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Tunisia’s Civil Unrest Continues Amid Presidential Power Grabs



Protests have spread in Tunisia as resident Kais Saied continues to threaten democratic institutions, most recently dismissing the independent judiciary and peddling anti-migrant rhetoric.

Civilian protests erupted in early January, calling for a halt in Saied’s efforts to consolidate his rule. Saied’s dissolvement of democratic bodies has alarmed citizens about Tunisia’s return to dictatorship.

In late February, Saied delivered an anti-migrant speech at the National Security Council that incited civilian protests. Citizens took to the streets demanding Saied apologize for what they considered insulting language toward sub-Saharan migrants, whom he said were causing crime and posing a demographic threat to Tunisia.

“The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” Saied said. The African Union condemned Saied’s comments, and urged Tunisia to avoid “racialized hate speech.”

The president’s language contributes to a larger effort to separate Tunisia from less developed parts of Africa. Protesters strongly disagree with Saied’s actions, chanting in the capital city Tunis, “Down with fascism, Tunisia is an African country.”

Racism is a persistent issue in Tunisia, where Black Africans make up 15% of the population, but remain absent from public life, employment, and government roles.

Following Saied’s speech, he ordered security forces to stop all illegal migration and remove undocumented migrants. This prompted a campaign of arrests among sub-Saharan Africans and Black Tunisians.

Anti-racism protests in Tunisia are the most recent example of dissatisfaction with Saied. In July 2021, Saied launched an anti-corruption campaign, dismissing the prime minister and broadening presidential powers in what critics called a power grab.

A year ago Saied dissolved the High Judicial Council, replacing the independent justices with individually appointed members. Human Rights Watch recently released a report condemning Saied’s actions.

Tunisia achieved deep democratic reforms following the Arab Spring in 2011. While many other neighboring countries have collapsed back into civil war or dictatorship, Tunisia’s democracy has persisted for years.

Democracy in Tunisia has nonetheless wavered, facing a political crisis shortly after the 2011 Arab Spring Revolution that established democracy. In 2013, two prominent secular leaders of opposition parties were assassinated prompting protests against the Islamic government.

“The challenges new leadership faced posed too much. Economic challenges didn’t go away under post 2011 challenges. Social challenges didn’t go away,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa program director for the International Crisis Group.

“People were fed up, and it was on that kind of wave that Kais Saied rose to the presidency, and he promised not to be autocratic, but now he’s showing his true colors.” Hiltermann said in a presentation last week to students at Claremont McKenna College. Saied was elected in what Tunisia’s election committee considered to be a free and fair election in 2019.

Saied has sharply departed from his pledge of a democratic presidency. In late February, Tunisian security forces arrested Jaouhar Ben M’barek, the most prominent opposition leader to Saied’s government. Ben M’barek was the latest of a dozen prominent figures arrested in February under the false pretense of terrorism.

“After putting himself in charge of prosecution and firing judges right and left, President Saied is now going after his critics with utter abandon,” said Salsabil Chellali, Human Rights Watch Tunisia director.

Hiltermann is wary about the future of Tunisia: “I see the country continue down the path of autocracy without any ability to address the deep economic and social challenges that it faces. It doesn’t look good at all, to me.”

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