A virulent critic of Tunisian President Kais Saied, Jawhar Ben Mbarek, was arrested as part of a crackdown on the opposition, which accuses the authorities of trying to muzzle him while the country is mired in a serious crisis without a solution in sight.
Mr. Ben Mbarek, 55, is the most prominent opponent to be arrested as part of a campaign of arrests launched in early February in political and business circles, unprecedented since President Saied cornered the powers in July 2021.
"He was arrested late at night and we have not yet had access to the arrest file," his sister, lawyer Dalila Msaddek, told AFP on Friday morning. The police had held Mr Ben Mbarek's father, Ezzeddine Hazgui, also an opponent, for a few hours on Thursday.
Leader of the "Citizens Against the Coup" movement, Mr Ben Mbarek, is also one of the main leaders of the National Salvation Front (FSN), the main opposition coalition that emerged after Mr Saied has assumed full power in Tunisia, rocking the young democracy that emerged from the first Arab Spring revolt in 2011.
Figure of the Tunisian left, Jawhar Ben Mbarek is a specialist in constitutional law and former adviser to the presidency of the government.
Twenty personalities have been arrested in Tunisia since early February, a campaign described by Amnesty International as a "politically motivated witch hunt".
The political activist Khayam Turki, the businessman Kamel Eltaïef, very introduced in political circles, the ex-minister Lazhar Akremi and the ex-leader of the Ennahdha movement Abdelhamid Jelassi, and the director of the private radio Mosaïque FM Noureddine Boutar were also arrested.
Mr Saied called those arrested "terrorists" and claimed they were involved in a "conspiracy against state security". Before Mr Ben Mbarek, two other opponents, Issam Chebbi and Chayma Issa were arrested on Wednesday.
"This treatment inflicted on leading political figures will not undermine our determination," FSN chief Ahmed Nejib Chebbi told AFP on Friday. "The actions of power prove that it is floundering and reflect its failure to manage the country on all levels: political, economic, social and diplomatic", he added.
Another component of the FSN, the Islamo-conservative Ennahdha party , expressed in a press release its "solidarity with Jawhar Ben Mbarek and his family" and condemned "the arbitrary arrests which have targeted opposition political activists, trade unionists, journalists and businessmen".
Ennahdha, which was the main political force in the parliament dissolved by Mr Saied during his coup, accused him of "seeking to rot the situation to hide his failure and his responsibility for the deterioration of the situation in the country at all levels and blame it on the opposition" .
"The message of these arrests is that if you dare to speak out, the President can have you arrested and publicly exposed while his cronies attempt to build a case against you based on remarks you have made or people you have encountered," Salsabil Chellali, director of the Tunis office of the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement on Friday.
The arrests come as the country faces a severe economic crisis marked by recurrent shortages of basic commodities, which Mr Saied continues to blame on greedy businessmen serving politicians seeking to cause social unrest for the 'weaken.
In addition to his opponents, Mr Saied this week attacked illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, whom he presented as a source of criminality and a demographic threat to Tunisia, drawing a flood of criticism from NGOs that have denounced "racist and hateful" speech.