Tunisia's anti-terror law: Superficial solution to a deeper crisis

Tunisia's anti-terror law: Superficial solution to a deeper crisis
6 min read
31 Jul, 2015
Tunisia was the poster child for the 'Arab Spring', however political conditions are forcing it to resurrect old laws, which could stymie the post Ben Ali project, writes Nick Rodrigo.
Tunisia was widely seen as the success story of the Arab Spring [AFP]

On July 24, the Tunisian parliament adopted a new "anti-terror" law, with the intention of strengthening authorities' powers, in the wake of the deadly Islamic State (IS) orchestrated attack in Sousse.

The debate surrounding the law took over three days, finally being adopted late last Friday with 172 members of parliament voting in favour and ten abstaining.

The law is an update of the 2003 legislation enacted under former dictator Ben Ali, and has been on the books for several years as the security situation in Tunisia becomes increasingly precarious.

The country was placed under a state of emergency on the July 4, and then extended for another two months on July 31, assisting in accelerating the passage of the law.

Tunisia at a crossroads

The Counterrevolutions and coup d'états in Egypt and Yemen; the civil wars in Libya and Syria; and the suppression of popular protest in Bahrain has not been replicated in Tunisia, widely seen as the success story of the Arab Spring.

Elements of the country's post-revolutionary political class have espoused a form of political Islam which has mobilised segments of the population whilst at the same time forging a secular constitution, enabling a plurality unknown in the rest of the Arab world.

Ennahda, the largest Islamic conservative party in Tunisia, agreed to surrender power to a politically-neutral government in the lead up to the 2014 elections.

This summarises the new political culture which has emerged from Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution.

However, a constellation of economic, political and social forces has served to cast a foreboding shadow over the legislative and symbolic gains made in Tunisia since 2011.

Economic lethargy

     A faltering economy is strangulating growth in Tunisia with unemployment standing at 15%

A faltering economy is strangulating growth in Tunisia with unemployment standing at 15 percent, a statistic that is even higher amongst young people.

Compounding this state of affairs is a national currency, which has haemorrhaged more than 20 percent of its value since 2010.

This poor economic form will undoubtedly be accompanied with a crackdown on the informal economic sector and a cut to subsidies and public sector jobs at the behest of the IMF.

The economy is set to shrink further, as the UK and other EU nations warn of travelling to a country highly dependent on its tourism industry.

Reacting to statements made by the British FCO, Tunisian politicians have travelled to London to convince the FCO to drop their advice to British nationals not to spend their summer in Tunisia.

They have a reason to be concerned; Tunisia's economy is wedded to the Eurozone, suffering from the 2008 crisis, and potentially being cast into the wilderness if its tourism industry takes a considerable nosedive.

An enemy within?

Islamic State (IS) franchise has found incubation in destabilised neighbouring Libya, utilising the country as a springboard to mount terror operations within the centre of Tunis, whilst motivating many of the countries' citizens to travel to wage jihad in the heart of the Levant. 

About 5,000 Tunisian fighters joined the war in Syria and Iraq - by the far the largest contribution from outside the immediate neighbouring countries.

The Tunisian interior minister Najem Gharsalli stated that his ministry has officially prevented 12,490 Tunisian nationals joining the conflict.

This provides only a partial insight into the groundswell of support for IS in Tunisia.

An in-depth study of the personal circumstances of 150 Tunisian jihadists by Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad found some compelling data.

The Tunisian organisation discovered that those who left were mostly inhabitants of the coast, economically prosperous areas, which benefited from the Ben Ali regime, and that of Bourguiba before him.

Often offspring of low level technocrats within the government, or within companies which thrived off its patronage links, the years that followed the revolution were ones of personal and economic turmoil for these young Tunisians.

They often sought solace in the embrace of radical Islamist preachers only a few months before they packed their bags for Syria.

Writing for The Guardian, the acclaimed essayist Panjak Mishra notes that Tunisia's mass education, an economic crisis and an unfeeling government have "long constituted a fertile soil for the cults of authoritarianism and violence".

Whether the new legislation can combat these deep structural issues is yet to be seen. But one thing is certain: the new legislation violates human rights and may have an adverse impact on Tunisia's civil society.

Tighter restrictions on hard-won freedoms

     Tunisia's anti-terrorism law contains overly broad provisions that present the risk of arbitrary and subjective interpretation

In Article 68 of the Tunisian law, there are serious concerns over the status of immunity which me be granted to Tunisia's security forces, enabling them legal loopholes to dodge impartial accountability for the use of force.

Saloua Ghazouani, Director of the NGO, ARTICLE 19 Tunisia, told al-Araby al-Jadeed that "Tunisia's anti-terrorism law contains overly broad provisions that present the risk of arbitrary and subjective interpretation, which could unduly restrict freedom of expression."

From a freedom of expression perspective, the new anti-terrorism law prohibits praising or condoning of terrorism in broad terms that may be interpreted in a subjective manner.

The law also prohibits incitement to terror, even without the risk of imminent violence.

In a move which mirrors the broader theme of cracking down on whistle blowers throughout the region and indeed the world, the law has also given a green light to special investigative techniques to be used on journalists and other members of the media.

Added to this is a broader definition of terrorism could allow the repression of certain acts not of a terror-related, such as popular protests, and public assembly - acts which were central to the ousting of Ben Ali. Tunisia's legislature is not immune from scrutiny, as Ghazouani points out.

During the international NGO's legal analysis of the draft law, there was considerable concern over the protection of sources and the freedom of journalists to investigate and report on issues related to terrorism.

After some pressure, legislators added a last-minute provision designed to protect the confidentiality of information to which doctors, lawyers and journalists had access to; something which the 2003 law did not include.

Despite the improvements in the drafting process, this law has no place in a dynamic democracy, as Ghazouani states: "A vibrant democracy relies on open public debate on a range of issues, including terrorism. It is a legitimate fear that this legislation will have a chilling effect, shutting down public debate at a time when it may be most needed."

The terror threat to Tunisia is poised to undermine its security. However, the manner in which the state deals with this threat, may be the toughest hurdle to overcome in order to live up to the ideals of the Jasmine Revolution.

Nick Rodrigo is a freelance researcher working for the Afro-Middle East Centre based in Johannesburg , he holds an MA in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights from the University of Essex. He has previously worked with Iranian and Palestinian human rights organisations.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.