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'Letting go of every principle': Tunisia's democratic gains under threat

Many Tunisian civil society leaders fear the passage of two controversial laws in coming days will undermine the country's anti-corruption drive – and its fledgling democracy

It has been a dangerous week for Tunisia's fragile democracy. Two retrogressive bills appear likely to pass parliament, possibly within days. The first would effectively amnesty public officials who committed crimes in pre-revolutionary Tunisia. The second would grant corrupt security forces more leeway to violate human rights.

Both bills undermine the quest for dignity and justice embodied in Tunisia's 2010-11 revolution

Both bills undermine the quest for dignity and justice embodied in Tunisia's 2010-11 revolution. They will almost surely become law within days or weeks unless Tunisian civil society and international actors, most importantly the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), manage to convince the government to reverse course.

Tunisia has debated both pieces of legislation since 2015. That spring, newly elected President Beji Caid Essebsi, who insisted Tunisia must focus on future development rather than on past abuses, proposed the first bill. Called the Reconciliation Law, it initially offered amnesty to two groups: corrupt businesspeople and public officials.

Defenders of the law touted its supposed economic benefits. Lifting the threat of prosecution, they said, would encourage investment in Tunisia's cash-strapped economy. They also argued that the law did not give an amnesty to the corrupt, since it promised that guilty parties would be required to repay ill-gotten gains.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed gestures as he addresses the parliament on the country's anti-corruption fight on 20 July 2017 in Tunis (AFP)
The Reconciliation Law faced immediate opposition from civil society as well as international legal experts. They argued that the law lacked independent enforcement mechanisms and would undermine the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission, a constitutionally supported body that is pursuing transitional justice against state abuses, including financial crimes.

Tunisia's Ministry of Interior proposed the second law in April 2015, less than a month after terrorists killed 23 people at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Known as the Protection of Security Forces Act, it would allow security forces more leeway in using lethal force. It also contains a vague provision criminalising "denigration" of security forces.

Civil society and international rights groups opposed this law, too. They argue that it casts a broad legal net likely to ensnare peaceful protesters, journalists and other innocents deemed problematic by Tunisia's largely unreformed security forces. Security forces unions close to Nidaa Tounes, the political party founded by Essebsi, have continued to back the law even as the draconian atmosphere that prevailed in the wake of the Bardo terror attack and another attack, in June 2015 that killed 38 people at a hotel in Sousse, dissipated.

Zombie bills

Since 2015, it has periodically seemed that these two dangerous bills might disappear. Efforts to pass the Reconciliation Act have failed three times. Tunisian civil society organisations recently issued another statement denouncing the Security Forces Act.

Despite civil society's criticisms, organised political opposition against the bills is largely absent

But the bills have reappeared, zombie-like, threatening Tunisia's efforts toward accountability, justice, and democratic reform. Both bills were debated in parliament this week, and it is likely, barring widespread popular mobilisation and increased international pressure, that parliament will vote them into law as early as this week.

Despite civil society's criticisms, organised political opposition against the bills is largely absent. In fact, the three largest political organisations in the country -  the ruling Nidaa Tounes party, its coalition partner Ennahda, and the powerful Nobel Prize-winning trade union UGTT - support the bills, albeit for very different reasons.

Members of the Manich Msamah movement among the crowd demonstrating in April 2017 after a parliamentary debate on the Reconciliation Law (AFP)
The steadfast determination of President Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes to pass the Reconciliation Law is part of an effort to repay their backers for support in past and future elections. These supporters have included allegedly corrupt businessmen who financed Nidaa's 2014 election victory, as well as high-ranking and mid-tier public administrators who comprise a large chunk of the party's base.

Essebsi's singular obsession with passing the Reconciliation Law has marginalised far more pressing legislative and political issues, such as the need to pass a local governance law, attract investment, seriously tackle corruption, and create constitutionally mandated independent oversight bodies, including a supreme court.

Essebsi's preoccupation with the Reconciliation Law, which remains, to date, the only law his office has proposed, has also come at the expense of reining in his son, Hafedh, whose efforts to crown himself the hereditary ruler of Nidaa Tounes have split the party and distracted its leaders from promoting a forward-looking vision.

Weak pushback

For its part, UGTT could easily stop the Reconciliation Law by threatening a general strike, a tactic it employed successfully against the previous government in 2013. In dealings with Nidaa-led governments, however, UGTT has saved its political capital to oppose cuts to salaries, subsidies and public sector employees. It has remained largely silent on the Reconciliation Law, peeking its head above the parapet to issue conditional endorsements.

