Maro Youssef, The University of Southern California & Sarah Yerkes, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The COVID-19 or Coronavirus Pandemic tested Tunisia’s democratic transition. Initially, the state implemented lockdown measures that kept Tunisia’s death rate and cases low. Proactive state policies in early 2020 effectively kept Tunisia’s COVID-19 cases down during the first year of the pandemic (up to March 22, 2021), with 8,546 reported deaths and 245,706 cases.[i]
Yet, the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, including violence against women.
Reporting of gender-based violence (GBV) or violence against women spiked since the state forced women to stay home with their abusers. They lacked access to shelters and other resources. Women’s rights organizations criticized the state for its inaction in addressing the increase in GBV reporting during the first months of the pandemic. However, feminist mobilization around GBV since the 1990s and bipartisan political support to pass the 2017 GBV law led to swift action early on.[ii]
Civil society organizations (CSOs) used decades of mobilization to influence GBV state policies. Islamist and secular women’s organizations lobbied for and secured greater protections for women during the pandemic, including establishing a new women’s shelter and 24/7 hotline. Yet, President Kais Saied’s July 2021 power grab stifled their efforts and progress. What accounts for this change?
We draw on pre-pandemic ethnographic data and international and Tunisian news articles, polling data, statistics, and reporting during the pandemic. We argue that CSOs made progress in combatting violence during the first year of the pandemic due to political openness, a culture of coalitions, and bipartisan support for eliminating violence against women. However, the President’s power grab and subsequent political instability led to a breakdown in coalition culture and a stifling of civil society, making it harder for feminist organizations to advocate for GBV protections.
The Tunisian case has implications for other MENA states and states with a vibrant women’s movement. Pandemics and crises can create political opportunities to empower women and civil society in fragile and democratizing states. However, they can also marginalize women’s groups and stifle their efforts, especially if states revert to autocratic practices and silence civil society.
Initial Civil Society Gains
Reporting of GBV cases increased five-fold during Year 1 of the lockdown.[iii] Between March and May 2020, government GBV hotlines received over 7,000 complaints (compared to 1400 complaints pre-pandemic).[iv] Tunisian women reported 1,425 complaints in March alone.[v] A Tunis domestic violence shelter received 350 women weekly during the lockdown, a four-fold increase compared to before the lockdown.[vi] Finally, women (14 percent of whom reported intimate partner violence) lost access to birth control since hospitals prioritized COVID-19 concerns and doctors could not easily prescribe birth control.[vii]
Feminist mobilization around GBV predated the pandemic. Secular l’Association Tunisienne des Femmes Democrates (ATFD) and l’Association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Recherche et le Developpement (AFTURD) led the efforts before the Arab Spring uprisings. During the democratic transition, women’s groups lobbied political parties and provided input on drafts of the GBV law.[viii] ATFD, AFTURD, la Ligue des Électrices Tunisiennes (LET), Beity, Aswat Nissa, and Islamist Tounissiet used foreign donor assistance to fund their GBV advocacy efforts. After the law passed, LET and Tounissiet formed a coalition and lobbied to implement the progressive 2017 GBV law.[ix] Activist groups’ separate and joint mobilization helped secure bipartisan support for legislation to end violence against women.
During Year 1, women’s organizations vocally criticized the state for failing to address GBV spikes.[x] They also criticized the police, who refused to take women’s complaints seriously and pressured them to return home when women filed a domestic violence complaint.[xi] Groups also condemned the Ministry of Justice’s halting prosecution and review of GBV court cases and the Ministry of Health’s inability to provide violence survivors with birth control or access to 24-hour shelters.[xii]
The government responded to these organizations’ demands.[xiii] In April 2020, the Ministry of Women (MOW) opened a new GBV shelter with United Nations Population Fund support.[xiv] The center provides victims with the option to self-quarantine for fourteen days before moving to a traditional shelter.[xv] The High Judicial Council urged family judges to protect victims and guarantee their access to justice.[xvi] Tunisia also created a free psychological support phone service for victims and extended the national domestic violence hotline to 24/7.[xvii] The MOW also worked with the United Nations through UN Women to raise awareness about GBV during the pandemic. It created two new videos and radio programming on GBV prevention, masculine behavior during confinement, and increased services available to women survivors during the pandemic.[xviii]
Tunisia’s Year 1 response to spikes in GBV reporting was very promising, especially compared to other MENA countries. In other MENA countries, governments often failed to protect GBV survivors by closing down GBV shelters during the pandemic, as discussed by Rita Stephan in this volume. On the other hand, Tunisia took a holistic gender-sensitive approach during the pandemic, as discussed by Claudia E. Youakim and Crystel Abdallah in this volume. By adopting a gender-sensitive approach, Tunisia addressed GBV more effectively than most other MENA countries. Despite taking these measures and implementing a gender-sensitive strategy in Tunisia, most women did not know about these resources and continued to struggle with GBV.[xix] Furthermore, feminist mobilization decreased during the second year of the pandemic.
