Tunisia’s New Dictatorship

Tunisia has become a police state. This has not happened overnight. But it is still a shocking reversal in democratic development.  

This is the country whose former dictator was overthrown in a few days in 2011. His was the first scalp claimed by the Arab revolutions of that year. But where the tyrant Zine El Abidine Ben Ali once went (apart from running away in disgrace), his latest successor, Kais Saied, longs to follow.  

A few stories converged over the past week in Tunisia, resulting in major protests over the weekend. Protesting without presidential approval is formally banned in the country, and most of the country’s opposition leaders are now in jail. So to protest for their release takes twofold courage.   

The spark for these demonstrations came last week, when opposition leaders including the old campaigner Said Ferjani (a former twenty-year political exile in Britain) were arrested. Not only were these leaders detained on spurious grounds; Tunisia’s association of judges also said that one judge was dismissed from his post by the president for not finding a way to imprison a troublesome activist.   

Nor is this the first attack on judicial independence by the Saied government. Tunisia’s current political crisis arose at least in part because the president dismissed fifty judges and prosecutors in August last year. They were not toeing the president’s line, so they had to go.   

As a former law professor itching to put his own legal theories into practice, Saied has forced through a new constitution which concentrates power in his hands. He has banned legal protest. And he has cracked down on all opposition parties, independent lawyers and trade unions, with increasingly dubious allegations of corruption, treason and terrorism.  

The president also, of course, dismissed the country‘s prime ministerial government in 2021, suspended the sitting of Tunisia’s parliament in that same year and dissolved the parliament formally in 2022. He held a new election, without the participation of the major parties, at the end of last year and the beginning of this one, in which only 11 per cent of voters participated.  

Naturally, this does not fill the observer of Tunisian politics with confidence. For three years – caused partially by Covid, but mostly by mismanagement and incompetence – Tunisia has experienced a profound economic crisis. A country which had good economic prospects a decade ago now suffers persistently high inflation, shortages, rationing, and general malaise.  

Some might be suckered into believing that, faced with all these crises, the firm hand of the tyrant is necessary to right the ship and all the rest. I wouldn’t fall for it. Saied is not an economist. He is not all that well advised. His energy appears mainly focused on extending his own power in the political and social arena, not in growing the Tunisian economy, or ensuring the supply of staples, or generally acting with suavity and calmness to soothe world markets.  

Dictatorship – especially by someone economic illiterate, as Saied appears to be – does not control rampant price rises. Tyranny rarely brings in the tourists or remittances necessary to recapitalise an economy and to increase a flagging balance of trade.   

Faced with an economic crisis, Saied has decided to lock up more of his critics and, for little reason, cause a mass exodus of black Africans, after he decided to start demonising them on TV.   

Saied accused the country’s black population, likely in the low tens of thousands, of being part of a grand plan to change the demographics of a country containing fourteen or so million. This sparked exactly the kinds of thing – mob violence, evictions of black tenants, public beatings – that these statements are apt to cause.  

None of this is all that likely to solve Tunisia’s economic problems. The sight of guest workers fleeing Tunisia on humanitarian flights organised by the sub-Saharan countries hardly fills investors with confidence.  

All of this has come to a head in the past month or so, but Saied has been a liability for years. Yet he has been for all that time welcome in the halls of European power: an honoured guest.  

Europe en bloc has shamefully let this happen in full view because its leaders are bored by the Arab world. They are distracted (first by Covid, then by Ukraine, and latterly, just a little, by China) and largely of the flawed view that dictators on the southern Mediterranean are somehow necessary for European ends.  

European leaders firmly believe, against much evidence, that dictators are necessary to restrain migration from Africa and the Arab countries. This is rubbish. Dictators are basically mob bosses; and if they are not paid off by Europe, they will be paid off by the traffickers, and the boats will continue to make their perilous journeys regardless.  

As Tunisia spirals into economic and political crisis, as always, the pro-dictator view has been exposed as foolish and short-sighted. If Tunisia continues to tread Saied’s path, soon more than the country’s black population will be clamouring to leave. And where, exactly, will that leave Europe’s migration policies then? 

This piece was originally published in The Spectator.


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