Tunisian security forces denied suffrage

Tunisians are divided on whether to lift a long-standing voting ban for members of the army, police and national guard.

The new Tunisian constitution calls for the 'impartiality' of security forces [EPA]

As a new draft electoral law is being presented to Tunisia’s national assembly for approval, members of the Tunisian military, police and the national guard will likely continue to be denied suffrage.

Despite the more democratic political atmosphere of post-revolution Tunisia, lawmakers appear set to maintain the ban based on the new constitution, which calls for impartiality of the country’s security forces. The interpretation of this clause, however, is far from universal, with many debating whether impartiality means the inability to cast a ballot.

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Since gaining independence in 1956, Tunisian law has held that citizens holding posts in the security forces could not become involved in politics or vote. 

It is difficult to ascertain exactly how many people are affected by this policy, as the defence and interior ministries keep all data about their membership secret. Over 50,000 people serve in the military, former defence ministry spokesperson Mokhtar Ben Nasser told Al Jazeera. Estimates of the combined membership in the police and national guard vary greatly, from 40,000 to 80,000, according to a 2012 US Institute of Peace report.

Article 18 of the constitutional charter, which was approved in late January, states that the armed forces “must remain completely impartial”. Article 19 says the internal security forces must operate “within the frame of total impartiality”.

They have a more noble task than voting; they have to secure Tunisians and secure the elections.

by - Moez Bouraoui, Tunisian Association for the Integrity and Democracy of Elections

Samia Abbou, a member of the assembly committee tasked with drafting the new electoral law, said these articles require maintaining the ban. The issue has been discussed in recent months, she said, but the decision to maintain the old policy is ultimately based on the constitution, not on personal beliefs.

“We are reviewing this from all angles,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that a final version of the electoral law is expected to be passed by early May.

Slim Ben Abdessalem, another member of the committee, rejected this interpretation and cited the difference between impartiality and the ability to vote. “I support the voting rights of security and military forces,” he told Al Jazeera. “If we eliminate them for the excuse of ‘impartiality’, we should eliminate imams and workers in the government administration too, as the constitution states they should be neutral as well… Voting is the right of every citizen, and it is against the constitution to eliminate this right,” Ben Abdessalem said, citing Article 49 of the constitution, which states that “no law shall undermine the human rights and freedoms guaranteed in the constitution”.

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Kais Saied, a constitutional scholar with the School of Legal Sciences in Tunis, says the practise of banning military personnel and police from voting “comes from an old traditional liberal perspective that voting is against the principle of neutrality,” which he called an invalid rationale.

“Military and security officers are citizens that pay taxes, and like all citizens they have opinions and they should vote,” he told Al Jazeera. “Voting doesn’t threaten the neutrality of the military and security institutions, and it is not against the Tunisian constitution.”

The Tunisian Association for the Integrity and Democracy of Elections, an influential civil society organisation known by the French acronym ATIDE, has called for retaining the restriction on military and security personnel from voting in the electoral law.

Moez Bouraoui, president of ATIDE, said now is not the time for these policies to be changed, because the responsibilities of the military and police in an insecure environment take precedence over participation in elections.

Since the 2011 Tunisian revolution, a number of security incidents have raised fears in the country, including multiple attacks by gunmen on police and national guardsmen, the brutal murder of eight military members last July during an ambush in western Tunisia, and the killing of four people by gunmen dressed as security officers at a roadblock in February.

We are always used as tools for the ruling authorities. They don't want us to be free.

by - Walid Zarrouk, Union of Republican Security Forces

“The military and security forces vote was the subject of much debate,” Bouraoui told Al Jazeera, adding the law could be amended for future elections if the security situation improves. “We are not against the principle of their involvement in voting, but it is not convenient at the present time. They have a more noble task than voting; they have to secure Tunisians and secure the elections.”

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Walid Zarrouk of the Union of Republican Security Forces believes it is necessary in a democracy that police and national guard members are granted the right to vote. “We are Tunisian citizens. We want to vote,” he told Al Jazeera, noting the current policy came from a traditional desire by Tunisian government leaders to keep security forces under control. He has advocated for suffrage since the 2011 revolution.

“We are always used as tools for the ruling authorities. They don’t want us to be free. They are afraid if we are free we will be closer to the people and we won’t take their side,” Zarrouk said.

But not everyone in the security forces agrees. Hassan Abdeli, a member of the national guard, supports the ban on voting. “As a national guard officer I am against voting,” he told Al Jazeera. “We are in the service of Tunisia and we don’t care about who will be president and who will have the majority in parliament. At this critical time, if security forces get into politics, Tunisia will be lost.

“We give up this right for the good of Tunisia,” he added. “Our slogan is ‘Sacrifice for the country.'”

Asma Smadhi contributed to this article.

Source: Al Jazeera