After President Kais Saied’s political crackdown on dissent in Tunisia, Europe has been wary of condemning his authoritarian pedigree, fearing risking instability in a country that plays a key role in stemming illegal migration.

More than 2,000 kilometers away from the political heart of the European Union in Brussels, Tunisia’s fragile democracy is being eroded and the country’s stability is beginning to shake.

The democracy that the country took more than a decade to build after the Arab Spring is being dismantled by Tunisia’s current president, Kais Saied, who has shrunk the power of parliament and the judiciary since taking office in 2019, and has recently cracked down on the opposition.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s economy is on the brink of collapse as the country struggles to find enough foreign financing to maintain its massive foreign debt.

But what is happening in Tunisia is not happening in a vacuum, and the physical distance between Europe and Tunisia is unlikely to shield the continent from the consequences of the North African country’s authoritarian descent and the unraveling of its democracy. Political and economic turmoil in the North African country is likely to have a significant impact on Europe – and Italy in particular.

This is not only because parts of Italy, such as the island of Sardinia, are actually closer to the Tunisian coast than they are to the country’s mainland. But also because Italy has recently become Tunisia’s number one trading partner, and the country increasingly relies on Tunisian authorities to counter the growing migration pressure on the Italian shores.

What is happening in Tunisia?

On April 10, in the Tunisian city of Haffouz, history almost repeated itself when 35-year-old soccer player Nizar Issaoui set himself on fire to protest what he called the “police state.”

Issaoui, a former US Monastir player and father of four, was charged with terrorism after complaining about the rising price of bananas – 10 dinars, the equivalent of €3.05 – at a fruit vendor.

His desperate gesture was almost identical to that of fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation on December 17, 2010 started a series of uprisings across the Arab world that became known as the “Arab Spring.”

Tunisia was the country where the Arab Spring started, and the uprising’s only success story. While the protests in other countries did not achieve much real change, Tunisia emerged from the revolutionary era with a seemingly stable multi-party democracy led by a new government that replaced Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Ben Ali had been Tunisia’s president since 1987, but resigned in 2011 and fled to Saudi Arabia after weeks of protests.

In the years that followed, Tunisia introduced a constitution that enshrined civil rights and ensured that no other strongman could lead the country. It was a great success for Tunisians – but the initial excitement soon turned to disillusionment as a series of governments failed to bring to life the dream of economic growth and improved living conditions that came with the uprising.

Tunisia is now much poorer than it was in 2010, in part because of the pandemic’s devastating impact on its economy and rising inflation. Disappointment with the new democratic system led to the landslide victory of Kais Saied in 2019, turning the previously unknown constitutional expert into Tunisia’s sixth president in the past 12 years.

During his campaign, Saied said the democratic system was not working and argued that political parties in parliament had too much power.

When Saied was given emergency powers during the pandemic to try to save the country’s battered economy and struggling health services, he used those powers to fire the prime minister, close the National Assembly and suspend the constitution – reversing a decade of democratic reforms.

Those who criticized and opposed him, from politicians to journalists, were jailed or imprisoned. Last July, Saied won a referendum that allowed him to introduce a new constitution, increasing his power at the expense of parliament and the judiciary.

On April 17, the arrest of the leader of the opposition Ennahda party Rached Ghannouchi sparked an outcry from critics of Saied who accused his government of taking an increasingly authoritarian turn.

A similar outraged reaction has been triggered by Saied’s hateful comments about migrants coming from sub-Saharan Africa. Saied said they are part of a “conspiracy” aimed at changing the demographic makeup of Tunisia and has blamed them for the country’s problems.

But Tunisia’s political turmoil is not the only crisis the country is facing.

“In parallel with that, there is an economic crisis linked to Tunisia’s significant external debt, which is dependent on foreign financing to continue to effectively meet these external debts,” Riccardo FabianiNorth Africa project manager at the think tank International Crisis Grouptold Euronews.

Tunisia currently does not have enough money to service its significant debt, and it must find a source of financing to avoid a default. “The big risk right now is that at some point Tunisia may have to pay its debt with a series of consequences – political, social and economic – that we cannot fully foresee,” Fabiani said.

