On April 28, the first day of the Tunis International Book Fair, authorities seized a book critical of President Kaïs Saïed and closed its publisher’s stand. The resulting controversy sheds light both on the grave threat to freedom of expression in Saïed’s Tunisia and on the way the president and his supporters manipulate such controversies to paralyze opposition.
The book fair had opened with a visit from Saïed, who took the opportunity to proclaim the importance of “liberation of thought.” Shortly after the president’s appearance, however, officials confiscated the remaining copies of Kamel Riahi’s The Tunisian Frankenstein, a new collection of essays whose cover features Saïed depicted as Frankenstein’s creature. The publisher, Dar al-Kitab, reported that authorities ordered its stand closed for exhibiting an unapproved book. The next day, Business News editor Nizar Bahloul—who was questioned by police last year for an article his website published criticizing the prime minister—reported that his book, Kaïs I: Captain of a Drunken Ship, had also been confiscated.
The withdrawal of the books sparked immediate outrage. Tunisian publishing houses closed down their exhibition booths in solidarity. The vice president of the journalists’ union commented that authorities are terrified of “the free pen and the free voice.” According to Al Jazeera, after police entered a prominent bookstore located within walking distance from the Ministry of Interior and asked for Riahi’s book to be taken off the shelves, the owners instead put a chained-up copy in the window along with signs expressing defiance against censorship.
The next day, the head of the committee organizing the book fair claimed that it had all been a big “misunderstanding.” The seizure of The Tunisian Frankenstein had nothing to do with its contents, she argued. Rather, the book was confiscated because it had only been included on a supplemental list submitted to the publishers three days before the conference, leaving little time for its approval. She also bristled at the idea that the stand had been “closed,” suggesting instead that it had been subject to “temporary suspension.” In any case, the matter had been resolved, and both stands were back to normal operations the next day. The controversy had been overblown by those with an interest in exploiting it, she maintained.
The presidency’s Facebook page then published a video of Saïed at the counter of a popular downtown bookstore. He held up a copy of Riahi’s book as a testament to the alleged bad faith of his opponents who claimed it had been banned. Saïed called them liars, accused unknown domestic and foreign actors of seeking to destroy the state, and bemoaned the “intellectual terrorism” of those sounding the alarm over attacks on free expression. His interior minister, who has recently overseen the continuation of a wave of arrests of Saïed’s political opposition, stood near his side.
The confusion around the Frankenstein affair is no accident. Recent scholarship, such as Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman’s Spin Dictators, has illustrated how modern dictatorships foreclose opposition by manipulating the public discourse rather than controlling it. By raising questions over the real reason why the books were pulled and the motives behind opponents’ criticism, Saïed and his supporters allow the polarized public either to draw conclusions that conform to their prior beliefs or to conclude that the controversy is not worth following at all. For Saïed’s strongest supporters, the administrative explanation of the withdrawal and the subsequent image of Saïed purchasing a supposedly banned book feed into the president’s narrative of a grand “conspiracy” against him and into his claims that the opposition is willing to lie in order to make him look bad.
For other Tunisians, as illustrated by Lisa Wedeen’s research on post-truth politics, the existence of multiple explanations and an atmosphere of state-fostered uncertainty make the pursuit of the truth more labor intensive and offer an excuse for political inaction. Meanwhile, Saïed’s ongoing demonization of critics may continue to intimidate those considering producing, purchasing, or perusing critical content. As an article in the Maghreb newspaper put it: After all of this, will publishers continue to program critical content? Will bookstores sell critical books? Will readers welcome them without fear?
Saïed’s claims notwithstanding, freedom of expression, considered by many Tunisians among the chief gains of the country’s democratic transition, is under grave threat. The annual report issued last week by the journalists’ union called the past year a “dangerous turning point.” A number of journalists have faced criminal charges for their critical reporting. Monia Arfaoui, a journalist at Assabah, has been charged with defamation and spreading fake news in relation to her investigative piece accusing the minister of religious affairs of corruption. The director of the country’s most popular radio station has been imprisoned for three months, seemingly because of the station’s independent editorial direction. Politicians, too, have been charged with speech crimes, including Ennahda’s Rached Ghannouchi.
Although many Tunisians welcomed Saïed’s destruction of political pluralism, his attacks on free speech may be another story. As my research has shown, even as Tunisians have become ambivalent about the constitutional balance of powers, the vast majority have remained deeply attached to the right to criticize their leaders. Shortly after Saïed’s July 2021 coup, Riahi wrote the essay from which his new book gets its title. While many Tunisians cheered the creature they had created as Saïed destroyed the institutions they blamed for their disappointments, Riahi warned presciently that the creature, like Victor Frankenstein’s, would one day turn on its creators.
Nate Grubman is a teaching fellow in Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) at Stanford University. He received his PhD in political science from Yale University. His book manuscript focuses on Tunisia’s party system and its difficulties in responding to demands for social and economic change. His research also focuses on nostalgia during democratic transitions and on the dynamics of corruption in international trade.