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A murky state-civil society relationship in Tunisia

The Tunisian state appears both open and cautious to accommodating civil society.

People attend the celebration of the National Women's Day in avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, Tunisia on August 13, 2018. Photo by Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/PA images. All rights reserved. Over the past few months, Tunisia has witnessed several victories for civil society, with the government making moves to promote gender equality in particular. Yet contradictory actions by the president’s office and parliament, which established a National Registry for Institutions on July 27, capture the Tunisian state’s appearance of being both open to and cautious about accommodating civil society during the democratic transition.

Since his election in 2014, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, in line with statements regarding increasing women’s rights in marriage and inheritance, has established committees tasked with increasing personal freedoms. For instance, in response to civil society organization (CSO) demands for increased freedoms, in August 2017 he established the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee (COLIBE), tasked with drafting a report proposing relevant legislative reforms. Among the recommendations of the report, presented to President Essebsi on June 8, 2018, were to decriminalize sodomy, guarantee equal inheritance rights for women and men, and abolish the death penalty. The state had previously used the morality laws in particular as an excuse to arrest dissidents. Parliament will likely debate the recommendations once back in session this fall. In response to COLIBE’s findings, more than 90 organizations and CSOs applauded the recommendations and formed a pact to confirm their commitment to a civilian and democratic Tunisia.

In response to COLIBE’s report and intense lobbying by secular women’s associations, on August 13, Essebsi also reiterated his commitment to women’s inheritance equality. The president plans to present parliament with a draft law to abolish legal restrictions that currently prevent all women from gaining full access to their inheritance, in accordance with Islamic family law. However, even with these restrictions removed, women’s actual inheritance would be left to individual families’ discretion. It is possible that Essebsi will follow through on his promise since it does not directly challenge the family’s autonomy over inheritance. Though this law has not yet been drafted, on August 26, Ennahda announced that it will vote against the potential inheritance bill because it contradicts Islam and therefore the constitution. The debates around inheritance will likely continue and be among the defining issues of the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.

Although Essebsi has appointed female cabinet members, called for equal inheritance rights, and lifted restrictions on Muslim women’s marriage to non-Muslims, some women’s rights activists have cautioned against blindly accepting his actions as a genuine effort to improve women’s lives. Some critics argue that Essebsi is simply a secular politician interested in implementing top-down reforms and disarming Islamists by making declarations—for example regarding inheritance equality and marriage to non-Muslims—that undermine religious authorities and Ennahda itself.

These “wins” for civil society are counterbalanced by other actions by the state, particularly parliament, which is cautious of CSOs’ expanding role in politics. On July 27, parliament passed Law 30 of 2018, under which Tunisian CSOs are required to register with the new National Registry for Institutions. The law mandates that CSOs report their activities to the state, including information about their staff, assets, and mergers with other associations. The law also subjects CSO personnel who submit false registration information to five years in prison and a maximum fine of 50,000 dinars ($18,000). While this law appears to abide by Tunisia’s overall legal framework, local and international groups have claimed the law is unconstitutional because it infringes upon freedom of association. Many groups fear that the registry may enable state monitoring and censorship—a tactic used by the Ben Ali regime to silence its critics and stifle civil society.

Overall, the state appears both open and cautious to accommodating civil society. The progressive 2014 constitution, the COLIBE report, Essebsi’s proposed inheritance bill, reversal of the 1973 Ministry of Justice directive prohibiting Tunisian women’s marriage to non-Tunisian men, and the 2017 Article 39 of the loi intégrale to eliminate violence against women law, are signs the state is listening to CSO concerns and implementing the recommended reforms. However, the National Registry Law and Ennahda’s opposition to inheritance reforms are indicative of the state’s ongoing struggle to truly accommodate civil society demands.

The state’s cautious approach to CSOs may be traced back to their relationship during the Ben Ali era, when the regime limited the number of independent CSOs to less than a dozen. By stifling civic participation and restricting CSO activities, Ben Ali attempted to discredit or silence associations that called for political reforms. Throughout his tenure as president, Ben Ali imprisoned members of civil society and banned their associations when they called for accountability for corruption and human rights abuses.

Yet several prominent associations did advocate for a variety of issues that directly affected Tunisians. The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) and the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD) focused on women’s rights, while the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) negotiated on behalf of Tunisian workers. The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) and the Tunisian branch of Amnesty International primarily focused on human rights abuses that state officials committed. All five associations remain relevant today and are fundamental to negotiating the transition. UGTT and LTDH were two of the four recipients of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, while ATFD and AFTURD helped mobilize as many as 6,000 women during the 2012 demonstrations in response to the first draft of Tunisia’s new constitution, wherein Article 28 stated that women were “complementary,” not equal, to men.

Between 2011 and 2018, Tunisians created almost 300 women’s associations alone, according to government statistics and women activists. Many other new associations sought to address pressing issues such as government accountability and countering violent extremism. While the proliferation of CSOs demonstrates a strong desire for civic engagement in the budding democracy, even more significant is the cooperation between veteran and new associations whose missions drastically vary. Associations such as the Free Sight Association (which promotes dialogue on a range of national and regional issues related to preventing violent extremism), Al-Bawsala (which monitors the work of the government), and the Coalition for Tunisian Women (which promotes women’s political participation), are working with veteran groups like ATFD and other seasoned groups to pursue their agendas. This gives new associations assistance with mobilization tactics that veteran associations have used in the past, such as organizing sit-ins and protests, lobbying parliamentarians, and circulating petitions. For example, twenty-five veteran and new CSOs circulated and signed a statement condemning the National Registry law. Cross-ideological and cross-generational coalitions such as the coalitions on gender parity and violence against women may be indicative that the budding civil society is aiding in the transition to democracy. These coalitions include veteran secular ATFD, new secular associations, and new Islamist associations. By working across ideological and generational differences, they are demonstrating that women’s associations can prioritize women’s issues over their differences.

This explosion of organizations has forced the transitioning state to pay more attention to civil society than it did during the Ben Ali era. Since the state is attempting to democratize, it is no longer able to repress non-state actors that seek to hold it accountable. It is expected to make space for CSOs to freely operate as part of its commitment to respecting freedom of association and assembly, in accordance with the constitution. The public also expects the state to take CSO recommendations into consideration when forming its policies and agenda—and when the state ignores civil society, it often pays a price. For example, in 2013, civil society played an important role in galvanizing the international community and Tunisians against the ruling Ennahda party and its coalition partners after the government failed to address dire economic and security conditions or bring perpetrators to justice for two political assassinations. While CSO discontent and mobilization were not the sole reasons behind the government’s eventual resignation, they contributed to it. In the end the government stepped down from power in response to the pressure.

For Tunisia to reach its full democratic potential, the state must continue to strengthen its relationship with civil society and build trust with its leaders. The state must continue to listen to civil society grievances and consider their policy recommendations through formal mechanisms such as the Truth and Dignity Commission tasked with addressing past grievances and transitional justice. The state should also continue to engage civil society members and work with them on legislation as it did on the violence law. Law 30 of 2018 and the new National Registry for Institutions can hurt Tunisia’s reputation as the shining example of a society where an independent civil society flourishes since they limit civil society’s ability to operate freely without harassment or repression.

This analysis is based on qualitative content analysis of official documents and fieldwork in Tunis in 2018.


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