Arrest of Ghanouchi provokes international condemnation

The arrest on the weekend of 81 year old Rached Ghannouchi – former Speaker at the Assembly of Representatives of the People of Tunisia and opposition leader of Tunisia’s largest opposition party – the Ennahda Party, has been condemned internationally. Ghannouchi’s arrest represents the latest and most high profile detention in a string of similar detentions as part of the purge of leading critics and opponents of the autocratic government of the current President of Tunisia, Kais Saied.  

A group calling themselves ‘The International Campaign for Solidarity with Rached Ghannouchi’, issued a statement early on Tuesday morning 18th April, which read:

‘I am writing to inform you that last night, 17 April 2023, just before the time of sunset, the time for breaking the Muslim fast, on the 27th night of the month of Ramadan, considered the holiest night of this special month, around 100 plainclothes policemen raided the house of Mr Rached Ghannouchi. Around 50 policemen went into his house and spent two hours searching it. The lawyers who arrived to observe the search were not allowed to enter the place to exercise their duty…Mr Ghannouchi was then taken away, presumably to the military barracks of Laouina since the security squad identified themselves as coming from there.
When 40 lawyers of Mr Ghannouchi’s went to Laouina base to attend the interrogation, they were not allowed to enter, and the guards would not confirm whether or not Mr Ghannouchi was being held at the base.’

 Arrested under the pretext of inciting war

The prosecutor issued a statement explaining that Rached Ghannouchi had been arrested for inciting war during a speech he had made at a seminar the night before. These are the exact words that Ghannouchi is supposed to have spoken:

“There is a paralysis, intellectual and ideological, which, in reality, lays the ground for civil war. Because imagining Tunisia without this or that side, Tunisia without Ennahdha, Tunisia without political Islam, without the Left, without any of its components, is a civil war project. It is a crime.
That is why those who welcomed this coup with celebrations cannot be democrats.”

A purge of critics and opposition figures

Since February 2022, the rate of arrests have escalated to include senior Ennahda officials, as well as high profile secular politicians, senior journalists and an editor of one of the largest independent radio stations. The arrests have included some of Tunisia’s most well known members of the judiciary. Over a dozen judges who had been sacked by the newly appointed President in early 2022 found themselves under the spotlight again a year later, as they became a part of a wave of judicial arrests. These arrests included Judge Bechir Akremi – who was accused of corruption and supporting terrorism and then controversially declared mentally unstable and taken to Razi Razi psychiatric hospital in North Eastern Tunisia where he has been denied access to lawyers, family members or any organisation that may bear witness to the conditions in which he is being kept.


International condemnation

The US State Department’s spokesperson Vedant Patel issued a statement expressing their serious concern on Wednesday 19th April:

The arrest of Tunisian opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi, the closure of the Ennahda main opposition party headquarters are fundamentally at odds with the principles the Tunisians adopted in a constitution…[the] banning of meetings held by opposition groups, represent a troubling escalation by the Tunisian government’

The European Union spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, Nabila Massrali, issued a statement 18th April, expressing concern at recent developments in Tunisia:

‘We are following with great concern the latest developments in Tunisia, in particular the arrest last night of Mr Rached Ghannouchi as well as the information concerning the closure of the headquarters of the Ennahda party in Tunis’ 

Tunisia – the spark which began the ‘Arab Spring’

Tunisia has been regarded as the one remaining example of a peaceful transition to democratic rule following the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 – which began when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010 in Sid Bouzid, Tunisia and eventually led to the then president of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali being forced to step down on 14th January 2011 after 23 years running the state as a one party dictatorship.

A return to autocratic rule

Kais Saied was able to seize power in 2021 when he unilaterally suspended parliament and dissolved the government. The move was described at the time as ‘constitutional coup’. He then systematically began a process of shifting authority into his own hands by introducing harsh changes to the state constitution and removing all checks and balances that could be used to impede his grasp on power. These crucially included changes to election rules and procedures, which served to marginalise political parties and to ensure that his authority in parliament was rubber-stamped, that he had unlimited powers and that parliament was effectively neutered.

Several political pundits and Tunisian analysts have noted a dramatic change in the response from the international community on this occasion to the response from earlier arrests of prominent figures in Tunisia. One commentator remarked in the Washington Post:

‘His [Ghanouchi’s] arrest represents the juiciest piece of red meat that Saied could throw at his base.’ He added that earlier arrests of opposition figures did not provoke significant consequences from Western capitals, a signal they are willing ‘to wheel and deal with the Saied regime ‘ on migration, counterterrorism, and preventing Russia and China encroachment in Tunisia.’

As the Tunisian President, Kais Saied, now sets about banning the main opposition parties and shutting down their headquarters under the pretext of terrorism, many now regard him as having successfully overturned the revolution and reinstated the dictatorship of former President Ben Ali.


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