Tunisia's war on terrorism threatens the strive for democracy

Two steps forwards and one step back. That is how Tunisian journalist and freedom-of-speech activist Afef Abrougui describes the situation in Tunisia after the uprising in 2011. The country has undergone major upheaval, particularly regarding freedom of speech, but the political will to implement radical reforms is still lacking. 

September 10 2014 Text: Afef Abrougui

“The old is dying and the new cannot be born.” [yet]

Three years after the toppling of the rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, this quotation by Gramsci perfectly describes the current situation in my country, Tunisia.

The country is up in the air; it is not a democracy or a dictatorship.

Tunisians are definitely living in a more democratic and free environment than under the Ben Ali regime, but the old methods and mindsets of repression are yet to vanish.

We’re not a democracy yet, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s not like a fifty-year old dictatorship will turn into a genuine democracy with the blink of an eye.

However, what has been as much of a frustration to me is the lack of political willingness to engage in serious reforms.

Tunisia has made strides.

The country’s successive interim authorities did initiate democratic reformsin several cases, with the help of fierce fighting by members of civil society.

Laws guaranteeing freedom of the press and the media and the right to access information were passed. Meanwhile, an independent broadcast regulator was created to regulate the broadcast media sector from partisan interests.

The adoption of a constitution that upholds fundamental rights and libertiesincluding the right to free expression, privacy, and personal data protection; the right to free access to information; and freedom of the media and the presswas another step forward.

But, since a new democracy cannot be merely summed up by free and fair elections, new democratic laws or a constitution, the old dictatorship is still dying and fiercely fighting for survival.

Dictatorship is a mindset, and as long as the mindset does not change, only the façade appears democratic.

Tunisia’s different interim rulers proved to share more or less the same dictatorial mindset.

Almost three years after coming into office, NCA members have not shown any willingness to scrap the repressive judicial arsenal put in place by the former regime to restrict free expression and smash political dissent. To the contrary, they voted in favour of constitutional provisions that restrict free speech, by approving clauses that “ban attacks on the Sacred and apostasy accusations.”

The 2011 interim government of former PM Beji Caid Essebsi, who today presides over the secular Call for Tunisia party, was marked by repeated crackdowns on peaceful protests demanding the resignation of the interior minister or judicial reforms.

The Islamist Ennahda Movement’s rule between December 2011 and January 2014 was marked by a spate of free speech prosecutions and attempts to control public media outlets.

Similar practices have continued under the current non-partisan government of Mehdi Jomaa.

For example, when a 16 of July attack waged by armed militant groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on Tunisian armed forces on the border with Algeria left fifteen soldiers dead, the government proved its loyalty to the old mind set by announcing a set of undemocratic measures.

Among the decisions taken was the closure of a religious radio station, Nour, and TV channel, Al Insan, for broadcasting discourses “inciting violence”.

In taking such a unilateral decision, the government disregarded the laws and institutions in place responsible for investigating and sanctioning such violations: the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), which is the country’s broadcast regulator put in place as part of the democratic reforms undertaken during the post Ben Ali era.

In the meantime, interior minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou reiterated his calls for the monitoring and the filtering of the Internet, which he says “remains outside the control of the State”.

Further, the government stated that the military and security institutions “are to be considered as red lines” and that those who “denigrate” these institutions will face judicial prosecution.

These measures are reminiscent of the former regime’s practices of deploying counter-terrorism as a pretext to crackdown on political opponents and dissent.

Yes, there is a surge in speech inciting violence in Tunisia. The authorities and civil-society need to stand up against this type of speech. But any limitation on the right to free speech needs to take place in accordance with the law and with respect to the democratic institutions in place.

But how on earth can arbitrary decisions, which restrict freedoms, eliminate terrorism and violence? Do these “red lines” mean that journalists who reveal misconduct or wrongdoing by members of the military and the police can be subject to judicial prosecution? Does this mean that one cannot criticize security failures of these two institutions? How dare a government tell its citizens what they can or cannot criticise?

What’s even more worrying is that only a minority of activists and civil society organizations expressed concerns about these measures and their impact on civil rights and liberties.

“The war on terror should not serve as an excuse to infringe on freedom of the press and the diversity of the media,” Neji Bghouri, head of the journalists’ syndicate, warned.

However, many welcomed these measures with little regard to the threats such “firm actions” (as they were portrayed by one Tunisian journalist) could have on rights and liberties.

So far, Tunisia’s experience with democratic transition has proved to be smoother than those of other countries in the region. Neighbouring Libya is falling prey to complete chaos, Egypt is under the rule of a brutal military dictatorship, Syria’s once peaceful revolution is now a never-ending civil war, and pro democracy protesters in Bahrain are carrying on with their fight to little avail.

A small and homogenous population (estimated at 10.8 million), a high literacy rate, a powerful and vibrant civil-society, a largely apolitical army, and an insignificant geopolitical location are all factors that have contributed to the country’s relatively peaceful transition era.

“You are our only hope,” a Moroccan friend told me after the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) adopted a new constitution back in January this year.

This is why I added the ‘yet’ to Gramsci’s quote. Tunisia may not be a democracy today, but may become one in the future. It remains the region’s “only hope.”