The EU is largest foreign investor in Tunisia, which accounts for 85% of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country.

Why does this matter for Europe – and Italy?

“The Europeans feel they are on the front line of instability in North Africa and in the Mediterranean,” Fabiani said. “And they feel that what is happening in Tunisia has direct consequences for them.”

From a migration perspective, especially in Italy, “there is a strong fear that not only the economic or political instability in Tunisia could trigger a new wave of migration, including irregular departures from Tunisia to Europe,” Fabiani said.

“And we have already seen in recent months an increase in the number of departures and regular departures from Tunisia due to the economic crisis.”

Around 18,893 migrants have reached the Italian shores from the North African country since the beginning of the year and on April 18, 2,764 of whom held a Tunisian passport.

Saied’s attacks on sub-Saharan Africans in the country are likely to have caused an increase in the number of people willing to leave Tunisia, and Tunisian citizens are just as eager to leave. According to a recent survey by Observatoire National de la Migration65% of Tunisians say they are willing to leave the country at any price. Among those under 30, the percentage rises to 90%.

The number of arrivals from Tunisia has increased significantly compared to the same time frame last year, when less than 2,000 migrants reached Italy’s shores.

“Italy has never criticized Kais Saied, because for Italy the most important thing is that Saied can keep things under control, in terms of migration, in his country. This is the most important thing, even if it means that Italy has to interact with and promote a long-term friendship with a leader as problematic as Saied.” Alyssa PaviaDeputy Director of the North Africa Program within the Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs at Atlantic Counciltold Euronews.

“It is understandable that Italy and the European governments may be concerned that instability may trigger migration, but they are also concerned that instability in Tunisia may worsen the situation. For example, in some of the neighboring countries, such as Libya, where there is already a crisis which has been going on for many years. So, you know, there are concerns about regional stability and migration that are very high, I would say, on the list of priorities for Europeans.”

There are also purely economic reasons why the unfolding political situation in Tunisia is important to Europe, and especially Italy – the same reasons why Giorgia Meloni’s government is more interested in maintaining stability in the North African country than protecting its democracy.

Last year, Italy became Tunisia’s top trading partner, overtaking France – although France remains the North African country’s leading export market. Germany follows the two Mediterranean countries in third place.

Algerian gas supplies – which Italy began relying on in 2022 to replace Russian imports – pass through Tunisia before reaching Italy, through the Enrico Mattei pipeline, also known as the Trans-Med pipeline.

Is stability in the region worth turning a blind eye to Saied’s authoritarian turn?

The European Parliament has already made two statements on the Tunisian year 2023: one condemning President Saied and how he has used the deteriorating socio-economic situation to reverse the country’s historic democratic transition; and the second calls on the Tunisian authorities to immediately release Noureddine Boutar, head of Tunisia’s largest independent radio station, who was arrested by anti-terrorist units on politically motivated grounds and unfounded charges.

In February, Wolfgang Büchnera German government spokesman, said Berlin viewed the arrests of the Tunisian opposition, journalists and activists with “great concern”.

In April, Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said that “Tunisia’s democracy must not be lost” after opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi was arrested.

“Yet we have yet to see a strong and cohesive European condemnation of President Said’s ongoing takeover,” said the Atlantic Council’s Alissa Pavia.

“We have yet to see any concrete action taken by either the EU or other EU countries. Europe must decide whether it intends to support Tunisia’s democracy, or whether it will allow it to sink back into authoritarianism.”

Europe, and especially Italy, has an interest in maintaining stability in the country – which in this case means not pressuring Saied to rein in his political crackdown on dissent. But Saied’s political crackdown risks having the same effect that Europe and Italy want to avoid.

“We can see a positive correlation between dictators taking power and an increase in the persecution of political opposition and other people, for example people from minorities and so on, who are increasingly migrating and trying to reach Europe and Italy,” Pavia said.

“In general, it is better to have open communication with democratic rulers rather than be at the behest of tyrants and dictators whom we cannot trust.”