Tu­nisia’s democ­racy un­der threat af­ter the re­cent terror at­tacks


The seven men spent a week in a Tu­nisian prison on ter­ror­ism charges, suf­fer­ing what they claim was tor­ture un­der cus­tody, be­fore a judge re­leased them for lack of ev­i­dence. But as they stepped out of the court­house in early Au­gust, plain­clothes po­lice­men swooped in and spir­ited them away.

Af­ter their lawyers protested, Jus­tice Min­is­ter Salah Be­naissa told lo­cal ra­dio that ar­rest­ing sus­pects with­out a war­rant was now per­mis­si­ble be­cause of the new war on terror: “There is an agree­ment be­tween the min­istry and the se­cu­rity forces,” he said, “that al­lows them to act against ter­ror­ism with­out pre­vi­ous au­tho­riza­tion.”

Tu­nisia, the cra­dle of the Arab Spring, was its only coun­try to emerge with a democ­racy marked by in­creased free­doms and reg­u­lar elec­tions. But a pair of dev­as­tat­ing ter­ror­ist at­tacks that killed nearly 60 for­eign tourists has trig­gered a state of emer­gency, and po­lice have been ar­rest­ing hun­dreds in sweeps. It is prompt­ing many ac­tivists to fear a re­turn to the days of re­pres­sion un­der late dic­ta­tor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Tu­nisia’s fledg­ling democ­racy has been cited as the hope for a re­gion in which the demo­cratic prom­ises of the Arab Spring have largely col­lapsed into chaos — as in Libya — or brought in harsher new regimes as in Egypt. But Tu­nisia’s free­doms may be buck­ling as the coun­try clamps down to deal with terror at­tacks threat­en­ing an econ­omy al­ready tee­ter­ing on the edge of in­sol­vency.

“I have never felt so wor­ried as these days,” said Achraf Awadi, who demon­strated in the streets for Ben Ali’s down­fall, and went on to help form I-Watch, an or­ga­ni­za­tion mon­i­tor­ing elec­tions and pro­mot­ing democ­racy in Tu­nisia.

To­gether with sev­eral other civic groups, Awadi is sound­ing the alarm over new laws passed by the par­lia­ment that he says will over­turn the gains of the past few years, and re-em­power the hated po­lice. These in­clude laws to re­ha­bil­i­tate old regime busi­ness­men ac­cused of cor­rup­tion, weaken the tran­si­tional jus­tice process and pro­tect se­cu­rity forces from at­tacks by jour­nal­ists.

“If, un­der the new state of emer­gency, you can’t even protest in front of the assem­bly, you have all the in­gre­di­ents to pass any dic­ta­tor­ship-like laws,” he said, main­tain­ing that the po­lice re­main un­re­formed even four years af­ter the revo­lu­tion.

Un­der Ben Ali, Tu­nisia was a po­lice state in which the feared In­te­rior Min­istry harshly re­pressed dis­sent; the cor­rupt econ­omy was run by close friends and fam­ily of the dic­ta­tor.

Af­ter the revo­lu­tion, the newly elected gov­ern­ment led by the mod­er­ate Is­lamist En­nahda Party be­gan pass­ing laws to hold cor­rupt busi­ness­men ac­count­able, and set up a Truth and Dig­nity Com­mis­sion to ex­am­ine the crimes of the dic­ta­tor­ship.

In the af­ter­math of the revo­lu­tion, how­ever, the econ­omy suf­fered, strikes and demon­stra­tions pro­lif­er­ated and a rad­i­cal Is­lamist move­ment arose that as­sas­si­nated politi­cians and at­tacked tourist sites. Peo­ple de­manded a stronger state.

The In­te­rior Min­istry has since em­barked on a whirl­wind cam­paign of ar­rests, de­tain­ing hun­dreds and hun­dreds on ter­ror­ism charges — of­ten on weak ev­i­dence.

