How Henry Kissinger got caught up in the Tunisian president’s crackdown

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Tunisia’s President Kais Saied has been cracking down on political dissent since his power grab in July 2021. More than 20 politicians and dozens of journalists and critics have been rounded up on charges of “conspiring” against the state.

Perhaps the most unusual set of accusations so far has been one that names former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who died recently at the age of 100.

The anti-corruption message wears thin

At first, Saied enjoyed popular support for his power grab and ensuing crackdown, with people cheering his message of ending corruption, which they assumed would improve their standard of living.


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Rights groups warned from the start that opponents were being arrested on trumped-up charges, and eventually, people started to doubt the credibility of the accusations, according to Tarek Megerisi, an expert on Tunisia and senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank.

“I think that he thinks his charges are believable [for his audience]. They fall in line with his claim that he’s trying to restore the pride of the state and that all the problems in Tunisia are due to international conspiracies against the country,” he told Al Jazeera.

Here is a look at some of the charges that have been brought against Saied’s opponents.

Espionage

On January 18, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a former minister and leader of the opposition National Salvation Front, was accused of soliciting funds from former Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who lives in the United States.

According to the charges, Chahed received huge sums of money from Kissinger and was accused of transferring the money to Chebbi to undermine the state and sabotage the last local elections.

Henry Kissinger, shown here in 1998, made an unusual addition to the list of people accused of working to destabilise the Tunisian state [File: Reuters]

The December 2023 elections saw an abysmally low voter turnout, with only 11 percent of Tunisia’s nine million registered voters casting a ballot.

The charges are reportedly based on testimony from a current prisoner who claims to have overheard a conversation between two other prisoners about this conspiracy.

They also fit in with a broader campaign of arrests that attempt to smear political opponents as agents for foreign countries.

In February 2023, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that security forces arrested opposition figures Khayam Turkey and Abdelhamid Jelassi.

They were arrested under a terrorism law and questioned about their contact with foreigners. Turkey was asked about his meeting with US diplomats, while Jelassi was interrogated about his relationship with Western researchers.

“That arrest showed that you can’t even talk to the international community any more, or else you are at risk,” Megerisi said.

‘Conspiring against the state and terrorism’

Another frequent accusation against political opponents is that they are trying to undermine the state through “acts of terrorism”. That was the basis of charges brought against secular politician Abir Moussi on October 4.

Moussi is a harsh critic of Saied and a supporter of Tunisia’s late strongman President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled by popular protests in 2011.

She was arrested outside the presidential Carthage Palace and accused of “an attack aimed at changing the government” as well as “inciting people to arm” in order to “cause chaos, murder or pillage the country”. Moussi, who faces the death penalty, began a hunger strike in prison on November 28.

Tunisians demonstrate against President Saied during the Republic Day in Tunis on July 25, 2023. The sign in Arabic reads: ‘Freedom for all political prisoners’ [Hassene Dridi/AP Photo]

Saied has described Moussi and other political detainees as “traitors, criminals and terrorists”.

“The function [of this charge] is not to show that these groups of people are actually conspiring against the state, but just to have them out of sight and out of mind. It’s about demonstrating power,” said Megerisi.

Corruption

Saied has also claimed to be punishing former officials and ministers for looting and exploiting the country, which resonated with many Tunisians who struggled to earn a livelihood despite overthrowing Ben Ali a decade earlier.

On February 12, 2023, former judge of the Court of Cassation, Taieb Rached, was arrested and charged with financial corruption.

“The fight against corruption should not be instrumentalised for political purposes and should be carried out in compliance with the rule of law,” HRW Tunisia director Salsabil Chellali said on the organisation’s website about two weeks later.

Last November, authorities arrested Ben Ali’s former son-in-law Marwane Mabrouk and Abderrahim Zouari, transport minister in Ben Ali’s government, on similar charges. Critics believe both tycoons were targeted and their lucrative assets confiscated to fill empty state coffers.

The charges again appeared politically motivated and part of a broader campaign to stamp out potential rivals, according to rights groups and critics.

Megerisi believes that the Tunisian public has also realised that Saied’s charges against opponents are fabricated.

“People don’t buy it,” Megerisi told Al Jazeera. “But the [charges] are not so outrageous that they will go to the streets and start protesting because they fear that they might be next.”

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