Tunisia is sacrificing its democracy for safety

Tunisia’s new anti-terrorism law represents bad lawmaking and could demote rather than promote democratisation.

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid attends a panel in Tunis
The unrealistic plans of Prime Minister Essid - who hopes to build a sand barrier along the Libyan border - are worrying, writes Sadiki [Getty]

After two years of division and various provisions, Tunisia’s democratically elected 217-member unicameral parliament legislated a new counterterrorism law on July 24.

It was passed with overwhelming approval: While 172 voted in favour, 10 members abstained, and only a limited number of members objected the law.

This bill may have been legally adopted, but that doesn’t make it right .

By siding with the ruling Nidaa Tounes, the Islamist Ennahdha and leftist Popular Front leadership chose short-term power politics over long-term democratic substance.

There are some problems with the new law.

The partly reactionary law proposal was rushed in response to the Bardo museum and Sousse beach attacks of this year.

Moreover, the new law was hastily approved with Ennahdha’s House Speaker Abdelfattah Mourou hurrying the legislation process and not extending the consultation period.

Consequently, the passing of the bill coincided with the July 25 Republican Day – a hollow attempt at symbolism given what was at stake in libertarian and democratic terms.

And, as a piece of legislation, it threatens the incipient and fragile democratic structures of Tunisia, which are newly in place since their adoption in early 2014.

Quick fixes and gimmicks

This new law replaces the 2003 anti-terrorism law adopted by the ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime.

The law echoes Ben Ali’s fixation with solving terrorism through bad lawmaking and draconianism – not to mention the quest for quick fixes and gimmicks – and it threatens fundamental freedoms and liberties during a critical phase of democratic reconstruction in Tunisia.

Worry over Tunisia’s new anti-terror laws

What is regressive about the law is that it is, in parts, worse than the law it has replaced – the 2003 anti-terrorism law previously adopted by the ousted dictator’s regime.

For instance, there are a number of questions that can be raised relating to the rights of accused citizens, especially during the investigation phase for alleged acts of terrorism.

In the new law, detention without a court order is up to two weeks. The law also annuls the right to legal assistance during interrogations.

In the 2003 law, the detention period could not exceed six days.

In my personal discussions with both secularist and Islamist intellectuals who support the bill, many have raised the superficial argument that even the United States has illiberal anti-terrorism laws in place.

Those same people seem to ignore the fact that the US enjoys strongly independent judiciary and legislative branches, in addition to an array of consolidated civil and civic structures that function with the explicit purpose of inhibiting and punishing illegal actions.

Moral high ground

It is important to note that the US has regularly committed illegal acts (eg, rendition flights, Guantanamo Bay detentions) off of American soil and out of reach of the accountability of its own judiciary systems.

In Tunisia, public opinion seem to be backing up the new law.

The state claimed it acted from a “high moral ground”, and the media – with very few qualified exceptions – followed suit.

It was a failed test of free speech in which dissenters from parliament and civil society came under attack.

The pressure was such that even Ennahdha jumped on the bandwagon to support a bad law, which does not bode well for Tunisia’s democratic citizenship and democratisation.

There have been no tangible measures taken thus far to address extremism effectively.

No one has made efforts to integrate civil society and legal watchdogs to cooperate more effectively to holistically fight against terrorism.

This approach is vital given that the new law seeks to revive Tunisia’s powerful and pervasive state-run security and intelligence capacity, as well as to appease the security die-hards from the Ben Ali era.

The mass mobilisation of army and police forces can quickly become the tool of a resurgent authoritarianism – especially in a country with a long history of it.


The risk lies in the fact that the new law could legitimise heavy-handedness and secrecy as necessary measures and tactics in the fight against terrorism in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

Unrealistic expectations

Similarly worrying are the unrealistic plans of Prime Minister Habib Essid, who’s attempting to build a sand barrier along the porous Libyan border.

While the recently-passed law cannot be seen in isolation as it accompanies the securitisation of the border with Libya, a barrier – a la Israel – will be a drain on the civilian economy, which does not have the means to direct its scant resources and materials towards anti-terrorism security mobilisation.

Like its neighbours in the Maghreb region, Tunisia has joined the long queue of nations fighting terrorism and following the security “route” at a critical historical juncture of democratic trail and learning.

While “security” measures are discussed almost universally in the national discourse of extremism, no clear interpretation of the concept has emerged.

It is almost a recipe for fighting fire with fire, and with the new anti-terrorism law, it becomes fighting terror with “legal” terror.

In the absence of conceptual and legal clarity of the term, the security apparatus indirectly empowered by the new anti-terrorism law will be tempted to define its own mandate in the fight against terrorism.

The history of unchecked discretion in such matters has left many democratising states collapsing back into dictatorship after vesting too much in security at the expense of democracy.

Treading an uncharted route

Like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, Nidaa and company in Tunisia could tread an uncharted route, threading the line between lawful defence of state, citizen’s rights, and illegality – similar to the era of Ben Ali – in the fight against extremism.

US President Barack Obama announced that Tunisia is a major non-NATO ally, which qualifies it for closer strategic and military cooperation with the US and the EU.

The Arab Awakening – Death of Fear

This endorsement will not help the embattled Tunisian leadership in developing new, out-of-the-box strategies on both local and global levels.

Following a path characterised by the rolling back of democratic rights – and of political institutions strategically using national security to their advantage – is one sure way of eliciting acquiescence on the part of scared citizens and an international community more than willing to buy into the narrative of the “war on terror“.

Even with the Bush era having come to an end, the Obama administration has no less needed to chase its fair share of bogeymen.

In that kind of understanding, freedom was seen as a threat that comes with a lack of control over undesirable and disgruntled elements of society.

Resurgent authoritarianism

If rule of law and due process are undermined during initial democratisation – as in Tunisia’s case – politicisations of the legal system and political expediency forever will dictate how justice is meted out.

The mass mobilisation of army and police forces can quickly become the tool of a resurgent authoritarianism – especially in a country with a long history of it.

Given the pervasiveness of the security apparatus under the ousted regime, many fear it could easily re-emerge.


Tunisia’s leaders must recognise that for Obama and other Western powers, there are more pressing issues and interests than the democratisation process of a single North African country.

Historically speaking, the US, the EU and their allies overlooked democratic deficits in Muslim majority countries as long as such countries were in line with Western ideology or their economic and strategic interests.

For now, it seems Nidaa Tounes and its partners in parliament are bluffing their way through politics via blind pro-US policy preferences – which does not equate to pro-democracy predilections.

One can only hope that these decisions do not lead Tunisia towards becoming a national security state clad in the veneer of democratic trappings.

Larbi Sadiki is an academic at Qatar University where he teaches international affairs. He is the author of Rethinking Arab Democratization published by Oxford in 2009 and 2011 and is editor of the Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring, which was recessed in 2015.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.