On Aug. 5, the man who had been ar­rested with great fanfare as the “mas­ter­mind” be­hind the Bardo Na­tional Mu­seum at­tack sev­eral months ear­lier was re­leased — ap­par­ently be­cause he was not in­volved.

Crit­ics main­tain that the sweeps only fur­ther alien­ate dis­en­fran­chised youth and say new strate­gies of per­sua­sion are needed to deal with ter­ror­ism.

‘More free­dom of move­ment’

“The at­tacks have had a psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fect on the po­lice and has given them a sense of im­punity,” said Michael Ay­yari of the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, which just pub­lished a re­port about the need for re­form in the In­te­rior Min­istry. “They now have more free­dom of move­ment and ac­tion.”

In the fall, Tu­nisians elected a new party to power, Nida Tu­nis (Tu­nisia’s Call), which evokes the glo­ries of the Tu­nisia’s first postin­de­pen­dence leader, Habib Bour­guiba, who laid the foun­da­tions for the state un­der his pa­ter­nal­is­tic, au­thor­i­tar­ian rule.

Since it came to power, Nida Tu­nis has strength­ened the po­lice with the new anti-terror law and the state of emer­gency, and put the brakes on other mea­sures aimed at cor­rupt busi­ness­men and of­fi­cials from the old regime.

One of their most con­tro­ver­sial pieces of leg­is­la­tion is an eco­nomic rec­on­cil­i­a­tion law that seeks to close the files on busi­ness­men ac­cused of cor­rup­tion. The law would set up a sys­tem whereby busi­ness­men could pay some of the money they are ac­cused of steal­ing, in ex­change for an amnesty. More im­por­tantly, they would be ex­empt from the Truth and Dig­nity Com­mis­sion set up last year.

The head of the com­mis­sion, Si­ham Bensedrine, has spo­ken out vo­cif­er­ously against the draft law. Aside from sub­vert­ing ef­forts at tran­si­tional jus­tice, she main­tained that grant­ing amnesty to busi­ness­men will just per­pet­u­ate the old sys­tem of crony­ism and cor­rup­tion, and scare away for­eign in­vestors.

‘Draft law will re­store the

sys­tem of cor­rup­tion’

“This draft law won’t boost the econ­omy,” she said. “In­stead it will make per­ma­nent all the ob­sta­cles that started the eco­nomic cri­sis and will re­store the sys­tem of cor­rup­tion that ex­isted un­der Ben Ali.”

The com­mis­sion is set to start public hear­ings in Septem­ber and has re­ceived so far 15,000 com­plaints, mostly re­lated to tor­ture but some in­volv­ing eco­nomic crimes.

Mohsen Mar­zouk, the sec­re­tary gen­eral of Nida Tu­nis and one of the top con­tenders to be the next pres­i­dent of the coun­try, dis­missed the con­cerns of what he calls a “tiny mi­nor­ity” — point­ing out that most polls have Tu­nisians call­ing for more au­thor­ity, not less.

While tran­si­tional jus­tice is im­por­tant, he said Tu­nisia is in the midst of a titanic eco­nomic strug­gle and a war on ter­ror­ism, and doesn’t have time for a lengthy process to go over a half cen­tury’s worth of crimes.

“How can we fight ter­ror­ism and work to­gether on the econ­omy — how can we in­volve all of Tu­nisia’s ca­pac­i­ties — if we can’t have rec­on­cil­i­a­tion?” he asked from his of­fice, which was dec­o­rated with sev­eral por­traits of Bour­guiba.

No par­lia­men­tar­ian voted against the anti-terror law passed a month af­ter the at­tack on the re­sort in Sousse. Ten deputies who ab­stained were roundly at­tacked in the gov­ern­ment-in­flu­enced media.

An ed­i­to­rial in the largest French-lan­guage pa­per, La Presse, de­manded they be stripped of their par­lia­men­tary im­mu­nity and tried for sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism.

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