In Tunisia, about-face by President Kaïs Saïed on the law criminalizing relations with Israel

A master in the art of excesses, Kaïs Saïed is not used to showing restraint

In Tunisia, about-face by President Kaïs Saïed on the law criminalizing relations with Israel

A master in the art of excesses, Kaïs Saïed is not used to showing restraint. The Tunisian president, who assumes a conspiratorial posture with anti-Semitic overtones, finally made an exception on the most sensitive issue of the moment. After letting a bill criminalizing relations with the Jewish state pass through committee in the Assembly of People's Representatives (ARP), he made an about-face. While the text began to be examined by the deputies in plenary session during an eventful session, Thursday, November 2, the head of state declared his opposition to its adoption, despite the support of a majority of deputies. Following his speech, the president of the Assembly of People's Representatives (ARP), Brahim Bouderbala, also withdrew his statement.

In a solemn message to the Tunisian people – an exercise to which they rarely indulge – Kaïs Saïed estimated that Tunisia was “in a war of liberation and not of criminalization”. He acrobatically asserted that it was counterproductive to criminalize relations with an “entity” that Tunis does not recognize and that any attempt to collaborate with Israel would be considered “high treason,” according to Article 60 of the penal code, which provides for the death penalty for any Tunisian found guilty of intelligence with a foreign power.

For the Head of State, adopting this new bill would be a threat “to the external security” of Tunisia, according to comments reported by the president of the ARP. A few days earlier, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nabil Ammar, had himself tried to temper the ardor of the deputies, calling for “studying the repercussions” of the text and taking “time” to examine it.

Pressure from the United States?

Was this bill just another provocation? Was it inapplicable or too fraught with consequences for the president to oppose? The text provided for a sentence of up to twelve years in prison – and life imprisonment in the event of a repeat offense – against any person of Tunisian nationality who maintains relations with “the Zionist entity […] which calls itself Israel”. The concept of “normalization” was intended to cover any form of “deliberate” communication, cooperation or commercial relationship, whether “direct or indirect,” with Israeli natural or legal persons, with the exception of Palestinians with Israeli nationality.

For some of the deputies, Kaïs Saïed obeyed interests dictated by foreign powers. For once, several deputies who nevertheless support the process initiated by the head of state since his coup on July 25, 2021, expressed their disagreement with the president and accused Brahim Bouderbala of having given in to the pressure from the United States. Referring to the existence of "official correspondence from the American embassy in Tunis addressed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs", Mohamed Ali, deputy and rapporteur of the Committee on Rights and Freedoms (which was responsible for examining the proposal for law before its passage in plenary session), assured that Washington had threatened “economic and military sanctions” if the project were to be adopted.

At the microphone of Diwan FM radio, another MP, Bilel El Mechri, also called on the president of the ARP to “clarify his position” and “reveal the content of his almost daily telephone conversations with Joey Hood, the ambassador American.” “In the end, there is neither “will of the people” [the slogan of the head of state during the 2019 presidential election] nor anything. Only the will of Kaïs Saïed and his electoral interests prevail,” for his part castigated Hichem Ajbouni, executive of the Democratic Current, an opposition party.

A weakened Parliament

According to a diplomatic source based in Tunis, "it is natural for foreign chancelleries to express their concern", without speaking of "pressure" in the face of a bill which could have a negative impact on tourism in Tunisia, in particular during the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue – where Israeli nationals can go despite the absence of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state –, in addition to weighing on the country's economy.

This is not the first time that a bill aimed at criminalizing relations with Israel has been tabled in the Assembly. In 2015, deputies from the Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing and far-left parties, submitted a project to this effect, which remained in the drawers of the ARP. Since then, the debate on the need to legislate on the issue has come up regularly, punctuated by current events linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Disavowed by the executive in its first real attempt to exercise its legislative power, Parliament emerged from the sequence divided and all the more weakened as the Constitution, custom-written by Kaïs Saïed to give itself extensive powers, left only very little room for maneuver for parliamentarians. The head of state had warned the deputies at the inaugural session, on March 13, by reminding them that their mandate could be revoked by voters after one year in office, according to the constitutional text.