Tunisia, until not so long ago the poster child of the Arab spring, is now giving headaches to EU leaders, who fear that economic and social collapse will bring new flows of migrants to Europe.
Several hundred supporters of President Kais Saied rallied in Tunis on Monday (21 March) to show their support for him after a crackdown on opponents accused of treason and corruption, and to reject what they call foreign interference.
Saied, who was elected in 2019, seized most powers in 2021 by shutting down the elected parliament and replacing the government before moving to rule by decree and rewriting the constitution.
Critics say Saied has dismantled the democracy and freedoms won in a 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab Spring.
He counters that he is saving Tunisia from chaos.
In recent weeks police have started to crack down on opposition groups that accuse him of a coup, detaining politicians, labour union figures, judges, a prominent businessman and the head of an independent radio station.
Saied has denied mounting a coup, saying his actions were legal and necessary to save Tunisia from years of chaos, and has denounced his opponents as traitors, criminals and terrorists.
He has responded to expressions of concern at his moves by the United States and the European parliament by denouncing them as foreign interference and attacks on Tunisian sovereignty.
Some of the evidence presented against those arrested in recent weeks, and held in pre-trial detention on charges of conspiring against state security, was that they had met French or American diplomats.
“We support Saied in his campaign against the traitors and the corrupt, against those who ruined the country during the past decade and against external interference,” Lobna Souissi, one of the demonstrators, said.
“We want Saied to continue his war relentlessly,” she added.
EU foreign ministers discussed the situation in Tunisia on Monday, largely on the initiative of Italy, who fears a migration wave coming to its coasts.
In the broader context, diplomats fear contamination leading to instability in the Mediterranean.
The ministers expressed their willingness to support the Tunisian people, but stressed the urgency of addressing the issue of rule of law and respect for human rights in the country. They restated that is indispensable for the Tunisian leadership to proceed with structural reforms and finalise the programme already agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Italy wants the IMF to unblock a $1.9 billion loan to Tunisia, fearful that without the cash, the country will be destabilised, unleashing a new wave of migrants towards Europe, Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said on Monday.
Tunisia’s bailout talks with the IMF have been stalled for months, with the United States, amongst others, demanding far-reaching reforms from Saied to free up the cash.
Saied has never publicly backed an IMF deal, leaving donors worried he may reverse eventual reforms after the money arrives or blame them for any resulting economic pain.
However, Tajani has spoken to IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva and urged her to show flexibility to stave off possible financial collapse.
The minister has spoken about the problem with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and raised the issue with counterparts in Slovenia and Croatia on Friday ahead of a forthcoming meeting of EU foreign ministers.
‘Invasion of migrants’
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is also “working the phones”, one official said, warning that Italy faced an “invasion of migrants” in the coming months if Tunisia did not get the money.
Italy has taken in 20,046 boat migrants so far in 2023, a record number, putting the country on course to beat the all-time high for arrivals set in 2016, when 181,436 people reached land in a flotilla of flimsy boats.
According to unofficial United Nations data, 12,000 of those who have reached Italy this year set sail from Tunisia, against 1,300 in the same period of 2022 — an inversion of the previous pattern whereby Libya was the main launchpad for migrants.
“Uncontrolled irregular migration can only be reduced by improving the conditions of security and economic stability,” Tajani said, adding that Italy was looking to boost training opportunities for Tunisians as an alternative to migration.
However, a government official in Rome said the situation was complex, acknowledging that the majority of those leaving Tunisia this year were Africans from sub-Saharan countries who had decided to head to Europe as a result of a crackdown there on outsiders.
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(Edited by Georgi Gotev)