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Tunisian opposition leader calls for united front against Saied's one-man rule

In interview with MEE, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi condemns political arrests and treatment of Black Africans in Tunisia
Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, leader of Tunisia's opposition National Salvation Front, speaks during a press conference in the capital, Tunis, on 15 February 2023 (AFP)
By MEE correspondent in Tunis

Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, leader of Tunisia's National Salvation Front opposition alliance, has called on civil society groups and trade unions to unite with political forces to create a national movement against the direction of President Kais Saied. 

In an extensive interview with Middle East Eye, the senior opposition figure condemned recent political arrests and the targeting of African communities in the country. 

Thousands of Tunisians marched against their government at a rally organised by the UGTT trade union.
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"Today's political time is not for factional demands," Chebbi said. "There is no possibility of addressing the economic crisis without capable political leadership.

"Therefore, it is necessary to... unite political and trade union forces to demand a national dialogue that will open the way for Tunisia's exit from the crisis." 

Tunisia has been engulfed in political and economic crises since July 2021, when Saied unilaterally suspended parliament and dissolved the government in what many have called a "constitutional coup"

He subsequently ruled by decree, before pushing through a new constitution that enshrined his one-man rule. 

Chebbi, whose National Salvation Front is the main opposition coalition against Saied, called on the country's powerful labour union, the UGTT, not to focus only on the "sectoral horizon" but to join a coordinated "national horizon" too, adding that civil society groups should do the same. 

"We will either survive together or fail together. If people do not have the courage to accept this fact, the crisis is likely to deepen." 

On Saturday, the UGTT mobilised thousands of supporters in the capital, Tunis, in a major protest against Saied's recent crackdown on opponents. 

'Revenge on opponents'

Chebbi, 78, is a veteran political figure who was vocal for decades against longtime autocratic rulers Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. 

After Tunisia's revolution in 2011 and the overthrow of Ben Ali, he briefly served as regional development minister before withdrawing from mainstream politics until Saied's power grab two years ago. 

At least five opposition figures from the Salvation Front, including Chebbi's brother Issam, have been arrested in a recent crackdown on government critics.

The others are Ghazi Chaouchi, Ridha Belhaj, Jouhar Ben Mbarek and Chaima Issa.

"These people are innocent. Their [judicial] file is empty. There's nothing in it, absolutely nothing," Chebbi said. 

The arrests "are only made to take revenge on opponents and to spread some kind of fear so that everyone will surrender to the will of the absolute ruler".

'Those who believe in putting the honourable Tunisian national civil figure in prison for no reason... will be held accountable'

- Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, opposition leader

He added that Tunisia was in "desperate need" of local and international human rights organisations to "stand by the oppressed in order to regain their freedom". 

Noureddine Bhiri, one of the most prominent figures within Tunisia's Ennahda opposition party, and Noureddine Boutar, the head of radio station Mosaique FM, were among those detained in the wave of recent arrests

"What is happening now is illegal: when security agents break into the homes of citizens... with weapons or accompanied by dogs for no reason," said Chebbi.

"When Noureddine Bhiri's hand is broken and he is being dragged to his detention facility without justification." 

He said that civilians were being tried in military courts, despite having no connection to the military.

"Those who believe in putting the honourable Tunisian national civil figure in prison for no reason or justification will be held accountable."

'Racist campaign' against migrants

Last week, Saied published comments that were widely denounced as "racist" and conspiratorial. 

"There has been a criminal plan since the beginning of the century to change the demographic structure of Tunisia, and there are parties that received large sums of money after 2011 for the settlement of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa," the president said. 

Some 300 West African migrants were set to leave Tunisia on repatriation flights on Saturday, fearful of a wave of violence instigated by Saied's tirade.

Chebbi condemned the remarks and the recent treatment of Black Africans in Tunisia. 

Hate speech against Black Africans in Tunisia spreads on social media
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"Tunisia is experiencing a tragedy when it comes to its relations with African countries," he said. 

"Everything we built in Africa has collapsed, and I am personally ashamed that a country like ours has acted like this towards our brothers." 

Chebbi said Saied's speech led to African migrants being "harassed and subjected to a racist campaign in their daily lives".

MEE reported on Saturday that anti-migrant and anti-Black sentiments were being widely spread in Tunisia across Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.

Users called migrants "invaders" and "aggressive", and shared conspiracy theories, including one alleging that they were killing stray cats and dogs so that they could eat them. 

Separate to the issue of racialised hate speech, activists also alleged that Facebook was being used to reveal personal details about government opponents. 

Safa Ben Said and Rayhan Uddin contributed to this report 

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