Countries at the Crossroads

Tunisia

Tunisia

Countries at the Crossroads 2005

2005 Scores

Accountability and Public Voice
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)

1.65

Civil Liberties
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)

3.08

Rule of Law
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)

2.79

Anti-Corruption and Transparency
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)

3.53
Introduction: 


Tunisia is an ethnically and religiously homogeneous nation with a strong tradition of political identity and unity. In the past half century, its leaders have pursued a modernizing, Westernizing political trajectory that has firmly entrenched civilian rule and substantially improved the status of women. More recently, Tunisia has abandoned statist economic policies for liberal ones, generating a substantial private capitalist sector as a result. Today it boasts a low poverty rate, a large middle class, and high education and literacy rates for the developing world. Yet despite these trends, which should bode well for the establishment of pluralism, since independence in 1956 Tunisia has been ruled by a hegemonic political party, currently known as the RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionelle Democratique). Indeed, Tunisia's is one of the world's oldest authoritarian one-party regimes, one that impinges greatly on citizens' political and civil rights.

President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and the executive branch control the public sphere in Tunisia. A weak legislature does little more than rubber-stamp legislation despite the presence of token opposition party members within its ranks. Elections are multiparty but not competitive due to fraud and because the regime bans truly popular and thus politically threatening political parties - most notably the Islamist en-Nahda. It also tightly constrains the activities of civic and religious groups as well as the media, which are moribund. The executive branch uses the security services under its command to ensure that expression of political voice and dissent in the public sphere is minimal. That which is forthcoming emanates from only the most courageous activists, who suffer serious retribution from the state for their actions. The judicial branch of government is arguably as weak as the legislative. The executive controls judges' careers, interferes in their courtrooms, and often dictates their verdicts. The accused generally do not enjoy fair trials, nor do they have substantial recourse in the likely event that their rights are violated by the state. Impunity also reigns regarding the practice of state terror: Political detainees are routinely tortured, prison conditions are inhumane, and very rarely are state agents held accountable for these circumstances.

The state performs better outside the realm of politics. To a large extent the civil service is competent, well remunerated, and free of corruption. This has facilitated the achievement of the long-held state goal of economic development, pursued in recent years through liberalization, privatization, and deregulation. The state has made substantial progress here. Property rights are relatively secure. While burdensome bureaucratic controls on business and lingering illiberal trade practices remain, the state is no longer excessively involved in the economy and has created increasing prosperity that is comparatively widespread. Procedures for holding public officials accountable for wrongdoing arguably function better when the accusations concern financial and other more mundane abuses than when human rights abuses are alleged; still, these procedures could be strengthened, and they do not hold those at the commanding heights of the government accountable. The government administers effective poverty relief programs and is forthcoming vis-a-vis people with disabilities. Finally, though more needs to be done to further their cause, women enjoy important legal and socioeconomic rights in Tunisia.

Accountability and Public Voice: 


In Tunisian politics, the leader of the RCD occupies the presidency and uses the power of the executive branch and the party's political supremacy to dominate all aspects of public life. Party structures parallel the state's administrative apparatus, and the president dominates both through broad powers of appointment.[1] In May 2002 President Ben Ali abolished term limits on the presidency (which he himself had established after taking office in 1987) and raised the age limit for presidential candidates. He may now remain in office until at least 2014.

The authority of the government is minimally based upon the people's will. Elections are held every five years under universal and equal suffrage. The October 1999 presidential elections were the first to see more than one candidate compete. However, Ben Ali hand-picked his opponents by passing a constitutional amendment that limited potential presidential candidates to individuals who for five consecutive years had headed a legal opposition party with at least one seat in parliament. Two men met these conditions. The incumbent officially received 99.4 percent of votes cast, while his challengers received 0.3 percent and 0.2 percent respectively. There is no secret ballot. Candidate ballots are differentiated by color, and voters must return unused ballots to election officials. No independent observers were reported to have monitored the 1999 elections. Ballots are counted in secret, and the final tallies released by the interior ministry are regularly characterized by critics of the regime as inflated.

