The 2011 Revolution was the beginning of a new era for civil society and civic freedom in Tunisia. Since the country’s independence in 1956 and particularly after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s assumption of the presidency in 1987, civil society had atrophied under authoritarian rule. The governing law on associations, Law 154 of 1959, made associations subject to approval by the Ministry of Interior. Only those organizations which received authorization from the state and remained in the state’s favor were allowed to operate. Following decades of repression, civil society organizations (CSOs) were weak and few in number when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and revolutionary protests began in late 2010.
Nonetheless, the Revolution brought civic activism to the forefront, and CSOs emerged to play a crucial role in shaping both the transition period and post-revolution state. Pressure from civil society was instrumental in compelling authorities to adopt a Constitution with expansive human rights protections, and for the free and fair, democratic elections that followed. Indeed, four CSOs were internationally recognized for their work to preserving the democratic transition. Moreover, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for its role in arranging negotiations and forging compromises among opposing political forces.
A post-Revolution decree governing CSOs—Decree Number 88 of 2011—marked a clear break with the past, replacing Law 154 and standing out as one of the most enabling civil society laws in the Middle East and North Africa region. The Decree provides broad protections for the exercise of freedom of association and support for a free and independent civil society sector, including provisions for public funding and prohibitions on state interference in organizations’ operations.
Nonetheless, CSOs in Tunisia continue to face obstacles in their everyday operations and activities. The right to peacefully assemble or protest remains governed by an extremely restrictive law from 1969 that gives officials broad discretion to suppress public assemblies. Further, Tunisia entered into a State of Emergency in November 25, 2015, which allowed for further limitations on individuals’ and organizations’ civic freedoms. It was justified after a terrorist attack on the presidential security bus in Tunis. Among other things, the State of Emergency authorized officials to impose curfews and ban public protests altogether without a court order.
In 2018, a number of high-profile associations in the country have campaigned to preserve Decree 88 of 2011, fearing that government amendments to the law would reduce CSOs’ freedom. The government pledged in early 2019 that it would not amend or replace Decree 88, but instead issue a series of related laws to address gaps and other challenges in the Decree.
By the end of 2019, legislative and presidential elections were held, after which a complex political situation emerged. This led to a severe political crisis, with two governments forming in 2020 concurrent with the COVID-19 pandemic and an unprecedented deterioration of the economic and social situation. These events caused the debate on the revision of Decree 88 to be postponed. Nevertheless, government violations of Decree 88 have continued, as associations have been forced to register in the National Register of Institutions.
On December 26, 2020, the President extended the State of Emergency for six months.
On July 25, 2021, the President announced exceptional measures based on Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution to declare an imminent threat to the country’s security presented by the severe differences between parliamentarians, which allegedly included engaging in violence with each other and disrupting the work of Parliament while also mis-managing the COVID-19 health crisis. Therefore, President Saied took several significant steps, including the following:
1- Parliament was frozen and then dissolved.
2- The immunity of all Parliamentary deputies was lifted and legal proceedings against some of them were commenced.
3- The government was dismissed and a new government that would be responsible to Saied and not to Parliament was appointed.
4- Most provisions of the Constitution were suspended and a temporary reorganization of powers was announced.
5- The Supreme Judicial Council was dissolved and a new Council was appointed.
6- The Independent High Commission for Combating Corruption was dissolved and its head was suspended.
7- The composition of the Independent Electoral Commission was altered and a popular referendum was held on July 25, 2022 on a draft constitution prepared by the President himself. (Legislative elections are to be held on December 17, 2022.)
8- A new Constitution for Tunisia was announced after the July 25, 2022 referendum (approximately one quarter of the voters voted “yes”, while the rest of voters boycotted the referendum). The new Constitution is characterized by granting the President broad and unrestricted powers.
This Civic Freedom Monitor (CFM) country note was made possible through the research conducted by Mohamed Fadhel Hamdi, President of the Associations and Sustainable Development International Observatory, in Tunis, Tunisia.