The Quiet Threat to Human Rights in Tunisia

How to Keep Democracy on Track

Protestors shout slogans during a march demanding equal inheritance rights for women: Tunis, Tunisia, March 2018 Zoubeir Souissi / REUTERS

Tunisia is often heralded as the sole success story to come out of the 2011 Arab uprisings, insomuch as it is the only country that established a democratic government in their wake. In a 2017 study conducted by Freedom House, Tunisia was the only country in the Middle East and North Africa ranked as “free.” But the relative success of Tunisia’s transition does not mean that the process has been an easy one. The country’s seven-year-long transition to democracy has been excruciatingly difficult, marked by several terrorist attacks, ongoing economic crisis, political stalemate, and tenuous compromises between Islamists and secularists. At several points since the overthrow of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have been forced to question whether their democratic experiment will survive the pressure.  

If you ask many Tunisians what has made the difference in holding together the fabric of their democracy, they will say civil society. Civil society was deeply repressed during the decades of Ben Ali’s rule and flourished in the postrevolution period. Thousands of civil society organizations (CSOs) were formed, with missions ranging from protecting human rights to monitoring the government to fighting corruption. CSO efforts have been behind most of the important human rights advances in Tunisia and have helped keep the government on track and accountable. In 2015, four CSOs (two labor unions, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers) were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their role in brokering an important 2013 compromise between Islamists and secularists that is widely believed to have saved the country’s democracy.   

The critical importance of CSOs makes Law 30 of 2018, which the Tunisian parliament adopted on July 27, very worrisome. The law establishes a national registration of institutions and requires public and private companies, including CSOs, to register with this new entity. The law came in response to the European Parliament adding Tunisia to its list of countries at “high risk” of money laundering and terror financing in February, a decision that harmed

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