Ghannouchi Arrest Enhances Concerns of Political Targeting in Tunisia

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Policy Briefs Program

April 25, 2023

On Thursday, April 20, it was confirmed that a Tunisian judge ordered the imprisonment of Rached Ghannouchi in light of allegations that he was “plotting against internal state security.” Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s opposition Ennahda party and a rival of President Kais Saied, was arrested on Monday evening when Tunisian police raided his home. Over the past month, roughly “30 political activists, judges, lawyers, and the head of a radio station have been arrested and accused of conspiring against national security,” causing many to fear the existence and escalation of political targeting. 

Tunisian authorities have ordered that Ghannouchi not be released. According to Ahram Online, “a Tunisian investigative judge has ordered that influential Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi remain in custody, his party said Thursday on its official social media. The Ennahdha party denounced in a statement on Facebook the ‘unjust imprisonment’ of its leader, after Ghannouchi was arrested by police Monday. On its English-language Twitter account, the party said Ghannouchi has been charged with conspiracy against state security and ordered to be imprisoned pending trial.”

According to sources close to Ghannouchi, the arrest was linked to statements against President Saied. Al Mayadeen writes: “A source affiliated with the Tunisian Interior Ministry confirmed the news of the arrest, explaining that Ghannouchi ‘will be subjected to investigations case related to inflammatory [subversive] statements he made.’ The source added that the security forces searched Ghannouchi’s house and seized everything useful for the investigation, after getting approval from the Public Prosecution.

In addition to arresting Ghannouchi, authorities halted Ennahda’s office operations. Explained in Khaleej Times, “Tunisian authorities closed the offices of opposition party Ennahdha on Tuesday, a day after arresting its leader Rached Ghannouchi, a senior party official said. ‘A police unit showed up at the party’s main headquarters (in Tunis) and ordered everyone there to leave before closing it,’ Riadh Chaibi (a senior party official) said. ‘The police also closed the other offices of the party elsewhere in the country and prohibited any meeting in these premises.’”

This development continues a trend towards authoritarian rule by Saied. Since originally suspending parliament in 2021, Saied has dissolved parliament, dismissed judges en masse, and held a constitutional referendum. Highlighted in Al-Monitor, “Saied has been accused of dismantling the democracy that emerged in Tunisia following the 2011 revolution and ouster of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. ‘In the course of consolidating his power … Saied has dismantled or imperiled key institutional safeguards for human rights, undoing or threatening to undo landmark gains of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.’”

Tunisians have persistently protested the arrests of political opponents. The Gulf Times reviews demonstrations from throughout this year: In early April, “around 300 demonstrators from opposition parties waved Tunisian flags and carried signs with the images of detainees at the rally organised by the main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front…Since early February, authorities in the North African country have arrested more than 20 political opponents and personalities including politicians, former ministers, businessmen, trade unionists and the owner of Tunisia’s most popular radio station, Mosaique FM.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his intent to speak with Tunisian authorities about his concerns over the arrests. Quoted in Anadolu Agency, he said “the current administration in Tunisia arrested brother Ghannouchi. We have not yet been able to contact the authorities in Tunisia over the phone but will continue to try to reach them. If we are able to speak to them, we will tell them that we do not find this appropriate.”
This trend of democratic backsliding has caused international condemnation by multiple human rights groups. In addition, the United States expressed its discontent with the recent arrests. Al  Arabiya noted that “the U.S. government on Wednesday condemned the arrests of political opponents in Tunisia, and said respect for freedom of expression and human rights are essential ‘to the US-Tunisia relationship.’ The arrest on Monday of former Speaker of Parliament Rached Ghannouchi and the closure of the Ennahdha party headquarters ‘are fundamentally at odds with the principles Tunisians adopted in a constitution,’ State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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