The Impact of Saied’s Power Grab on Civil Society Activism
By Year 2 of the pandemic, the Tunisian government faced three overlapping crises: the inability to contain the pandemic, a rapidly deteriorating economic situation, and rising political polarization. In July 2021, Tunisia saw a massive spike in COVID-19 cases, reaching 9,286 cases on July 10, 2021, up from just 2,373 cases one month earlier.[xx] On July 17, 2021, Tunisia reached its highest daily mortality rate since the start of the pandemic, making it the country with the highest per capita death rate in the MENA region and straining Tunisia’s healthcare system beyond its capacity.[xxi] President Saied and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi argued publicly over the country’s failure to control the pandemic, sparking further confusion and outrage amongst the Tunisian public.
On Republic Day in 2021 (July 25), many Tunisians took to the streets to express their anger over a failed vaccine clinic days earlier, which saw an inadequate supply of vaccines leading to stampedes, and rising unemployment related to the pandemic.[xxii] Saied leveraged this outrage that same day, declaring that Tunisia was in an “exceptional state.” He claimed that the crisis justified him firing Mechichi, freezing the parliament, dismantling the High Judicial Council, and removing high-level political actors and bureaucrats who were not loyal to him.[xxiii] Saied also invalidated large parts of the 2014 constitution, empowering himself to rule by decree. Saied’s power grab introduced a massive shift in the political dynamics within Tunisia, as discussed by Yasmina Abouzzohour in this volume.
Saied’s autocratic approach towards the pandemic initially seemed to pay off, with cases dropping to around 100 by November 2021. [xxiv] However, as the Omicron variant hit the country, Tunisia saw a dramatic uptick in cases, reaching 19,923 – the peak thus far – on January 22, 2022.[xxv] Tunisia’s pandemic trajectory since July 2021 has largely mirrored that of the rest of the world – ebbing and flowing as new variants appear and disappear.
His power grab also reversed many of the earlier gains made by civil society groups in the past decade, which impeded feminist organizations from continuing to pursue their agenda. Most troubling for civil society was Saied’s February 2022 speech, in which he threatened to cut off all foreign funding for Tunisian CSOs or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A leaked draft NGO law revealed that, if enacted, the law would severely restrict the ability of civil society groups to operate independently and without political interference.[xxvi] Saied’s restrictions came during a shrinking space for civil society across the region, brought about under the auspices of pandemic response.[xxvii] At the onset of the pandemic, like many other countries, Tunisia enacted a series of measures restricting access to public spaces, such as strict curfews and lockdowns and widespread surveillance. Nearly two years into the pandemic, Saied continued to use the health situation as an excuse to curtail freedom of expression dramatically. For example, on January 13, 2022, one day before scheduled annual protests commemorating the 2010-2011 revolution, Saied announced a ban on all public gatherings under the guise of protecting public health.[xxviii]
Saied’s crackdown on civil society has had a chilling effect. Many organizations and individuals with a past pattern of vocally criticizing the government have been largely silent in the wake of Saied’s authoritarian crackdown. Islamist women’s groups that were vocal on GBV throughout the transition (including during Year 1 of the pandemic) have been quiet as they have had to navigate this new political environment. Their silence has reduced researchers’ visibility of the situation on the ground during Year 2. According to an April 2022 poll, a large portion of Tunisian society supports Saied’s actions (59% of Tunisians approve of Saied’s performance, down from 82% in July 2021). However, many political actors have condemned Saied’s anti-democratic path over the past ten months and have refused to participate in Saied-led initiatives.[xxix] Saied’s campaign against his detractors has escalated with each passing month. As Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia director of Human Rights Watch, noted, it “sends a chilling new message that no one who criticizes President Saied’s power grab is safe.”[xxx]
Feminist organizations, who had vocally criticized the inadequate state response to the rise of GBV reporting during the pandemic, are therefore discouraged from speaking out under Saied’s new political rules of the game. Additionally, the shift in political structures and disempowerment of ministries and judicial officials have made it difficult for feminist organizations to work with the government to implement the GBV law and other changes. Saied not only brought in new Ministers of Women, Health, and Justice in October 2021 but also issued Presidential Decree 117 on September 22, 2021, which subjugated the government to the will of the President.[xxxi]
Despite earlier success at coalition-building across political lines, the demonization of Islamist party Ennahda, whose members had been vital allies in the fight for protections against GBV, impeded the coalition-building process.[xxxii] While some broad coalitions did form to counter Saied – most notably Citizens Against the Coup – they have faced challenges because Ennahda played a role in the coalition.[xxxiii]
While there have been several calls for a new national dialogue, the previous actors who led such dialogues have lost public trust and are now seen as corrupt alongside the establishment political parties. In a recent survey, 96% of Tunisians said they trust the military. Only 30% said they trust unions, and 11% said they trust political parties.[xxxiv] In this environment, coalition-building is challenging and potentially dangerous, deterring CSOs from working together and making it nearly impossible for civil society to influence the current government effectively. The crackdown has also made it difficult to access data on GBV.
