Tunisian president Kais Saied has launched an authoritarian clampdown on opposition parties and media while inciting hatred against African migrants. But EU officials seem happy to embrace Saied as another thuggish border guard for Fortress Europe.
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, right, and Kais Saied, president of Tunisia, ahead of their meeting in the Europa building in Brussels, Belgium, on June 4, 2021. (Valeria Mongelli / Hans Lucas / Bloomberg via Getty Images)
On Friday, July 14, a crowd gathered outside the front gate of the Tunisian journalists’ union headquarters amid the colonial-era French buildings in downtown Tunis. Activists, most of them old hands in the struggle who know each other, milled around the gates, chatting together with placards in hand, awaiting direction as they prepared to protest.
Later, they started down one of the main avenues, blocking traffic as they chanted militant slogans in Arabic and French. The emergency action was small and called in response to weeks of racist violence against sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia by citizen vigilantes, most flagrantly in the country’s second-largest city, Sfax.
The Tunisian military went on to expel the migrants to a military zone in open desert on the Tunisian border with Libya and Algeria. They were left without water or food in heat well over 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
The protest of perhaps a hundred people was the most recent action called by a newly formed Anti-Fascist Front. The Front had already called a much larger solidarity demonstration in February, after Tunisia’s autocratic president Kais Saied made a nationally televised speech propagating his own version of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory.
At the time, Saied had claimed that black migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were part of a “criminal plan to change the composition of the demographic landscape in Tunisia” by making it a “purely African” country. The president accused the migrants of violence and criminality, and his speech immediately set off a wave of violence against black people in Tunisia. It was just one of Saied’s many conspiratorial proclamations about purported enemies — “known parties” whom he never names, whom he charges with attempting to undermine Tunisia from within and without.
These proclamations are meant to distract the Tunisian masses from the real problems facing the country: crumbling infrastructure and public services, basic supply shortages, massive inflation, escalating police violence, drought and wildfires made worse by the impact of climate change, the ripping away of civic freedoms, and Tunisia’s subordinate role in the global economic system.
From Revolution to Reaction
Tunisia launched a decade-long experiment in liberal democracy after mass protest overthrew the dictatorial government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. That experiment suffered a deadly blow on July 25, 2021, when Kais Saied took emergency measures against a supposedly “imminent threat” and suspended parliament. He later suspended the constitution and started ruling by decree.
Tunisia launched a decade-long experiment in liberal democracy after mass protest overthrew the dictatorial government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
Large sections of the Tunisian population initially greeted this move with joy and celebration, with some even dancing in the streets. The country had been spiraling downward amid an out-of-control COVID-19 pandemic, mass economic misery, and political dysfunction. Many Tunisians were fed up with the country’s decay, and believed that Saied, a law professor with no party affiliation, was finally taking the necessary action to clean up the mess and create a system that works for the majority.
The revolution against Ben Ali began when mass protests spread across Tunisia in December 2010 and January 2011 after a street vendor in a deeply underdeveloped interior city burned himself alive in protest against unemployment and the violence of an omnipresent police state. The demonstrations set off a nationwide movement that eventually brought Ben Ali’s twenty-two-year reign to an end. After the president fled into exile, there was a flood of new political parties, with democratic elections and eventually a fresh constitution.
However, the creation of a multiparty liberal system after more than half a century of highly exclusive one-man rule did not mean that Tunisia now had anything near a truly representative and economically just society. There had been a period of mass mobilization across Tunisian society in 2011, with radical demands for free expression, the right to work and dignity, the redistribution of resources, and the dissolution of Ben Ali’s ruling party. Yet the governments that came to fill the political vacuum did not respond to these demands in any way that changed the social order.
Dramatic class inequalities remained, with the same wealthy families maintaining an iron grip over most sectors of the economy. The country’s position as a peripheral source of cheap labor and raw materials for Europe did not change. Unemployment rose along with prices on basic goods, public services were starved of investment, and an abusive police force harassed young Tunisians in working-class neighborhoods.
Politics After Ben Ali
The constituent assembly election in October 2011 had resulted in victory for a previously outlawed Islamist party, the neoliberal and socially conservative Ennahda. Under the leadership of Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda took 37 percent of all votes cast, while its three closest competitors — the center-left Congress for the Republic (CPR), the secular-populist Popular Petition, and the secular, center-left Ettakatol party — all received less than 10 percent.
