehead as she kneads the dough. Her T-shirt reads "Peace Love Smile," but she doesn’t know what it means.

Her mother, Suhra, is sitting on a plastic chair next to her daughter shaking her head. She says that their customers don’t understand why a sandwich with tuna, boiled egg, cheese and harissa now costs four Tunisian dinar, the equivalent of 1.20 euros. But all of the ingredients have grown more expensive, she laments, adding that they haven’t been able to afford meat, bananas and apples for themselves for quite some time. Her husband is suffering from heart disease and has just undergone surgery, she adds. The family’s survival depends on the sandwich stand that is producing lower and lower profits, and Suhra says they don’t know how much longer the money will last.

The sandwich stand operated by the Binsaleh family. They've had to raise their prices in response to inflation.

The sandwich stand operated by the Binsaleh family. They've had to raise their prices in response to inflation.

Foto: Ons Abid / DER SPIEGEL

Aziza’s big brother Qais joins the conversation, saying that he even had to get a divorce as a result of the economic situation. "My wife wanted me to be able to do more than just cover rent and pay for a bit of food." He says he hasn’t been able to find any work at all for the last several months, neither in construction nor as a security guard nor at a restaurant. He hasn’t been able to pay child support for his three children in two months.

"We thought that things would improve after the revolution. That they would build factories and there would be jobs for people like us," says Aziza Binsaleh. They have only voted once, since then, she says, and they don’t even remember who they voted for. "The politicians have always ignored us,” says her mother Suhra.

Observers bemoan the fact that the rapidly changing series of governments in power in the years following the Jasmine Revolution proved unable to dismantle the entrenched complex of state-owned companies, banks and labor unions. The public sector is inflated and public servants earn high salaries. Huge amounts of public money also flow into food and energy subsidies. Energy allowances alone account for 5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

President Saied wants to keep these subsidies in place no matter what, even as an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan for the country foresees the elimination of the payments. Saied has attacked the "dictate" from the IMF, insisting recently that his country "is not for sale."

Aram Belhadj, an economist at the Université de Carthage, says that Tunisia is in dire need of the almost $2 billion loan from the IMF. "A number of other foreign investments depend on it, such as from the African Development Bank, the European Union and from the Gulf states." Unemployment in the county currently stands at 15 percent, inflation at 10 percent and the Tunisian dinar is losing value. The country is edging ever closer to collapse.

"They Took Everything From Us"

Yet significant swaths of the population continue to support Saied. Despite the heavy-handedness he has displayed, his approval rating is still 49 percent.

The president, though, is running out of scapegoats. He has blasted homosexuals as "deviants." And in February, during the wave of political arrests, he went after migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, claiming that foreign powers were seeking to change the demographics of Tunisia.

In Tunis, migrants from south of the Sahara told DER SPIEGEL of indiscriminate arrests and attacks by armed gangs who apparently feel empowered by the president’s hate-filled rhetoric.

"They took everything from us," says Nice, a young man from Sierra Leone. He and his girlfriend Maryam are now camping out in front of the offices of the International Organization for Migration in the heart of the upscale embassy quarter. Children are playing in the garbage between the tents, the stench of urine is pervasive. Maryam, who is pregnant, says the Tunisian attackers have returned twice since that first assault, beating her with wooden clubs and penetrating her with their fingers. "We couldn’t do anything," she says.

Migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia complain of harassment and assaults.

Migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia complain of harassment and assaults.

Foto: Ons Abid / DER SPIEGEL

There are "a number of organizations" that could help them make it to Europe, Nice says vaguely. Returning to their homeland, they say, isn’t an option. He is victimized by political oppression back home and she has significant debts, they claim. Nice says they’ve heard from other migrants how cheap it is to reach Lampedusa by boat. "There are guys who call me who are already in Europe. It works, you understand?"

According to the non-governmental organization Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, almost 200 people have already lost their lives this year in marine accidents off the Tunisian coast. The Italian Interior Ministry has recorded almost 40,000 arrivals by boat since the beginning of the year, four times as many as during the same period last year. Tunisia has now become the most important country of origin on the Mediterranean route into the EU. Italy recently declared a state of emergency.

A growing number of voices from Brussels and the EU member states have begun calling for closer European cooperation with Tunisia to curtail the growing wave of migration. Italy’s right-wing prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, recently warned the European Council: "If Tunisia collapses completely, there is a risk of a human catastrophe, with 900,000 refugees." She demanded immediate help for the country from the World Bank, the EU and the IMF. Observers have their doubts about her numbers, but European parliamentarian Manfred Weber, of the conservative Bavarian party Christian Social Union (CSU), threw his support last week behind a comprehensive refugee deal with Tunisia. Talks are under way regarding support for the country’s coast guard – despite accusations against it of dismounting motors from refugee vessels and leaving them to their fate on the high seas.

But it’s not just people from Sub-Saharan Africa who want to leave the Tunisia of Kais Saied.

"If I had enough money, I would have done harka long time ago," says Qais Binsaleh from the Tunis sandwich stand, using Tunisian slang for illegal migration. "It’s better to be eaten by sharks than to stay."

With reporting by Hiba Tlili

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