Today, given political instability and restrictions following Saied’s power grab, it is difficult for civil society to operate freely, as it has over the past decade, impeding efforts to combat GBV. Most political and civil society actors, including the Quartet, have been discredited by the state and Saied’s supporters. This mistrust has created a political power vacuum. To succeed, marginalized groups (e.g., political parties and civil society groups) will need to form new coalitions and challenge the new status quo. As feminist organizations and pro-democracy groups have done in the past, to be most effective, civil society must overcome the growing political polarization and build broad coalitions with shared interests and objectives to develop tactics to challenge the state to best address GB
[i] World Health Organization. “WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard,” Accessed March 17, 2022. https://covid19.who.int.UNDP. 2020a. “Covid-19 Global Gender Response Tracker.”
[ii] Youssef, Maro and Sarah Yerkes. “The Power of Bipartisan Mobilization: The Success of Tunisia’s Feminist Movement During the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Middle East Law and Governance 14: (2021):1-14.
[iii] “Tunisia: Pandemic Increases Violence against Women.” EuroMed Rights (2020).
[iv] Azcona, Ginette, Antra Bhatt, Jessamyn Encarnacion, Juncal Plazaola-Castaño, Papa Seck, Silke Staab and Laura Turquet. “From Insights to Action: Gender Equality in the Wake of Covid-19.” UN Women Headquarters: United Nations Women (2020).
[v] Frawous, Yosra. “Fakhfakh Left Out Victims of Violence from His Statements Despite His Knowledge of the Numbers” Mosaïque FM. April 24, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4arqkUMnakY&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR3CS4RtzkQO31sLoFpohHjQjircCHHOF26yk8by_A1IoQKAQVu90PnT80w. UN Women. “Press Release: Gender-Responsive Measures to Combat Covid-19 Urgently Needed to Preserve and Advance Tunisia’s Progress on Women’s Rights, Warns Un Women.” United Nations (UN) Women. June 2, 2020. https://arabstates.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/06/press-release-tunisia-urgent-need-for-gender-responsive-measures-to-combat-covid-19
[vi] Frawous, Yosra. “Fakhfakh Left Out Victims of Violence from His Statements Despite His Knowledge of the Numbers” Mosaïque FM. April 24, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4arqkUMnakY&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR3CS4RtzkQO31sLoFpohHjQjircCHHOF26yk8by_A1IoQKAQVu90PnT80w
[vii] AlSultany, Hanaa. “The League of Women Voters (LET): The National Strategy during The Coronavirus Pandemic Harmed Women and These are our Recommendations.” Mosaiquefm. May 22, 2020. http://tn24.tn/ar/article/r-bt-ln-khb-t-str-tgy-ldol-zmn-koron-adrt-b-lns-ohthh-tosy-tn-263456
[viii] Arfaoui, Khedija and Valentine M. Moghadam. “Violence against Women and Tunisian Feminism: Advocacy, Policy, and Politics in an Arab Context.” Current Sociology 64, no. 4 (2016):637-53; Tounissiet. “Tounissiet Report around Organic Law 60/2016 Related to Eliminating Violence against Women.” 2017.
[ix] Youssef, Maro. “Unlikely Feminist Coalitions: Islamist and Secularist Women’s Organizing in Tunisia.” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society: (2021). DOI: 10.1093/sp/jxab020.
[x] UNDP. “Covid-19: UNDP Urges Swift Action to Address Violence against Women and Girls During Pandemic.”: United Nations Development Programme. May 22, 2020. https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/news-centre/news/2020/COVID19_UNDP_urges_swift_action_to_address_violence_against_women_and_girls_during_pandemic.html
[xi] Frawous, Yosra. “Fakhfakh Left Out Victims of Violence from His Statements Despite His Knowledge of the Numbers” Mosaïque FM. April 24, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4arqkUMnakY&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR3CS4RtzkQO31sLoFpohHjQjircCHHOF26yk8by_A1IoQKAQVu90PnT80w
[xii] AlSultany, Hanaa. “The League of Women Voters (LET): The National Strategy during The Coronavirus Pandemic Harmed Women and These are our Recommendations.” Mosaiquefm. May 22, 2020. http://tn24.tn/ar/article/r-bt-ln-khb-t-str-tgy-ldol-zmn-koron-adrt-b-lns-ohthh-tosy-tn-263456
[xiii] Youssef, Maro and Sarah Yerkes. “The Power of Bipartisan Mobilization: The Success of Tunisia’s Feminist Movement During the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Middle East Law and Governance 14: (2021):1-14.
