The prospect of decentralization and more equitable political representation of underserved regions depends largely upon municipal elections, originally scheduled for December 17, 2017. By May, however, it was becoming clear that this deadline was unattainable. On May 9, tensions brewing within the Independent Elections Authority (ISIE) resulted in the resignation of its president Chafik Sarsar, vice-president Mourad Ben Moula and magistrate Lamia Zargouni. The Local Districts Code, presented in April by the Ministry of Local Affairs and Environment to establish the division of roles for central government and municipal authorities, has since been held up in parliament by conflicting interests of different ministries and the two majority parliamentary blocs intent on gaining political ground in the elections. The delay on passing the new code prompted some to suggest proceeding with municipal elections, now pushed back to May 2018, using the old districts law dating from 1975. The decentralized governance mechanisms that municipal elections are to put into place promise a solution for addressing the specific needs and demands of Tunisia’s different regions. This will be particularly important for the country’s most marginalized governorates, where rates of unemployment and external migration are highest.

Security response to public dissent

In April, a protest movement in the governorate of Tataouine demanded the government’s attention to address social and economic problems in the region. Employees of the Canadian oil company Winstar organized a strike on April 5 after the company laid off 23 workers. A small protest in Tataouine was followed by a well-organized sit-in at El Kamour, where more than a thousand protesters succeeded in blocking roads and shutting down pumping stations. The allegedly accidental death of protester Anouar Essekrafi by a police car on May 22 came two weeks after President Caid Essebsi had warned sit-inners not to interfere with productivity, announcing that «the army will protect sensitive production sites…the army will be firm in its mission». Citizens in Tataouine and other cities turned out in solidarity with the El Kamour.

The repression and criminalization of protest movements continued throughout 2017, those arrested during protests often subjected to police violence and human rights violations. The reflexes of a police state have hardly changed since the end of the Ben Ali regime, and in spite of legislation passed in 2016 reforming the Penal Procedures Code, last year was no exception. On November 2, an assault on two policemen in front of parliament headquarters in Tunis resulted in the death of officer Riadh Barrouta. President Caid Essebsi reacted by urging for the adoption of legislation « guaranteeing the rights of agents and security forces». On November 8, police unions demonstrated for the expedient review of security draft law 25/2015, threatening to refrain from protecting deputies. NGOs and a number of unions present during parliamentary hearings over November 8 and 9 voiced concerns that the measure would render citizens susceptible to undue punishment for comments or behaviors that could be construed as an offense against law enforcement officials.

The same month, lawyers and human rights lobbied for detainee rights and the implementation of penal code reforms through the application of Law 5-2016. Better known as Law 5, the measure was initially praised as a « landmark step» for human rights in Tunisia, since it reduced the pre-charge detention period from 72 to 48 hours, requires that judicial police inform suspects of the cause of detention and of their right to a medical exam and access to a lawyer. But since the measure took effect in June 2016, reports of human rights violations during arrest and detention of suspects indicate that old practices continue. On November 14, Lawyers without Borders and the Tunisian Bar Association launched the campaign « Apply Law 5 » to inform citizens about their rights under the new law, reporting that still only 19% of 25,000 pre-charge detainees are accompanied by a lawyer. Besides implementing security system reforms, Tunisia’s leadership faces the daunting task of tackling corruption. And as the incoherence of policies at the executive level seems to indicate, this will be one long, slow battle.

Tackling corruption, a war with no strategy

When Prime Minister Youssef Chahed was appointed to lead Tunisia’s “National Unity” Government in August 2016, fighting corruption was second on his list of priorities. After announcing the war against corruption in May 2017, his government ordered a series of arrests and investigations into the cases of businessmen and customs officials implicated in embezzlement and smuggling. In spite of the international attention that Chahed’s campaign received, the fight against corruption follows no apparent strategy, and supporting legal mechanisms proposed in parliament were appealed on the basis of unconstitutionality. Then, on September 13, deputies voted to pass the “reconciliation law”, version three of a highly contested measure which provides amnesty to administrative personnel implicated in past cases of corruption.

In April 2017, Nawaat had published a leaked plan of action for the third version of the economic and financial reconciliation draft law, prompting the Presidency’s « investigation » into Nawaat’s sources. After 2 years of successfully pressuring parliamentary deputies to reject the measure presented by the Presidency in 2015, the protest movement Manich Msamah [I will not pardon] finally failed to prevent its adoption. However, it keeps its promise as a sign of an eventual renewal of the political action.