“Those detained are terrorists.” With these words, President Kais Saied began his speech as he entered the Ministry of Interior on the night of February 14, a day after the launch of a campaign of spectacular night-time arrests targeting politicians, two judges, and the director of Mosaïque FM. Their cases are unrelated and contain no suspicion of terrorism, and most involved breaches of procedure. No official narrative to explain what happened was provided except for the president’s speeches, as usual loaded with threats, generalizations, and passive voice. He spoke once again of an “attempt to assassinate him” – although none of the detainees’ cases contain any such suggestion – and a conspiracy to aggravate social conditions by depriving the market of certain goods, repeating the same conspiratorial explanation he has for months maintained for a crisis that is obviously tied to objective global and domestic factors. The president not only dished out general accusations and cast guilty judgments but also openly derided judicial procedure, calling – as usual – on “honorable judges” to assume their “historic responsibility”. The synchronization of the arrests, the absence of any connection between the cases, the identity of most of the victims, and the political exploitation – especially in the presidents’ speeches before and after the arrests – all point to one conclusion: we are facing a political operation harnessing state agencies to target political adversaries and silence critical voices. The crackdown has two purposes. The first is to satisfy the masses’ desire for sacrificial lambs and thereby restore some of the lost popularity underscored by the lackluster legislative election turnout. The second is to return the initiative to a president empowered by military agencies and is seeking to subjugate the judiciary to his command now that the question “What comes after Saied?” is being asked openly in public debate.
Arrests Under Presidential Supervision
The main course in the banquet of arrests was undoubtedly the case of “conspiracy against state security”, which included political figures opposed to Saied’s regime, namely Khayam Turki, Abdelhamid Jlassi, and Lazhar Akremi, in addition to the shadowy and controversial figure Kamel Eltaief. These arrests relied on the anti-terrorism law, which grants exceptional powers that limit suspects’ rights. According to the lawyers, the only facts included in the files were one-on-one meetings between some of the accused and meetings with foreign guests. The other arrests that coincided with these ones strongly suggest that the operation was political.
The arrests also targeted Noureddine Bhiri, a lawyer and Ennahda leader. According to leaks from the file, he was arrested for making an incitive online post loaded with religious terms on 8 January 2023, although there is no physical trace of it now and the complaint was only filed on February 13. The same day, it was referred to the public prosecutor, a search and seizure warrant was issued, and it was referred to the investigating judge. The investigating judge then issued an arrest warrant for Bhiri.
The arrests also included dismissed judge Bechir Akremi, the former public prosecutor in the Tunis Court of First Instance. Akremi has stirred much controversy since investigating the assassination of martyr Chokri Belaid, and the Legal Agenda interviewed him two years ago about the criticisms and accusations leveled against him. He was arrested based on a complaint filed by two police personnel on the same day in connection with the case about the terrorist attack on Bardo National Museum, which he undertook seven years ago as investigating judge in Office 13. He withdrew the investigation from the National Anti-Terrorism Investigation Unit in El Gorjani – to which the complainants belong – because he had seen signs of torture on the first group of defendants during questioning, and he dismissed the charge against them in a decision upheld by the Indictment Chamber. He also tasked the relevant unit of the National Guard in El Aouina with the case, and it was able to uncover and arrest the group involved – according to the appellate criminal rulings – in the attacks on both the museum and the Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Sousse. Akremi has been temporarily committed to Razi Psychiatric Hospital by a Public Prosecution decision based on a medical report.
Remarkably, Akremi was arrested by the same El Gorjani unit. The arrest also coincided with the arrest of Tayeb Rached, the former first president of the Court of Cassation, who headed the list of judges dismissed by Saied. Rached was the subject of corruption suspicions that Akremi himself raised as public prosecutor in the Tunis Court of First Instance and that caused judges to demand that he be removed from his position and held accountable. A decision was made to renew Rached’s custody for five days as soon as the first custody period ended, citing money laundering suspicions in a second case for which he has not been interrogated.
