Tunisia and the Spectre of Authoritarianism

By Rashad Ali

Following the death of a man in police custody, demonstrations against police brutality have spread throughout working class neighbourhoods in Tunisia’s capital of Tunis. The death of Ahmed bin Ammar two weeks ago, sparked protests and reactions across the society with people questioning the gains of the Democratic transition – especially after accusations of torture have been levelled against the Police. 

Protests in Tunisia are emblematic of the post-revolutionary political reality. While this shows that following the revolution and democratic transition, people enjoy a certain level of freedom of expression. However since January their focus has been police brutality. While this problem is not unique to Tunisia, since even established democracies have failed to eliminate police brutality. But there is some hope to be gained from the fact that people in the post-revolutionary phase have low tolerance for such things, that they are able to protest such actions, and that there has been a general decrease in police violence since the revolution.

In this latter sense, it is probably a good thing that post-Arab Spring Tunisians, on this issue at least, feel comfortable expressing their outrage at the police and the way they are being governed. 

But the protests were followed by arbitrary police arrests and then, perhaps worse, brazen police defence of their actions, and encouragement to save the office of the President, by the President, who instead of holding the Minister for Justice and Home Minister to account, lambasted them for not arresting more individuals for insulting him and bringing injury to his office (more later).

This is of course not the first time Tunisia has experienced unrest following aggressive policing. The Arab Spring itself was kicked off when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian food vendor set himself on fire after suffering harassment from police. Protesting has become somewhat emblemtaic of the revolution and democratic rights within Tunisia, as has being able to criticise the government. Hence when Tunisian President Kais Saied got busy lambasting the First Minister and Home Minister for not being tough enough on people insulting the office of the President, it strikes a chord with authoritarians and sparks the fear of return to an authoritarian style of governance. 

President Kais Not only criticised the parliamentary government for not clamping down on ‘injury ‘to the President caused by insults – a favoured charge of all tyrants –  but by implication for failing to clamp down on the protesters as well. 

Amnesty International has already noted the recent uptick in arrests of bloggers and imprisonment for insulting the President. The most recent being the case of Slim Jibeily aka Mohammad Lizour whose Facebook posts making a joke of the president praying on tarmac at the Tunis Airport – mocking the President’s claim to secular governance whilst always taking an opportunity to show himself praying, got him a defamation suit from the Office of the President.

All of this comes on the back of an increase in imprisonment without trial or even charge in Tunisia. Nabil Karaoi, a candidate in the 2019 election who came second to Kais in the 2019 presidential elections and who was released earlier this month after spending more than the legally permitted 6 months in pre-trial detention on charges of corruption from over 10 years under the previous Ben Ali regime. That’s something else autocrats like to do: jail their political opponents.  

Now throw in a prison population said to be double the prison capacity in the country, with some 50% languishing in pre-trial detention – a massive amount by any scale, then it’s clear that tensions between the population, the police, and the authoritarian demands of the President do not bode well for this immature democratic experiment.

President Kais is not only fond of imprisoning opposition runners, and persecuting anyone who dares satire him or insult his office, but also has been clear that despite his previous statements to the contrary, he now believes that the President should have control of the security and State police apparatus (before taking office he expressed support for separating these powers). 

This isn’t happening in a vacuum. It comes within a broader political context in which Kais has refused to recognise the ministers selected by the current First Minister (the head of government equivalent to a prime minister while President is head of State) and takes every opportunity to delegitimize the ministerial government. Nor are his autocratic tendencies confined to Tunisia. 

Abroad, he has been busy palling up to the region’s most tyrannical regimes. He has flirted with ex-President of Iran Hassaan Rouhani in Iran, sought common ground with Egyptian dictator Abdel Sisi, while his supporters in parliament have no shame in supporting Syria’s mass murderer, Bashar al-Assad

So far, western reaction has been to stand by Tunisia’s president. The Italians even awarded him an honorary PhD in Roman Law and the theory of ordinances and economy. 

Action is needed to help steer Tunisia back towards a less autocratic course. We must support those within the state – political or otherwise – fighting to maintain democracy. After all Tunisia has rightly been hailed as a success of the Arab Spring, and hailed as a partner of the US due to its successful democratic transition.

The current parliamentary leadership as well as several opposition parties have shown they will uphold democracy and basic democratic norms, even at the expense of any political gains they may have made. The example of the current Speaker of the house, stepping down from leading government and managing to maintain cross party cooperation in the House despite the challenges, has been seen by critics even as an example of principled, ethical and yet pragmatic politics aimed at securing the democratic transition. We must give them our support while making clear that authoritarian tactics, legislation, practices and governance will not be tolerated let alone rewarded. Any support, economic or otherwise should be tied to this. 

For a time, Tunisia looked to be the Arab Spring’s sole success story. It may yet turn out that way. But in the meantime, all those who care about democracy and human rights, starting with our own government, must make their voices heard, and say no to more autocracy in a region whose people have already suffered so much.

Rashad Ali is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue.

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