Tunisian and international rights groups on Friday urged authorities in Tunis to scrap a draft law that would restrict freedom gained by civil society during the 2011 revolution.
The 13 groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said the recently leaked bill would “constitute another blow to human rights safeguards by President Kais Saied since his July 2021 power grab”.
Saied last year sacked the government, suspended parliament and moved to rule by decree, sparking fears for democracy in the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings.
In a speech last month, Saied accused civil society groups of serving foreign interests and trying to meddle in Tunisian politics, saying he would move to ban all foreign funding for such groups.
In their joint statement on Friday, the rights groups urged Saied to “immediately scrap” the planned law, warning it would give authorities “overly broad powers and discretion to interfere” with civil society groups’ operations, funding and freedom of speech.
“Tunisians know from experience the dangers that restrictive laws can pose to civil society and public debate,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty’s regional director.
She said bureaucratic NGO regulations under late dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been used to “smother dissent”.
Draft laws in the North African country no longer go through parliament since Saied suspended the legislature last year.
The leaked draft law could permit authorities to dissolve civil society groups at will without going through the courts, “although the relevant provisions are ambiguous”, the rights groups said.
They noted that many Tunisian non-governmental organizations rely on foreign funding.
HRW’s regional director Eric Goldstein said civil society’s work “should be promoted and protected rather than threatened”.
Tunisian authorities have not formally confirmed that they are amending the existing law or released a draft.
“Freedom of association – including the right to form and operate civil society organizations free from undue interference by the government – is a basic human right and guaranteed under international law and the Tunisian constitution,” said Alaa Talbi of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.