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Tunisia arrests two prominent president critics

Figures from across political spectrum detained, including a radio station chief and a confidante of a former president
A billboard depicting Tunisia's Kais Saied hangs on the side of a building in the east-central city of Kairouan, on 26 July 2022 (AFP)
A billboard depicting Tunisia's Kais Saied hangs on the side of a building in the east-central city of Kairouan, on 26 July 2022 (AFP)

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 both detained by police on Monday evening.

A wave of arrests in Tunisia targeting figures from across the political spectrum in recent days has raised fears of a new crackdown on opponents to President Kais Saied, who seized power from a democratically elected parliament in 2021. 

Bhiri’s wife said at least 100 people had surrounded their home in the capital Tunis to carry out the arrest. Boutar was detained after his home was raided, according to his lawyer.

The two arrests add to a wave of detentions over the weekend which included activists, lawyers, and an influential businessman. 

'In Tunisia, having a critical opinion and having bravery to say it is enough to get dragged in front of an anti-terror unit'

- Monica Marks, Middle East politics professor

“[President] Kais Saied is going after big fish from all ideological persuasions,” Monica Marks, professor of Middle East politics at NYU Abu Dhabi told Middle East Eye. “He is swinging the sword of Damocles in a wildly unstrategic fashion.” 

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Boutar’s Mosaique FM is one of Tunisia’s largest and most popular radio stations in the country. 

“Boutar is a secularly-oriented person who is a big critic of Ennahda, and his radio station has welcomed voices who both support and criticise Saeid. It fostered very open and honest discussions,” Marks said. 

She added that the radio chief told her last year he had previously faced pressure from the government about programmes it did not like. 

But Boutar persisted as he felt “freedom of expression was one of the most critical gains since the revolution”. 

Ennadha, the largest party in the now-dissolved parliament, and Mosaique both issued statements condemning the arrests. 

"Ennadha strongly condemns the abductions and systematic abuse of the opposition by Kais Saied's putschist authorities," the party stated. 

Mosaique denounced the "campaign of fear" it said the state was conducting against journalists.

Tunisia has been engulfed in a deepening economic and political crisis since Saied unilaterally suspended parliament and dissolved the government in July 2021, in what may be branded a "constitutional coup". 

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

Concerns over crackdown

One of the arrested figures over the weekend was Khayam Turki, a social democrat who had been facilitating discussions between secular and Islamist-oriented opponents of Saied. 

He was reportedly “abducted”, with his lawyer having no idea where he is and no justification being given for the arrest. 

Another detainee was Abdelhamid Jlassi, a former Tunisian politician and leader within Ennahda. He resigned from the party in 2020 and has since been critical of its perceived failings as well as other forces in government.

The lawyers of some of those arrested over the weekend said it was on allegations of "assaulting state security". 

In a surprising move, Kamel Eltaief, a controversial businessman and longtime confidante of former autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was among those arrested. 

He has long been seen by many Tunisians as a symbol of corruption during the Ben Ali years. 

Marks believes arresting figures such as Eltaeif will serve as a “shiny distraction” from those detained for criticisms of the government. Eltaeif, among others arrested in recent days, is yet to be charged.   

“[The arrests] are a mix of people likely to be charged with economic corruption - like price fixing, and critics of Saied from a variety of ideological backgrounds who are being arrested or abducted on nakedly political charges,” the analyst told MEE. 

"In Tunisia, having a critical opinion and having bravery to say it is enough to get dragged in front of an anti-terror unit." 

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On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Volker Turk, the UN's rights chief, expressed concern over the crackdown on critics and the judicial process. 

“We are… concerned that some of those held on charges connected to criticising the government have been tried in military courts,” said spokesperson Jeremy Laurence.

“We call on the authorities to cease immediately practices of trying civilians before military tribunals.”

Tunisia’s new constitution, which was approved in July last year after a low-turnout referendum, effectively ended the hybrid parliamentary-presidential system agreed upon, following the 2011 revolution, and introduced a fully presidential system.

The president now appoints the prime minister, cabinet ministers and judges, the latter of whom will be banned from striking.

Middle East Eye has contacted Tunisia's presidential office for comment. 

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