In 2022, serious human rights violations continued, including restrictions on free speech, violence against women, and arbitrary restrictions under the country’s state of emergency. Authorities have taken a range of repressive measures against opponents, critics, and political figures, including assigning them to fixed residences, imposing travel bans, and prosecuting them—sometimes in military courts—for public criticism of the president, security forces, or other officials. President Kais Saied's July 2021 power grab has weakened government institutions designed to check presidential powers and stunted the country's democratic transition.
In September 2021, President Saied suspended most of the 2014 constitution and granted himself almost unlimited power to rule by decree. He used this authority to consolidate power in 2022 by introducing a series of regressive reforms and undermining the independence of the judiciary. After suspending parliament in July 2021, Saied dissolved it completely in March 2022 after parliamentarians tried to meet online to protest his exceptional measures.
President Saied maintained his declared political roadmap by holding a constitutional referendum on July 25 and early legislative elections on December 17. However, the constitutional reform process has been opaque and was boycotted by a large part of the opposition and civil society. The new constitution, which was approved on July 26, granted almost unchecked powers to the president without strong protections for human rights.
President Saied ordered a national referendum to take place on July 25 on a new draft constitution to replace the 2014 constitution. Saied’s proposed constitution was drafted by a panel whose members the president named himself and who worked behind closed doors, soliciting little if any input from others. The draft was published only three weeks prior to the referendum, leaving virtually no time for public debate.
The new constitution was approved on July 26 by 94.6 percent of eligible voters, based on a turnout of only 30.5 percent. It came into force on August 17 after the final results were announced.
The new constitution establishes a presidential system similar to what Tunisia had prior to the 2011 uprising, and concentrates powers in the presidency. It creates a second chamber alongside the Assembly of Representatives of the People, consisting of people elected by members of the regional and district councils instead of by universal suffrage. The text drastically scales back the role of the Parliament compared to the country’s post-revolutionary constitution.
The new constitution enumerates many rights but eviscerates the checks and balances needed to protect them. It doesn’t fully ensure the independence of the judiciary and the Constitutional Court that Tunisia has yet to establish.
On September 22, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a significant ruling stating the exceptional measures taken by Saied were disproportionate. The court ordered the abrogation of several decrees, including the one suspending most of the 2014 constitution, and ordered the establishment of the Constitutional Court within two years.
On February 12, Saied dissolved the High Judicial Council (HJC) in a move that compromised the judiciary’s independence from the executive. The HJC was Tunisia’s highest judicial body and oversaw judicial appointments, discipline, and career progression of magistrates. President Saied replaced the HJC with a temporary body partly appointed by the president and granted himself powers to intervene in the appointment, career tracks, and dismissal of judges and prosecutors.
On June 1, Saied issued a decree that further undermined the independence of the judiciary by giving the president the authority to summarily dismiss magistrates. Under the same decree, he sacked 57 magistrates, accusing them of corruption and obstructing investigations.
On August 9, the administrative court of Tunis suspended the president’s decision with respect to 49 of the 57 magistrates and ordered their reinstatement. The authorities have not yet acted on the court’s ruling.
President Saied dismantled a number of national institutions, including the independent electoral commission (Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Elections) that he restructured only three months before the referendum vote. On April 21, Saied issued a decree which changed the composition of the body, giving himself the right to intervene in the nomination of all its members.
Three months before the legislative elections, Saied amended the electoral law without any public consultation or debate. Decree 2022-55, issued on September 15, reduces the members of the assembly from 217 to 161 and allows voters to cast ballots for individual candidates instead of party lists, a change intended to diminish political parties' influence, according to observers. The new law no longer imposes the principle of gender parity to ensure equal participation of women.
Backsliding on Freedoms
Tunisia has seen significant regression in freedom of expression and the press. The authorities have harassed, arrested, and prosecuted activists, journalists, political opponents, and social media users for speech offenses, including for criticizing President Saied, the security forces, or the army. Some were tried in military courts.
Lawyer Abderezzak Kilani, a former government minister and head of the National Bar Association, was jailed on March 2 and tried by a military court on charges including “disturbing the public order,” and “insulting public officials” in connection with a verbal exchange he had with security forces while trying to visit a client.
On June 11, journalist Salah Attia was arrested and subsequently tried by a military court on charges of “accusing a public official of illegal acts related to his functions without proof,” “denigrating the army,” and “knowingly disturbing others via public telecommunications networks.” His prosecution was related to comments he made on the Al Jazeera TV channel related to President Saied and the Tunisian army. On August 16, Attia was sentenced to three months in prison.
According to the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), harassment and detention of journalists in connection with their work have increased over the past year, and access to information has become more difficult. In 2022, Tunisia fell in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index from 73rd to 94th place.
On September 16, President Saied issued a new decree on combating crimes related to information and communication systems that could severely curtail freedoms of expression and the press and the right to privacy. Producing, promoting, or publishing “false news or rumors” is now punishable under Article 24 of the decree by up to five years in prison, and up to 10 years if deemed to target public officials.
Security forces periodically prevented demonstrations by blocking access to certain locations and used excessive force to disperse demonstrators, including on January 14, during the anniversary of the 2011 revolution when authorities banned public gatherings on health grounds, and on July 22, during a protest opposing the constitutional referendum.
Since Saied’s power grab, authorities have imposed dozens of arbitrary travel bans without judicial oversight, restricting people’s freedom of movement. In June and July, former parliamentarians Saida Ounissi and Jamila Ksiksi were prevented from leaving Tunisia.
President Saied has done little to advance women’s rights. While his 2021 appointment of a female prime minister, Najla Bouden, is a first in North Africa, Saied has granted her little to no political autonomy.
Tunisian law continues to discriminate against women in inheritance rights. In 2018, former President Beji Caid Essebsi introduced a bill to parliament to set equality in inheritance rights as the default, but it was never adopted. President Saied has expressed his firm opposition to the reform of inheritance laws.
Tunisia lacks a policy that protects pregnant girls’ right to education, leading to irregular enforcement of their education rights when school officials impose arbitrary restrictions.
Despite the 2017 violence against women law, which set out new support services, prevention, and protection mechanisms for survivors, there are numerous shortcomings in the law’s implementation, particularly in the way the police and judiciary address complaints of domestic violence. The insufficiency of state funding for the law’s implementation is a critical gap, as well as the lack of shelters for women who have nowhere to turn.
President Saied’s dissolution of parliament has precluded the body from debating or adopting any legislation that could secure or expand women’s rights.
Retaining some of the 2014 constitution’s provisions, the 2022 constitution stipulates women and men are “equal in rights and duties and are equal before the law without any discrimination,” and commits the state to take measures to eliminate violence against women. However, the 2022 constitution introduced a new provision stipulating “Tunisia is part of the Islamic Umma [community/nation]” and making the realization of the purposes of Islam a responsibility of the state (article 5). Such provisions could be used to justify curbs on rights, notably women’s, based on religious precepts’ interpretations, as other states in the region have also done.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Article 230 of the penal code punishes consensual same-sex conduct between both men and women with up to three years in prison.
State actors in Tunisia have undermined lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people’s right to privacy with digital targeting, namely online harassment and “outing,” and monitoring social media. Authorities sometimes rely on illegitimately-obtained digital evidence in prosecutions. Human Rights Watch documented cases where government digital targeting has resulted in crackdowns on LGBT organizing, as well as arbitrary arrests. As a result of online harassment, LGBT people reported being forced to change their residence and phone numbers, delete their social media accounts, flee the country for risk of persecution, and suffer severe mental health consequences.