Disinformation as a Tool of Regime Survival in Tunisia

Disinformation—false information created with the intent to mislead others—swamped the 2019 Tunisian presidential election, creating a confused and volatile political environment. In the lead-up to the vote, rumors circulated on Facebook that polling station pens would write in erasable ink, and that candidates were withdrawing from the race to support Nabil Karoui, a Tunisian media mogul who faced off with Kais Saied in the second round of voting and who spent almost the entire 2019 campaign season in prison on suspicion of money laundering. At some points, even Karoui’s candidacy was called into doubt, with false reports that he too had withdrawn or that he had been released from prison. In investigative reports after the fact, both Facebook and the DFRLab at the Atlantic Council concluded that coordinated disinformation campaigns had targeted the 2019 Tunisian presidential election. One such campaign, known as “Operation Carthage” among disinformation researchers, was even carried out by a pro-Karoui Tunisian journalist posing as a neutral fact-checker. In a similar case, Facebook removed some supposed “fact-checking” pages targeting Tunisians in May 2019 after internal investigations discovered ties to an Israeli political marketing firm.

Since winning the 2019 election, Tunisian President Kais Saied has only multiplied the power and relevance of disinformation in Tunisia’s fraying democracy. As former President Donald Trump demonstrated in the United States, disinformation coming from the highest levels of government increases both the cost of fighting it and the damage it causes to democratic institutions. The situation is no different in Tunisia, and the United States and the EU continue to legitimize Saied all the same.

Political leadership in the West is directly worsening Tunisia’s twin political and economic crises.

Emphasizing economic development over political backsliding in policy toward Tunisia, political leadership in the West is directly worsening Tunisia’s twin political and economic crises by deepening military partnerships, inking anti-immigration deals, and engaging diplomatically with Saied and his government. Despite criticism from Tunisian activists, the United Nations, and US and European lawmakers, the United States and the EU are effectively giving President Saied the materials and legitimacy that his regime needs to survive. One cannot pretend in 2023 that Tunisia is just a young and ill-adjusted democracy governed by the “economically rational” behavior found in academic models; under Saied, it is a paranoid and personality-driven ethno-state kept afloat by foreign funding. The policies of the United States and the European Union toward Tunisia ought to reflect this fact, and to change course accordingly.

Tools of Disinformation in Saied’s Tunisia

Riding a populist upswell born of defeated expectations for a post-revolution democracy, President Saied took the helm of the Tunisian government in 2019 with a self-declared mandate to “renew confidence between the people and the rulers.” This spirit guides Saied and his dwindling supporters even now, but comes expressed in the form of bitter conspiracies, politically-motivated arrests, and blatant lies. Saied, his state, and his supporters understand themselves as warriors against “traitors and the corrupt,” foreign meddlers, and all the other veiled figures who have supposedly “ruined the country during the past decade”—including, most recently, sub-Saharan migrants to the country. In practice, however, the president and his supporters are drivers of cyber-harassment and institutionalized repression of presumed critics, especially those coming from marginalized identities. Ironically, much of this repression now comes under the auspices of state efforts to fight vaguely defined “rumors” and “fake news” under Decree Law no. 54 of 2022.

Using forensic technology that was in part donated by the United Nations to “fight cybercrime,” President Saied’s government monitors critics online and arrests them for “conspiring against the state” once they publish something that fits the broad language of Saied’s anti-disinformation law, such as criticism of government officials, information about protests, or murmurs of revolution. President Saied then justifies violence against political outgroups by targeting them with conspiracy theories and dehumanizing rhetoric; in one case, Saied even labeled opposition figures a “cancer” that can only be “cured with chemicals.” And every time Saied claims to have broken up these conspiracies by oppressing members of the Tunisian political establishment, he strengthens his devoted base and cements his rule through “demoralization rather than enthusiasm,” convincing opponents that the risk of arrest is either too great or that the latest conspiracy theory is simply not worth following.

