A Tolerant Society Facing the Threat of Terrorism

Following the19th of March 2015 Bardo attacks, many Arab activists and bloggers expressed a huge amount of fear about legal setbacks related to online freedom of expression. The attack was perpetrated by ISIS. It took away the lives of twenty foreign tourists, three Tunisian citizens, and a security guard. State authorities represented by the police, interior ministry officials and the military killed two gunmen who perpetrated the attacks.

On the 28th of March a group Tunisian security forces decimated the leadership of a Tunisian jihadi group linked to al-Qaida's North African branch, including the man identified as the "operational chief" of the attack this month on the National Bardo Museum.

Ben Hamadi Chaieb, also known as Lokman Abou Sakhr, an Algerian, handled the operational end of the March 18 attack. Two gunmen were killed in the attack. Dozens of arrests have been made, five security officials fired and an officer charged with surveying the museum jailed.*

Two other Algerians were among nine people killed Saturday by security forces in Gafsa, near the Algerian border, the minister told reporters, saying the leadership of the ‘Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade’, which has killed dozens of security forces, was decimated. Gharsalli proclaimed the "beginning of the war against terrorism," and revealed that Tunisia has acquired new equipment, "including drones."

According to a press release from the Presidency of the Republic, Essebsi told the French Minister “Tunisia will remain standing, despite the events and will defeat terrorism the way other countries victims of this scourge, such as France and Denmark, have done.“For his part, Cazeneuve said Tunisia and France stand together against these terrorist threats and acts, adding that his country is ready to make available necessary resources to help Tunisia in these circumstances.

Tunisia’s president said the country is preparing laws to bolster its fight against terrorism and is still seeking one suspect in last week’s attack on a museum in the capital that left 22 people dead.

“We’re against a police state” Beji Caid Essebsi, 89, said in Europe 1 Radio. “But I say that liberties cease when abuses begin, and we are the victims of abuses from fanatics.” He didn’t give details of the new legislation.

Many online activists’ comments on Twitter surprisingly reveal that there are many people in Tunisia who wants to enjoy fewer rights, liberties and democratic values for the purpose of fighting terrorism, hate speech, online recruitment of jihadists and death threats to the lives of journalists, bloggers and online activists (#logic Amin Amin (AminKh) March 18, 2015)

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides the right to freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions that are "in accordance with the law" and "necessary in a democratic society." This right includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas but allows restrictions for interests of national security territorial integrity; public safety prevention of disorder maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
The behavior of state security toward terrorism represents a new puzzle for online freedom of expression activists and a counter-narrative to the relative gains of those online activists and bloggers who advocate for more political, economic and individual freedoms. Tunisia is a country internationally perceived as a role model in the MENA region for the consolidation of a successful and sustainable path toward democracy. 

The discourse of the current Tunisian president ‘Beji Caid Essebsi’ is alarming. When Essebsi talks about ‘wiping terrorists off the map', he implicitly reveals his willingness to welcome even more limitations on online freedoms.

Essebsi has also talked about tracking the location of terrorist’s activities using a survey map. According to Essebsi, it's time to welcome greater restrictions on online freedom. On the other hand, many activists like Khawla Ben Aicha, Marwen Dhmayed and Sahar Ammar have said that Tunisian citizens cannot talk about human rights with those who do not speak the same language.

Many activists referred to the anti-terrorism draft law, which was legally introduced by the previous President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime to replace the law of 2003. That law was approved in 2003 under the pretext of maintaining security, but in fact was used as an ‘undemocratic legal tool’ to suppress peaceful dissent.  The law went into force in 2003 however the 2014 version is intended to amend it.

According to Human Rights Watch, the draft presented to parliament in July 2014 was not approved. While the most recent version contains several improvements compared to 2003, the definition of what constitutes an act of terrorism remains vague.

Ironically, members of the Tunisian Parliament located next to the Bardo Museum were going to discuss the constitutional legislation regarding terrorism on that same day of the museum attack.

In an interview with Democracy Now, the director of Human Rights Watch's office in Tunis, Safe Qalali, warned of "the largest state policies of security apparatus and operations against terrorism, which may lead to some decline in human rights."

The deadly shooting rampage at the Tunisian National Museum leaves the birthplace of the ‘Arab Spring’ on edge and has raised the anger of many Tunisian Twitter users. Moreover, it has exposed a fundamental need to empower civil society organizations to carefully monitor the parliamentary work of the government.

Human rights must be the concern everyone. The Tunisian people should think rationally, not hysterically, and work with state officials and the interior ministry to help them identify any suspicious activities in their neighborhoods, cities or even family. The process of fighting terrorism is painful, but citizenship engagement should be consolidated by collective actions of the state security apparatus as well as the neutrality of state constitutional laws.

Indeed, as an example we can mention in 2011 the assault of the Tunisian filmmaker Nouri Bouzid after his call to include Secularism into the new constitution. During the same year, another filmmaker, Nadia El Fani, received death threats for her film which some considered anti-religious.

In legal terms, the legislative power should adopt national laws which implement regulations and anti-terrorist measures that comply with international obligations and conventions related to online and offline human rights.

It is noteworthy that in the coming days the Tunisian Parliament will discuss the draft law on terrorism, which clarifies the future strategy of our state toward the terrorism phenomenon. Due to the history of Tunisia and restrictive legislation of the Internet, these statements did not go unnoticed. The lawyer Qais Balrajab tweeted 19 March:

« Dear Analysts and Politicians, if you think that the Internet is an effective control method against terrorism you are seriously threatening online freedom of expression. As a result of the Bardo attack, there is a possibility to block and monitor a large-scale lack of privacy on the Internet. »

In the past, Tunisia was considered an enemy of Internet freedom, but after the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country for 23 years, Tunisia's interim authorities lifted Internet blocking policy, which allowed for Tunisians, including individuals who adopt radical thought, to access the Internet and express themselves freely. For example, the number of tweets posted with the hashtag # Gzoh_tons to celebrate the attack on Bardo and pray for the mercy on militants has raised considerably. Some politicians joined the activists and called for the respect of human rights while countering terrorism.

The former President Moncef Marzouki said that "tyranny will not solve the problems of Tunisians," calling on the government not to exploit the Bardo attack but to try to disarm the opponents of the revolution of freedom of opinion in Tunisia.

Sahar Ammar is a Tunisian political and social activist, Public Law Student at the University of Law in Sfax in Tunisia. Sahar is member of the Parliament of Tunisian Youth, the youth group of the International Network for Rights and Development (2013), A correspondent for Al-Jazeera Talk network, the Association Thought without Borders (2013) member of the civil pole for development and human rights (2014/2015). She participated as a national observer in the presidential election in 2014 with the National Observatory ‘Chahed’ for election observation and support of democratic transitions.