Tunisian activists decry intimidation as vote looms

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[January 27, 2023]  By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian activist Chaimaa Issa is due to face a military court on Friday on charges of insulting a president whom she accuses of trashing the democracy built from a 2011 revolution in which she took full part.

Opposition figures say her trial is part of an effort by the authorities to curb dissent against President Kais Saied amid a parliamentary election in which low enthusiasm has undermined his claim of public support for his seizure of powers.

The first round of the election in December drew turnout of only 11%, prompting widespread ridicule among Saied's opponents and new demands by the powerful labour union that he change tack.

The second round will come on Sunday, two days after Issa's trial is due to begin and after a string of prosecutions of other critics of the president.

"The situation is very dangerous and disturbing because of the attacks on democracy," she said.

Saied, who was elected in a landslide in 2019, sent tanks to shut down parliament in 2021 before seizing most powers and rewriting the constitution, passing a new version last year in a referendum.
 


He said his actions were both legal and necessary to save Tunisia from years of economic stagnation and political bickering, and has labelled his foes traitors, calling for action against them.

The authorities have rejected claims that any of the trials, including that of Issa, are politically motivated.

However, while Saied has promised to defend rights and freedoms won in the election, the new parliament that voters are selecting will have hardly any power and he will retain ultimate authority.

PROTESTS

Issa is one of several prominent critics of Saied facing court cases, timing that the opposition believes is a deliberate tactic of intimidation.

"Saied started a campaign against the leaders of the front row of the opposition," said Najib Chebbi, head of the "Salvation Front" coalition of opposition groups that have held repeated protests against the president.

Ali Laaryedh, a leader of the biggest opposition party, Ennahda, was imprisoned last month on charges of having helped send jihadists to Syria while part of the ruling coalition, something he and it deny.

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Tunisian activist Chaimaa Issa gestures during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied, in Tunis, Tunisia January 14, 2023. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Ghazi Chouachi, the former leader of Attayar party and a vocal opponent of Saied, is being prosecuted for a radio interview in which he criticised the president.

Another prominent activist, Ayachi Hammami, faces trial under a law prohibiting the spread of "fake news" online after having criticized Saied and the justice minister.

For Issa, the contrast between today's Tunisia and the democracy she sought to build after the 2011 revolution is stark.

Two days before the previous autocracy collapsed in January 2011, she had written a social media post saying she was prepared to pay any price for freedom. As the daughter of a political prisoner, it was a cost she understood.

"Today, I repeat the same message. I am ready to pay the price for freedom and democracy," she said.

For many Tunisians, however, political and democratic goals have taken a back seat to an economic crash that has pushed the state to the brink of bankruptcy while emptying supermarket shelves of key goods.

The UGTT labour union, which says it has a million members, has focused its attacks on Saied's handling of the economy and his government's promises of painful reforms as the price of securing an international bailout.

It now demands Saied also abort his political plans and instead move to a national dialogue that includes all the main civil society groupings to forge a new path forwards.

The dialogue represents "a last opportunity" for Saied, though he has so far rejected the idea, said Sami Tahri, a senior UGTT official.

"If the president does not accept dialogue, we will have our say and not remain silent," he said.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara and Jihed Abidellaoui, writing by Angus McDowall, editing by Nick Macfie)

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