Tunisia’s former president Marzouki sentenced to prison in absentia

Moncef Marzouki criticised current leader Kais Saied and called for protests against him

Simon Speakman Cordall
Thursday 23 December 2021 15:54 GMT
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File photo: Former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki speaks during the founding congress meeting of his new political party, in Tunis, 20 December 2015
File photo: Former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki speaks during the founding congress meeting of his new political party, in Tunis, 20 December 2015 (EPA)

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A Tunisian court has sentenced former president Moncef Marzouki in absentia to four years in prison for "assaulting the external security of the state”, after he criticised current leader Kais Saied and called for protests.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, Mr Marzouki rejected the court’s ruling as illegal, saying it was “issued by an illegitimate president who overturned the constitution”. Nevertheless, the former president said he would not be contesting the ruling.

Mr Marzouki, who lives in Paris, has labelled Mr Saied as a dictator and described the president’s dismissal of the prime minister and suspension of parliament in July as a coup. 

Over the subsequent months, those measures, initially phrased as temporary, were extended. In September, Mr Saied announced that he would waive large sections of the constitution, maintain parliament’s shuttering, and continue to rule by decree.

Mr Saied has rejected accusations that his actions amounted to a coup and said he acted to end protracted political paralysis. He has said a referendum will be held next year on a new constitution followed by parliamentary elections.

In recent months, Mr Marzouki has emerged as a vocal opponent of Mr Saied and what many critics regard as his increasingly authoritarian behaviour.

In October, two months or so after Mr Saied’s seizure of power, Mr Marzouki had his diplomatic passport withdrawn after he used an address at a Paris rally to call upon the French government to halt support for "the dictatorial regime in Tunisia”.

Last month, Tunisia issued an international arrest notice for Mr Marzouki on accusations that he undermined the North African country’s security. But Mr Marzouki has maintained his campaign against the president from overseas and urged the Tunisian public to protest against him.

Although Mr Marzouki has some support overseas, his popularity at home is limited.

He came to power after the 2010-2011 Tunisian uprising that overthrew an autocratic leader and unleashed the Arab Spring, and left office in 2014. In the 2019 election, where he stood against Mr Saied, he gained just under 3 per cent of the overall vote share.  

In contrast, according to Tunisia’s notoriously shaky polls, Mr Saied is still backed by much of the country, despite recent surveys showing his support to be waning as winter begins to bite and much needed economic reform remains a distant prospect.

Irrespective of the political arguments, Tunisia remains a relatively poor country with daily hardship a fact of life for large swathes of the population, a situation that has only grown worse since the revolution and one that now underpins much of the backing for Mr Saied’s anti-corruption agenda.  

Mr Saied, previously a professor of constitutional law, has proved no stranger to relying upon Tunisia’s courts to enact his will.

In recent weeks, he has shown his frustration over delays in the judicial investigation into Tunisia’s leading parties, including its two principal ones, Qalb Tounes and the self styled ‘moderate Islamists’ Ennahda, over allegations of having received foreign funding, which is illegal in Tunisia.

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