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Tunisia: Ghannouchi's arrest is a knockout blow to all Arab reformers

Regimes that crushed the Arab Spring are warning those who participated that further resistance is futile
Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Ennahda party and former speaker of parliament, at his office in Tunis on 15 July 2022 (Reuters)

Last week, Tunisian police raided the home of Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, the former parliament speaker. The move came amid a broader crackdown in the wake of President Kais Saied’s 2021 “constitutional coup”. 

Ghannouchi has been investigated for money laundering and incitement to violence, charges his family says are politically motivated. His arrest comes in the context of a broader struggle in the Arab world between people fighting for freedom, dignity and social justice, and governments that have failed to fulfill their basic duties.

The conflict between people and regimes is nothing new. It has been ongoing for decades, but became more comprehensive and clear at the end of December 2010, when a popular uprising started in Tunisia and spread to many Arab countries.

People or revolutions won in the first round of the uprisings, toppling longtime dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen within months. They also gained unprecedented reforms in Morocco and Jordan. Fearing a domino effect, Saudi Arabia launched a massive programme of social spending. 

Although the uprising backfired in Syria, the atmosphere across the Arab region was in favour of the people. But this triumph did not continue for long: it took the counterrevolution just a couple of years to reclaim the lead and restore the situation to the way it was before December 2010 - or even worse.

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After Saied’s regime ended the democratic process in Tunisia, dissolved parliament and changed the constitution, Ghannouchi’s arrest was, in theory, unnecessary. Rather, the move must be understood as a part of the conflict between the people and the regimes, or the forces of the counterrevolution. 

Authoritarians in the Arab region do not merely want to prevent their opponents from achieving victory. They want to end the conflict with their people by dealing a knockout blow. To do so, they must decimate all political factions that were part of the uprising, showing that they will tolerate no opposition, criticism or questioning of their power. 

Existential threat

The Tunisian people were the first winners, and the last losers, of the Arab Spring - and the counterrevolution wanted to make them an example for Arab people in this stage of the revolution’s decline, particularly since they were an inspiration for all Arabs at the beginning, when it looked like the people were winning.

Against this backdrop, Ghannouchi’s arrest is not a surprising move. All regimes that crushed these revolutions have continued punishing the people and the factions that played a role. Across the Arab region, counterrevolutionary forces have been doing everything possible to destroy any remaining legacy of the Arab Spring. 

Tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned in Egypt, with many dying in custody amid poor conditions and a lack of healthcare services; Arab regimes are closing the curtains on the revolutions in Syria and Yemen, years after they turned into civil wars; regional powers continue to enable conflict and political divisions in Libya; and Jordan and Morocco have used a soft approach to marginalise Islamist parties.

All people, factions and figures who were part of the Arab Spring must act peacefully to condemn this arrest and continue their struggle for freedom

Arab peoples and their countries are connected. Despite the isolationist policies all Arab regimes adopted for decades, the Arab Spring proved this fact. Arab regimes believed that the success of any revolution posed an existential threat; as such, they did not support any uprising, even if it was against a ruler with whom they had ideological or political differences. 

Even in cases such as Syria, Libya and Sudan, the ultimate goal of counterrevolutionary Arab regimes was to sabotage the revolutions by militarising them or enabling political and military divisions.

The exact role of regional powers in Ghannouchi’s arrest remains unclear. But it is fair to say that Arab regimes are happy with this move, if the coverage in Emirati, Saudi and Egyptian-controlled media is an indicator. His arrest is unrelated to his personality, policies or leadership of an Islamist party; it is just the latest step in the comprehensive, transnational counterrevolution against all Arab people.

All people, factions and figures who were part of the Arab Spring must act peacefully to condemn this arrest and continue their struggle for freedom and social justice. Otherwise, Ghannouchi will not be the only loser in this battle; it will be a knockout blow to all Arab reformers.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Feras Abu Helal is the Editor-in-Chief of Arabi 21 news website.
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