However, the arrest that provoked the most widespread condemnation targeted Noureddine Boutar, director of Mosaïque FM, in a case that contained only a search warrant. The warrant was executed at night and resulted in no seizures. According to his lawyer, Dalila Ben Mbarek, the questions he was asked revolved around the station’s management and profits, and its editorial line, which Saied has bemoaned on multiple occasions. Boutar was not informed of the acts imputed to him either when he was arrested or during the two days of custody. Facing political pressure to keep him imprisoned, the Public Prosecution turned to money laundering suspicions – which allow the custody period to be extended for five days under the anti-terrorism and money laundering law – and referred the case to the Financial and Economic Judicial Pole for further investigation into his bank accounts and assets. This whole process goes against the conventional approach in money laundering cases. The Central Bank’s Tunisian Committee for Financial Analyses usually conducts an extensive analysis of the actions suspected to be money laundering as a precursor to the case’s potential referral to the Public Prosecution. However, Boutar was arrested before he was suspected of anything, as though the desire to arrest him motivated a search for any justification to prosecute him, not the other way around. His arrest prompted the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists to declare a day of rage in defense of freedom of expression and a protest in Government Square in Kasbah.
The crackdown was clearly political. It is inconceivable that all these cases were initiated at the same time by coincidence or that they separately led to concurrent night-time arrests. They are obviously the implementation of the head of the authority’s desire, one he was not trying to conceal anyway. The best evidence is that he went to the Ministry of Interior, gave his support to its leaders, cast guilty judgments on the detainees (whom “history has proven are criminals before the courts do”), and went into the procedural details of some of the cases, deriding the Public Prosecution whenever it does not immediately grant an arrest warrant based on what police present and postpones summoning the subject until the next day. The president continued with the same approach during the following days, ultimately receiving Minister of Interior Taoufik Charfeddine and security officials on February 17 to “examine the progress of the investigations into the case of conspiracy against the state’s domestic and foreign security”. This image, which is shocking to anyone who believes in the separation of powers, judicial independence, and the importance of judicial procedure as a fundamental safeguard for any fair trial, has become the norm in Tunisia since 25 July 2021. This new norm was clear when the president announced, on the night of July 25, that his “exceptional measures” would include taking command of the Public Prosecution. He later backed down in the face of the Supreme Judicial Council’s objections and domestic and foreign reactions, but his quest to subdue the judiciary did not subside. He dissolved the legitimate Supreme Judicial Council and appointed a replacement council by presidential decree. Then he bypassed his council and decree, and granted himself the power to dismiss judges directly based on reports from “authorized bodies”. He then immediately applied this power to fire 57 judges, more than half of whom belonged to the Public Prosecution and investigation apparatuses. Most had no disciplinary files; rather, they were dismissed simply for not yielding to political or police pressure. When the Administrative Court suspended the decisions dismissing them, the president and Minister of Justice Leila Jaffel ignored the ruling. Consequently, judicial appointments and transfers ceased and sensitive positions remained vacant, especially in the Public Prosecution and among investigating judges. Thus, the February 2023 arrests prove that Tunisian Judges Association President Anas Hammadi was not mistaken when he said, following the “massacre” of judges, that the president wants to seize the “keys to the prisons”.
December 28 Speech Comes into Effect
President Saied was not content with just turning against the Constitution – based on which he was elected and which he swore to respect – and seizing all power while abolishing or taking control of the counterpowers. He sees any opposition to him as a “conspiracy against the state” since state and president are – in his eyes – simply one and the same. Whoever conspires against him aims to “topple the state” because the fall of his regime, which is the stated goal of the opposition forces and the natural stance on a president who usurped power by force, means the fall of the state. Likewise, any mockery of him is an “affront to the state and its symbols”. This attitude was obvious in the erratic speech he delivered on December 28 in the presence of the prime minister, the ministers of defense, interior, and justice, and police and military leaders. In the speech, he threatened those who “every hour of every day strike the state institutions, are chameleon-like, and affront the state and its symbols”, and deemed that “such an affront amounts to conspiracy against the state’s domestic and foreign security”. He declared that “these circumstances cannot continue, and these people must receive retribution within the framework of the law”. Hence, the “conspiracy against state security” charge was primed and ready in Saied’s mind before the cases were assembled with flimsy evidence and examined by the judiciary.
