Kais Saied was democratically elected as president of Tunisia in 2019, but in the last few years he emerged as a president with some dictatorial features. Saied sent home the prime minister, dissolved parliament, and introduced a new constitution. This new constitution makes him virtually inviolable, and has thrown political enemies, journalists, and activists in prison. These dictatorial tendencies have led to more criticism from the opposition, towards Kais Saied.
To understand the increase of criticism towards president Saied, we must look at the past 2 years. Since July 2021, Saied and his government have been undermining respect for human rights. He took away all fundamental freedoms and is suffocating the opposition. Tunisian authorities are particularly targeting members of Ennahda, the country's largest opposition party. In April 2023, authorities arrested Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda and the former speaker of Tunisia's dissolved parliament. Ghannouchi is for example accused of 'conspiracy against the state'.
Attacks on freedom of expression and discrimination against migrants and refugees are also major problems in the country. For example, in September 2022, Saied issued a decree on cybercrime that allows the authorities to impose far-reaching restrictions on free expression. Many people are also charged with 'insulting' the authorities or 'spreading fake news'. While these acts are not crimes under international law.
Saied also made racist and xenophobic statements leading to an increase in attacks on migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. The attacks specifically concerned Africans, and the police not only arrested at least 840 migrants, but also expelled dozens of them to neighboring Libya. Since Tunisia is an important transit country for many migrants who want to come to Europe, a deal has been made between European countries and Tunisia, which is called the Tunisia deal. European countries state that they consider the migration pressure too high. For example, around 50,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to Italy between January and early June.
The Tunisia deal has caused quite a stir among both Saied's opposition and a group of Europeans, who believe it is unacceptable for Europe to make a deal with a country that is so blatantly violating human rights. The deal state the following things:
Tunisia will improve border control; tackle people smuggling and improve registration and return of migrants.
Tunisian young people can temporarily go to the EU for education and work and students can participate in the Erasmus exchange program.
The EU will invest in the Tunisian tech sector, water management and sustainable agriculture.
The EU is investing €300 million in renewable energy cooperation.
According to Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, the deal contributes to "economic growth, jobs and future prospects for the Tunisian economy", and the agreements are "essential to get a better grip on the fight against irregular migration". However, Amnesty International wants the EU not to make deals with countries of which it is abundantly clear in advance that they are cooperating as financiers in human rights violations, because in this way human rights violations become normalized.
Some Tunisian people are also extremely critical about the deal, as to how the money will end up in the right places? And how will the money benefit the population? Besides that, Tunisians are afraid that tensions will rise between them and the migrants. According to Tunisian people, the migrants are a cause of the crisis in the country. Europe will send people back to Tunisia, which will cause even more crisis, since more migrants will ‘steal’ jobs in Tunisia. The tensions will lead to a further increase in attacks on migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, but also discrimination will rise. Both, the opposition of Saied, and migrants will have less and less say as Saied will continue to curtail human rights, since the Tunisia deal contributes to this.
In short, Europe's nervousness over migration has strengthened EU leaders' willingness to overlook Saied's dictatorial traits. This is causing a lot of criticism in Europe, because Europeans think it is unacceptable that the EU makes a deal with a country that is so blatantly violating human rights. Tunisians are also critical, because they wonder how the money will end up in the right place. They are also scared that the tensions in the country will rise, because Europe will send more people back. This will lead to the increase of discrimination, but also to further violation of human rights of both, the opposition of Saied, and migrants.