Why is Tunisia’s opposition leader Ghannouchi on hunger strike?

Why has Tunisian opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi initiated a hunger strike while imprisoned, and what are the broader political implications?

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FILE PHOTO: Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, head of the moderate Islamist Ennahda, speaks to supporters during a rally in opposition to President Kais Saied, in Tunis, Tunisia February 27, 2021. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi//File Photo

Tunisian opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is currently imprisoned, initiated a hunger strike on Monday to express solidarity with fellow anti-government activists who are also fasting in protest, according to a group of opposition attorneys.

Ghannouchi, aged 82, known for his vocal criticism of President Kais Saied and his leadership of the Ennahda main opposition party, was arrested last year on charges related to inciting against law enforcement and alleged involvement in activities against national security. Recently, he was additionally sentenced to three years in jail in a separate case regarding alleged acceptance of external funding.

In a statement released by his legal representatives, Ghannouchi urges Tunisians to rally for a democratic Tunisia, emphasizing inclusivity based on principles of freedom and judicial independence.

The opposition contends that Saied’s actions, including the dissolution of the elected parliament in 2021 and the subsequent governance by decree, amount to a coup. Saied, however, argues that his measures, including constitutional amendments validated by a referendum in 2022, were necessary to stabilize Tunisia after years of turmoil.

Last week, six opposition leaders, including Jawher Ben Mbarak, Khayam Turki, Ghazi Chaouachi, Issam Chabbi, Abdelhamid Jalasi, and Rida Belhaj, initiated an indefinite hunger strike to protest their detention without trial and demand immediate release. They are accused of involvement in activities against state security.

The opposition accuses Saied of curtailing press freedom and instituting authoritarian policies, claiming that his constitutional reforms have undermined the democracy established after the 2011 revolution. Saied, however, refutes these allegations, labelling his critics as criminals, traitors, and terrorists, and warning that any judge who releases them would be seen as aiding them.

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