The Genie in the Bottle

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Last month, prominent Tunisian lawyer Sonia Dahmani was on a popular talk show addressing comments by President Kais Saied who alleged a conspiracy to push thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa into Tunisia.

She wondered how that was possible, given the dire economic conditions in her country.

“What kind of extraordinary country are we talking about?” she mused. “The one that half of its youth want to leave?”

A day later, Dahmani was summoned to court, reported Al Jazeera. Instead, she took refuge in the bar association’s Lawyers’ House. Raided by police, she – as well as the journalists covering the situation during a live broadcast for France 24 – were arrested. Masked police also raided the Lawyers’ House a few days later as demonstrations broke out against the raids, arrests and beatings, France 24 reported.

Dahmani, meanwhile, is only the latest lawyer among others and journalists, opposition politicians or civil society activists to be arrested under a law known as Decree 54, ostensibly created to fight fake news – but instead, critics say, is used to suppress dissent, according to Amnesty International. Anyone who criticizes Saied or the government faces arrest, prosecution and five-year sentences.

Meanwhile, those trying to speak up – especially for migrants – are often branded “traitors” by Saied.

The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy calls the development “the slow constriction” of civil society that began about two years after Saied, an economics professor, won free elections in 2019.

Since the Tunisian revolution, which was partly caused by high unemployment, removed long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and ignited the Arab Spring across the MENA region, Tunisia has struggled politically and economically, a situation that worsened after the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Unemployment in Tunisia is still one of the highest in the region. Around 17 percent of Tunisians live under the poverty line, with even the middle class struggling to afford sugar, milk or meat, when these commodities are even in the stores at all. Thousands of young Tunisians have been trying over the past few years to emigrate to Europe as a result. Hundreds, meanwhile, have been jailed in a revival of debtor’s prison, wrote Human Rights Watch.

Last year, Tunisia rejected a $1.9 billion IMF deal to bail out the country again, because Saied said that “foreign diktats” would lead to more poverty. Some analysts say Tunisia was right to reject the deal. Others, however, worry that Tunisia is edging toward economic meltdown.

The problem is that the president is focusing on dissent when the country is on the edge. “It almost seems like he’s living in a parallel universe or on another planet,” Syrine, a 24-year-old former supporter of Saied, told Foreign Policy. “He doesn’t see or chooses not to see his people’s problems or acknowledge their existence. His only job is the witch hunt of his opponents.”

That the government, meanwhile, seems fixated on suppressing dissent rather than fixing these economic problems makes sense, say analysts, because the fix would involve restructuring the economy – which would increase hardship and likely set off a sociopolitical crisis, possibly like the one that brought down Ben Ali. “Social peace is not a game,” Saied said after rejecting the IMF deal.

Even so, protests have broken out this year against deteriorating living standards.

At the same time, it’s also likely Saied is expanding a crackdown on dissent and enforcing his brand of patriotism in order to stay in power after elections this fall, Deutsche Welle wrote. Critics say it borders on insanity.

Recently, for example, Saied ordered authorities to arrest seven sports officials, including the head of the Tunisian swimming federation, after they failed to fly the country’s flag at a recent swimming competition, the BBC reported. Saied was supposedly furious over the flag’s absence, calling it “an act of aggression.”

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