Tunis, Tunisia – The war on Gaza has granted Tunisia a rare moment of political unity, fuelling public appetite for new legislation that risks fracturing civil society groups and potentially isolating the country on the international stage.
Since his July 2021 power grab, decried by the opposition as a coup, President Kais Saied has faced simmering discontent from both supporters of the former parliament and a powerful trade union, the Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail, or Tunisian General Labour Union.
For much of Tunisia’s predominantly young and progressive civil society groups, Saied’s presidency has provided a focal point of dissent, but many are divided between resentment of his authoritarian rule and what most see as an absence of any alternative.
However, Israel’s relentless bombing of the Gaza Strip after an October 7 surprise attack in southern Israel by the military wing of Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, has tugged at deep historical threads within Tunisia, drawing society together in a way that nothing else has, including the 2011 revolution.
Piggybacking on public sentiment?
The deep public anger against Israel and its Western backers, who seem unwilling to even ask it for restraint, have given new momentum to existing proposals to curtail the work of all of the country’s NGOs. They are being seen as a legislative curb on Western influence.
The proposals, put forward by a group of members of parliament, would rewrite the post-revolutionary Decree 88, hailed at the time as among the world’s best legislation for free association, and could serve as a leash to pull all of country’s NGOs back.
The proposed curbs date back to objections by Fatma Mseddi, a lawmaker from Sfax on the Mediterranean coast, over the support offered by civil society groups to undocumented Black refugees sleeping rough on the streets of her city. She wanted the refugees deported and the NGOs helping them blocked from receiving overseas funding.
The legislation would affect all NGOs operating within Tunisia. Public resentment of Western governments support for Israel – at odds with their past rhetoric on democracy building and human rights – has left many of the Tunisian NGOs that they have helped fund exposed to criticism.
“I support the president,” 33-year-old Khadija Malki, who works at a nearby factory, said from a cafe in Tunis’s medina. Of the NGO bill, she said her distrust of Western influence had grown since the attacks on Gaza, telling a translator: “There are so many associations, but it is easier to side with Tunisian ones over foreign ones.”
Electrical engineer Yousseff Jeziri felt the same: “I don’t believe in these associations anyway. They’re just names. I think their presence here is suspicious.”
A measure of the Tunisian public mood can also be gauged by support for a bill that would criminalise normalisation with Israel. Until the president’s intervention on Friday, the bill threatened prison terms for anyone communicating or dealing with any individual or entity from Israel, which would have effectively criminalised members of Tunisia’s Jewish community, many of whose family members carry Israeli passports.
Allowing the state to control NGOs
According to many NGOs in Tunisia, the legislation would essentially demolish the country’s reputation as a development hub. That reputation is already being tested by the actions of the country’s hardline president.
The central thrust of the proposed law focuses on permissions for NGOs to set themselves up. Instead of a simple notification process, the new system would in effect give the government the right to decide which NGOs operate in the country and, by extension, how they operate and for how long.
Since 2011, international organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have established offices in Tunisia. A burgeoning domestic NGO community, like parliamentary watchdog Al Bawsala and the anti-corruption NGO IWatch, has grown, all of whom compete for international grants to maintain their funding.
Organisations serving victims of domestic violence, arranging legal representation for those accused of criminal activity or representing sexual minorities have all grown in number since the revolution.
According to many NGOs, should the new legislation pass, their activities will be under the control of the state.
“This legislation is badly written, and badly written legislation is dangerous,” Amine Kharrat of Al Bawsala said of the proposed revisions to the NGO law. “Moreover, the country’s anti-Western sentiment is allowing President Saied to steer through legislation without any real oversight.”
In February 2022, Saied characterised civil society organisations registered overseas or receiving foreign funding as “extensions of foreign powers, which seek to control the Tunisian people through their money”.
“The MPs want something fast. They want to show their support for Palestine, which is laudable,” said Salsabil Chellali, the Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “But it shouldn’t be done by passing a dangerous law.”
Tunisia’s increasingly vocal support for Palestine comes at a time of heightened international tension. It also places the country at odds with the policy aims of Tunisia’s largest single international donor, the United States, which continues to push for Arab states to normalise relations with Israel.
“The president knows exactly how this will be seen,” political analyst Amine Snoussi said.
“It will impact his negotiations with the IMF [whose majority shareholder is the US] while denting his image among Europe’s far right, who love both Israel and Saied and who he needs to work with over migration.”