TUNIS - The case of journalist Amira Bouraoui, which created a diplomatic row involving Algeria, Tunisia and France, has shed light once more on Algerian opponents who seek refuge in Tunisia, and raised questions about whether the country is still a safe place for them.

Both the growing crackdown led by Tunisian president Kais Saied against critical voices, and the financial support he urgently depends on from the Algerian state, are certainly not reassuring for Algerian dissidents using Tunisia as an escape route.

Bouraoui, a prominent voice in the pro-democracy Hirak movement which erupted in 2019, was accused by the Algerian state of “offending Islam” as well as insulting the president, and was sentenced to two years in prison. She tried to flee Algeria twice but was thwarted by Algerian forces.

Her recent attempt was a success because she used her mother’s passport to cross the border. When Algerian authorities learned of this, her mother was arrested, before eventually being released under judicial supervision.

The activist was then arrested in Tunisia after no entry stamp was found in her French passport – which she tried to use to catch a flight to France. The standoff with Tunisian authorities as she attempted to leave went on for the days, before French authorities intervened and succeeded in getting her to France. Bouraoui was later sentenced in absensia to three months in jail for entering Tunisia illegally.

Zaki Hannache is another Algerian political refugee to Tunisia. The human rights defender, known for documenting state repression since the Hirak protests began, travelled to the neighbouring country in August 2022 in order to seek psychological treatment for severe depression following his imprisonment in Algeria.

A few months after his arrival, a Tunisian policemen went searching for him at the clinic where Hannache was receiving medical support. This forced Hannache to seek help from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) because he was conscious of the cooperation between intelligence services in Algeria and Tunisia.

Earlier this month he was sentenced in Algeria to three years in jail for supposedly “undermining national unity” – among other things – and an international arrest warrant was issued against him.

Whilst he has now obtained refugee status in Tunisia, he still feels unsafe and has changed his address at least 13 times.

Sadly, Hannache has reason to worry.

The complacency of Tunisian authorities

The case of Slimane Bouhafs is a reminder for Algerian exiles in Tunisia to always keep their guard up. The Christian convert fled in 2018 following two years spent in Algerian prison for “offending the Prophet” and “denigrating the creed and precepts of Islam”. He also obtained refugee status.

On the summer of 2021, Bouhafs mysteriously disappeared before reappearing in Algeria. According to his family, neighbors of the activist in Tunis witnessed three men in plainclothes forcing him out of his apartment and into a car.

Slimane is now jailed in Kolea prison near Algiers, where he stands accused of being sympathetic towards The Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia (MAK) that was classified as a terrorist organization by Algeria.

“The Bouhafs case created an atmosphere of fear among all political refugees in Tunisia, not just Algerians.”, affirmed the office of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Tunis.

The Tunisian president had promised to open an investigation into these events, but so far nothing has happened. This was probably only offered to appease human rights defenders in the immediate wave of outrage.

If the Tunisian government does remain silent on the Bouhafs case it would likely be a strategic move to protect its relationship with the neighboring power. Ultimately, losing Algeria means losing an ally that’s economically and military stronger.

Indeed, Algeria is carrying Tunisia through its financial crisis. In 2020, the Algerian government gave $150 million to the Tunisian Central Bank. In 2021, Tebboune provided a $300 million loan to his counterpart with a low rate interest. In 2022 Algeria lent Tunisia an extra $200 million.

It is clear that for Algeria too, having championed “Arab solidarity” during the last Arab League summit which it hosted in November, maintaining good relations with Tunisia is important.

This was further highlighted following the Bouraoui case since Tebboune directed his condemnations towards France by recalling the ambassador in Paris.

The tale of two repressive states

Saied’s wave of repression is destroying all the democratic achievements of Tunisia’s uprisings in 2011, and is taking the country back to the Ben Ali era.

Likewise in Algeria, four years after the beginning of the Hirak, Tebboune continues to hunt critics. Nearly 300 activists are currently languishing in Algeria’s prisons. Some haven’t even been received a trial.

It seems that undermining free speech and civil liberties is a shared commitment that has strengthened the cooperation between the two presidents.

For Algerian dissidents fleeing, Tunisia is no longer the welcoming land and protector it was once thought to be. Especially after the recent hateful speech made by Saied targeting sub-Saharan migrants, claiming there was a “plot” to “change Tunisia’s demographic makeup.” This led to a wave of attacks, including violent abuse directed towards black people in the country.

Ultimately, the ping-pong game between the two states is likely to continue: as Tebboune keeps pushing Algerian opponents to flee to Tunisia, Kais Saied keeps pushing them back to the grips of the repressive authorities.

The author is writing anonymously to protect their identity.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.