Pressure has been growing for Tunisia to pass a bill criminalizing relations, or normalization, with Israel following weeks of Israel’s U.S.-supported aerial bombing campaign apparently targeting densely-populated Palestinian civilian neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, mosques, churches, and journalists in Gaza. Activists and several members of parliament (MPs) had expected the law to pass on October 30 during a full session of parliament, but President Kais Saied and president of the parliament Brahim Bouderbala have pushed back against the motion.
The bill is set to criminalize any form of formal or informal relations with, recognition of, or engagement with Israel, including in economic activity, communications, cultural and service-related activities. The bill also covers involvement in military and intelligence cooperation and participation in international forums and organizations located within the territories of the Zionist entity.
“It is imperative that this pivotal period in history does not pass without the enactment of a law criminalizing normalization in Tunisia,” Ghassen Ben Khelifa, a member of the campaign advocating against normalization, told Meshkal.
During a plenary session on November 2, Parliament passed the first two articles of the law, but Bouderbala closed the session and postponed voting to November 3. Then on November 3, Bouderbala did not open the session, prompting some MPs to issue a petition claiming that they would suspend all parliamentary activities until they vote on the law. The vote, as of this article’s publication, appears to be delayed indefinitely.
PRESIDENT PUSHES BACK
President Kais Saied, in an address on November 3, appeared to push back against the bill on normalization.
“Today we are in a war of liberation, not a war of criminalization, and whoever works with the Zionist enemy can be nothing other than a traitor. And this treason is grand treason,” adding that “what is called normalization is a term that does not exist for me at all, because it reflects a defeatist ideology, and a defeatist ideology cannot be a resistance ideology.”
The president also pointed to an existing law against grand treason under article 60 of the penal code, implying this could be used instead of an anti-normalization law.
That speech followed an apparent warning allegedly from Saied to MPs which was relayed to them via Bouderbala. Bouderbala late in the evening on November 2 after a long day in session considering the bill announced that President Saied, in front of two other MPs Bouderbala cited as witnesses, had expressed his concern that the bill would threaten the “foreign security of the state” & hurt Tunisia’s foreign interests. Bouderbala also claimed that President Saied had said the issue of normalization has become merely an electoral campaign issue and Bouderbala warned “we can now vote and each is responsible for their position.”
For Jawaher Channa, an activist with the Coordinated Working Group for Palestine who has attended the demonstrations in front of Parliament, the President’s speech and his alleged message to Parliament has been received with different interpretations by activists who want to see normalization with Israel criminalized.
“Me personally, my reading of the President’s speech yesterday and the actions yesterday in Parliament communicated by the head of parliament, I consider him abandoning the bill criminalizing normalization. There are other interpretations that say: ‘No, he rejected the bill in its current format before parliament and he wants to have amendments in the penal code, not a complete bill.’ I understood that he said there’s no need for a law criminalizing normalization, we have an article—it’s very broad, it doesn’t pertain to normalization with the Zionist entity—the article on grand treason for those working with enemies,” she told Meshkal.
She added that she was skeptical of the President’s commitment to taking concrete steps to protest Israel’s and its allies’ recent actions.
“There are other steps that the President can take, but he didn’t do, like recalling ambassadors…from countries supporting the Zionist entity,” Channa said.
One MP supporting the bill claimed that the United States had threatened the head of parliament that there would be consequences for passing the bill, an allegation Meshkal could not confirm. In his July 27, 2022 confirmation hearing before the United States Senate, U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Joey Hood included in his testimony that he “would support further efforts to normalize diplomatic and economic relations with the State of Israel in the region.”
After President Saied’s messages on the issue, Channa doesn’t believe that “parliament will enter a fight with the President of the Republic, because most of them are his supporters.”
HISTORY OF THE BILL
For years activists have called for legislation criminalizing ties with Israel, including an effort to write it into the now defunct 2014 constitution, a proposal blocked at the time by the then governing Ennahdha party. President Kais Saied had promised during his 2019 electoral campaign to introduce such a measure, but so far he has not issued the law as a decree, despite criticism from activists for him not following through on his rhetoric.
The latest iteration of the bill was introduced in Parliament in July 2023 by the “Sovereign National Line” bloc. On October 10, days after Israel began its aerial bombing campaign in Gaza and cut water, electricity, and communications networks, 97 Tunisian MPs submitted a motion for an emergency vote on a bill criminalizing ties with Israel (there are 161 seats in parliament). The next day, October 11, the Committee on Rights and Liberties examined the bill, and on October 12, the parliament’s council decided to hold an emergency session on the bill.
The bill was finally scheduled for a vote October 30, but the head of Parliament, Brahim Bouderbala, postponed that initial session to November 2.