[xiv] Bajec, Alessandra. “‘Violence Is a Virus: Tunisia Opens New Women’s Shelter as Domestic Abuse Surges During Lockdown,” The New Arab. April 30, 2020. https://english.alaraby.co.uk/analysis/tunisia-opens-new-womens-shelter-lockdown-violence-surges
[xvi] Yerkes, Sarah and Maro Youssef. “Coronavirus Reveals Tunisia’s Revolutionary Gains for Women Only Exist on Paper.” Carnegie Endowment for Peace and New Arab. June 22, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/06/22/coronavirus-reveals-tunisia-s-revolutionary-gains-for-women-only-exist-on-paper-pub-82151
[xix] Belhaj Youssef, Hedia “The Gendered Impact of Covid-19 Responses in the Arab Region: A Dire Need for Effective Social Protections.” in Arab Reform Initiative. March 3, 2022.
[xxi] “Tunisia Reports Highest COVID Death Toll since Start of Pandemic.” Accessed April 19, 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/17/tunisia-marks-worse-daily-covid-deaths-since-start-of-pandemic.
[xxii] The National. “Tunisian Health Minister Sacked for ‘criminal’ Covid Vaccine Chaos,” July 21, 2021. https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/2021/07/21/tunisias-health-minister-sacked-for-making-criminal-decisions-in-covid-fight/.
[xxiii] Presidency of the Republic of Tunisia, “The President of the Republic Chairs an Emergency Meeting of the Military and Security Leaders,” July 25, 2021. http://www.carthage.tn/?q=ar/%D8%B1%D8%A6%D9%8A%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%85%D9%87%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%8A%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%A3%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D8%AC%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%A7-%D8%B7%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A6%D8%A7-%D9%84%D9%84%D9%82%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B3%D9%83%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%88-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%85%D9%86%D9%8A%D8%A9.
Reuters. “Tunisia’s President Moves on Economy and COVID-19 After Dismissing Government.” VOA. Accessed April 20, 2022. https://www.voanews.com/a/africa_tunisias-president-moves-economy-and-covid-19-after-dismissing-government/6208873.html.
[xxvi] Amnesty International. “Tunisia: Amend Excessive Covid-19 Restrictions Banning All Public Gatherings,” January 14, 2022. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/01/tunisia-amend-excessive-covid-19-restrictions-banning-all-public-gatherings/; Cole, Sheridan, Amy Hawthorne, and Zachary White. “Kaïs Saïed’s Next Target in Tunisia: Civil Society,” POMED (blog). February 24, 2022. https://pomed.org/kais-saieds-next-target-in-tunisia-civil-society/
[xxvii] Yerkes, Sarah. “Coronavirus Threatens Freedom in North Africa.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. April 24, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/04/24/coronavirus-threatens-freedom-in-north-africa-pub-81625.
[xxviii] Amnesty International. ‘Tunisia: Looming Curbs on Civil Society Must Be Stopped’. March 11, 2022. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/03/tunisia-looming-curbs-on-civil-society-must-be-stopped/.
[xxix] La Presse de Tunisie. “Sondage Emrhod Consulting | Business News, Attassiaa TV : Les Conclusions Habituelles, Mais…,” May 12, 2022. https://lapresse.tn/130110/sondage-emrhod-consulting-business-news-attassiaa-tv-les-conclusions-habituelles-mais/.
[xxx] Human Rights Watch. ‘Tunisia: Military Court Jails Prominent Lawyer,” March 14, 2022. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/14/tunisia-military-court-jails-prominent-lawyer.
[xxxii] Arab Weekly. “In Implicit Attack on Ennahda, Saied Rejects Dialogue with ‘Traitors,’” September 15, 2021. https://thearabweekly.com/implicit-attack-ennahda-saied-rejects-dialogue-traitors; Marzouki, Moncef. “Coup in Tunisia: Is Democracy Lost?” Journal of Democracy 33 no. 1 (2022): 5–11.
[xxxiii] El-Thabti, Adel. “Tunisian Activist Says Revolution against ‘Coup’ Still Alive.” Andalou Agency, January 10, 2022. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/tunisian-activist-says-revolution-against-coup-still-alive/2470230
[xxxiv] Center for International Private Enterprise. “Public Perception of Economic and Social Reforms in Tunisia.” Washington, DC. 2022. https://www.cipe.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Tunisia-Survey-Report-Final-Version.pdf.