The arrests in Tunisia are raising fears among the opposition of a broader crackdown
By Angus McDowall and Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) – Coordinated arrests of politicians and media figures mark a new phase in Tunisian President Kais Saied’s struggle with a fragmented but emboldened opposition, raising fears of a broader campaign to quell dissent.
Since Saied closed parliament 18 months ago and ruled by decree before rewriting the constitution, security forces have sporadically cracked down on opponents who accuse him of an undemocratic coup.
Saied has denied a coup, saying his actions were legal and necessary to save Tunisia from chaos. He pledged to uphold the rights and freedoms won in the 2011 revolution that brought democracy.
However, the wave of arrests since Saturday is a harsh new move against his critics and an escalation of the pressure campaign that has built up over the past few months with travel bans and investigations.
Police have arrested opposition politicians, an influential businessman, the head of Tunisia’s main independent news agency, two judges and an official from the powerful trade union.
While authorities have not yet commented on the arrests, lawyers for some of those detained said they have been accused of conspiring against state security.
A lawyer for Noureddine Boutar, the head of Tunisia’s largest independent news agency Mosaique FM, said he was questioned about his radio station’s funding and editorial policies, including the selection of its guests.
“What happened is dangerous… The message from the authorities to journalists who do not enter into a state of obedience is that this will be their fate,” said Mahdi Jlassi, head of the Tunisian journalists’ consortium.
The arrests come at a delicate moment for Saied.
An extremely low turnout of 11% in elections for a parliament that is part of its new political system has been ridiculed by the opposition as evidence that the president’s changes have no popular support.
The powerful UGTT union has threatened direct action against Saied over his economic plans, his rejection of their proposals for political dialogue and the arrest of one of their top officials last month.
Efforts for a foreign bailout of state finances have stalled, with ratings agencies saying Tunisia risks default even as an economic crisis has caused shortages.
Internationally, Tunisia has rarely appeared more isolated, with reduced Western aid, no sign of Gulf support and a fresh row last week with key ally and neighbor Algeria.
Meanwhile, sections of the long-fragmented opposition are beginning to talk about putting aside old enmities to coordinate action against Saied, leading opposition figure Nejib Chebbi told Reuters.
Saied’s critics fear the arrests mean his fiery rhetoric, which denounced enemies as traitors, would descend into tough action facilitated by his amassed powers – including his assumption of ultimate authority over the judiciary last year.
They are concerned about his apparent moves to bring the military closer to government, as illustrated by his appointment of a senior army official as agriculture minister last month.
“The President’s use of military institutions in political life harms the country and the neutrality and high standing of the army,” Chebbi said.
Critics also say that authorities have increased the use of military courts to try political cases since Saied came to power in 2021. Previous governments have also used military courts, but less frequently.
But analysts and diplomats say there is no sign the military is actively seeking a political role.
A more immediate concern for the opposition are the security forces – the police and other internal agencies who have been responsible for the arrests since Saturday.
Many Tunisians still cringe at the memory of the fear of speaking out in public and the abuses dissidents faced before the 2011 revolution.
In a statement Tuesday, four political parties, Attayar, Ettakatol, Labor Party and Qotb, warned that the arrests indicated “a dangerous shift from authoritarian populism to dictatorship.”
(This story has been corrected to correct the party name in the last paragraph.)
(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tarek Amara; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Nick Macfie)