There have been coordinated arrests of political and media figures that represent a new phase in Tunisian President Kais Saied’s struggle with a fragmented but emboldened opposition, raising fears of a wider campaign to quell dissent.
Since Saied shut down parliament 18 months ago, moving to rule by decree before rewriting the constitution, security forces had moved only sporadically against opponents who accuse him of an undemocratic coup.
Saied has denied a coup, saying his actions were legal and necessary to save Tunisia from chaos. He promised to uphold the rights and freedoms won in the 2011 revolution that brought democracy.
However, the wave of arrests since Saturday represents a tough new move against his critics and an escalation from the campaign of pressure that has built over recent months with travel bans and investigations.
Police have detained opposition politicians, an influential businessman, the head of Tunisia’s most important independent news outlet, two judges, and an official from the powerful labour union.
While authorities have not yet commented on the arrests, lawyers for some of those detained have said they were accused of conspiring against state security.
A lawyer for Noureddine Boutar, the head of Tunisia’s main independent news outlet Mosaique FM, said he had been questioned about his radio station’s financing and editorial policy, including how it chose guests.
“What happened is dangerous… The authorities’ message to journalists who do not enter a state of obedience is that this will be your fate,” said Mahdi Jlassi, head of Tunisia’s journalists’ syndicate.
The arrests come at a sticky moment for Saied.
An ultra-low turnout of 1 per cent in elections for a parliament that is part of his new political system was ridiculed by the opposition as evidence that the president’s changes lack popular support.
The powerful UGTT labour union has threatened direct action against Saied over his economic plans, his rejection of its proposals for political dialogue and last month’s arrest of one of its senior officials.
Efforts to secure a foreign bailout for state finances have stalled, with rating agencies saying Tunisia risks default even as an economic crisis has caused shortages.
Internationally, Tunisia has rarely looked more isolated, with Western aid reduced, no sign of Gulf support and a new spat last week with main ally and neighbour Algeria.
Meanwhile, parts of the long-fractured opposition are starting to talk about ways to put aside their old enmities to coordinate action against Saied, leading opposition figure Nejib Chebbi told Reuters.
Critics of Saied fear the arrests mean his fiery rhetoric decrying foes as traitors are sliding into hard action facilitated by his accumulation of powers – including his assumption last year of ultimate authority over the judiciary.
They are worried by his apparent moves to bring the military closer into government, as was evident in his appointment of a senior army official as agriculture minister last month.
“The president’s use of military institutions in political life is harmful to the country and to the army’s neutrality and high reputation,” Chebbi said.
Critics also cite the authorities’ increased use of military courts to try political cases since Saied’s seizure of powers in 2021. Previous governments also used military courts but less often.
However, analysts and diplomats say there are no signs that the military is actively seeking a political role.
A more immediate concern for the opposition is the security forces – the police and other internal agencies responsible for the arrests since Saturday.
Many Tunisians still recoil at the memory of the fear of voicing public criticism, and of the abuses meted out to dissidents, before the 2011 revolution.
In a statement on Tuesday, four political parties, Attayar, Ettakatol, the Workers’ Party and Qotb, warned that the arrests indicated “a dangerous shift from authoritarian populism towards dictatorship.”