Rights groups urge Tunisia to drop bill restricting civil society

Rights groups urge Tunisia to drop bill restricting civil society
After over a decade of operating in relative freedom, leaked laws and statements made by President Saied pose an imminent threat to the work of civil society organisations in Tunisia.
2 min read
11 March, 2022
Leaked proposals and comments made by President Saied echo Egypt's approach to curbing civil society [Getty]

Organisations from across Tunisian civil society have called on authorities to cancel new plans to restrict their work, in a joint statement published by Amnesty on Friday. 

The 13 groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said the recently leaked bill would "constitute another blow to human rights safeguards by President Kais Saied since his July 2021 power grab".

A series of recent leaks, speeches and decrees have spread fear among local and international rights groups currently working in Tunisia's increasingly repressive climate.

Draft laws to regulate civil society were leaked to the Tunisian press in February, sparking concerns of a return to Ben Ali-era conditions for groups working across education, migrant rights, press freedom and legal support. 

The leaked documents would give government authorities broad and unchecked powers to interfere with the way civil society organisations are formed - and give them discretionary powers to disband such groups. 

"The authorities should immediately drop any further consideration of the leaked draft law and ensure that any future laws regulating civil society organizations adhere strictly to international human rights law," said Amine Ghali, Director of the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center.

The proposals would also govern their functions and operations, funding sources, and their ability to speak publicly about the work they do. 

'External interference'

In a videotaped speech on February 24, President Saied accused civil society organisations of serving foreign interests and trying to meddle in Tunisian politics.

"At all costs, we must stop foreign funding to these groups in Tunisia. They are the charitable face of external interference in Tunisian affairs," claimed the Tunisian president. 

"They say they serve the national interest - but how can they, when their money comes from elsewhere?" Saied went on to say. 

Under existing laws, people may form a civil society organisation with automatic legal status simply by notifying the relevant authorities.

Articles 10 through 12 of the leaked draft law would restore a Ben Ali era requirement for government authorisation before an organisation can legally operate.

Saied last year sacked the government, suspended parliament and moved to rule by decree, sparking fears for democracy in the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings.