Tunisians are baffled and anxious in the midst of a series of events that threaten to plunge the country into chaos, including the execution of an armed group of soldiers on July 29 near the Algerian border. The assassination of the opposition parliament member Mohamed Brahmi on July 25 only intensified a long-running political conflict between the ruling troika—the Islamist party Ennahda, the Congress for the Republic and the Al Takattol party –and the secular opposition. The rhetoric on both sides has grown more radical.
The opposition wants to dissolve the National Constituent Assembly, elected in October 23, 2011, as well as the current government and replace it with one headed by a technocrat. Unsurprisingly, the ruling troika opposes these steps and so far only accepts a government reshuffle.
Regardless of which options are selected to resolve the crisis, political players should lay out a clear course to protect human rights if the transition to democracy is to remain on track. So far, rights have been eroded during the transition period. This trend needs to be reversed through a new constitution that protects human rights and through judicial and security-forces reform.
The government has been indifferent to containing violence by the Salafists, who are pressing for very conservative Islamist rule, or the Leagues to Protect the Revolution – an association formed after 2011 revolution and now accused of being used by the main ruling party to attack politicians, journalists, unionists and civil society members. Furthermore, abusive laws adopted by the former regime to suppress freedom of expression are still very much in play.
Now, with targeted assassinations and armed attacks focused—for the moment—on the army, the authorities need to ensure security for Tunisia’s citizens without sacrificing the hard-won rights gained since the revolution.
The assembly’s progress has been marked by a succession of ever-more intense crises, fueling defiance on the part of some Tunisians toward the drafting of a constitution. The day after Brahmi’s assassination, 42 opposition members withdrew from the assembly, joined by 20 other assembly members— 2 from the troika’s side. But the withdrawal had long been planned by some, as they have acknowledged publicly.
The assembly has been a kind of Roman Forum for the people’s representatives to express divergent and diametrically opposed views. The back rooms where schemes for subsequent negotiations are hatched provide a space for viewpoints to meet head-on, and for making improvements to a constitutional document that still needs work if it is to be consistent with core human-rights principles.
Whether the Assembly continues or is replaced by a committee of experts, it is vital to preserve this political pluralism and pass a constitutional document free of the flaws and ambiguities that still weaken the project in its current form.
The key is to bring the document up to international human-rights standards, particularly to reduce lawmakers’ ability to undermine rights and freedoms. The constitution should clearly articulate the right to freedom of conscience in all its aspects and the principle of non-discrimination. Any references to Islam should not conflict with universally acknowledged human rights and the constitution should contain a more robust commitment to economic and social rights.
Ensuring the independence of Tunisia’s courts is of particular importance. Throughout the transition phase parts of Tunisian civil society, along with international groups, have again and again condemned questionable rulings by the judiciary.
Long a tool of the former regime, the courts still function under the same judicial status and with the same institutions that predated the revolution. A Temporary Judicial Council was established in July, with more judges and firmer guarantees of independence than the now-discredited Supreme Council of the Judiciary. But the delay in creating this institution has left a judicial and institutional void that encourages every sort of abuse.
Public prosecutors and judges still employ the old laws adopted before the ouster of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to smother dissidents. This feeds suspicions that the judicial system is under the thumb of majority parties with insidious intentions of making a new social order and striking at those who openly display their diversity. Tunisia’s courts do not appear to follow any kind of clear, objective judiciary philosophy. Instead, criminal law is selectively used to intimidate those who break with the established order.
For months we have seen a surge of trials to suppress freedom of expression. There is Amina, the Femen activist, whom the authorities bombarded with fresh charges for a minor offense. Jaber Majeri and Ghazi Béji drew sentences of seven and a half years for writings considered blasphemous. Weld el 15, a rapper, was sentenced to two years for a song criticizing the police, though the sentence was later reduced. Numerous other artists, intellectuals and journalists have found themselves suddenly caught in the coils of arbitrary justice.
There has been almost no progress in the fight against impunity for grave violations of human rights. Only one sentence has been handed down for a torture conviction from the Ben Ali period, even though torture was a common practice in Tunisian prisons. The courts need to adopt an unambiguous approach that respects rights and supports the fight against impunity, by ceasing to apply the repressive laws inherited from the Ben Ali system, and vigorously prosecuting those who have committed human rights violations in the past, or are still committing them.
Judicial reform needs to go hand in hand with a reform of security forces, especially at this time of acute tensions and heightened threat of violence. There needs to be a code of conduct for the police, with clear directives about restrictions on the use of force at demonstrations.
There have been numerous abuses during the transitional period. The most recent was the brutal response of security forces to peaceful demonstrations the first two days after Brahmi’s assassination. There was excessive use of teargas and the police beat demonstrators, including elected representatives.
The police have never announced an investigation of these abuses, which have repeatedly occurred in recent months. This sense of impunity only fuels greater suspicion on the part of Tunisians and further inflames social and political tensions.
The political crisis in Tunisia has centered on the role of the National Constituent Assembly. As vital as this discussion is, it should not eclipse the broader issue of judicial and institutional reform in favor of human rights, an indispensable part of a successful democratic transition.
Amna Guellali is a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch based in Tunis.