In Depth: Tunisians fear freedom of association is under attack as Kais Saied attempts to reverse a major gain that independent civil organizations and groups enjoyed following the 2011 revolution.

A bill to regulate civil society organizations by amending Decree-Law 88, which was leaked by local media in February, has raised serious concerns among Tunisian civil society, although it does not is unclear whether the existing law has been changed and when the government will be able to enact this.

The bill, if passed, would give state authorities sweeping power and discretion to interfere with how civil society organizations are formed, their functions and operations, their funding and their ability to speak. publicly about their activities.

Although the authorities have not officially confirmed that they are modifying the decree, nor published a draft law, civil society groups in Tunisia are ready and expect the proposed modification to be published at any time.

The plan would severely restrict the work of civil society and human rights defenders, jeopardizing the association rights of Tunisians, one of the hard-won achievements of the 2011 uprisings.

“The new bill […] threatens to significantly limit civic space and subvert the hard work of post-revolution Tunisian civil society”

Several provisions of the text of the revised decree give rise to serious concerns.

In the most disturbing provision, the authorities would be granted sweeping powers to reject the application of associations they deem to constitute vague threats to “the unity of the state or its republican and democratic regime”.

Their published material would be required to align with “integrity”, “professionalism” and broad “legal and scientific regulations” that would allow for misapplication by authorities.

Furthermore, the creation of a civil society organization would require publication of the creation in the Official Journal, which could open the way to politically motivated delays. The leaked bill would essentially restore the requirement for government authorization before an organization can obtain legal status. Under the 2011 law, people can form an association by simply notifying the competent authorities.

The new draft also gives authorities within the office of the head of government the power to order the dissolution of an organization in a summary way and without judicial procedure. Under current law, a civil society group can only be dissolved by court order or by its own members.

Mohamed Yassine Jelassi, president of the Union of Tunisian Journalists, speaks through a megaphone during a protest by journalists and civil society activists against the repression against journalists and human rights defenders on March 25, 2022. [Getty]

Another provision introduces a procedure for controlling the foreign financing of associations by which it prohibits a group from accepting funds from abroad without prior government authorization from a unit of the Central Bank responsible for combating money laundering. and the financing of terrorism. Currently, the law does not require prior government approval for foreign funding.

“We are stepping back,” said Sofiane Zekri, secretary general of the Observatory of Associations and Sustainable Development (ASDi). The new Arabic. “Executive 88 can be improved but we fear our rights will diminish if the amended draft is published,” he added.

According to him, the two major concerns regarding the text are the reintroduction of the authorization to create associations and measures aimed at reducing the presence of foreign organizations in the country and controlling their finances.

“The presence of civil society will be weakened if the government’s plan goes ahead,” he said, adding that Tunisian associations are now partly inactive waiting to see what will happen.

Every Thursday, as the Ministerial Council chaired by President Kais Saied meets and usually passes several draft presidential decrees, civil society actors watch in fear that the new bill could be enacted at any time.

The government drafted the amendments without any public discussion or consultation with civil society, Tunisian media reported. Under a presidential decree issued last September, the head of state is able to enact laws unilaterally without any parliamentary or judicial oversight. The bills have not been made public or submitted to parliament for debate since President Saied suspended the assembly on July 25.

“We have said categorically that any modification or reform in the area of ​​rights and freedoms, including the right to freedom of association, is not permitted in a state of exception,” said Raja Jabri, president of Mourakiboun. , a national network specializing in election observation. since 2011, says The New Arab.

She pointed out that the coalition, in partnership with other networks, had succeeded in blocking previous attempts by the government to modify the decree-law on associations.

“There is a clear risk that the activities of civil society and rights defenders will be subject to restrictions”

Jabri pointed to another controversial clause in the bill which provides that the activities of an association shall not “come within the jurisdiction of public bodies”, a vague wording that is likely to significantly restrict association rights.

“The idea seems that civil organizations will be allowed to carry out primarily social and humanitarian work while those operating in the areas of human rights, justice and democracy will not be welcome,” speculated Jabri, adding that Mourakiboun, as an independent monitoring organization, would be affected by the draft decree.

