Tunisia: Clamping Down on Civil Liberties Ahead of Understated Presidential Elections

Next autumn Tunisians will go to the polls to elect the President of the Republic. The Election’s date has not been confirmed, and the main opposition coalition, Chebbi’s National Salvation Front, has announced they will boycott the vote unless three conditions will be met: the electoral commission will be independent, the main Islamist party, Ennahda, will be allowed to re-open its headquarters, and all political prisoners will be freed. When Tunisians last voted for presidential elections, all those conditions were in place, but in the past few years, political and civil liberties have shrunk to the extent that the country is not only “partly” free but its democratic ranking continues to deteriorate, year on year.

Those requests seem politically far-fetched and, within the current context, the most likely scenario is an election with a still strong incumbent, alternative presidential candidates supported by smaller parties, and a lower-than-usual turnout. In terms of the incumbent’s head start, according to the latest Arab Barometer VIII, with data collected in October 2023 and released in March 2024, the president still commands the highest popularity (around 70 percent of public trust), well ahead of any other figure or institution.

The last time the country elected its President, five years ago, Tunisians turned to Kais Saïed, a constitutional law professor they knew from media appearances, in search of a strong and decisive leader who would make decisions by himself. Tunisians had grown weary and exasperated by the decade-long consensus-driven politics, which was premised on wide coalition governments searching for compromise and which often resulted in stalemates and delayed decisions. In the eyes of ordinary Tunisians, a president critical of all political parties and talking the talk of direct democracy could boost revolutionary principles all the while imposing drastic measures able to improve the economy, fight corruption and diminish social inequalities. His electoral legitimacy was solid, with three-quarters of the vote in the final round of voting, and constant high polling numbers. Less than two years later, on 25 July 2021, in a self-coup enabled, among other things by the lack of a functioning Constitutional Court, Saïed dismissed the prime minister, suspended parliament, and started ruling by decree. Tunisians, back then, still supported the actions of the President, were optimistic about their economic future and thought the government was undertaking effective action against corruption. In parallel, the President dismissed many members of the judiciary and encouraged the arrest of many opposition politicians.

In March 2023, a wave of arrests of prominent public figures shook the country and further tarnished the country’s democratic credentials. Over thirty politicians, activists, judges, lawyers, and the head of a radio station were accused of conspiracy against state security: since their arrest in March 2023, they have been detained in degrading conditions. The leader of the Ennahda party, Rached Ghannouchi, was arrested in April 2023 after he publicly declared that the country risked a civil war if political Islam were to be eliminated from the Tunisian public sphere. Since then, according to the journalists’ trade union, over 60 public figures have been arrested on the basis of the Law Decree n. 54, adopted by the President on September 2022.

It is not the shrinking of civil and political liberties however, that is driving voters’ distrust and the loss of hope reported in the latest Arab Barometer. The president’s promise of turning the economy around has failed to materialize, with only one in ten rating the economy as good, a largely unchanged data since 2013. The ability of the President, against a sluggish economic performance, persistent inflation and loss of purchasing power contributing to an increasing shrinking of the middle class, is testified by his capacity to shift the blame to other social and political forces, often foreign actors, protecting his image of man of the people and maintaining the confidence of three-quarters of Tunisians, albeit signaling a six-point decrease from 2021.

Foreign migrants have been, alongside foreign forces, one of the key scapegoats identified by the president and the government, at least since summer 2023. Last summer the president struck a migration deal with the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the EU. The externalization of borders through these migration pacts is part of the EU’s toolbox developed in the last decade, whereby the control of migration and the reduction of flows departing towards Europe by a third non-European country is financially compensated by Brussels. The president has made it a rigid policy stance to refuse to sign a deal with the IMF that would provide a much-needed lifeline for the country’s finances in exchange for profound reforms centered on subsidy cuts and privatization of national enterprises, which leaves him with little room for maneuver when it comes to foreign money pouring in. With Tunisia’s external funding sources tied closely to the ability to stop migration, this has seemingly created a perverse incentive to meet donor demands to cut migration flows, no matter how.

In the case of Tunisia, this has been carried out with an increasingly derogatory and racist public discourse by the president which has had the consequence of enabling and legitimizing increasingly violent attitudes by segments of the Tunisian population against unprotected migrants as well as paving the way for an increasingly active participation of Tunisian smugglers alongside Malian, Ivorians and others in a transnational human trafficking economy in border areas with Libya and Algeria.

When Sub-Saharan migrants are identified by security forces, they tend to be concentrated in informal camps in the Sfax area or deported by the Tunisian National Guard close to the borders with Libya or Algeria and told to walk into those countries. In the cases when migrants manage to walk back from those border areas towards Sfax, they often end up being kidnapped in exchange for ransom or else tortured and killed. While these practices are well documented in Libya and Central Sahel countries, Tunisia has seen a dramatic surge in this form of racialized systemic violence.

On May 10, 2024, the president proposed a bill that would further crackdown on migrants, with punishments of up to three years in prison and a 5,000 dinar fine, criminalizing as well Tunisians offering assistance to those migrants. Tunisian civil society, however, has not remained on the sidelines, and journalists and lawyers have mobilized, tried to raise awareness and have attempted to stop the widely accepted de-humanizing discourse. By doing so, these public figures have put themselves front and center in an open confrontation with the president.

This has been the case with Saadia Mosbah, the president of the anti-racist Mnemty association (“my dream”), and Sherifa Riahi, the former director of Terre d’Asile, both of whom have recently been arrested, the former accused of money laundering and the latter under the pretext of promoting “hate speech” and “disseminating fake news threatening public safety.” Saadia Mosbah had been vocal in denouncing the President’s February 2023 speech demonizing sub-Saharan migrants, accused of being responsible for a surge in crime and violence and of being tools deployed by foreign agents to change the demographic composition of the country, the notorious “replacement theory” espoused by some far-right parties. The association Mnemty had been active in offering protection to those migrants and in countering the President and government’s anti-migration polarizing discourse. One can only hope that, in order to secure a relatively high electoral turn-out, media freedom will be somewhat restored in the coming months so as to elicit mobilization and political participation. On the external front, on the other hand, what can be expected after a likely good performance of far-right parties in the June European elections, the migratory pact with Tunis will be further strengthened and human rights clauses will continue to be absent, leaving Sub-Saharan migrants fending for themselves.



Cover photo: A bulldozer clears debris outside the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) headquarters in Tunis on May 3, 2024 after the local authorities removed an encampment that was erected there by migrants in a forced evacuation. (Photo by Fethi Belaid / AFP)

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