By the end of 2018, the influx of human rights defenders from Libya and Egypt in particular—but also Maghreb countries—coming to Tunis became more prominent, something that cannot be said for any other capital in North Africa. While COVID-19 restrictions have decelerated this phenomenon, they only seem to have served as a temporary impediment. Over the last few years, human rights defenders from across the Middle East and North Africa have been going to Tunisia whether for conferences, trainings, short term or longer-term stays. Upon arrival to Tunis, some have even setup human rights organizations that focus exclusively on a country or several countries in the region.
The moves to Tunisia have not always been smooth, and human rights defenders see structural risks that could be mitigated, but not eliminated. Human rights defenders and donors can take certain measures to capitalize on the current space available for the human rights movement in Tunisia, including networking with the Tunisian civil society and better investment in building the capacity of the human rights movement both structurally and individually. While Tunisia has provided a home for individuals and organizations, it is currently, for the most part, a transitional hub rather than a permanent one—political, diplomatic and economic obstacles in Tunisia have made it difficult for it to play a bigger role.
Reasons behind shift
Whether it is because of an increasingly repressive monarchy, occupation, a military regime undergoing a political crisis, a multifaceted conflict or an open-air prison for critics, North African human rights defenders and activists have been looking for a safe space to meet, organize, and carry out their work. Tunisia with its relatively more open space became a magnet for these professionals from across the region.
Freedom of association and expression, a familiar culture, and a vibrant and welcoming civil society are some of the major attractions for these incoming human rights defenders. More practically, Tunisia offers some advantages over cities in Europe and the U.S. For regional human rights organizations and staff, it is cheaper to relocate to Tunis and more accessible due to lack of language barriers. This has allowed civil society organizations to relocate more of their staff permanently or temporarily, without significant challenges for integrating or undergoing difficult, costly, and uncertain processes to secure visas.
Human rights defenders from other countries in the region began going to Tunisia in the aftermath of the 2011 revolutions. Initially going mainly for short term events or meetings, some international organizations began setting up a more permanent presence in Tunisia. By 2013, Tunis was the only logical choice in North Africa, as Egypt descended into authoritarianism following a military takeover. During this time, Tunisia managed to emerge from a political crisis while preserving freedom of association and expression to a large degree. International organizations had already setup Tunisia programs as early as 2011, including Organisation Mondiale Contre la Torture (OMCT) and EuroMed Rights. By 2014, regional offices of international organizations, including Open Society Foundations satellite office were set up there and soon others followed. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, one of the oldest regional human rights organizations, became the first regional organization to set up office in Tunis, after it moved its regional programs from Cairo. By 2015, Libyan human rights defenders began to operate in Tunis in more structured manner, while Egyptian human rights defenders only began to arrive on a larger scale towards end of 2018.
Initially human rights defenders moved to Tunisia as part of teams in international organizations or as individuals escaping from their countries of origin. But towards 2016-17 the role of Tunisia as a potential medium-term hub for human rights activists from North Africa was becoming more evident, with human rights defenders and donors alike seizing on this.
Moving to Tunisia comes with its own set of challenges including a powerful security sector, an uncertain diplomatic situation, and bureaucratic and economic challenges. A large and mostly unaccountable Tunisian security sector presents challenges, not only to the rights and freedoms of Tunisians, but also to the sustainability of the non-Tunisian human rights movements in the country. A security sector and prosecutors that are intolerant to criticism and surveilling and arresting human rights defenders would find it easy not to grant visas, residencies or complicate procedures for non-Tunisian human rights defenders, without having to resort to outright deportations—issues privately highlighted by many who eventually left Tunis.