Saied supporters reinforce his rule by publicly attacking and doxing individuals until they become too intimidated to act against the regime.

The effects of President Saied’s disinformation also ripple through social media, especially on Facebook, where his supporters exhibit a “heavy digital presence.” Once Saied identifies targets for harassment in televised speeches or recorded government meetings, his supporters reinforce his rule by publicly attacking and doxing individuals (sharing private and identifying details of a person online) until they become too intimidated to act against the regime. Indeed, the faces of some critics of Saied have been plastered so widely across the Tunisian internet that passersby ostracize them in the street and police target them with beatings and arrests. In one case, two young men were arrested for “insulting others through communication networks” and “attributing incorrect claims to a public official” after singing a comedic song about life in Tunisia under Saied. The surveillance and repression that satirists face for speaking out against Saied has grown so widespread that some compare the power and omnipresence of Saied’s police state to that of the ancien regime under deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Types of Disinformation and Targets

In addition to Saied’s blatant lies about racism or the hostile intellectual climate in Tunisia, the type of disinformation the Tunisian president deploys most is conspiracy theories. In a recent study on conspiracy theorists in the United States and the United Kingdom, anthropologists concluded that humans gravitate toward conspiracy in times of crisis, looking for community and empowerment in uncertain times. To bolster his rise to power, Saied capitalized on Tunisian fears of corruption and the “usurped revolution” of 2010-2011. And he now uses this environment of fear to ensure the loyalty of his institutionally-empowered base and to intimidate and frighten critics.

International observers cannot say for sure what will happen in Tunisia, but many are bracing for a “sociopolitical explosion.” Since the cheers and fireworks that followed Saied’s July 2021 power grab, popular support for him has starkly decreased, as indicated by the mere 11 percent voter turnout in recent parliamentary elections. The streets of downtown Tunis are covered in trash, highlighting Tunisia’s waste management woes and struggling bureaucracy. Furthermore, Tunisians have faced constant shortages of subsidized food staples like rice and sugar, and in 2022 youth unemployment sat at 37.13 percent—almost 8 percent higher than in 2010, when economic issues were a leading factor in the outbreak of the revolution. The Tunisian people are aware of what they are going through, and want deliverance from Saied. Yet when he continues talking about “terrorists and traitors,” he is not merely charging at windmills; he is taking advantage of the hectic political and economic situation within the country and attempting to justify the extraordinary actions he has taken over the last two years.

Saied is taking advantage of the hectic political and economic situation within the country and attempting to justify the extraordinary actions he has taken over the last two years.

Moreover, the Tunisians who usually pay the highest price for President Saied’s rhetorical legitimacy are women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and people of color. For example, Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a lawyer and politician heading Tunisia’s Individual Freedoms Equality Commission, became the target of online death threats and harassment between 2018 and 2020 for her allegedly “corrupt” and “unpatriotic” advocacy for Tunisian women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Hmida was later sentenced to six months in prison in 2021 after accusing a former government official of corruption, and was investigated again this year for “conspiracy against the state.” Other examples of widespread and coordinated harassment of Tunisian women online include the doxxing of women judges and of queer feminist activist Rania Amdouni.

The Western Response

In February 2023, as European leaders debated the best ways to stop migrants from reaching their shores, President Saied endorsed the “Great Replacement” conspiracy, blaming sub-Saharan African migrants for bringing “violence, crime, and unacceptable practices” to Tunisia. As a result, a wave of racist violence against Black Africans tore through Tunisia after authorities threatened anybody helping migrants. Saied’s conspiratorial rhetoric and the racist and inconsistent application of Tunisian visa policy caused such a spike in emigration that morgues near Sfax, a coastal city that is the main launching point for Italy-bound smuggling vessels, was soon overflowing with the bodies of migrants. So many migrants have traveled through Sfax and subsequently drowned in the Mediterranean that local fishermen now report that pulling a dead body out of their nets is so common as to be just like “getting a fish.” Most recently, Tunisian security forces have begun expelling migrants toward Libya, smashing their phones, beating them, and leaving them to sleep on the ground once beyond the Libyan border. The EU nevertheless recently closed a €250 million deal with President Saied to stop “irregular migration.”