“We are protesting to urge the parliament to expedite the passage of the anti-normalization law. This comes in response to the parliament’s president, Bouderbala, postponing the general session,” Ghassen Ben Khelifa, a member of the campaign advocating against normalization, told Meshkal before the November 2 parliamentary session.
Activists have held several demonstrations outside parliament calling on them to pass the law, including on October 30, November 2, and November 3, while there has also been widespread calls by numerous activist groups and organizations like the Tunisian Campaign to Boycott and Resist Normalization with the Zionist Entity or BDS Tunisia as well as independent activists on social media for the parliament to vote in favor of the bill.
REASONS VS EXCUSES FOR DELAY
For his part, Bouderbala, in an October 30 interview with MosaiqueFM, offered two excuses for the initial delay to November 2: that the law doesn’t go far enough to please President Kais Saied, and that there needed to be consultations first with the Justice and Foreign Ministries as well as the Supreme Judicial Council.
“The draft law wasn’t discussed on Monday [October 30] due to a series of events. Last Friday [October 27], the committee reached out to both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice. The Supreme Judicial Council was also contacted as according to the governing law of the Supreme Council, the opinion of the Supreme Judicial Council must be sought for any law concerning all legal aspects related to court procedures. I was informed that the Minister of Foreign Affairs requested the postponement because he was abroad and wished to be present for the plenary session,” Bouderbala said.
“On Monday [October 30], I called for a meeting with the Council office. We collectively decided to contact the relevant authorities urgently, seeking prompt responses on this matter. The plenary session is now scheduled to review the proposed draft law on Thursday, November 2,” he added.
But this explanation of the delay is not shared by all Members of Parliament. Bilel Mechri, an MP, broke the news in an October 28 Facebook post that Bouderbala had postponed the October 30 vote on the bill.
Mechri, in his post, called Bouderbala’s decision “a clear attempt to hinder [the bill’s] progress and, ultimately, an effort to undermine its implementation.”
Mechri claimed that Bouderbala didn’t have the authority to postpone the session, saying that parliament’s own regulations leave such jurisdiction to the parliament’s council office. He called this maneuver a “breach and evasion of procedure, aimed at obstructing the law” which he said, given Bouderbala’s law background, “raises significant concerns.”
As for Bouderbala’s claim that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) had to be consulted before the law could pass, Mechri claimed that the MFA had already “officially communicated to the committee [on rights and liberties] that this law falls outside the purview of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
“Even if we assume that there are hearings or any developments, the President of the parliament [Bouderbala] lacks the authority to unilaterally decide to postpone the plenary session. His proper course of action should have been to convene a meeting of the Council’s office, present the developments for its consideration, and allow a decision to be reached through a majority vote, in accordance with the established democratic procedures and internal regulations. Therefore, the pretext of hearings [with ministries] amounts to nothing more than a feeble excuse to obstruct the passage of the law,” Mechri said.
BILL’S POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES
Some Tunisian businesses, like the pasta and couscous producer Randa, have been documented as selling directly to Israel, while Meshkal has documented Tunisian tour companies advertising trips from Israel to Tunisia and from Tunisia to Israel. These types of commercial ties would appear to violate the terms of the bill and may be affected as a result of its passage.
One version of the bill that Meshkal reviewed provides a definition of the crime of normalization and stipulates prison sentences that can extend up to life imprisonment. It emphasizes that if proven, military and intelligence involvement, along with carrying weapons with the enemy, carry significant consequences. Furthermore, those found guilty of normalization will not be eligible for any circumstances that might mitigate or alter the penalty, as determined by the judicial authority. Penalties for certain offenses range from six to 12 years, with the possibility of a life sentence in the case of a repeat offense. Additionally, fines can range from 10,000 to 100,000 dinars.
That version of the law appears to make a distinction between intentional and unintentional acts of normalization. It specifies that the crime of normalization must be a direct and deliberate action, as intentions alone are not subject to prosecution. This focus on intentionality pertains to Tunisian citizens, and some activists say it is designed to uphold Tunisia’s diplomatic relations with other nations.
Activist Ben Khelifa said that an early version of the bill did “not offer clarity” on certain terms, and that activists were trying to express to MPs their concerns and analysis of ways to improve the text.
“We have outlined a comprehensive draft law to certain representatives, which provides a more detailed examination of exceptional cases. As for the prescribed penalties, we believe they may be somewhat severe… Naturally, we have further comments and suggestions for refinement,” Ben Khelifa said.
Other activists say they are committed to continuing the mobilization in favor of the law.
“For us, in the Coordinated Working Group for Palestine, we will continue the pressure for the ratification of a law criminalizing normalization or amendments or other steps as long as there is new legislation criminalizing normalization. Whether it is this bill or another [version], that’s up to the MPs,” Channa told Meshkal.
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