[Editor's note: Tunisia held presidential and parliamentary elections on October 24, 2004. President Ben Ali retained the presidency with 94 percent of the vote, while his three challengers each garnered between 1 percent and 4 percent of the vote. The RCD won every parliamentary seat save those reserved for the legal opposition parties. Of the latter, two of seven boycotted the election; the remaining five acquired 37 of 189 seats. The only independent observers who monitored the election were 10 Arab League representatives; domestic human rights groups' requests to do so were denied. Critics of the regime accused it of falsifying the results.]

Majoritarian electoral rules designed to overrepresent large parties help the RCD monopolize the legislature. The regime sets aside approximately 20 percent of parliamentary seats for the opposition (34 of 182 seats in the 1999 elections), to be distributed in proportion to parties' relative national vote-getting success. The seven legal opposition parties are token and weak, while truly popular opposition bodies (most notably the Islamist en-Nahda party) remain illegal. The legal opposition parties have scant financial resources, a significant portion of which come from government subsidies. Their newspapers thus are not critical of the incumbent. During campaign periods the opposition is allotted tiny amounts of radio and television airtime relative to the media attention the ruling party commands. A 2003 law put opposition parties at a further disadvantage by prohibiting privately owned domestic or foreign broadcast media from taking a position on electoral candidates. Government repression and intimidation also dissuade citizens from supporting even the legal opposition organizations.

The executive branch dwarfs the legislature. Cabinet members are appointed by and responsible to the president, not parliament. The legislature is in session just six months a year; when it is not, the president may rule by decree. Members of parliament have neither office space nor professional staffs. While they may in theory draft legislation, presidential initiatives have priority. The executive can count on the legislature to ratify laws because 80 percent of its seats are held by ruling-party representatives. While on paper the legislature has the right to vote down legislation proposed by the president and exercise no-confidence votes against his cabinet, it never does either. Members of parliament can question ministers and raise concerns about bills during parliamentary sessions, where policy debates can be vigorous. Still, the legislature cannot alter legislation in substantial ways.[2]

The government must consult the Economic and Social Council (ESC) on laws affecting social and economic affairs. The ESC has 100+ members, including representatives of unions, public enterprises, civic groups, local government, the RCD, and the legal opposition parties, as well as independents and intellectuals. ESC debates are lively, but its recommendations are submitted only to the president and parliament and are not made public. At the end of the day, the opinions of the ESC seem to be heard but not heeded; it is not thought to be an influential actor in the legislative process.[3]

There is no judicial review of legislation.[4] In 1987 Ben Ali decreed the creation of a Constitutional Council to evaluate the constitutionality of proposed legislation, but lawmakers' decision to submit a bill to the council was optional. In 1990 it became mandatory that all constitutional amendments and laws affecting rights and liberties be vetted by the council. A 1998 constitutional amendment made the council's decisions binding on all branches of government. However, as council members are appointed by and beholden to the president, they do not constitute an effective check on governmental action.

Rural elites and the urban bourgeoisie comprise the regime's social anchors. These groups have benefited from the privatization of both industrial and agricultural capital that has taken place in recent years.[5] However, they are not the sole beneficiaries of state policies. While many have observed that Ben Ali only places into top offices bureaucrats who faithfully carry out his vision and support his presidency,[6] Tunisia is generally acknowledged to have a capable bureaucracy, in part because civil servants are hired based on their performance on a competitive exam. Development policies have generated impressive growth rates and increasing prosperity that is widespread (70 percent to 80 percent of Tunisians own their own homes, for example), and the state is quite attentive to the needs of poor and marginalized populations. The state is also rather admirably engaged in women's issues. The Ben Ali regime has allowed multiple women's organizations to form, established a new ministerial post for women's and family affairs and a new party secretary for women's affairs, and created a women's research center.[7] Currently, 43 of 189 parliamentary seats are held by women. The state prioritizes people with disabilities in the distribution of public services and makes provisions for their care, training, and integration into society. The state facilitates handicapped access to sidewalks and public buildings.