Ennahda went on to lead the government in coalition with the CPR and Ettakatol until the first legislative elections of 2014. This time, Ennahda was outpolled by Nidaa Tounes, a big-tent secularist party that included prominent figures from the old government, in an election with a turnout of 67 percent. After several months of uncertainty, the two major parties decided to share power and formed a coalition cabinet with some smaller groups.
In the meantime, the founder of Nidaa Tounes, Béji Caïd Essebsi, had been elected as Tunisia’s president in December 2014 after a second-round runoff against Moncef Marzouki of the CPR. Ennahda had not fielded a candidate in the election. Essebi, who was eighty-eight at the time of his election, had previously held government posts under Tunisia’s first postcolonial ruler, Habib Bourguiba, and his successor Ben Ali, including roles such as interior minister and director of national security. Of those eligible, 60 percent cast a vote in the second round.
The revolutionary energy of 2011 dissipated more and more as the parties engaged in fierce battles over questions of identity and religion.
Many observers in Europe and the United States believed that a new constitution and democratic elections would mean that Tunisia had fully broken with its repressive past. Yet the revolutionary energy of 2011 dissipated more and more as the parties engaged in fierce battles over questions of identity and religion, not to mention scandals in which politicians were embroiled. The new political class largely avoided questions of fundamental economic restructuring and redistribution.
The political infighting culminated in the assassination of two prominent left-wing politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, in February and July 2013, respectively. The government blamed the killings on Salafist militants, although the lack of clarity and the unfinished investigations led many Tunisians to point the finger at Ennahda as the mastermind. Mass demonstrations for and against the Islamist party swept through Tunisia, threatening to undo the “transition” process that had been built over the previous two and a half years.
Meanwhile, the national economy continued to deteriorate. According to the UN, the country’s rate of economic growth declined from 3.6 percent in 2012 to 2.9 percent the following year, by which time inflation had reached 5.6 percent. Price hikes mostly affected food, clothing, transportation, and housing.
Foreign direct investment dropped by one-fifth during the same period. The official unemployment figure in 2013 for Tunisia was 15.7 percent, though this is likely to have been a significant underestimate, as it failed to account for precarious and underemployed people, and those who had stopped looking for work altogether after years of fruitless efforts.
According to Fadil Aliriza, founder and editor of Meshkal, a Tunisian news media platform, the standard of living for most Tunisians actually fell after the revolution: “We saw per capita GDP decline from 2011 onwards.” People could no longer live off of what they used to, Aliriza told me, with a collapse in the value of the Tunisian dinar in 2016–17: “People on fixed salaries or pensions just couldn’t make it anymore without going into deep debt.”
To top it off, in 2017 Essebsi signed legislation that granted an amnesty to Tunisian officials who were accused of profiting from corruption under Ben Ali. This was a law that Essebsi himself had proposed two years earlier. There would be no accountability in this framework.
Saied Comes to Power
In September and October 2019, another presidential election brought Kais Saied to power after two rounds of voting. Saied won just over 18 percent of the vote in the first round but took almost 73 percent in the runoff against Nabil Karoui of the recently formed Heart of Tunisia party. Turnout dropped to 49 percent in the first round and 55 percent in the second.
Saied’s runoff opponent was a business tycoon with his own television channel and a charity association he seemingly used to garner support from the poor, rural, and marginalized. His status as a representative of the corrupt ruling class was impossible to hide. Karoui was arrested on charges of money laundering during the election campaign, although he was released shortly before the runoff contest.
Kais Saied campaigned as a nonparty independent, conservative in his social views, who vowed to fight corruption and the dictates of foreign financial lenders.
New legislative elections were held between the two presidential ones. Ennahda came first with a little under 20 percent of the vote, followed by Heart of Tunisia with nearly 15 percent, while Nidaa Tounes’s vote share fell to just 1.5 percent. Turnout dropped sharply to less than 42 percent — a fall of 27 percent since 2014.
Saied campaigned as a nonparty independent, conservative in his social views, who vowed to fight corruption and the dictates of foreign financial lenders. He had a reputation for being untarnished by dirty political money.
Saied’s fiery, forceful speeches in eloquent literary Arabic — a language many admire but few are able to master — promised to carry out the goals of the 2011 revolution, which had thus far been stymied by Tunisia’s monied classes. This brought Saied the vast majority of the youth vote, coming from a group that had hitherto been disengaged from a system that seemed not to serve them at all.
Exploiting the Backlash
After winning the election, Saied played on popular disillusionment with the political class. As Aliriza observes, Saied’s move to suspend parliament and the constitution in July 2021 came at a time when Tunis had the world’s highest per-capita death toll from the pandemic,
and on the weekend in which the entire government and ministers were at a five-star hotel . . . after canceling meetings with MPs on the ground that they couldn’t meet because of social distancing . . . the government seemed not just disconnected from the people, but almost appeared to be hostile to the people.
