Corinna Mullin, Visiting Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Tunis and a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Despite two largely successful rounds of elections, the adoption of a widely praised constitution, and the opening up of the political and public spheres to the participation of broader segments of Tunisian society, Tunisia’s “democratic transition” continues to be the source of debate. The apparent resurgence of the national security state has led many analysts and activists to conclude that the struggle for rights and justice is ongoing. 

Most importantly, this includes a largely unchanged legal-institutional framework, which has long enabled the law to be deployed as a tool of power, and security as a discourse through which state legitimacy has been asserted and political violence normalized. A key aspect of this framework has been the 2003 anti-terror law. Widely criticized for effectively criminalizing a broad range of political activity, it has nevertheless survived attempts to bring it in line with international human rights standards. Though the draft counterterrorism law currently under discussion by Tunisia’s legislative assembly may offer some relief, it also has the potential to further undermine a range of internationally protected freedoms and rights. 

Unreconstructed penal and military codes continue to allow for official impunity and provide legal sanction for what many perceive as repressing legitimate political dissent. Rights activists have criticized recently proposed legislation to “protect the police and armed forces,” highlighting clauses that may severely restrict the ability of independent journalists, bloggers, and others to report on and critique counterterror practices. Freedom of expression and privacy are potentially further threatened by the government’s failure to develop a constitutionally grounded legal framework for retaining data and delineating the “role and function”  of the Tunisian Telecommunication Agency (often described as Tunisia’s NSA).

National security in Tunisia, as in many other parts of the world, has often been instrumentalized as a means of social control. It continues to serve as pretext for securitizing “problematic communities,” from disenfranchised youth to neglected border communities. The media has often served as an echo chamber for state security narratives.  Torture and lack of due process remain pressing issues, in particular in cases of alleged terrorism. Many fear the situation may deteriorate in the aftermath of the tragic attacks on Tunisia’s national Bardo Museum. Meaningful structural change has been deferred due to a stalled transitional justice process that has prohibited the “black box” of Tunisia’s Interior Ministry from being opened and scrutinized.

However, the question of whether Tunisia’s democratic gains are too fragile to withstand the government’s current counterterror agenda is a limiting frame for this discussion. More pertinent questions might include: does the current political system live up to the ideals expressed during the uprising? What kind of democracy is even possible in the context of a constraining global security law and corresponding neoliberal world economic order that undermine efforts at structural change in any country? Considering the centrality of social and economic grievances to the uprising, can it be a democracy that enables a redistribution of power and wealth so that abstract rights acquire real substance? Can it be one in which the quest for “security” and individual liberties does not reinforce or result in new hierarchies of citizenship, but rather dismantles these? 

Asking, and ultimately answering, these questions will enable us to move beyond discussions that continue to exceptionalize Tunisia’s “democratic transition.” Such questions may also illuminate the reasons for increasing disillusionment with institutionalized politics among some sectors of Tunisian society who may desire democracy not as an end in and of itself, but rather as a means to a more just political system.  Whether or not that system can be achieved in the current geopolitical and national security context is a question with which many people in Tunisia—and elsewhere in the world—are currently grappling.