“Today we are facing the latest episode in the targeting of political figures using the judiciary. We have no problem with the judiciary, but we do have a problem with dictatorship.” On April 16, 2023, the day before his arrest, opposition Party leader Rached Ghannouchi strongly condemned Tunisian President Kais Saied’s crackdown in a video message. Ghannouchi, co-founder of the Ennahda Party, the Islamic democratic party of Tunisia, and the speaker of Tunisia’s dissolved Parliament denounced the spiral of politically motivated arrests that had targeted Saied’s adversaries: politicians, lawyers, trade unionists, journalists, and businessmen – around two thousand people overall, all baselessly charged with corruption, conspiracy or terrorism. A spiral that culminated in Ghannouchi’s own imprisonment for “inciting violence” as well as the banning of all Ennahda meetings.
According to the American political sociologist Larry Diamond, “Rached Ghannouchi is one of the most important and historically significant prisoners of conscience – against authoritarianism and for democracy – in jail in the world today.” The author of numerous publications, including “Why are there no democracies in the Arab world?,” joined the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID)’s campaign to free Ennahda’s leader and all political prisoners in Tunisia, following dozens of other academics and public figures. Speaking at a recent CSID event, Diamond denounced the lack of decisive and concerted effort by both the European Union and the United States to demand the release of these prisoners, and what he calls “a massive failure of commitment and imagination” on their part to recognize that Tunisia “was one of the most important democratic experiments.”
It is a fact that Rached Ghannouchi has played a pivotal role in Tunisia’s political transition to democracy. The 82-year-old opposition leader, who spent more than 20 years in exile in Europe before the 2011 revolution, contributed to shaping its challenging aftermath: together with Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s first democratically elected president, he was one of the principal actors in the compromise between moderate Islamists and secularists that saved Tunisian democracy from civil war. It was a crucial step, made possible by his convictions, which he had matured since the 1980s; that Islam is compatible with pluralism, freedom, modernity and democratic governance. To this day, Ghannouchi remains the pre-eminent theorist of a reconciliation between modern Islamic political thought and democratic theory, while his party, Ennahda (“Renaissance”), remains the largest in the country.
“We cannot escape the irony of having to note this [lack of effort] on the day that President Joe Biden went to the UN General Assembly to reaffirm a rhetorical commitment to democracy,” Diamond continues, “a verbal commitment that has not been matched by any serious strategy, either globally or in the necessary specifics in a number of individual countries.” Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver, echoes this point: “There is an article in the New York Times, called ‘Biden at the UN to urge nations to protect and nurture democracy’. To which I tweeted this morning [September 19, 2023]: ‘Except in the Arab world’.” For CSID, Hashemi listed a series of events that occurred over the last few weeks to stress that instead, “when it comes to Arab and Islamic societies, it is clear that dictatorship and despots are the preferred mode of operation and form of government that the US like to support.”
Biden to Urge Nations to Protect and Nurture Democracy — but not for Arabs/Muslims (where dictators/desposts are always preferred) 🧵https://t.co/CJzpnY4PKu@sarahleah1 @mehdirhasan @AymanM @aalodah @DannyPostel @KenRoth @Shanfaraa
— Nader Hashemi (@naderalihashemi) September 19, 2023
Hashemi points out that “the Biden administration overruled a congressional stipulation to reduce American aid to Egypt because of its gross human rights record and we saw the immediate consequences of that announcement, when a prominent Egyptian dissident, Hisham Kassem, was sentenced to prison for simply online criticism of the Sisi regime.” According to Hashemi, in recent weeks another agreement has been renewed, this time with Bahrain. Immediately afterwards, “the daughter of a dissident, Maryam Khawaja, whose father – Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja – is a leading Bahraini human rights activist and one of the leaders of the Arab Spring and who is languishing in a Bahreini prison with a life sentence, tried to board on a plane to return to Bahrain to petition for her father, but was denied access to the country. The sequencing of these events is not a coincidence.”
Returning to Tunisia, the Biden administration has so far proposed cutting US economic aid to Tunisia next year – with a total spending plan of 68.3 million dollars, down from the original 106 million dollars – as a sign of concern about the weakening of democratic institutions. However, experts say the move is unlikely to have much impact in Tunis. After Ghannouchi was arrested, the US Department of State condemned all the political jailings as a “troubling escalation by the Tunisian government against perceived opponents”, but it has never suspended its assistance to the country or imposed sanctions on its leaders, like a letter addressed to Biden last May called for. On July 16, 2023 the European Union even signed a memorandum of understanding with Tunisia to contrast migration and worth up to 1 billion euros overall in economic support, but which fails to address all concerns related to human rights, including migrants’ rights, as well as to the continued deterioration of the crackdown on opposition. For now, the EU’s cash is still frozen in Brussels, due to both to the stalling of its member states and to Saied’s refusal to place conditions to the money – to the point where he indefinitely postponed a visit by the European Commission to Tunisia.
However, according to Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East Politics at New York University – Abu Dhabi, not responding to these arrests – especially Ghannouchi’s – could also be dangerous “because it empowers extremists” – “It validates the argument that the ballot box is a futile pathway to change in the Middle East and North Africa,” Marks underlines. “For authoritarians in the region, for jihadist recruiters, Ghannouchi’s imprisonment is a gift, because it teaches many onlookers that you can be the most moderate, watered-down so-called ‘Islamist part’, and you can make loads and load of compromises, but you will still be locked up.” Western countries have been short-sighted also in the past: to support Tunisian democratic experiment, Diamond says, “the United States and the European Union should have been developing a plan for massive economic aid and investment to bend heavily on” long before.
The only hope now, according to CSID president Radwan Masmoudi, is that Rached Ghannouchi will be released after serving his one-year sentence. Since the end of April, Ghannouchi has been held at Mornaguia prison, in the outskirts of Tunis. On September 29th he has begun a three-day hunger strike in support of other imprisoned opposition figures. According to his family, reached by Reset DOC, since his arrest, his wife could visit him only once. “We mostly have updates through the lawyers, who are able to see him more regularly,” says his daughter Yusra Ghannouchi, “he is fine, but we are of course concerned given the conditions in Tunisian prisons and his age.”
Even if Ennahda’s leader were released at the end of his sentence, the situation for all the other political prisoners and for the so-called “Tunisian exception” would remain critical. According to Diamond, there is still a way out: “What needs to be done is to create the conditions for the kind of bounce-back dynamic that we have seen in other countries.” This includes the unification of the opposition parties and of civil society actors. “The secret of democratic transition is to unite the democratic opposition and divide the regime,” says Diamond, “and if you want to restore democracy after an authoritarian interlude, the same principle applies.” International pressure is key, he highlights, because “we absolutely need to get elections. The message should be no more aid, no more cooperation of any kind until you come up with a plan to release political prisoners and hold credible elections.”
This article has been updated on September 29, 2023.
Cover photo: former Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (on the left) greets Tunisian leader of the Islamist Ennahdha party Rached Ghannouchi prior to signing documents outlining the roadmap for the formation of a national unity government in Tunisia at the Carthage Palace in Carthage, on the outskirts of Tunis, on July 13, 2016 (credits: Fethi Belaid/AFP.)
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