After winning the election, Saied played on popular disillusionment with the political class.
According to Wael Zarrouk, a civil-society activist in Tunis, this backdrop made the stern-faced Saied, with his stirring speeches and virulent denouncements of corruption, appear like a reassuring figure to many: “There were movements and protests going on from the end of 2019 all the way to the day of the coup. . . . Kais Saied came and exploited this moment of anger and energy.”
Zarrouk also notes that Saied cultivated a down-to-earth image:
Many saw Kais Saied as a respectable law professor from a humble background. And, like it or not, they felt that he resembled them. And he played on this image, giving the impression that he’s poor, he understands the masses, doesn’t have a villa or a fancy car, and hangs out in working-class cafés.
It wasn’t just working-class Tunisians exhausted by the state of the country who initially supported Saied’s coup, Aliriza believes. He also had support from a bureaucratic class and local capitalists who threw in their lot with him: “I think there’s a significant segment of the fonctionnaires (state administrators) who were behind Saied.”
Aliriza suggests that the constant shuffling of ministers under previous governments made it nearly impossible for those officials to carry out policies, bringing Tunisia’s institutions to a state of near paralysis: “They probably had a preference for clear, top-down direction.”
Yet despite the initial celebratory mood when Saied carried out the coup against his own government in 2021, voter participation in his political project since then has plummeted. In July 2022, there was a referendum on a new constitution that massively expands presidential power — a document that Saied seems to have had an enormous influence in drafting. While it received an overwhelming 94 percent “yes” vote, voter turnout was just over 30 percent.
Despite the initial celebratory mood when Saied carried out the coup against his own government, voter participation since then has plummeted.
Elections to install a new parliament in December of that year after Saied dissolved the previous one saw an even lower turnout of just 11.2 percent — one of the lowest recorded anywhere in the world since 1945. Parties were not allowed to field or fund candidates in the election, and candidates were not permitted to receive any public funding. In addition, the parliament had little power under the new constitution.
Despite making promises to recover money looted from the people by businessmen with political connections, only days after the July 25 coup, Saied met with representatives of the Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, a major employers’ association. Saied promised a crackdown on corruption but stressed that he had “no intention to harm or abuse” business.
Aliriza believes that Saied’s rhetoric about Tunisian sovereignty may translate into support for local capitalists who were marginalized by neoliberal globalization under Ben Ali:
My guess is that there are national domestic capitalists who are behind Saied’s sovereignty project if they can see an opportunity with him to have a better position vis-à-vis international competition.”
Yet it is just those wealthy Tunisians who profit from inside connections that Saied denounces. As proof of his commitments, the president created a committee whose members he appointed, the National Commission of Criminal Conciliation, charged with recovering public property that had been stolen through tax fraud and corruption.
However, the commission has so far come up with very little in the way of recovered property and lacks transparency or any independence. It also has the right to grant an amnesty to individuals found guilty of embezzlement if they repay the stolen assets to the state. So much for economic justice.
From the coup of July 2021 onward, Saied began to crush his opponents with arrests, from the formerly powerful Ennahda party to his critics in the media and civil society, often with charges of “conspiracy against the state.” The arrests ratcheted up in February of this year, around the time of Saied’s “Great Replacement” speech.
Saied began to crush his opponents with arrests, from the formerly powerful Ennahda party to his critics in the media and civil society.
The targets includes figures such as Jaouhar Ben M’barek, a left-wing member of the opposition National Salvation Front and leader of the Citizens Against the Coup movement; Issam Chebbi, secretary general of the opposition Joumhouri party; and Noureddine Boutar, director of Mosaïque FM radio, the country’s most widely listened-to station, which was critical of Saied’s government. In April, Ennahda founder Rached Ghannouchi was arrested and later sentenced to prison on trumped-up charges of incitement to violence.
Wael Zarrouk describes such charges as a return to the repression of the Ben Ali era:
Before, we used to tell friends talking about politics, “Be quiet — the walls have ears.” Now we’ve gone back to worse than that. If you talk politics, you get picked up and charged with conspiracy against the state. It’s our right to talk about politics, but now we are accused of attacking the state.
It was only weeks after the parliamentary runoff elections in January of this year that Saied gave his Great Replacement speech, influenced directly by conspiracy theories propagated by the obscure Tunisian Nationalist Party. Since then, spats of violence against sub-Saharan migrants, workers, and students in Tunisia — many of whom intend to move onward to Europe or elsewhere and do not want to stay indefinitely in North Africa — have hit the country, and anti-black tensions have simmered.
An altercation between sub-Saharan migrants and Tunisians in the city of Sfax led to the death of a Tunisian, and groups of Tunisians attacked black people indiscriminately in response. Shortly afterward, the Tunisian military expelled more than a thousand sub-Saharan people to military zones on the desert borders with Libya and Algeria, without food, water, or shelter. Some died in the heat, including parents and their children. This ongoing xenophobic catastrophe stems from Saied’s divide-and-distract tactics and his government’s wholehearted embrace of the role of border guard for the EU.
Despite the ongoing, widely publicized violence in Sfax and the military zones, a group of EU representatives known as “Team Europe” came to Tunisia on July 16. The delegation, which included Italy’s far-right prime minister Giorgia Meloni, signed a major Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Saied. The main focus of the MoU was migration, offering an initial €105 million to Tunisia to stop irregular migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, often by lethal means. The aid will come in the form of equipment like boats, jeeps, and surveillance drones.
The Team Europe visit came after months of reports that Tunisian coast guards were stealing the motors of boats carrying migrants — including many Tunisian ones — on their way to Europe, letting the boats flounder in the open sea, and that they may have even been involved in sinkings. After two years of Saied’s government isolating itself from other states and international institutions with its erratic pronouncements and policies, the EU’s anti-migration agenda seems to be offering a welcome door to international legitimacy and partnership for Saied.
The EU’s anti-migration agenda seems to be offering a welcome door to international legitimacy and partnership for Saied.
Meanwhile, irregular migration from Tunisia to Europe is increasing sharply. According to Agenzia Nova, at least 12,083 individuals arrived in Italy from the Tunisian coast from the start of 2023 until March 13. This represents an increase of 788 percent compared to the same time period in 2022.
Moreover, this number may be a significant underestimate, as it only takes account of those migrants who are formally registered upon arrival, and not those who manage to make their way into Europe unnoticed by authorities. Those making the journey include many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, but also Tunisians who are desperate to escape the increasingly crushing circumstances of life for the country’s working class.
With such a bleak picture in Tunisia, what opportunities are there for the country’s people to resist a total rollback of the gains of the 2011 revolution, deeply imperfect as they were?
Henda Chennaoui, a Tunisian social researcher and longtime activist, believes that support for Saied is fading as the country continues to suffer from inflation, shortages of basic goods, state repression, and more:
Today, Saied has enemies. They know that Saied’s promises won’t materialize or won’t work. They see the injustice of bogus court cases, police violence, and restrictions on movement.
She thinks that a full-scale return to the levels of repression and generalized violence seen before 2011 is impossible:
Deep changes have happened below the surface. Now there is a multiplicity of political parties, freedom of expression, the right to assembly. You can’t bring the country back to how it was before the revolution.”
Chennaoui doesn’t see any particular social groups that are at the moment capable of seriously confronting Saied and forcing a change in Tunisia’s political course. However, she does see the necessity for those who want to fight back to dig in and build movements quietly:
We have to be resilient — we don’t have much of a choice otherwise. We need to defend freedom of expression. We have to intensify the connections and cooperation between us, work to raise political consciousness, and a sense of citizenship.
Myriam Bribri, a veteran activist in Sfax, argues that the opposition has been restricted because of its own lack of assertiveness:
Since 2011 we’ve been in a reactive state, waiting until someone was arrested or attacked before we would go into the streets. We weren’t fighting fiercely to promote freedom of expression or to end police abuse definitively.
When there is a real popular will to build a new system, Bribri insists,
it will be the workers’ unions, student groups, and the farmers who lead the opposition. It’s clear that agriculture, the essential component allowing folks to live in Tunisia, has taken a serious hit. And the political struggle won’t develop until farmers take action.
She cited a case of farmers who vigorously protested supply shortages in the town of Awlad Jaballah and founded an agricultural cooperative to meet their own needs.
Aliriza stressed that the wheels of struggle are still turning, despite the seeming quiet of the opposition to Saied’s dictatorship:
There are social groups and mobilizations that are able to push back on official policies. In Agareb, people faced off against police and tear gas, complaining about an environmental disaster in their hometown. Or in Zarzis where there were massive protests against the way the authorities handled the burying of their loved ones in secret . . . there are moments when there’s very clear contestation between citizens and authorities. Politics isn’t dead in Tunisia. It’s just a lot harder to see.