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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2012 > November 2012 > Challenges Facing the Civil Society in Tunisia

Challenges Facing the Civil Society in Tunisia

Thursday 1 November 2012, by Messaoud Romdhani

One of the major characteristics of every dictatorship is the predominance of the State over the society, killing political opposition and suffocating any burgeoning of civil society being held under tight control of the government. January 14 2011 was a turning point for Tunisia, where independent action undertaken was seen as a provocative challenge to the autocratic regime, and consequently it ought to have been automatically repressed. The consequences of massive repression led to the degradation of the political, social, economic and cultural situation in the country along with gradual erosion of a vibrant and vocal civil society. In fact, the Tunisian government had been adept at co-opting, penetrating and trying to discredit independent civil society organizations. But, “the freedom virus was, at times, weakened but never killed.”

The turning point

January 14 was a turning point not only for political parties, but also for civil society. It has triggered a process that is going to open up new horizons and perspectives On the future of democracy and freedom.

For instance, Tunisia was not only the first country in the Arab region to overthrow a long ruling tyrant peacefully, but it was also the first country to hold elections that have been labeled by international observers as "remarkably free and fair", consistent with the principles and the practices of a regained democracy.

Challenges ahead facing civil society organizations and human rights defenders

Tunisian civil society activists encounter several challenges:

  • Economic and social challenges: Tunisians activiststs are faced with significant legitimate demands of a marginalized and daunted population, especially in the deprived regions of the western part of the country. Suffering from alienation and exclusion, they still voice their economic, social and political rights. In fact, the frustration is rooted in a history of unbalanced economic growth, unequal development, tricking poverty and high rate of unemployment. Independent civil society organizations had converted this frustration into well organized mass protest.

In Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Revolution, figures are quite alarming: 45 percent of girls who have a university degree are unemployed and 35 percent of children drop out school just after their primary education. Protests there reflect people’s discontent. According to the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders, 300 protests have taken place in Sidi Bouzid this year. That’s more than one protest per day!

  • Political, civil and institutional challenges: all over 23 years of repression, the opposition was mainly carried out through protest. As it was rightly said by the correspondent of the Times Magazine about opposition figures in the Arab World: "All they know is what they don’t want". Political parties as well as civil society groups are fragmented and show rarely a visible program. In such changing political reality, one could feel a "political and institutional vacuum".
  • Struggle for freedom of expression: recent controversial appointments to key positions in the public service media, without consultation of any stakeholders; the assault of journalists by the police (130 aggressions against journalists according to the Bureau of Reporters Sans Frontières In Tunisia); the attack on a private TV journalist, Sofiene ben Hmida, by Ennahda activists while covering a sit in in front of the Ministry of Interior; the jail of a director of a private TV channel after being pressurized to stop a satirical program very critical towards the Islamic Government are all signs of a possible backlash on freedom of expression. The media-successful general strike on October 17, 2012 against the stranglehold of the elected government on the press and the protests that followed showed that the climate of fear that loomed in the time of Ben Ali has faded away. But much work has been cut out.
  • Tunisia, the first Arab country to ban polygamy since 1956 and to emancipate women , is now fighting through its resilient civil society for the drafting of gender equality in the New Constitution as the Islamic majority in the Parliament tries to replace equality with ” the complementarity of men and women”, thus undermining women’s rights.
  • The contradiction in the current draft of the Constitution between freedom of belief and the criminalization of attacks on the ”Sacred”; which leaves large room for interpretations of what the term means and leads to censorship of freedom of journalists, artists or academics.
  • The wave of attacks by radical Islamists during all these months and the failure of the government to face them. Such failure has led them , according to Human Rights Watch , to more violence against ”artists, intellectuals and political activists”, culminating on the attack of the American Embassy on September 14, 2012, when four people were killed and 39 were injured in a protest against a film mocking Islam.
  • One of the urgent priorities of civil society is the transitional justice, very necessary to deep root the mechanisms of both justice and equity. Also, to unveil the truth about past violations, tortures and murders, compensate the victims both morally and materially and provide the necessary conditions for national reconciliation which would mean an active contribution to reform the justice and security systems, essential to any stable process of transition towards democracy. One year after the election of the government, nothing much has been done on that issue.

