Thirteen NGOs urged Tunisian authorities on Friday to drop a draft law providing restrictions on civil society organizations, which could result in a "major setback" for rights after the country's 2011 revolution.
The text, which "recently leaked", "would give the administration excessively broad and discretionary powers to interfere with the modalities of creation of civil society organizations, their activities and their funding," Human Rights Watch (HRW) lamented, quoted in a statement signed by 13 NGOs.
On February 24, President Kais Saied, who granted himself full powers at the end of July -- including the power to legislate -- accused civil society organizations of "serving foreign interests and attempting to interfere in Tunisian politics. He announced his intention to regulate foreign funding of associations, particularly certain political parties.
The 13 NGOs, including Amnesty International and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), called on the authorities to "refrain from imposing new restrictions on civil society organizations.
If implemented, it would be "a major setback to the progress made on freedom of association following the Tunisian revolution of 2011" and "a further blow to President Kais Saied's human rights guarantees," their joint statement said.
"Tunisians know from experience the dangers that restrictive laws can pose to civil society and public debate," said Amna Guellali, AI's deputy regional officer, recalling that under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the authorities "relied on restrictive regulations on associations and on burdensome administrative procedures, which played a key role in muzzling dissent.
NGOs, which after the fall of Ben Ali played "a crucial role in providing essential services to the population and holding the government accountable," should be "encouraged and protected, not threatened," said Eric Goldstein, deputy regional director for HRW.
According to the statement, Tunisia has more than 24,000 NGOs and associations in a wide range of fields.