Tunisian opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi has been detained by authorities, causing concern for his health and raising questions about the future of his Ennahda party. Ghannouchi was arrested on the 27th of Ramadan, one of the holiest nights on the Islamic calendar, and charged with “conspiracy against state security” after making comments warning about the potential for civil war if Tunisia’s various political currents were excluded. His daughter, Yusra Ghannouchi, claims that her father’s words have been taken out of context to create the charges. Ghannouchi’s arrest has been welcomed by some, but others fear it will increase Tunisia’s isolation and restrict political pluralism and public freedoms.
Tunisia’s President Kais Saied dissolved the democratically-elected parliament on July 25, 2021, and has since seized more power for himself, including by changing the country’s constitution. His opponents have decried his moves as being part of a coup. Ghannouchi’s chief adviser, Ahmed Gaaloul, fears that the latest episode is another step towards banning Ennahda completely. He claims that party members live in a psychological state of terror, as anything they send or receive could be used as evidence of conspiracy.
Monica Marks, assistant professor of Middle East Politics at NYU Abu Dhabi, believes that Saied has taken advantage of Ghannouchi’s declining popularity in recent years, particularly among many Tunisian secularists. She suggests that Ghannouchi’s arrest has been “the red meat that Saied’s supporters have been craving for some time”. While some have welcomed Ghannouchi’s arrest, others fear it will increase Tunisia’s isolation and restrict political pluralism and public freedoms.
Khaled Chouket, a former top official of the secular Nidaa Tounes party, believes that Ghannouchi’s arrest will only increase the perception internationally that Tunisia is headed down a dark path. He warns that this path will strengthen the isolation of the Tunisian regime internally and externally, and will lead Tunisia into the unknown. Chouket notes that Saied has failed on his promises to combat corruption and improve social welfare, and instead focused on arresting political opponents, “creating an image that frightens investors at home and abroad, in addition to the hate speech that continues to divide Tunisians”.
Hatem Nafti, a Tunisian political essayist, believes that Saied’s populist project is the end of politics. He warns that it risks not only the end of political parties but also civil society, associations, and unions. Nafti suggests that Western countries are too concerned with fighting migration and the threat of Russia and China establishing bases in the Mediterranean, so “will not push for political pluralism or supporting human rights in Tunisia”.
In conclusion, Ghannouchi’s arrest has raised concerns about the future of political pluralism and public freedoms in Tunisia. While some have welcomed his detention, others fear it will increase Tunisia’s isolation and restrict political pluralism and public freedoms. Saied’s focus on arresting political opponents has created an image that frightens investors at home and abroad, in addition to dividing Tunisians. Western countries’ focus on migration and geopolitical threats may prevent them from pushing for political pluralism and supporting human rights in Tunisia.