Tunisia banned the wearing of the niqab, or full-face veil for women, in government buildings this week amid a tense political climate and security concerns following bombing attacks and before the soon-to-be-held presidential and parliamentary elections.
Tunisian Premier Youssef Chahed signed a decree “banning access to public institutions to anyone with their face covered... for security reasons.”
The ban on the niqab was issued a week after two suicide attacks in central Tunis left two dead and seven wounded. The Islamic State (IS) group has claimed responsibility for the twin attacks.
Wearing the niqab was also not tolerated under the 22-year rule of ousted former president Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali, overthrown by a popular uprising in early 2011 as part of the Arab Spring revolutions.
Since Ben Ali’s toppling the niqab has made a comeback, however, and there has been a heated debate between Tunisia’s secularist and Islamist camps about the wearing of it.
Tunisia’s Manouba University west of the capital witnessed violent incidents in 2012 between Salafi students and campus security after the university administration issued a decree banning the niqab, for example.
Two years later, the Tunisian Interior Ministry instructed police to “heavily monitor” those wearing the niqab as part of “anti-terrorism measures” and to arrest “suspects who wear the niqab in an attempt to evade justice.”
Following last week’s attacks, the local media claimed that the “mastermind” of the double attacks was wearing the niqab. The Interior Ministry denied the claim, however.
The decree addressed to ministers, governors and officials in government institutions this week said that “to ensure public security and the proper implementation of safety measures, necessary procedures should be followed to ban anyone whose face is covered from accessing public facilities.”
The decree did not specify when and for how long the decision would be implemented, however.
Banning the niqab in public places in Tunisia permanently cannot be enforced without a parliament-approved law.
Jamel Mosallem, president of the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights, an NGO, told the news agency Agence France Press that “we are for the freedom to dress as one pleases, but today with the current situation and the terrorist threats in Tunisia and across the region we find this decision justified.”
The ban should be revoked as soon as “a normal security situation returns to Tunisia,” he added.
A number of terrorist operations took place in Tunisia after the 2011 Revolution claiming the lives of security personnel, civilians and tourists. A state of emergency was declared in Tunisia following an attack on a security bus in Tunis in 2015. It was extended on 5 July for another month.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said during his first public appearance after leaving military hospital this week that there were discrepancies in “some articles related to the state of emergency due to the different viewpoints of the government and a number of parliamentarians. These should be resolved.”
The 92-year-old president also called for holding legislative elections on 6 October and presidential elections on 17 November. The deadlines for submitting candidacies are late July and late August, respectively.
After adding 1.5 million names to the country’s electoral rolls recently, seven million Tunisians are now eligible to vote. According to the country’s Independent Higher Authority for Elections, 54 per cent and 63 per cent of the newly registered Tunisians are women and young people, respectively, with the latter falling into the age bracket of 18 to 35 years old.
However, some 1.7 million Tunisians are still unregistered, putting the number of people that should be eligible to cast their ballots at 8.9 million.
Immediately after being discharged from hospital, Essebsi called on all Tunisians to exercise their voting rights in the coming elections. “We will continue working until the end of the present tenure in December 2019,” he said.
A dispute ensued in local media circles and parliament when Essebsi was first hospitalised. The debate centred around the president’s health and the possibility of a vacancy if it deteriorated, since this would require handing over authority to the country’s Constitutional Court, which has still not been established.
The lag in the formation of the court is the result of disputes between the country’s political camps, mainly between the Tunisian Islamist Ennahda Movement and the Nidaa Tunis Party headed by Essebsi.
Many observers believe that Essebsi’s call for elections was a symbolic exercise of his presidential duties.
Tunisia has been mired in political turmoil after the fallout between Essebsi, supported by secularist parties and some of the figureheads of the Tunisian General Labour Union (TGLU), and the prime minister, who is backed by Ennahda.
A number of leftist parties are attempting to gather under an umbrella grouping as an alternative to the Ennahda-Nidaa Tunis duo.
Tensions are also intensifying due to the plummeting economic situation. The country lacks resources such as oil, and though it is regarded as the most successful of the Arab Spring countries, it largely depends on revenues from tourism, exports of phosphates, olive oil and dates, and remittances from expatriates in order to survive.
A wide-ranging austerity programme has harmed the politically and socially weaker elements of the population. The government has also lifted subsidies on fuel, electricity and some food items. Its decision to put off salary increases until next year drove thousands of workers to go on strike.
It is difficult to anticipate the results of the presidential and legislative elections, but it seems likely that voting will be largely punitive as a reaction to economic suffering.
Even so, the current political polarisation in the country may still result in a parliament similar to the existing one.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Tunisia unsettled