During a June parliamentary hearing, Tunisia's minister of industry, energy and mines shared previously undisclosed details regarding Tunisia's resource sectors. He provided production, foreign investment and revenues figures. He announced the imminent launch of an open data platform that would give citizens access to updated extractives industry intelligence. He wasn't the only powerful actor there—the government's general directors of energy and mines, as well as CEOs of state-owned oil (ETAP) and phosphate (CPG) companies, were also present.
This parade of heavy hitters telegraphed a moment of unprecedented openness for Tunisia and was an important accountability milestone in the government’s approach toward the extractives sector.
Throughout June, pro-transparency movement Winou el-petrol (“Where is the Petrol?”) dominated social media and public dialogue in Tunisia. Even as unemployment and corruption have worsened and citizen demands remain largely unmet, increasing scrutiny of the government by civil society is testimony to its transformation, four years after the revolution, into a true force.
At the same time, recent tragic events in Tunisia have altered the equation for civil society. Two major terrorist attacks have provoked a strong response from the government and well-meaning civil society actors may suffer as a result.
But first, a brief history of civil society’s rapid, recent rise in the country…
Civil society, NGO community has expanded exponentially
Prior to the 2011 uprising, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime systematically suppressed freedom of expression and criminalized civil society activity. Few NGOs were able to exist and operate and most of them were resigned to cooptation by the government as an alternative to exile or prison. However, certain grassroots entities and labor unions remained active due to popular support, and played a critical role in mobilizing citizens during the 2008 Mining Basin Uprising, which laid the groundwork for the 2011 revolution.
The post-revolution interim government introduced new civil society freedoms. Decree 88, published on 24 September 2011, advanced transparency, democracy, plurality, the rule of law, human rights, and civil society independence. This led to an explosion of civil society groups: an estimated 10,000 civil society organizations (CSOs) were formed in 2012; their number rose to over 18,000 in 2015. Mobilized civil society advocated for transparency safeguards within the new constitution during the ensuing constitutional drafting process. Tunisian youth civil society movement OpenGovTN launched as the #7ell (Open Up) campaign, which sought a constitutional article guaranteeing transparency and open government. The campaign garnered the support of various members of the National Constituent Assembly, from across the political spectrum. As a result, article 15 of Tunisia’s ratified constitution now states, “The public administration (...) works based on the principles of transparency, integrity, efficiency, and accountability.”
Then, in January 2014, Tunisia joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Last September it finalized a national action plan that includes transparency commitments.
Empowered civil society organizations mobilize with NRGI help
CSOs worked to ensure the transparency enshrined in the constitution. With support from NRGI and Publish What You Pay, 16 Tunisian CSOs coalesced into the Tunisian Coalition for Transparency in Energy and Mines, made official in March 2015. The coalition’s aim was to advocate for good natural resource governance, with an emphasis on international transparency norms like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).
Tunisia’s energy and mines sector is commonly described as inaccessible and notorious for fueling socioeconomic disgruntlement in resource-producing (mainly phosphate) regions, periodically erupting into dissent and violent clashes. The last citizen protests in Gafsa’s mining basin in April led state-owned Gafsa Phosphate Company to halt production. The company’s total production in 2015 was equal to only one month of its 2010 production due to recurrent strikes.
Discontent over the distribution of resource revenues has acted as a catalyst for social unrest. However, advocacy efforts were initially hindered by the lack of technical expertise amongst local actors. NRGI therefore sought to strengthen the know-how of oversight actors, building trust between them and government. Trained partners have undertaken a number of grassroots initiatives and galvanized support for improved management of natural resources. Association de Développement Sans Frontières (ADSF), operating in the southern oil-producing region of Tataouine, mobilized local CSOs to join in a campaign advocating for government adherence to EITI. (The Tunisian government announced its intention to join EITI in June 2012 but has yet to follow this up with any concrete steps.)
ADSF joined the nascent Tunisian Coalition for Transparency in Energy and Mines in an attempt to bolster its own efforts. The Tunisian Transparency Coalition members draw on individual experiences to create a countrywide platform that enables them to channel regional needs and voices and vocalize a unified message. Members of the coalition have agreed on bylaws and priorities that reflect this inclusive approach.
Ezzeddine Khadhri, secretary-general of NRGI-trained partner and grantee Alliance Tunisienne pour l’Intégrité et la Transparence (ATIT)—itself a network of five CSOs—believes in the importance of coalition-building and taking diverse regional experiences into account. Coalition CSOs are pooling their experience and sharing lessons in order to reach their common coalition goals, with ATIT producing a simplified EITI booklet, for example. Recently, NRGI led a training session for 15 CSO activists.
Challenges to transparency remain
NRGI and its partners in Tunisia have had to navigate a difficult, sometimes unstable political and security environment. However, these efforts have helped situate a network of change-makers who must now face the challenge of asserting the legitimacy of their demands in a growingly worrisome context.
Tunisian citizens worry that the democratic transition’s attendant security challenges might negatively impact the transparency and human rights gains for which Tunisians have been working so hard. Following the March terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, which left at least 22 people dead, the government advanced a draft counterterrorism bill that was denounced for its infringement on individual rights. Then the June 26 attack that claimed the lives of 38 at a beach resort in Sousse accentuated fears that the government would crack down on legitimate and peaceful civil society activity. In a speech after the incident, President Beji Caid Essebsi targeted “Where is the Petrol?” as a smear campaign meant to destabilize the country.
The Tunisian president and his head of government, Habib Essid, have been widely criticized for the repressive response to the most recent terrorist attacks. Essid made 12 emergency declarations that included the closure of 80 mosques “outside of government control,” as well as a crackdown on financial control of CSOs. On July 4, Essebsi declared a 30-day state of emergency nationwide. He accused mining basin protestors seeking employment and demanding accountability from the Gafsa Phosphate Company of disturbing public order and deterring foreign investment. Many human rights organizations have voiced concern that the government’s response impedes individual rights, jeopardizing the country’s democratic transition. The state of emergency was extended by the president for another two months on July 31.
Indeed, amidst growing criticism of the government’s shortsighted approach to counter the terrorist threat, it is becoming increasingly important for civil society to push for structural and radical socio-political and economic reform as a way to tackle the root of the problem. The transparency coalition is determined to take its transparency efforts to the next stage while “rising above the polemics and politically charged discourse that we are witnessing these days,” as ADSF President and NRGI trainee Fathi Bouchiba has said.
Hanen Keskes is NRGI’s Tunisia associate.