The EU has rallied to stop irregular migration in the years since 2015, when over one million refugees crossed its borders seeking a better life. One UN official suggested at the time that migration needed to be “safe and secure” for migrants and host countries alike, but the message today is clear: Europe is no longer open to migrants displaced by conflict or crisis. A 2021 Eurobarometer survey found that 31 percent of Europeans considered immigration “more of a problem than an opportunity,” and 38 percent considered it “equally a problem and an opportunity,” which suggests the political importance of “solving immigration” to European politicians. In the case of irregular migration from Tunisia to Italy, European officials have recently emphasized the need to stop migrant flows.

For its part, the United States has tacitly supported Europe’s efforts to combat immigration. EU funding to combat irregular migration is tied to bigger loans and economic reforms that Washington believes is the only way forward. Considering the current mismanagement of the Tunisian economy, the economic shock caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on global supply chains, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Joshua Harris testified in an April 2023 Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that, “A Tunisia that unravels economically cannot be an environment in which democratic governance can flourish, nor one in which other vital US interests can be effectively advanced.” Mr. Harris has since added that the United States does not see an alternative path forward beyond an International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal for Tunisia, despite the fact that President Saied has not typically cooperated well with fund staff or their conditions for aid. While US diplomats lament an “alarming erosion of democratic norms” and focus on Tunisia’s deteriorating economy, Saied still enjoys the legitimacy and political capital of loyal police forces and, in part, a US-trained military.

Potential Paths Forward

Using disinformation to pacify critics and strengthen his base, President Saied’s regime survives at the crossroads of liberal idealism and cold, hard realpolitik. As the United States and the EU express their concern over what has become of Tunisian democracy since Saied’s self-coup on July 25, 2021, continued security and migration cooperation with the Tunisian president belies a different reality. What is more, even if the plan to rescue Tunisia with an IMF loan succeeds, the economic focus that the United States and the EU bring ignores a greater problem: the political culture that President Saied has created.

Even if the plan to rescue Tunisia with an IMF loan succeeds, the economic focus that the United States and the EU bring ignores a greater problem

To honor the western values of democracy, freedom of speech, and anti-racism and prevent a greater collapse in Tunisian society, the United States and Europe must be vocal about what is going on in Tunisia, beyond IMF loans and bilateral aid. Despite President Saied’s resistance to “foreign interference,” a nationally representative survey from 2022 concluded that US statements against Saied’s democratic backsliding worked to delegitimize Saied’s power grab, even when framed as foreign interference. The West has the clout to stand up for Tunisian democracy, but must rise to the occasion and change its current course.

Another policy tactic that the United States and the European Union could take would be to flatter Saied’s revolutionary self-image. While devoting resources to Tunisian civil society and partnering with local, non-western international organizations such as the African Union to apply pressure against Saied’s autocratic tendencies, the United States and the EU should encourage the Tunisian opposition to work with Saied and provide a much-needed “off-ramp,” allowing him to become a Tunisian leader of blessed memory if he should lose a fair election. If Saied chooses not to cooperate within the confines of Tunisian democracy, the US and Europe cannot be afraid to speak out. The US and the EU could also consider placing political conditions on IMF loans and international aid, as has been proposed in the Safeguarding Tunisian Democracy Act of 2023, which, if passed, would require demonstrated improvements in freedom of the press and judicial independence before $100 million in aid can be accessed by the Tunisian government.

Under President Saied, disinformation is plaguing Tunisia, thereby confusing and demotivating the opposition. Yet this does not have to be the case; the international community now has the opportunity to stand up for Tunisian democracy and for what is right. The US and the EU know very well that President Saied’s Tunisia is anti-democratic, but they need not legitimize him.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Tunisian State TV