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Arrest of opposition leader is ‘final nail in the coffin of Tunisian democracy’

Experts say Kais Saied’s crackdown on his political opponents may have reached a point of no return.

Reporting | Africa

Tunisian authorities arrested opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi and raided the headquarters of his Ennahda party last night, marking a major escalation in President Kais Saied’s crackdown on his political opponents in Tunisia.

Officials said the detention and search are part of an investigation into allegations that Ghannouchi made “inciting” and “provocative” statements. The comment in question appears to have come during a meeting of opposition groups in which he reportedly said that “Tunisia without Ennahda, without political Islam, without the left, or any other component, is a project for civil war.”

Authorities arrested two other Ennahda leaders during the raids. Ghannouchi, who is 81, was transferred to a hospital today following a deterioration in his condition. 

In addition to the raids, authorities banned gatherings of Ennahda members as well as members of the National Salvation Front, a broad-based coalition of opposition groups. Ghannouchi has not yet gotten access to his lawyers, according to a member of his legal team who was detained while trying to visit him.

The arrest comes amid a broad crackdown on political dissent in Tunisia, much of which has come since 2021, when Saied dissolved parliament and began ruling by decree. Ghannouchi, who was speaker of the parliament at the time, has been a sharp critic of recent government moves, including the decision to push through a referendum on a new constitution despite low voter turnout.

“This is the final nail in the coffin of Tunisian democracy,” said Radwan Masmoudi of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, who has served as an advisor to Ghannouchi on U.S.-Tunisia relations.

Yusra Ghannouchi, Rached’s daughter and a former spokesperson for Ennahda, noted on Twitter that her father had “willingly gone” to “numerous interrogations” prior to his arrest and lamented that the raid came during a period of Ramadan that many Muslims consider particularly sacred. 

The embattled opposition leader has faced years of accusations of financial mismanagement as well as claims that his party encouraged Tunisians to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. While he has previously been detained for questioning, yesterday was the first time Ghannouchi was sent to a prison outside of Tunis.

The arrest is a “big test” for Western states that claim to support democracy in the Arab world, Masmoudi argued.

“For two years, the United States and the European Union have given [Saied] the time and opportunity to dismantle democracy,” he told RS. “Arabs and Muslims who believe in democracy are seeing their hopes being smashed and destroyed and the West doing absolutely nothing.”

Masmoudi also joined a growing chorus of analysts who have called on Western states to condition future aid on a return to democracy and rule of law, including the release of all political prisoners. He also said Western leaders should put similar stipulations on talks with the International Monetary Fund, which recently offered Tunisia a $1.9 billion rescue plan. (Saied rejected the offer, but the IMF has said it’s still determined to make an agreement happen given the economic turmoil in the country.) 

The United States has yet to weigh in on the news of Ghannouchi’s arrest. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment from RS.

A European Union spokesperson said the bloc is watching the developments with concern and highlighted the importance of Ghannouchi’s right to a fair trial. “We also emphasize the fundamental principle of political pluralism,” added spokesperson Nabila Massrali in a statement. “These elements are essential for any democracy and constitute the foundation of EU-Tunisia relations.”

Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi. (Chatham House, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Reporting | Africa
Chris Murphy Ben Cardin

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