Tunisia’s democracy under threat after the recent terror attacks

By Paul Schemm, AP

TUNIS, Tunisia — The seven men spent a week in a Tunisian prison on terrorism charges, suffering what they claim was torture under custody, before a judge released them for lack of evidence. But as they stepped out of the courthouse in early August, plainclothes policemen swooped in and spirited them away.

After their lawyers protested, Justice Minister Salah Benaissa told local radio that arresting suspects without a warrant was now permissible because of the new war on terror: “There is an agreement between the ministry and the security forces,” he said, “that allows them to act against terrorism without previous authorization.”

Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, was its only country to emerge with a democracy marked by increased freedoms and regular elections. But a pair of devastating terrorist attacks that killed nearly 60 foreign tourists has triggered a state of emergency, and police have been arresting hundreds in sweeps. It is prompting many activists to fear a return to the days of repression under late dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia’s fledgling democracy has been cited as the hope for a region in which the democratic promises of the Arab Spring have largely collapsed into chaos — as in Libya — or brought in harsher new regimes as in Egypt. But Tunisia’s freedoms may be buckling as the country clamps down to deal with terror attacks threatening an economy already teetering on the edge of insolvency.

“I have never felt so worried as these days,” said Achraf Awadi, who demonstrated in the streets for Ben Ali’s downfall, and went on to help form I-Watch, an organization monitoring elections and promoting democracy in Tunisia.

Together with several other civic groups, Awadi is sounding the alarm over new laws passed by the parliament that he says will overturn the gains of the past few years, and re-empower the hated police. These include laws to rehabilitate old regime businessmen accused of corruption, weaken the transitional justice process and protect security forces from attacks by journalists.

“If, under the new state of emergency, you can’t even protest in front of the assembly, you have all the ingredients to pass any dictatorship-like laws,” he said, maintaining that the police remain unreformed even four years after the revolution.

Under Ben Ali, Tunisia was a police state in which the feared Interior Ministry harshly repressed dissent; the corrupt economy was run by close friends and family of the dictator.

After the revolution, the newly elected government led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party began passing laws to hold corrupt businessmen accountable, and set up a Truth and Dignity Commission to examine the crimes of the dictatorship.

In the aftermath of the revolution, however, the economy suffered, strikes and demonstrations proliferated and a radical Islamist movement arose that assassinated politicians and attacked tourist sites. People demanded a stronger state.

The Interior Ministry has since embarked on a whirlwind campaign of arrests, detaining hundreds and hundreds on terrorism charges — often on weak evidence.