There is a clear risk that the activities of civil society and human rights defenders will be subject to restrictions, in violation of the right to freedom of association protected by article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Article 10 of the African Charter on Human Rights. human and peoples’ rights, to which Tunisia is a party, as well as by article 35 of the Tunisian Constitution.

“The new bill is undoubtedly draconian. It threatens to drastically limit civic space and subvert the hard work of Tunisian civil society since the post-revolution,” President de Mourakiboun warned. “It’s a stab in the back for the country’s democratic transition.”

She said she was particularly concerned about vulnerable groups who risk being left to fend for themselves under the new legislation, as her organization and others who have supported these communities would see their activity subject to increased government scrutiny. state, which would result in less funds and the freedom to help them.

Tunisian civil society takes on most of the work needed to help marginalized communities in society, including victims of gender-based violence, migrants, people with disabilities, and people from low socio-economic backgrounds.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said it was very concerned about amendments to Decree 88 which would give Tunisian authorities “legal tools to control and predictably muzzle civil society”, it notes. he in a statement.

The Observatory called on the country’s authorities to withdraw the bill aimed at guaranteeing the right to freedom of association and ensuring that human rights defenders can carry out their activities without fear of arbitrary interference and repression by the state.

The bills have not been made public or submitted to parliament for debate since President Saied suspended the assembly on July 25. [Getty]

Amine Ghali, director of the Al Kawakibi Transitional Center for Democracy (KADEM), maintained that the problem is not Decree 88 but the mechanisms for its application by the public authorities, mainly the general management of the associations of the presidency.

Jabri also pointed out that it is the responsibility of the public administration to ensure the transparency of associations and, if it is not able to control this, it is not the problem of civil society.

“To remedy these flaws, instead of working for the proper implementation of the decree-law, the government has been trying to modify it since 2016,” the director of KADEM told The New Arab. “Each time, our center as well as several NGOs opposed these steps and succeeded in preserving the existing legislation”.

At the end of 2019, he explained, the associations concerned reached an agreement with the executive to keep the decree intact and alternatively incorporate complementary laws to cover issues such as public funding, the system of foundations, the creation of international NGOs in the country and more.

However, work on agreed improvements to the law stalled with the onset of the pandemic.

After the draft amendment was leaked, Tunisian civil society organizations launched a new campaign to counter the cabinet’s controversial plan. “Like all associations, we will surely be affected if the bill is enacted and implemented”, stressed Ghali, “our field of action will be reduced, civil society will not be as active as it is today”.

As he indicated, public funding for associations in Tunisia is very low, which means that without international funding, their impact on national action will be much more limited in different areas.

Many NGOs rely on foreign funding (particularly European) to finance themselves. In addition, a large part of the money injected into Tunisia by foreign countries is mainly intended for state institutions.

Yet President Saied accused civil society organizations of serving foreign interests and trying to meddle in Tunisian politics, and threatened to ban the funding of these groups from abroad using language that was reminiscent of the one used during the repressive era of the Ben Ali regime.

“In the decade since 2011, Tunisian civil society has flourished. Civil society organizations have played a vital role in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary democratic transition, protecting human rights and upholding Right wing state”

The Tunisian government’s decision to initiate changes to the NGO law comes amid a climate of erosion of rights and freedoms and gradual reversal of democratic gains since Saied suspended parliament last July and began monopolizing the legislative, executive and judicial powers under its authority.

In the decade since 2011, Tunisian civil society has flourished. Civil society organizations have played a vital role in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary democratic transition, protecting human rights and upholding the rule of law.

A group of 13 Tunisian and international rights groups released a statement urging Tunisian authorities to drop plans for new restrictions on civil society organizations last month.

Although the room for maneuver to stop the government’s decision to modify Decree 88 is limited, Tunisian civil society is mobilizing efforts at home and abroad in the hope of delaying the process throughout the exceptional period. until a new legislature is elected and such an amendment is brought to public debate.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec