Pushing Back against Narrowing Space for Civil Society in Tunisia

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The Power of Coalition


Civil society plays a vital role in society. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) connect citizens and governments, hold governments accountable, and advocate for citizens’ interests. After being widely celebrated in the 1990s, civil society across the world is now facing shrinking support and growing restrictions. Drivers behind these restrictions in Tunisia include professed concerns about terrorism, a dominant security agenda, and the shift within civil society from service delivery to advocacy, which can seem threatening to governments. Government restrictions most often target the social justice sector and obstruct the work of NGOs through legal restrictions, financial measures, and direct threats to civic actors. Recently, many governments have intensified accusations that civil society and its activists are anti-development, work against economic security, or are terrorist sympathizers or supporters. This paper explores the status of civic space in Tunisia and its development from the most repressive civic space in the Middle East and North Africa during Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime to an open civic space following the 2011 Arab Spring. It also highlights the various ways in which civil society has responded to the closing of civic space, especially as it pertains to pushing back against problematic laws through the formation of domestic coalitions.

Yara Shahin is a political science researcher with a focus on civil society in the MENA region.

This report was made possible by the generous support of the Oak Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Yara Shahin