TUNIS, Tunisia — Mosques are being closed, local organizations banned and at least 1,000 people have been arrested as Tunisia cracks down on those suspected of sympathizing with radical Islamists.
Tunisia was the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings, but the nation's battle against terrorism is raising fears that it might be returning to its old ways of political repression.
Since overthrowing long-ruling dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 and kicking off region-wide pro-democracy protests, Tunisia has been moving slowly toward setting up a new representative government, but increasingly it has come under attack by radical Islamists capitalizing on the chaos in neighboring Libya. Weapons and extremists from both Libya and Algeria are threatening Tunisia's security as all of North Africa has become increasingly jittery over rumors of new attacks by al-Qaida's local branch.
In the worst terrorist attack ever suffered by the Tunisian army, radical jihadists killed 15 soldiers on July 16 as they were sitting down to their sunset meal during the holy fasting month of Ramadan. The massacre, the latest in a series of attacks on soldiers in the past year, shocked the nation.
A crisis group was formed, including representatives of the army, police, the Foreign Ministry and the Religious Affairs Ministry. Headed by the prime minister, it quickly issued a string of tough measures aimed at supporters of the radicals in society.
At least 157 civil associations in the country were suspended in July and August for alleged links to terrorism. Twenty mosques were shuttered for allegedly preaching extremism and calling for jihad. A TV channel, a radio station and some websites were accused of promoting violence and shut down. Hundreds of people accused of having ties with radical groups were rounded up and arrested in the past few weeks.
On Monday, government spokesman Nidhal Ouerfelli justified the actions as necessary for national security and national elections scheduled for the fall, and he said they are only temporary. But the measures are reminiscent of Tunisia's previous dictatorship when it was one of the most repressive societies in North Africa and the Middle East.
Analyst Slaheddine Jourchi noted that the current government is caught between ensuring security and respecting the freedoms established by the revolution.
"The government should only take such measures in such sensitive areas if their accusations are absolutely certain and backed by real evidence, to avoid raising fears of the return to Ben Ali's repressive policies," Jourchi said, underlining the importance of freedom of association for a democracy.
Local and international human rights groups have expressed concern that the suspension of the scores of civil groups bypasses measures in the new constitution protecting freedom of association. The groups were suspended under a law dating back to 1975.
Fifteen Tunisia groups issued a statement pointing out that a 2011 law on associations, passed after the revolution, says only the judiciary can suspend associations.
"Instead of closing mosques that are out of its control, it would be better to just name more moderate imams to avoid feeding the fire of these political squabbles," the groups also said.
For its part, Human Rights Watch on Aug. 13 called the suspensions "disproportionate and arbitrary" and warned that in its fight against terrorism the executive branch is trampling on basic rights and circumventing the judiciary.
"This opens the doors to all sorts of abuses," said Amna Guellali, the organization's representative in Tunisia, calling the measures illegal. She warned that Tunisia could be headed down the path of Egypt, where a military coup overthrew the elected president, then targeted his followers in the Muslim Brotherhood.
"What happened in Egypt is the most striking example. They began by banning associations and political parties close to the Muslim Brotherhood, and then they started attacking secular associations and imprisoning secular activists and key leaders of the revolution," she told The Associated Press.
Tunisia's new measures come as the country is gearing up for presidential and parliamentary elections in October and November that will mark the end of the democratic transition and determine how the country is run for the foreseeable future.
A moderate Islamist political party, Ennahda, dominated elections in the immediate aftermath of the revolution and led the country amid fierce opposition from secular groups until it agreed to step down earlier this year in favor of a transitional government ahead of ballots.
While the party has remained silent on the new crackdown and expressed its support for protecting the security of the country, hard-line elements are loudly complaining that the target is Islamist political forces in general rather than just extremists.
Ridha Jaouadi, a Muslim cleric affiliated with Ennahda, was part of demonstration on Tuesday in Tunis against the suspensions. He questioned whether the government campaign against terrorism is just a veiled campaign against Islam.
As Tunisia's most organized political force, Ennahda could well dominate the next elections as well, raising fears among the secular elite and allegations that it is promoting the current crackdown, said Issandr El-Amrani, the North Africa director for the International Crisis Group.
"This regional turmoil is increasing the domestic political tensions in Tunisia," he said. "The situation in Libya and the recent terrorist attacks are polarizing Tunisians."
Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco.