Friday, 19 May 2023 09:27

Crackdown on Muslim Democrats a setback for Tunisian democracy

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Crackdown on Muslim Democrats a setback for Tunisian democracy - AFP Pic

The recent arbitrary arrest of Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Ennahda party, by President Kais Saied has brought Tunisia's political turmoil to the limelight.

The 81-year-old Ghannouchi reportedly was breaking his fast on the 27th day of Ramadan when nearly 100 policemen raided his house and took him into custody.

Later, he was ordered detained after eight hours of investigation following a trumped-up charge brought against him for incitement against state authorities.

This was a akin to imprisoning Ghannouchi, as part of a general move by President Kais Saied's ongoing crackdown on his political opponents.

Since his self-coup in July 2021 when the president dissolved the parliament in which Ghannouchi was the speaker, President Saied has dismantled every democratic institution in the country to consolidate power through a hyper-presidential system.

At the same time, he has jailed his critics that include politicians, former judges and government officials, business people, trade unionists, and journalists. Furthermore, the day after Ghannouchi's arrest, the Tunisian authorities also closed the Ennahda party headquarters.

Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Tunisia has been seen as a beacon of hope for democratic change in the MENA region. As the largest party in the Tunisian parliament and a member of the ruling coalition, the Ennahda party under the leadership of Ghannouchi has been a key player in Tunisia's post-revolutionary politics and is largely credited for the country's democratic transition.

As a moderate Islamist party with a self-styled "Muslim Democrat" branding, Ennahda's success to maintain power has been a result of its willingness to work within the democratic system, respect the rule of law, and promote pluralism and tolerance through power-sharing agreement with other political players in Tunisia.

At the same time, despite being perceived as an Islamist movement, Ennahda has been more cautious in setting up its reform agenda. Thus, Ghannouchi has repeatedly affirmed that his party priority after gaining power is not to immediately 'Islamize' the country.

Instead, its main concerns are to uphold the country's democracy and the rule of law and boost its economic growth with a focus on the wellbeing of its people which is seen in line with the objectives of the syariah (maqasid al-shari'a).

Therefore, whereby its Egyptian counterpart, the Muslim Brotherhood under Mohamed Morsi failed to maintain power and was unfortunately overthrown in a military coup, Ennahda has continued to survive and enjoyed growing support from a broad cross-section of Tunisian society helping the country's stability and progress.

However, the rise of President Saied has undone much of the democratic development in Tunisia. Since taking office in 2019, he has steadily increased his power, using the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic to bypass parliament and take unilateral decisions.

He has undermined the independence of the judiciary, dismissed the prime minister and other senior officials, and imposed curfews and restrictions on civil society organizations and the media.

His efforts to govern without a functioning parliament and to rule by decree during the July 2021 self-coup have faced stiff opposition from Ennahda and other parties, who have accused him of authoritarianism.

Thus, the recent arrest of Ghannouchi and the broader crackdown on the opposition movement are clear examples of the president's authoritarian tactics. The repercussions of President Saied's crackdown on the Tunisian Muslim democrat could be far-reaching.

First and foremost, Tunisia has been seen as the sole successful model for democratic transition in the Arab and Muslim world and it has become evident how the proponent of the Islamist movement may peacefully partake and even flourish in this democratic endeavour.

Thus, if President Saied succeeds in crushing the opposition, it will set back all of the democratic efforts and bring

back Tunisia to the old way of authoritarianism which is so hard to turn back.

But, a more alarming backlash of this lies in the discrediting of all of the peaceful democratic efforts made by moderate Islamists such as Ennahda.

This could have a knock-on effect, leading to disillusionment among moderate Islamists and pushing them towards hard-line and extremist groups. This is a worry which could ultimately destabilize the region and undermine efforts towards peace and stability.

Hence, it is imperative that the international community speaks out against President Saied's actions and call for the immediate release of Ghannouchi and other political prisoners.

Tunisia's democratic progress must not be undone, and its people must be allowed to continue on their path towards a more open and tolerant society.

The writer is a research fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia. He can be contacted at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.