My father refused to bow to Kais Saied’s tyranny in Tunisia





Yusra Ghannouchi



Exactly a year ago, my father Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of Tunisia’s elected parliament, was arrested at our home in Tunis, just as he was sitting down to break the Ramadan fast.

The rule of law had already been eroded over the preceding year and a half since President Kais Saied’s coup on July 25, 2021, when he unilaterally dissolved parliament, dismissed the government and gave himself near-absolute powers.

After then suspending most of the constitution and ruling by decree, all that remained for Saied to do was to crush the opposition parties that refused to stand by while he dismantled Tunisia’s hard-won freedoms and democratic institutions.

The authoritarian backsliding that Tunisians have witnessed since Saied’s coup followed a familiar path laid by autocrats in other countries: a new constitution with unchecked executive powers approved in a dubious referendum; draconian new laws restricting freedom of speech; the takeover of the judiciary for use against political rivals; and targeting any critics and opponents with travel bans, house arrest and imprisonment.

My father was summoned countless times for interrogation on fabricated charges following Saied’s takeover. Every time that he was interrogated, often for more than ten hours at a time, we anxiously waited, breathing a sigh of relief when he eventually walked out free, with a victory sign, the judges having found no evidence for the various preposterous allegations.

But after a year and a half of trying to hijack the judiciary, dismissing judges who refused to follow his orders, Tunisia’s new dictator was able to get the arrest and verdict that he wanted.

After more than 100 security agents surrounded our family home on the evening of April 17, the 27th night of Ramadan, my father was taken to an unknown location and denied access to a lawyer for 48 hours.

Since then, he has remained in prison, and two sentences have been issued against him on trumped-up charges —first, of “incitement” and “conspiring against the security of the state,” and then of accepting foreign funding — that violates the most basic requirements of the right to a fair trial. Now 82, he faces three more years in prison.

This isn’t my father’s first such ordeal. Last week, when another Eid passed with my father still in prison, I remembered the other ten times that my father spent Eid in jail in the 1980s, in different prisons under different Tunisian dictators.

One of the tragedies of Tunisia’s authoritarian regression under Saied is having to relive past cycles of repression. After a decade of democracy in which Tunisians enjoyed unprecedented levels of freedom, we had hopes that the era of arbitrary detentions and political trials was behind us. Now, we find ourselves back to the same climate of fear, impunity and injustice.

But like other democracy activists around the world, Tunisians know that the struggle against dictatorship is a long one. We take heart and strength from seeing the determination of individuals and movements fighting for human dignity and justice under other authoritarian regimes. We also follow, with horror, the images of the ongoing massacres in Gaza and the rest of Palestine. It feels as if the world has never been more filled with injustice, in many forms.

In a time of such pain and despair, I miss my father’s ever-calm and reassuring voice, and his unwavering optimism, whatever the situation and challenges. I know that he would have shed many tears at the sight of so much loss and pain, but he would have refused to give in to hopelessness. He would rejoice at the global wave of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and see it as confirmation of his belief in a shared humanity and the universal recognition of the right to freedom and justice.

Unlike dictators throughout the region, he would have remained committed to the validity and necessity of universal rights and laws, having spent his life defending and promoting human rights not as a foreign import, but as shared human achievements that are not only compatible with, but required by, his understanding of Islam.

He would have reiterated his firm conviction that freedom and democracy are necessary for our region, just as they are necessary for justice for Palestinians, and that dictatorship could never be a route to liberation, rather the contrary.

As the complicity of dictatorships in the region with Israel’s genocide in Gaza exposes the inextricable link between occupation and dictatorship, he would have argued that the struggle for freedom, which has been my father’s lifelong quest, is part and parcel of the struggle for the liberation of Palestine.

Despite the many setbacks in Tunisia and across the Arab world, the same desire for dignity, justice and freedom that sparked the Tunisian revolution and the other uprisings of the Arab Spring remains and cannot be fully repressed. Hope can still defy despair, with the belief that the accumulated sacrifices of so many will give birth to a brighter future.

The coup against Tunisia’s democracy by Saied and his enablers may reveal how fragile democratic gains are. But Tunisians have remained steadfast in defending the ideals of our revolution against dictatorship.

Following Saied’s coup, my father took heart in the early signs of resistance to this new authoritarianism from an increasing number of political parties, judges, lawyers, journalists and civil society organisations.

Saied may have been acting like Tunisians autocrats before him, but he also soon faced more organised opposition than both Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba had. My father saw this as a “fruit of the post-revolution decade” and a sign that once people “tasted freedom,” it would be difficult to force them to return to living under dictatorship.

To adopt my father’s optimism, his imprisonment and that of so many other political prisoners from across the Tunisian political spectrum are proof of their refusal to bow down to tyranny. Tunisians are determined to achieve their freedom, once again.


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