Tunisian diplomacy has also for the most part avoided antagonizing neighboring governments in North Africa, and as such, Tunisian officials are unlikely to allow the country to turn into a platform for outspoken voices in a manner that would pit the country against its neighbors. Managing a “positive neutrality” with neighboring countries means that Tunisian officials would not want to be seen as seemingly “harboring the opponents” of regional neighbors. This is especially true for Algeria and Morocco, where Tunisian diplomacy is invested in maintaining friendly relations—for this reason, it is difficult to see human rights defenders from these countries actively operating from Tunisia. But even with its eastern neighbors, just this year the Tunisian parliament saw drama over disagreement among its members over Libya and Egypt, demonstrating that Tunisia is unlikely to tolerate outspoken voices from there that may publicly draw the ire of Cairo, Tripoli, or Benghazi.
Tunisia also has an expansive bureaucracy, which creates hurdles for operating from the country for non-Tunisians. For example, setting up an NGO can be quite time consuming and riddled with lots of bureaucratic obstacles that prolong the process for months or years. Furthermore, getting residency status (carte sejour), transferring money outside Tunisia, and obtaining visas are also challenges that can be time consuming and frustrating to deal with. COVID-19 restrictions have only made them worse.
Finally, the economic prospects for relocated human rights defenders in Tunisia are limited and offer limited futures for individuals. Human rights organizations based in Tunisia look for staff members with working knowledge in French or English (or both), while a minority recruit those with only knowledge of Arabic. Tunisian universities also do not offer strong programs for human rights defenders who wish to develop their skills, compared to universities in western Europe or USA. Tunisia also does not offer an easy path to asylum or permanent residency, a cause for concern should human rights defenders face threats or risks for their work in their countries of origin, including inability to renew passports or if security services from other countries pressure Tunisia to extradite or deport the person out of the country.
Political developments in Tunisia and in neighboring countries, along with actions taken by international actors, will determine the future of Tunisia as a hub for a North African human rights movement. It is hard to see the Tunisian government expelling international organizations, but specific programs, bodies of their work, or even individuals, as well organizations with specialized focus on certain countries might become “persona non grata” in the eyes of Tunisian officials. Developments in neighboring countries also will affect the future of human rights defenders in Tunisia. More repressive governments at home will push human rights defenders out, while freer societies would be likely to attract their human rights defenders back. There is also the possibility of regional governments pressuring Tunisia to expel these workers.
At the moment there is a ceiling on the role of Tunisia as a regional hub for a North African human rights movement—perhaps it is best to think of Tunisia as a transitional hub for the human rights movement. The lack of an end in sight to the threats in Egypt and Libya that forced human rights defenders to relocate, coupled with the economic and bureaucratic challenges for settling in Tunisia, will always push individual human rights defenders from the region to relocate to other countries where there is more clarity for their future. In the meantime, there are some measures that can be taken to mitigate some of the risks.
The Tunisian civil society acceptance of non-Tunisian human rights defenders and organizations active in Tunisia is a vital factor for their survival. Human rights defenders must ensure that they are not operating in vacuum, but that they are operating within a larger network of Tunisian civil society. This would allow them to withstand potential pressure from their countries of origin on Tunisian officials and to be able to navigate political risks in their work, along with bureaucratic barriers in the country.
Donors can also help strengthen the role of Tunisia as a hub for human rights defenders from North Africa by investing more and by building the capacity of such organizations based there. Donors should also consider capacity-building programs for relocated human rights defenders and opportunities to network with Tunisian organizations to allow them build contacts in the country and to enable them to carry out their work without the pressures they face in their countries of origin. By supporting individuals and organizations that have moved to Tunisia and wish to conduct projects that cover other countries in the region, more opportunities that do not require French or English could be made available to human rights defenders unable to find safety in their countries of origin. Donors should also support capacity-building programs—especially for learning English—to enable relocated human rights defenders to shift to international professional or educational opportunities in Tunisia and elsewhere, to mitigate risks and provide options to those who cannot return home.
This article only represents the opinion of its author and not the organizations with which he is affiliated.
This article was published as part of TIMEP’s “Ten Years On: Organizing in the MENA region” project.