In that erratic speech delivered before the sullen faces of military and police leaders, Saied also threatened media figures, probably meaning the journalists of Midi Show on Mosaïque FM: “People claiming to be analysts and experts in the media… are neither analysts nor experts… but mercenaries who have thrown themselves into foreign arms… Every day they present false analyses… They slander with no shame”. He had directly attacked Mosaïque FM a month earlier while on the island of Djerba for the Francophonie Summit, telling a reporter from the station that, “Every day in Mosaïque FM they speak however they please… yet they talk of dictatorship. What dictatorship are they talking about?… Let them think hard and look at reality without bias and without defaming state institutions”.
The threatening and menacing rhetoric peaked in the December 28 speech, which Saied concluded by calling on “those who consider respecting the law as well as procedures to be a weakness” to “know that the Tunisian state, with its institutions, is strong” and to “cease affronting the state and its institutions and symbols”. This “final warning” came less than two weeks after the first round of legislative elections, which saw 90% of Tunisians sit out and therefore exposed the declining popularity of Saied’s regime and the people’s rejection of his vision. This result motivated the opposition forces to tighten the noose on Saied and heralded a qualitative shift in public discourse as post-Saied scenarios began being discussed openly. Days later, the president delivered a New Year’s Day speech completely different in tone and content, deeming that “Tunisia is home to all its people”. This speech caused many to forget the impact of the December 28 speech, but the threats were carried out a month and a half later, using the same and new accusations and directly targeting opponents and people who “affront” [yatatawalu].
Between Intimidating Opponents and Quenching the Masses’ Thirst for Revenge
The president is not content with just the prosecutions of opponents, journalists, and lawyers, which have become more frequent in recent months through the use of Decree no. 54 (criminalizing fake news) and make use of the non-independent military judiciary. Rather, he is also irritated by judicial procedure when it does not lead to immediate imprisonment or confirm the guilty judgment that he himself has made.
However, the crackdown is not just a manifestation of conspiracy mania and power-induced madness. Rather, it has two political goals. The first is to intimidate opponents and free voices. The message is clear: anyone who affronts the president could be imprisoned, with or without a case and extra-procedurally if need be. The timing and showy nature of the arrests reflects the determination to intimidate. At night, a person is safe at home. The law and the legitimate state violence it entails prevails, in principle and outside of exceptional cases, during the daytime. This is a historical and sociological legacy, not to mention a human rights gain. Arresting opponents – some in their pajamas – by raiding their homes at night and intimidating and roughing up their families, as occurred with Bhiri, is a practice adopted to sow terror in their hearts. It also helps paint the conspiratorial image that the president is promoting to justify his failure. The second goal of the arrests is to reverse the erosion of the regime’s popularity and compensate for the lack of socioeconomic achievements by promoting the achievement of “accountability” that democracy failed to provide. But how can the events occurring today constitute accountability? Should people be imprisoned on account of just their reputation or rumors, irrespective of the content of the cases and in violation of procedure? Does accountability mean anything when judges fear the brutality of the regime whenever they refuse its instructions? If the recent arrests manage to quench some of the masses’ thirst for revenge, this effect can neither persist nor satisfy hungry stomachs. Rather, the same masses that today delight in revenge on political and media elites will tomorrow delight in revenge on today’s rulers. Our history contains many examples. Whoever feeds people’s hatred, whoever goes mad with power and exercises it despotically, ends up reaping what he sows.