While the state does not cater exclusively to its main constituencies, the state system leads to domination by the specific interests of the ruling party as well as the economic elites that support it by refraining from (and ensuring that those they influence refrain from) challenging the regime. They have, in effect, traded the right to prosper for institutionalized political and civil rights. Rich elites do not fund parties in search of post-election policy favors because the victor in elections is never in doubt and because the ruling party's control over state coffers means it does not need their contributions to function. Individual-to-individual lobbying is a more effective and commonly used mechanism for the pursuit of government favors by private elites.[8] Meanwhile, the law that governs state subsidies for the opposition parties requires the latter to submit to the state's account court itemized listings of the sources and amounts of private financial contributions to party activities. Knowing their donations are not anonymous, private actors shy away from financing the opposition for fear of state retribution.[9] All nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive state subsidies must reveal this information as well, bringing the same prospect of state pressure down upon these actors.

There is little opportunity for civic groups to function freely in the public arena and weigh in on policy matters. The state routinely imprisons its critics. Journalists, human rights activists, and opposition politicians are the main victims of this practice, and their family members also often suffer from physical and bureaucratic harassment at the hands of the state. Ordinary citizens know not to speak their mind about politics in public. The regime also carefully regulates NGOs and creates obstacles to their free functioning. Associations must have interior ministry permission to function legally and can be shut down if they offend the authorities. The Law of Associations stipulates that persons found guilty of participating in an illegal organization can be imprisoned and fined. The Tunisian Human Rights League has been closed down on more than one occasion and had portions of its funding blocked by the regime. The regime refuses to grant legal status to several other rights organizations.[10]

Press freedoms are similarly constrained. In 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001 the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Ben Ali to its list of the "10 Worst Enemies of the Press" (2001 was the last year it produced such a list). In 2004 Reporters without Borders' press freedom index ranked Tunisia 152nd out of 167 countries.[11] Until recently, the government monopolized radio and television broadcasting and thus directly controlled content on those media. The country's first privately owned radio station began operations in November 2003; it is run by a former journalist close to the regime, however, and airs mostly music. The government encourages Internet usage but routinely blocks Web sites critical of it. While those of Amnesty International (AI) and many French papers can be accessed, many other sites cannot.[12] The government carefully controls Internet service providers in Tunisia, regulates and monitors Internet cafes, and monitors subscribers' e-mail accounts. Those convicted of creating or surfing banned Web sites receive long jail sentences.

Newspapers are privately owned, although they are licensed by the government. Tunisia's press code affirms the freedom of the press but holds that journalists may not commit defamation or libel or disturb the public order. Because these crimes are not clearly defined in the legislation, their interpretation is the prerogative of the interior ministry, which tends to equate them with criticism of state policies.[13] Journalists who transgress may be fined, suspended from the profession, and/or imprisoned; publications found to be in breach of the law may be fined, confiscated, and/or banned. Critical journalists routinely experience substantial extralegal state punishments, including the denial of accreditation, police surveillance, physical assaults, restriction of freedom of movement, and torture during imprisonment. In May 2000 journalist Riad Ben Fadhel suffered multiple gunshot wounds after he published an article critical of the government in a foreign newspaper; there is no evidence that the government conducted a serious investigation into the attack. Thus, many journalists have resorted to intensive self-censorship.

Other less draconian measures help control content as well. One-half of newspapers' correspondents must be graduates of the government-run Institute of Journalism. The regime limits the information sources newspapers can draw on to the Tunisian wire service and government press conferences. A copy of all printed materials must be presented to the interior ministry and a receipt obtained before they can be legally distributed (the depot legal process); these receipts are withheld from troublemaking publications. The depot legal requirement extends to all printed matter, and while there is no specific policy, creative works that are explicitly political and critical of the regime are likely to be suppressed. The government also blocks crucial advertising business from publications that displease it. Foreign publications containing content critical of the government do not reach the newsstand.

Civil Liberties: 


The government's record on matters of state terror, unjustified imprisonment, and torture is not good.[14] In the early 1990s Islamic activists associated with en-Nahda were arbitrarily arrested by the hundreds. Mass arrests no longer occur, yet the arbitrary arrest and detention of peaceful opponents of the regime - while prohibited by law - is still routine.

