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Tunisian voters balancing security and freedom

A woman holds a placard reading: “No to Terrorism” as she demonstrates in front of the National Bardo Museum a day after gunmen attacked the museum and killed scores of people in Tunis, Tunisia, Thursday, March 19, 2015. The Islamic State group issued a statement Thursday claiming responsibility for the deadly attack on Tunisia’s national museum that killed scores of people, mostly tourists. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Tunisia remains the Arab Spring’s lone, albeit tentative, success story. In the fall of 2014, the country held parliamentary and presidential elections that were deemed largely free and fair by international and domestic monitors. As a result of electoral returns, Tunisia witnessed a change in government from one led by the Ennahda party, the country’s mainstream Islamist movement, to one led by Nidaa Tounes, a party composed of a number of political actors united in their anti-Islamist stance. Nidaa Tounes party leader Beji Caid Essebsi was later elected president in a two-stage run-off election, replacing interim president and Ennahda-ally Moncef Marzouki.
On Oct. 26, 2014, the day of parliamentary voting, we partnered with enumerators from Tunisian NGO Sawty, Sawt Chabeb Tounes to survey 1,157 Tunisian voters as they exited polls in the governorates of Beja, Gafsa, Sfax, Tataouine and Tunis. We explore the full results of the survey in a recent policy paper published by the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Responses revealed that the tension between balancing civil liberties and security concerns divides the Tunisian electorate and deeply colors views of its emergent democracy.
Security issues, many of which predate the fall of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, have repeatedly threatened to derail the democratic transition. In February and July of 2013, Tunisia witnessed the assassination of two left-wing politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. Over the past four years, the absence of a strong central state has led to the trans-national flow of weapons, contraband goods and training between armed groups across Tunisia’s porous borders with Algeria and Libya. National security forces have frequently clashed with militants within Tunisia, including major incidents in February 2014 and just days before the October 2014 election.
Tunisia also has the dubious distinction of being the homeland for the largest number of foreign fighters in Syria defending the Islamic State for 2014. The trend of Tunisians leaving their country in search of armed conflict, however, may speak more to the relative paucity of opportunities for organized militancy at home. A notable exception occurred in March 2015, when militants killed 21 foreign tourists and a police officer in an attack on the Bardo Museum, housed directly next to the country’s parliament in Tunis.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that security was an extremely important concern for Tunisian voters in our survey. When asked in an open-ended question about the most important issue facing parties and voters in 2011 and 2014, 12.3 percent of respondents answered “security, violence, and terrorism” for 2011, and this increased to 16.7 percent for 2014. Though mentions of security and violence decreased by less than 2 percentage points between 2011 and 2014, mentions of terrorism quadrupled during the same time period from 1.7 percent in 2011 to 7.5 percent in 2014. Security issues gained equal attention from respondent compared to issues of economic growth and development, and garnered far more concern than “religious issues,” despite the salience and polarizing nature of public debates about the role of Islam in public life under the 2011-2013 Ennahda-led Troika government.
At the same time, however, respondents also mentioned issues related to procedural democracy and the protection of civil liberties at a high rate. This included references to electoral laws and voting irregularities, civic freedoms and rule of law concerns, and institutionalizing a democratic system. These responses constituted 15.3 percent and 12 percent of responses for the more important issue facing the country in 2011 and 2014, respectively.
[Figure 1 – the most important issue facing Tunisia]
addala fig 1Caption: The most important issues facing Tunisia in 2011 and 2014
Data: 2014 original exit poll conducted by the authors; Figure: Chantal Berman and Elizabeth Nugent
Perhaps more significant, prioritizing security over personal freedoms appears to be an important predictor for how Tunisian voters consider and remember the events of the past four years. We asked respondents whether, given developments since 2011, they considered the revolution to have been a positive or negative event, and allowed them to explain the reasoning behind their answers in a follow-up open-ended question. Our sample of 928 respondents was divided; 35.2 percent answered that the revolution has been a negative thing and 45 percent said it has been a positive thing. These samples cited very different reasons for their answers. Those who consider the revolution a positive development overwhelming cited freedom as the reason. Of those who responded that it was a negative development, 20.6 percent cited issues related to a decline in security and stability, and an increase in terrorism.
[Figure 2 – Positive and negative rev]
addala fig 2
Caption: The most important issues facing Tunisia in 2011 and 2014 by perception of 2011 Revolution
Data: 2014 original exit poll conducted by the authors; Figure: Chantal Berman and Elizabeth Nugent
Our findings illustrate that the Tunisian electorate is concerned both with establishing a secure state and guaranteeing personal freedoms. Until now, these two policies have been mutually exclusive in the region; the particularly strong and muscular coercive apparatuses that guarantee national security and which define Middle East regimes have historically prevented democratization and violated the civic rights of those demanding them. This is nowhere more true than in Tunisia. The country was considered a staunch ally of the George W. Bush administration in the U.S. “War on Terror” and used the broad powers granted to law enforcement under its 2003 terrorism law to not only target growing Salafi-jihadi groups but also to increase repression of freedoms of expression and political opposition – a feat in a country that had already been defined by severe political repression for decades.
Tunisia is currently in the process of drafting new security legislation – a version of a bill was sent to the new parliament for debate and vote in April, though it has yet to be scheduled – and debate among politicians and the public mirrors these dual concerns. On the one hand, instability is a growing concern: Since 2011, militant attacks have killed more than 75 and wounded more than 190 members of Tunisia’s security forces – and obviously must be addressed. At the same time, current legislation contains a number of concerning provisions. In July 2014, Human Rights Watch warned that the draft terrorism law “retains some of the most troubling provisions of the 2003 law” and recently issued a statement that the legislation in its current form “could criminalize the conduct of journalists, whistle blowers, human rights defenders, and others who criticize the police, and would allow security forces to use deadly force when it is not strictly necessary to protect lives.”
Ongoing efforts and debates in Tunisia, including a national transitional justice campaign under the auspices of the Truth and Dignity Commission, demonstrate that not enough time has passed for the country to have fully reformed the hard-handed policing practices of the previous era, justified in the name of national security, and the firmly entrenched institutions that perpetuated these crimes. Though Essebsi certainly intended to signal a strong state-led response to terrorism when he declared, “We are in a war against terrorism,” after the attacks earlier this year, it may also conjure up not-so-distant memories of national leaders abusing terrorism laws to crack down on freedom of expression and political dissent. Tunisia’s citizens have not forgotten previous abuses, and remain wary of a return to a system in which the police were all but synonymous with violations of civil liberties.
Continued instability does not signal that Tunisia’s ongoing experiment with democracy has been derailed, as was suggested in the days after the Bardo attacks, just as a debate about balancing individual liberties and national security does not signal a lesser commitment to ensuring the country’s safety. These events and our findings demonstrate that Tunisia’s citizens and elected representatives are actively participating in a debate over a fundamental tension inherent in all democracies. Whether knowingly or not, Tunisians collectively risked their lives, their livelihoods and the stability of their country over four years ago to demand a more democratic system. Despite the major challenges and insecurity the country has experienced since 2011, a significant portion of Tunisians still remember the revolution for the positive changes it led to as measured by the democratic rights they gained by mobilizing against the former regime.
Radhouane Addala is a Tunis-based freelance correspondent and producer with experience working across the Maghreb for international news agencies. Chantal Berman and Elizabeth Nugent are PhD candidates in the department of politics at Princeton University. Berman and Nugent are co-authors of “Defining political choices: Tunisia’s second democratic elections from the ground up,” a Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy Analysis Paper.