The image of Tunisia’s judiciary has steadily declined among opposition quarters in Tunisia and in the Western media since the arrest of the Islamist Ennahda Party leader Rached Al-Ghannouchi in April.
On 15 May, a Tunisian court sentenced him to a year in prison on terrorism-related charges. The EU, the US, Turkey and other countries have criticised the ruling as “politicised,” while the Tunisian National Salvation Front (NSF), a coalition of parties opposed to Tunisian President Kais Saied, has accused the government of using the courts to silence the opposition by launching investigations into NSF leaders.
In April, the judiciary summoned Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, the head of one of the NSF member parties, for questioning.
The Tunisian judiciary has come under international criticism before. In late February, the international rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) censured the Tunisian Justice Ministry for refusing to reinstate 49 judges and prosecutors despite an administrative court ruling in August 2022 ordering their reinstatement, a ruling that the authorities cannot appeal.
Instead, Tunisia’s justice minister announced the preparation of criminal cases against the dismissed judges.
Since then, anger against what HRW has described as President Saied’s measures to “crush judicial independence” has been mounting. On 18 May, journalists and political activists staged a protest against what they said was the use of the judiciary to harass journalists and the press.
Tunisia’s judiciary has been a source of political concern since 12 February last year when President Saied unilaterally dissolved the High Judicial Council, a constitutional body tasked with ensuring judicial autonomy, and replaced it with a temporary council whose members are appointed.
Several months later, he issued a decree granting himself the power to dismiss magistrates and then dismissed dozens of judges and prosecutors on the grounds they had conspired against the higher interests of the state.
According to opposition figures, the president has continued to push through amendments to laws regulating the Supreme Court and other judicial bodies, in order to bring them under the control of the executive.
They also claim that he has availed himself of powers to appoint and dismiss magistrates in order to stack the courts with figures close to the authorities, thereby facilitating his clampdown against his political adversaries.
They say that such measures have fired their determination to sustain the protests against what they see as the erosion of judicial autonomy and the government’s refusal to live up to its commitment to uphold the separation of powers.
President Saied, himself originally a professor of constitutional law, has defended his policies by arguing that they are part and parcel of his vision for judicial reform, which is vital in order to secure Tunisian democracy and safeguard the country against political ideologies whose advocates are set on steering the country in directions incompatible with the interests and welfare of the Tunisian state and society.
In response to opponents determined to push back against his policies and press for the reestablishment of judicial independence as indispensable to the separation of powers, Saied has countered that it was certain quarters of the opposition that had attempted to undermine the true meaning of democracy by using the judiciary as a vehicle for their interests.
It was they who had attempted to politicise the judiciary and tailor the laws regulating it to conform with their particular ideology and narrow interests, Saied has said, and he has also lashed out against the opposition forces’ insistence on forming a front to resist reforming the judiciary in a manner commensurate with the higher interests of the nation.
He has accused them of “politicising the judiciary” by mounting “a flagrant attack against democracy” and of resorting to incitement and attempting to mar the prestige of the state.
Saied’s reaffirmation of his determination to reset the country’s judiciary in accordance with his vision of the higher interests of the state and his criticisms of the opposition is part of a message to domestic public opinion that he will not cave in to the pressures of opposition forces and their tactics of non-stop mobilisation.
The opposition forces have denounced Saied’s logic, claiming it is a cover for an attempt to bring the judicial and legislative branches of government under his control. They have also expressed concerns that his actions could lead the country into a spiral of violence and have maintained their calls for protests against his policies.
There appears to be no solution in sight to the confrontation between Saied and the opponents of his judicial reforms. Both sides have dug in their heels as they continue to trade accusations of betraying democracy and jeopardising the country’s future.
Since Al-Ghannouchi’s arrest, the government has continued to arrest opposition figures from the National Salvation Front, while the opposition itself has intensified its cries for protests and its appeals to foreign powers to up the pressure on the Saied government.
The polarisation is escalating dangerously at a time when Tunisia is still mired in economic crisis, with people wanting to see an answer to problems of unemployment and declining living standards.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly