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Tunisia's Defense Against the Islamic State Is Sparking Fears of a Police State

After two horrifying terrorist attacks this year, the Tunisian government is moving to improve security. But what it's doing is causing concern about democracy in the Arab Spring's birthplace.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Five years after the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor sparked the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Tunisia remains the only country where democratic transition has not been derailed by authoritarianism, chaos, or civil war. But after a wave of new measures ostensibly intended to fight terrorism, many civil society leaders fear that their country is headed backward.

In March, three gunmen, at least two of whom were Tunisians who'd trained in jihadi camps in Libya, killed 22 people, most of them tourists, when they opened fire in the Bardo National Museum. Though the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, authorities blamed the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, a local cell with ties to al Qaeda.


Related: Tunisia Is Building a Wall Along Libyan Border to Keep Out Terrorists

In June, an even deadlier shooting took place in Sousse, when a Tunisian gunman killed 38 tourists at a beach resort. Many began to question the government's ability to thwart a terrorist threat, particularly as IS was gaining a stronger foothold in neighboring Libya. Following the attack and the Islamic State's claims of responsibility, the UK government advised against "all but essential" travel to Tunisia.

A week after the June shooting, President Beji Caid Essebsi announced a state of emergency, warning in his national address that another attack could entail the "collapse of the state." But Essebsi also appeared concerned with preventing civil unrest.

"A large part of the president's speech was dedicated to social movements and protests," Ramy Salhi, Maghreb director at EuroMed Rights, told VICE News. "Our fear is that the implementation of the state of emergency is not necessarily aimed at fighting terrorism, but at the repression of social movements."

Declared most recently in 2011 following the flight of deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the state of emergency is based on a 1978 decree issued on what became known as Black Thursday. When the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) called for a general strike following years of growing dissatisfaction due to unemployment, repression of civil liberties, and economic inequality, security forces responded violently, killing dozens and arresting thousands.


Messaoud Romdhani, vice president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, says the state of emergency's original purpose — "to quell every reaction, every movement… to oppress people" — is particularly relevant given the country's present circumstances.

Though it is the terrorist attacks that have garnered the most international attention, this year has seen an enormous number of strikes and protests across Tunisia. Protesters in the Gafsa region, where the 30 percent unemployment rate is twice the national average, shut down phosphate mines for months. In May alone, elementary school teachers, health-sector workers, employees in the ministries of Transportation and the Interior, toll worker unions, and a number of other groups declared strikes.

While the UGTT called the resumption of the state of emergency "premature," UTICA, the powerful Tunisian Employers' Association, announced in July its firm support for the measure, which specifically allows the government to prohibit strikes and protests. They went further a week later, issuing a declaration calling for a year-long moratorium on strikes as well as the criminalization of "work obstruction."

Labor unrest comes with significant economic costs. In Gafsa for example, only 650,000 tons of phosphate out of a predicted 2 million were produced between January and May. Phosphates account for 10 percent of Tunisian exports and about 30,000 jobs; it's a blow that the national economy, already reeling from a marked decrease in tourism, can ill-afford.


But the government's propensity to "see any reaction, any protest, as an attack on order is a reflex inherited from past generations," Romhdani said. "For four years we've failed to address the economic and social problems that brought the revolution about."

After Essebsi's announcement of the state of emergency, the Tunisian parliament passed a sweeping counterterrorism law that sparked significant controversy. Though the bill was not new — it was originally proposed last year — deputies responded to appeals from House Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur to pass the proposed legislation by July 25.

As the bill moved toward a vote, international human rights organizations released an open letter to parliament emphasizing the bill's failure to properly define "terrorism," "incitement to terrorism," and "apology for terrorism." The bill, they argued, would allow events like "peaceful demonstrations accompanied by a certain amount of disorder" to be classified as terrorist acts.

Following the letter's release in early July, two inflammatory articles appeared in the Tunisian press, accusing international NGOs of trying to "take over" Tunisian politics. One article, published in La Presse, a major Tunisian newspapers with pro-government leanings, questioned the steps necessary to "eradicate [NGOs'] interventionism." The other, published on a popular local website, lambasted NGOs for "according more rights to terrorists than to their victims," and treating Tunisia as "conquered territory."


"It reminds us of the press during the Ben Ali era, when human rights defenders were continuously accused of being controlled by other countries, by 'invisible hands,'" Ramy Salhi said of Ben Ali's time as president between 1987 and 2011. "It's the first time we've heard this type of discourse since the revolution."

The parliament's effort to pass tough, controversial security measures after destabilizing terrorist attacks is hardly unique to Tunisia. From the Patriot Act's passage in America after 9/11 to France's response to January's Charlie Hebdo attacks, governments have repeatedly responded to attacks by hardening counterterrorism laws and ramping up security. France, a former colonial power in Tunisia, adopted measures that expanded the government's surveillance capacities and its ability to collect data on citizenry with what the New York Times characterized as "almost no judicial oversight."

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But Riadh Belkadhi, Tunisia's attorney general for criminal affairs, told VICE News that Tunisia's new counterterrorism law respects human rights, the rights of the accused, and "the international conventions that Tunisia has ratified." The law, he explained, "is one component of the national anti-terrorism strategy."

"We've set up a new constitution and new structures that have totally eradicated all the excesses of the ancien régime," Belkadhi said. "The police are completely different. The individual officers are the same, but police execute orders and follow the instructions of their superiors. And their superiors make decisions based on the law."


Not everyone shares Belkadhi's optimism.

"Tunisian security forces and the police have not fully changed their practices," said Magda Mughrabi, a researcher on Amnesty International's North Africa team. "We continue to receive reports about excessive force used during demonstrations, and allegations of ill treatment during interrogations."

Related: Tunisia Says Britain Has a Responsibility to Help Protect It From the Islamic State

Resemblances between the current and former governments extend beyond the police. Essebsi's powerful political party, Nidaa Tounes, counts many members of the ancien régime among its ranks. And while Tunisia's 2014 constitution received praise for being progressive, the Constitutional Court, tasked with bringing old laws into accordance with the new constitution, has yet to go into effect. Essebsi extended the state of emergency through September, but no one has ruled on the constitutionality of the 1978 decree on which the measure is based.

"We're still in the process of democratization," said Antonio Manganella, Tunisia head of mission at human rights NGO Avocats Sans Frontières. "Certain principles, like the separation of powers and the establishment of public and private liberties, haven't been solidified yet…. This is a fragile democracy."

Follow Daniel Levine-Spound on Twitter: @dlspound

Photo via Wikimedia Commons