Encouraging opportunities for rights defenders yet to be strengthened

"There is no country in which associations are needed more to prevent the despotism of parties or the arbitrary power of a prince, than those in which the social order is democratic," said Alexis de Tocqueville. To add later, that "in countries where such associations do not exist, there will be no protection against any kind of tyranny.”

The very civil society, which suffered severe, stifling repression during the Ben Ali era is now flourishing as large networks of associations have emerged, mushrooming and trying to cover every aspect of life and needs. They aim at compensating the long years of marginalization, rejection and alienation by answering the urgent needs of a society for democracy, freedom and social justice.

If the emergence of a multitude of associations might be seen as a healthy symptom of a modern society which has long suffered from suffocation and likes to organize itself to ensure a democratic transition, its abundance and fragmentation has given birth to quite troubling phenomena.

Most of the newly-formed NGOs lack the necessary experience and the adequate human and material resources to face the major challenges ahead. At the same time, the few “old” independent human rights groups are faced with the challenges of reviving their structure while answering increasing demands and solicitations.

In fact, during the long years of dictatorship, very few independent organizations have led resistance and their accomplishments are not trivial. Some organizations had gained respect over the years. Among them, the Trade Union Movement (UGTT), especially at the local level, led protests to reduce the social costs of globalization, privatization and economic reform. The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) fought bravely to protect its independence and to denounce human rights abuses. The Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) played an important role not only to preserve a modernist status for women but also to empower the latter. The composition and role of these actors is today changing while they have been weakened over the years.

These actors and the new ones need to have the means to adapt their own strategy and methods to the new challenges and political realities.

Most importantly, the success of the Tunisian civil society will be measured by its capacity to answer the urgent social challenges on an effective and sustainable basis. We should always remember that the revolution was a reaction against poverty, high unemployment and regional inequality.

For example, it might seem a paradox that the very youth that helped to trigger a quite unprecedented revolution in the Arab World is now seeking by any means to flee the country. Like the waves of the first settlers in America, they dream of a better life in Europe. Between 35,000 and 40,000 illegal migrants are scattered in South Europe, often mistreated. In the same vein, hundreds of thousands of refugees coming from Libya arrived in Tunisia when Europe declined -as it still does- to guest tens of thousands of Tunisian migrants in a dignified way.

Today, newly established organizations such as the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, together with “old” human rights groups like the Tunisian League, have amply documented the alarming conditions of those migrants and are trying to lobby the National Constituency Assembly to establish a legal status for refugees in conformity with International Conventions (the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their families, ratified on 18 December 1990), to stop criminalizing migrants and to renegotiate past agreements made with the EU Member States on this subject. This is a big step towards implication of international human rights treaties over domestic law upon their ratification by the Parliament. Tunisia’s International Obligations “are respected as long as they don’t contradict the Constitution,” stipulates the draft. That is a dangerous contradiction. The opposite is true in a democracy: domestic legislations should comply with international standards.

With the implication of new social groups, mainly of those who had been active in the social media, the commitment of a vibrant youth longing for new perspectives and the glorious past of a resistant civil society that has long espoused universal values and human rights; all this has opened up new dimension for new momentum to a flourishing social and political life in Tunisia.

But that would not be enough if it does not go hand in hand with the requirements of a true democracy (guaranteeing women’s rights and ratifying all the international conventions on that respect, ensuring civil and political freedoms, providing absolute freedom of conscience a constitutional value and scrupulously respecting freedom of association and freedom of speech, especially the independence of the media, integrating the principles of human rights in all schooling levels: primary, secondary and higher education, etc.).


From the pioneering experience in Tunisia and other experiences in the Arab world, it seems that democratic breakthroughs take only weeks. But, the development of a true democratic culture is going to take much longer. Supporting and strengthening the role of human rights defenders, as major agents of sustainable change, is essential in this context. It would prevent any still possible backlashes and thus protect rights defenders’ actions over the long term.

Messaoud Romdhani is member of the Tunisian Forum for the Economic and Social Rights (FTDES). He is in the organizing committee of the World Social Forum-2013 to be held in Tunis from 26 to 30 March 2013.

Translated from English by Holly Woodcroft