One drizzly November afternoon last year, a local youth troupe danced to the music of Bruno Mars on a tree-lined avenue in downtown Tunis. Crowds of Tunisians and foreigners stayed to watch or walked by, drawn to the international film festival screening nearby. The air was light and carefree.

Barricades and heavily-armed police officers were the only reminders that, five days earlier, a young Tunisian woman had carried out a suicide bombing on that same avenue, just a stone’s throw from the stage.

Tunisia is officially in a state of emergency and has been for over three years.

Tunisia is officially in a state of emergency and has been for over three years. A series of terrorist attacks triggered it, and the fear of others has kept it alive. Although the nature of that emergency is debatable, the government has exploited it to violate citizens’ rights and limit democracy, observers claim.  

The Birth of an Emergency

Three major ISIS-linked attacks battered Tunisia in 2015. In March, three gunmen killed 21 people in Tunis’ Bardo Museum, and then in June, another stormed a beach resort in Sousse, killing 38 tourists. Shortly thereafter, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi declared a state of emergency that lasted 30 days.

An ISIS-claimed suicide bombing then killed 12 presidential guards in November 2015. After that, Essebsi declared another state of emergency. Although this one was intended to last only one month, the president has renewed it periodically since then, most recently in February 2019.

These were “exceptional conditions,” Essebsi said, “which therefore require exceptional measures. He assured the Tunisian people that the declared emergency would not strip them of the freedoms gained in the 2011 revolution, but gave no practical details.

A 1978 presidential decree allowed the president to declare a “state of emergency of up to 30 days, renewable, in the event of serious disturbances to the public order.” The 2014 constitution underlined the presidential power to “take any measures” necessary to maintain national security and safety.

“Tunisia faces very serious danger,” Essebsi said after the attacks. “As we see in other countries, if attacks like Sousse happen again, the country will collapse.” He held up Tunisia’s “full” democracy—unique in the Arab world—as a reason it is targeted and a reason its defense is worth any cost.

Any Measures Necessary

There are certain parallels between Tunisia’s state of emergency and the “war on terror” declared by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2001. Bush’s abstraction justified a shape-shifting, never-ending war, and significant violations of U.S. citizens’ rights in the name of security.

Essebsi’s government has also used the threat of terrorism to curb rights. Its efforts to expunge violent jihadis, extremism, and radicalization have led to unchecked abuses, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI).

Tunisia’s state of emergency “temporarily” allows ministers and law enforcement to restrict public assembly, press freedom, and the right to strike, and gives the judiciary little power to check them. Under the emergency powers, police can arbitrarily arrest people who look religiously conservative, like men with full beards or women with niqabs.

Since the state of emergency was imposed, the Ministry of Interior has put “over 130 people under house arrest and restricted the travel of hundreds of others” suspected of having violent jihadi connections, HRW reported. Often, their suspicions led nowhere.

Security forces have bypassed judges when ordering house arrest, which they can renew without court approval. They rarely give suspects explanations or written documentation, so challenging the orders in court is near impossible.

One court ruled that, even under a state of emergency, undue house arrest is akin to “putting the person in prison” without trial, which violates constitutional rights. Police have largely ignored this decision. A detained Tunisian told HRW that house arrest bankrupted him and made his community shun him. “The problem,” he said, “is that I don’t know when this will end.”

Police Abuses

A 2015 counter-terrorism law further opened the floodgates for abuses, even criminalizing criticism of police conduct. At times, clashes with Tunisian police have left protestors dead.

Security forces have raided thousands of homes, often without warrants and with “excessive force,” AI found. Authorities have targeted low-income areas struggling with radicalization, at times storming entire neighborhoods and making unwarranted arrests. One woman said that when a horde of masked, armed officers broke into her house at 2 a.m., her family was “terrified and thought that they might be terrorists.”

Tunisia’s state of emergency has allowed police to disregard their legal obligation to act humanely and ensure fair judgment. They have beaten, tortured, and detained suspects for days before they were charged or seen by a judge. Allegations of abuse often fall on deaf ears, as the judicial system is hesitant, and sometimes powerless, to prosecute police. In one case, armed police unions stormed a courthouse, forcing the judges to release five officers being tried for torture.

A Tightrope

Tunisia indeed faces a problem. After the 2011 revolution shook off Ben Ali’s repressive secularism, radicalism surged. Militant Salafis, some trained in neighboring Libya, took up arms at home. Others went abroad; more Tunisians have joined ISIS than people from any country other than Syria and Iraq. ISIS’ impending defeat threatens to send a wave of them home. Since 2012, 1,000 ISIS fighters have already returned to Tunisia, either under arrest or incognito.

But Tunisia lacks a system to rehabilitate them. “For many returnees, there may not be even sufficient evidence to take them to trial,” analyst Sharan Grewal told Al-Monitor. “Leaving them under house arrest or surveillance may simply re-create the repressive and marginalized conditions that fed their extremism in the first place.”

Heavy-handed, state-of-emergency policing is not an effective means to de-radicalize, nor to prevent new extremism. If anything, it is the “best recruiting [tool] for terrorist groups,” said scholar Anouar Boukhars.

One activist fears that the government, itself using terror as a tool, is “creating a new generation of [ISIS]” fighters. Police tactics have poisoned community trust and broken families.

For the Security of the Nation

Essebsi’s government uses the specter of terrorism to justify actions that echo the repression of the Ben Ali regime and suggest that Tunis values its power more than its people.

Essebsi’s government uses the specter of terrorism to justify actions that echo the repression of the Ben Ali regime and suggest that Tunis values its power more than its people. When Tunisians rose up in revolution in 2011, Ben Ali declared a state of emergency to protect his presidency. Eight years after his ouster, political squabbles and unbridled security tactics threaten the democratic gains of the revolution.

A bill Essebsi recently proposed to parliament claims to strike a “balance between the protection of the state . . . [and] respect [for] human rights and freedoms.” However, HRW reports, it would only “expand the authorities’ broad powers” to curb rights, with fewer restrictions and no termination date. The bill stretches the idea of a state of emergency far past its limits, essentially creating a permanent condition, instead of seeking a quick return to normalcy.  

While violent extremism is a major roadblock to stability, the state of emergency does not offer a solution. The abuse of power by security forces is not simply a small flaw or imperfection in Tunisian democracy,” stated the Project on Middle East Democracy. “It is a threat to its survival.”