Tunisia’s new counter terror-law halts Tunisia’s democratisation

Prime Minister Habib Essid

In the wake of a spate of deadly terrorist attacks in Tunisia this year, the democratically-elected Tunisian Parliament has adopted a new anti-terror law aiming to counter any future threats from Islamist militants and extremists. The introduction of this law is harsh and a step back in Tunisia’s ongoing journey to democratisation. However, the Prime Minister, Habib Essid, maintains that the law is a necessary step forward in order to tackle the rise of terrorist activity in Tunisia.

The legislation comes after the attack that claimed the lives of 38 tourists, 30 of whom were British, on June 26th on a beach resort in Sousse, a heavily tourist populated region in Tunisia. The terrorist organisation ISIS later claimed responsibility for the attack, and isn’t their first attack in Tunisia. Back in March, ISIS took responsibility for an attack on the Bardo Museum in the capital of Tunis, leaving 21 tourists dead. These two attacks have had a significant effect on Tunisia’s tourism sector, which provides roughly 400,000 jobs to Tunisians and accounts for 14.5% of Tunisia’s GDP.

The legislation re-introduces the death penalty for those convicted of terrorism charges and jail sentences for those whom express support for terrorism. The bill also provides an increase in phone tapping powers for investigators and authorities. Suspects of terror offences can also be detained for up to 15 days without access to a lawyer; which inevitably minimizes their lawyers’ ability to put forward an effective defence. This comprehensive increase in power, bestowed to authorities, has been heavily criticized among sectors of Tunisian society. The bill has been debated in parliament for many years, but was only put forward following the recent attacks. The legislation was rushed to parliament too quickly to have a proper debate with adequate scrutiny. After just three days of debate, the bill passed with 174 votes (at least 109 votes were needed to pass it) and only ten abstentions. With the bill now in law, it will act as Tunisia’s new counter-terrorism strategy.

Tunisia, a rare success story of the Arab Spring, has been in a peaceful transition to democracy ever since the overthrow of President Ben Ali, however, many NGOs and advocacy groups have condemned the legislation, arguing instead that it threatens the already fragile democratic structure of Tunisia. Many concerns have been raised regarding the return of capital punishment after a lengthy moratorium in Tunisia, as well as the undermining of civil liberties due to the increased power in citizen phone tapping. While Mohamed Ennaceur, the President of the Assembly, maintained that the newly adopted law is a historic moment for Tunisia and is a reassurance for citizens and tourists in Tunisia. What is clear about this legislation is that it is sacrificing Tunisia’s democracy for its safety and security.

Despite Tunisia’s successful uprising, the Tunisian army and security forces, have had to tackle with the rise of Islamist militancy. Tunisia is concerned about the vast security vacuum that has been left to grow in Libya due to the ongoing civil war between two rival governments, which has given groups such as ISIS an opening to spread chaos in Libya. More than 7,000 Tunisians have left their country to fight for ISIS in Syria, more than any other country in the world, which poses a significant security challenge for the Tunisian authorities. Along with the new law, Prime Minister Essid has proposed an unrealistic plan to build a sand barrier along the Libyan border, as a strategy to counter a potential Islamic State spill over.

Tunisia is in a critical phase of democratic reconstruction and this regressive law will certainly derail Tunisia’s long path to democratisation. The law no longer safeguards the rights of defendants and the significant increase in power among authorities and security services is likely to reverse Tunis’ effort to rid the country of authoritarianism. It is clear that the elected leadership in Tunisia has forsaken their democratic mandate and opted for short-sighted authoritative power over long-term state-building. It is worth noting however that prior to the new law, there wasn’t a significant effort or measures in place to address extremism in Tunisia. Nonetheless, the perennial question remains. Is it necessary to curtail democracy for security measures in order to fight extremism?

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