Ennahda, meanwhile, has prioritised its governing alliance with Nidaa – an alliance whose future some Ennahda leaders believe hinges on their party's support for the Reconciliation Law - over its base, swaths of which strongly oppose the law.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (L) greets Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi prior to signing documents outlining the roadmap for the formation of a national unity government in July 2016 (AFP)
On 30 April, Ennahda's Shura Council, which sets the party's strategic direction, voted against supporting the law unless it was significantly amended. The decision was seen as a rebuke to Ennahda's executive leadership and a response to growing public protests against the law, spearheaded by the Manich Msamah ("I Will Not Forgive") movement, whose participants include former Ennahda supporters disillusioned by its perceived kowtowing to old regime impunity.

Ennahda's behind-the-scenes lobbying of Nidaa MPs - combined with steady pressure from Manich Msamah, rising popular support for Prime Minister Youssef Chahed's recent anti-corruption arrests, and growing international pressure to clean up corruption in Tunisia - resulted in a series of amendments to the Reconciliation Act.

The law's present version omits references to corrupt businesspeople and offers amnesty only to public officials who served under the former regime.

As the Reconciliation Law mutates, arguments for its defence have become more strained. Nidaa claims it will benefit approximately 1,500 public officials - less than 1 percent of Tunisia’s total - whom Tunisia's current transitional justice process may unjustly target for simply being "obliged to obey orders". No official document supports these claims.

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Some of these administrators, Nidaa says, are so afraid of prosecution that they are not doing their jobs well. One Nidaa representative told me that public officials are "so terrorised by fear of prosecution that they aren't signing important documents needed to start development and investment projects".

Opponents of the Reconciliation Law reject such defences. Instead of coddling corrupt or inefficient public officials, they say, the state should fire those refusing to do their jobs. The state should also pursue justice against the worst of them through strengthened judicial channels rather than have a "Reconciliation Commission" designed to let abusive administrators off the hook.

Emboldening bad tendencies

Experts and civil society leaders also continue to warn strongly against passing the Protection of Security Forces Act. Safeguarding Tunisia's new democratic constitution and improving efficiency amongst Tunisian security forces in the fight against terrorism, they say, requires more accountability, not less, from the security sector. This is especially true because terrorist recruitment in Tunisia is driven in part by societal disgust with existing corrupt state practices.

'The whole message of the Reconciliation Law is that there was no revolution, there were no victims'

- Oumayma Mehdi, project assistant at Al Bawsala

Civil society leaders further stress that this law would embolden the worst tendencies of Tunisia's security forces, which formed the cornerstone of its pre-revolutionary police state. These forces have a long history of violently oppressing free speech and quashing attempts at security sector reform.

For decades prior to the revolution, the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the security forces, doubled as a torture chamber. Leftist and Islamist political prisoners were abused in grotesque ways there, despite the building's location in the heart of downtown Tunis. The ministry briefly creaked its doors open to civil society groups after the revolution but slammed those doors shut following Nidaa's victory in 2014, an electoral outcome that emboldened security forces unions opposed to enhanced civilian oversight and transitional justice.

Tunisian special forces attend an official ceremony inside the barracks of the presidential security service in Gammarth in November 2016 (AFP)
Ennahda has hesitated to criticise the security bill. Having lost the most recent elections to Nidaa in part because of perceived laxity and incompetence on security, it seeks to appear stronger on crime. UGTT, meanwhile, has not taken a position on the bill.  

Many Tunisian civil society leaders, particularly young activists who support the anti-corruption organisation I-WATCH and the Manich Msamah movement, fear, however, that passing these two laws could neutralise or even reverse progress that Prime Minister Chahed made against corruption earlier this summer.

Some say that, rather than simply applauding the prime minister, international actors, particularly the IMF and World Bank, which can powerfully influence Tunisian policy, should do more to ensure his anti-corruption arrests become part of a cohesive and institutionalised war on corruption. Passing either or both of these laws would undermine such efforts.

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In the view of Tunisia's young civil society activists, these laws are not just unnecessary: they actively communicate state support for corruption and impunity.

"The whole message of the Reconciliation Law is that there was no revolution, there were no victims," said Oumayma Mehdi, a project assistant at Al Bawsala, a well-known NGO that monitors parliamentary activity.

"It's very dangerous. If we don't encourage people to fight this, it's as if we're letting go of every principle that formed the basis of the revolution." 

- Monica Marks is a research fellow with the European Research Council’s WAFAW program and a Rhodes Scholar. She was based in Tunisia from 2012-16 and has conducted over 1,200 interviews there in the course of her research.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Tunisians hold flags during a demonstration in solidarity with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed in his fight against corruption on 26 May 2017 in front of the prime ministry offices (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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