For just over a decade, civil society organizations (CSOs) have played a crucial role in Tunisia’s post-revolution political transition. They have successfully pushed consecutive governments to adopt the laws necessary to advance human rights, such as the 2013 Law on Transitional Justice, the 2017 Law for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the 2018 Law Against Racial Discrimination. They have also fought to maintain society’s hard-earned liberties by pushing back against proposed legislation that contradicts human rights principles, such as the police protection bill first submitted to parliament in 2015. Tunisia’s democratic successes are primarily thanks to civil society’s tireless efforts and persistence, which have helped to make it the only free Arab country.
Achievements on the human rights front, however, have not been matched by an improvement in living standards, causing widespread public dissatisfaction. Indeed, on the tenth anniversary of the revolution this January, large numbers of Tunisians took to the streets for countrywide demonstrations despite a national curfew due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Citizens protested against deteriorating economic conditions during the pandemic, which saw Tunisia record the highest number of deaths per capita in Africa. And amidst elite conflict that has engulfed Tunisia’s political class, the government met these protests with police violence and followed up with prosecutions. Tunisian CSOs recorded between 1,500 and 1,700 arrests, nearly a third of which targeted minors. Rights groups also documented cases of torture of protestors (as in the case of 21-year-old Ahmed Gam); death in detention (29-year-old Abdelsalem Zayen), and death due to excessive force by police (21-year-old Haykal Rachdi).
But the government’s handling of the January protests was not human rights groups’ only concern. In 2021, Tunisia’s media climate also worsened. The country fell in the 2021 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index for the first time in eight years. Between May 2020 and April 2021, the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (known by its French acronym SNJT) recorded 206 attacks on journalists, the highest number in three years. The SNJT identified Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi’s cabinet and the Ministry of Interior—which Mechichi also heads personally—along with the Al Karama parliamentary bloc as the most hostile parties to journalists and press freedom. Mechichi’s recent attempts to control the Tunis Africa Press Agency (TAP) and Shems FM radio station represent other attacks on press freedom and civil society.
Making matters worse, Abir Moussi, MP and president of the Free Destourian Party (PDL), launched an attack in March on the National Democratic Institute (NDI) over its parliamentary youth training program, accusing it of interfering in Tunisia’s internal political affairs. NDI issued a statement refuting Moussi’s claims and explaining that NDI operates in Tunisia with the approval of the Tunisian authorities and that its training program, like the others it conducts around the world, promotes youth engagement in political life. Moussi also recently issued a video attacking NDI and other U.S.-based institutions, including the National Endowment for Democracy, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.
Local Tunisian CSOs are also coming under fire. In March, a plainclothes police officer barged into the headquarters of the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality (Damj), an LGBTQ rights group, without a warrant and interrogated employees about their activities. And when the prominent parliamentary watchdog Al-Bawsala reported that the PDL was responsible for most incidents of violence in parliament, the party quickly sent an official warning to the organization. Moussi also accused Al-Bawsala of defaming her parliamentary bloc and broadcast a live video in which she falsely accused the group of treasonous activities, including spying and working for foreign interests. Naturally, civil society organizations quickly responded with a statement of solidarity against Moussi’s attacks that condemned any defamation of or violence against CSOs.
Observers note that nostalgia is growing for the perceived stability of the dictatorship, and this nostalgia appears to be contributing to the rising popularity of Moussi and her party. Set against this backdrop, the recent attacks on civil society become even more dangerous, primarily because Moussi, who instigated many of these attacks, is widely known to be a staunch opponent of the 2011 revolution. Although they are not political allies, the PDL and the Mechichi government, particularly the Ministry of Interior, share a hostility towards Tunisian civil society actors. They also share an understanding of the power of civil society as a force for opposition and mobilization. For Tunisia’s democratic transition to survive, the government must consolidate civil society’s hard-won rights and freedoms—and Tunisia’s international allies must firmly condemn attacks on CSOs and other actions that threaten Tunisia’s democratic future.
Maya Chaker is a social researcher and a program coordinator for POMED’s Civil Society Partnership program.
Photo Credit: Damj / Facebook