Middle East

Press banned from opening session of new Tunisian parliament

Independent and foreign journalists have been barred from attending the first session of Tunisia’s new parliament, which has been largely stripped of its powers by the increasingly autocratic president.

The ban on journalists entering the parliament building is the first since the revolution that ousted the late dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

Kais Saied, who was elected president in 2019, redrew the constitution to radically reduce the power of the parliament after a power grab in 2021.

The body’s legitimacy took another hit when just 11% of the electorate turned out to vote for its MPs in two rounds of elections over December and January. The opposition coalition, which boycotted the vote, said on Monday it would not recognise the assembly.

In recent months, security forces have enacted a sweeping crackdown on Saied’s political opponents, many of whom have been arrested without charge, while the north African country’s small population of undocumented black migrants have been subjected to a campaign of violence after the president accused them of being part of a plot to enact demographic change.

Two-state controlled outlets were allowed to cover proceedings on Monday. Fatma Mseddi, a newly elected MP, said the decision to restrict access had been taken to avoid “disorder” and the conveyance of an “inappropriate image”.

Journalists protested outside and their national union, the SNJT, issued a statement pointing to the parallels with the pre-revolution situation.

Speaking on the independent radio station Mosaïque FM, which has become an increasingly outspoken thorn in the president’s side, Amira Mohamed, the SNJT vice-president, said the media were being subjected to censorship and that the SNJT would “opt for escalation” should the ban continue.

Tunisian activists say the new parliament, mostly comprised of independent MPs, will not serve as an effective check on executive power, which Saied has concentrated in his hands.

Frustration with the previous body, deadlocked by party factionalism and grandstanding, had long been growing by the time Saied suspended and then dissolved the body in July 2021. He defended his move as not only legal but also necessary to save Tunisia from years of political crisis.

In the intervening time, Saied has portrayed the old parliament’s members and others seen as part of the political elite as being to blame for an economy in decline, food shortages and a growing cost of living crisis.

International concern over the situation escalated after Saied gave a racist speech in February that sparked an outbreak of vigilante violence directed at undocumented black migrants. The speech was seen as another attempt by Saied to deflect blame for Tunisia’s economic ills.

The World Bank suspended its partnership agreement with Tunisia in early March, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on which much of the country’s financial hopes rest, voiced concern.

Though the government has tried to row back on the president’s comments, attempts to cross the Mediterranean from Tunisia to Europe have risen sharply in recent weeks. On Thursday, 14 people reportedly drowned when two boats sank near the Tunisian city of Sfax.

Governments in Europe, including the UK and France, have remained tight-lipped over Saied’s crackdown on political opponents and undocumented migrants. Some within Tunisia have linked the anti-migrant violence to the EU’s strategy of externalising its border controls to countries including Tunisia and Libya.


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