The country must not slide back into the thuggish police state it was under autocratic former president Ben Aliby Rory McCarthy / March 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
If Tunisia has so far offered the best hope of a successful democratic transition born of the Arab Spring, then now it faces its greatest challenge. So much depends on how the newly-elected government—formed last year by the conservative, anti-Islamist Nidaa Tounes party—responds to the tragic shooting at the Bardo museum, a popular tourist attraction near the country’s parliament which may have been the intended target, on Wednesday. The attack left 23 dead, including 20 foreign tourists, among them one British woman. Will it try to protect the fragile rule of law and the promise of accountable government? Or will it slide back into the thuggish police state it was under autocratic former president Ben Ali, who ruled the country from 1987-2011?
There is much to applaud about Tunisia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy following the 2011 revolution. Two peaceful elections have been held, a new constitution written and political polarisation resolved by dialogue and negotiation. However, there has been little in the way of much-needed reform of the police and the security forces which were the key instruments of power in Ben Ali’s “securocratic” state.
The police remain despised by many, especially in the poorer towns of the interior, where the revolution began. There have been precious few prosecutions of those responsible for killing and injuring demonstrators during the uprising and the most senior regime figures arrested have already been freed from jail. There is still no new law specifying the role and obligations of the security services. In 2014, 1,500 suspected extremists were arrested under a sweeping, much-criticised anti-terrorism law which is still in use even though it was brought in by the autocratic Ben Ali.
When the gunmen attacked the Bardo museum on Wednesday, MPs were meeting in the historic parliament building just round the corner to debate a new anti-terrorism law. This was not a one-off attack. The jihadist threat from a range of fragmented and perhaps competing groups has been growing over the past decade and accelerated dramatically after the 2011 revolution,…