Ben Ali’s regime competes with its homologues in Libya and Syria for the doubtful honor of being the most repressive authoritarian incumbency in the Mediterranean. However, unlike its neighbors, Tunisia has also been commended as a rare island of stability, economic dynamism and social modernity, qualities appreciated by Western policymakers and investors alike.

Despite this, and in stark contrast to its economic success, Tunisia’s political outlook is anything but rosy. Tunisian human rights activists are routinely harassed by secret service agents, using methods that range from grotesque to violent. Prominent rights activists, politicians from the opposition and their families are being openly fallowed and threatened by secret service agents on a daily basis.

Opposition websites, blogs and even social network sites like facebook are systematically blocked. Phone lines are being tapped, and individual email accounts monitored by a multitude of state servants. Tunisia, a modern Orwellian surveillance state par excellence, is now seeking closer ties with Europe.

The European Union has been struggling to find a suitable formula for dealing with this Janus-headed partner. Since the adoption of a EU-Tunisian Action Plan that outlined a catalogue for reforms in 2005, Tunisia’s record in the economic sphere has been outstanding: it has become the first Arab southern Mediterranean country to establish a Free Trade Zone for industrial products with the EU in 2008. When it comes to economic policy, European diplomats are quick to say Tunisia “acts rationally”.

This is not the case in the area of political reform, in which Tunisia’s record has not improved but worsened in recent years. In an attempt to find new and attractive incentives for reforming its southern neighbors, the EU has been negotiating with Tunisia the possibility of granting the country an upgrade of relations – a so-called ‘advanced status’. Such a status, which was first granted to Morocco in 2008, would not only entail substantial additional aid, further trade liberalization and integration with the EU in several policy areas, but it would also symbolically signal the country as being an ‘advanced’ EU partner in the Mediterranean.

In the midst of negotiations for this upgrade, Tunisian lawmakers have approved a controversial amendment to the Criminal Code that effectively forbids systematic contacts between Tunisian human rights activists and European institutions. The amendment, which entered into force on July 1st 2010, criminalizes “any persons who shall, directly or indirectly, have contacts with agents of a foreign country, foreign institution or organization in order to encourage them to affect the vital interests of Tunisia and its economic security”. In other words, this piece of legislation allows the prosecution of anybody with international links, including human rights activists liaising with foreign governments, multilateral bodies and international NGOs.

The proliferation beyond the country’s borders of reports on human rights violations in Tunisia would also be inhibited if Tunisian authorities considered these to negatively affect its image. While local activists have been forcefully demanding that the EU impose stricter conditions relating to democracy before granting Tunisia advanced status, there can be no doubt that this amendment is a deliberate and very targeted measure by the regime to shut off any criticism coming from within the country that might spoil its chances of being granted such an upgrade.

Recent statements from the Tunisian government have reinforced such fears: unconcerned with revealing the regime’s true intentions, Minister of Justice and Human Rights Lashar Bououni explained in a recent parliamentary intervention that the term affecting the vital interests of Tunisia used in the amendment also included “inciting foreign parties not to extend credit to Tunisia, not to invest in the country, to boycott tourism or to sabotage the efforts of Tunisia to obtain advanced partner status with the European Union”.

Lately, Tunisian activists have been under severe attack. In fact, those groups that are able to legally operate in Tunisia have been allowed to do so because of their international connections and networking capacity. It is the Tunisian regime’s concern for its image abroad that has shielded these groups from a stronger control. Tunisian rights advocates now fear that by restricting international networking and advocacy, the new amended Criminal Code will break their last bastion of protection.

As things are, the desire to obtain new economic and political privileges from the EU emboldened the Tunisian regime to apply further measures of repression. In this sense, the EU’s strategy of inducing political liberalization through incentives and integration has (at least temporarily) backfired.

The EU must now react immediately, leaving no doubt that no further privileges or upgrades will be awarded as long as Tunisian human rights activists are kept from freely contacting international bodies. If the EU carries on with negotiations as usual, it becomes a de facto accomplice to the unacceptable dealings of the Tunisian regime, effectively ridiculing the rationale of democratic conditionality that is at the heart of the European Neighborhood Policy.

By Kristina Kausch
Research Fellow at FRIDE, Madrid

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