Although laws protecting against the practice have improved, state agents routinely torture political prisoners. Prison conditions are inhumane in other respects as well, including prolonged solitary confinement, inability to communicate with others and pray freely, insufficient medical care, denial of the right to work and study, poor hygiene, and overcrowding. Political prisoners receive harsher treatment than ordinary criminals, but a majority of both endure poor prison conditions that fail to meet standards established in Tunisian law. New laws have increased prisoners' rights and provided for judicial inspection of prisons; however, the former are not always implemented and the latter does not include a requirement that prisons implement judicial recommendations. No domestic or international nongovernmental organizations have access to Tunisian prisons. Meanwhile, citizens have next to no redress in the face of state abuses. While a few violators of human rights have been punished, state agents as a rule are not held accountable for their actions.

The experience of some prisoners suggests that pretrial detention can be problematically lengthy, though this practice does not appear to be systematic. The outright killing of political opponents or other peaceful activists is rare. The primary ways in which public officials have been responsible for wrongful civilian deaths in recent years are through torture and medical neglect in custody. Abuse by private/non-state actors generally is not a concern in Tunisia.

Tunisia is among the most progressive Arab regimes when it comes to women's rights.[15] Women cannot be married against their will, and women can marry without the presence of a male guardian. Polygamy is forbidden. Women have many more divorce rights than those provided in Islamic law. Family planning is facilitated by the state. Abortion is legal. Girls attend primary school in almost equal percentages with boys. With few exceptions, women also have the right to work without discrimination regarding employment or pay, and anecdotal evidence suggests that this occurs in practice. Maternity leave laws protect women's jobs. Tunisian women have the right to vote, and the constitution explicitly defines all citizens as equal. There remains room for improvement, however. Women's rights and achievements lag behind men's in areas such as inheritance law, marriage to non-Muslims, nationalization matters, literacy, and contract and property disposition. In addition, patriarchal social mores mean that progressive laws are not always fairly applied by the judicial system. The constitution fails to ban sex-based discrimination, and the language of laws concerning women depicts them as inferior beings and emphasizes their maternal role - in so doing, implicitly denigrating their participation in the workforce.[16] Trafficking in women and children is not a significant problem in Tunisia. In 2003 the government introduced measures designed to criminalize elements of the practice.[17]

People with disabilities seem not to face significant obstacles in employment. Tunisian law bans discrimination against the disabled with respect to employment, education, and public services and requires that at least 1 percent of public- and private-sector positions be allotted to citizens with disabilities. The government has funded several NGO-run educational and vocational assistance programs for citizens with disabilities. The most egregious employment practice targets political prisoners who, upon release, are often prevented by the administration from pursuing their studies or returning to their careers.[18]

With a population that is 98 percent Arab and 98 percent Muslim, Tunisia has no large minorities to speak of and no politically significant ethnic or linguistic divides. Religious affairs can be more tendentious. The constitution states that all citizens possess the same rights and duties and that all are equal before the law. It further asserts that the state protects the free exercise of beliefs, with the caveat that this shall not disrupt public order. Christians appear to concern the regime the least. Tunisia welcomed a papal visit in 1996, and the Ben Ali government contributed funds for repairs of a cathedral in downtown Tunis. Tunisia's various Christian denominations function and worship freely although proselytizing is forbidden and groups have not been allowed to establish new churches. Also, converts to a faith other than Islam have had passport applications denied.

Jews are treated decently, although the government exerts more control over Jews than over Christians (probably due to the sensitivity of the Arab - Israeli conflict in the sentiments of Tunisia's Muslim majority). The physical security of the Jewish community, which is concentrated primarily on Djerba island, is overseen solicitously by the government - although a suicide bomber struck the historic Ghriba synagogue there in 2002. Reporting following the attack suggested that Jews felt basically comfortable, secure, and integrated into society.[19] The government allows Djerba's Jewish children to split their time between secular public schools and private Jewish religious schools, and it encourages Jewish expatriates to return for an annual pilgrimage to Ghriba. Still, the government pays the salary of the Jewish Grand Rabbi and subsidizes many synagogues, a fact that facilitates political control.

The government reserves its harshest controls for Islam, as the most potent threat to the Ben Ali regime emanates from the Islamist corner. Most Tunisians are Sunni Muslims and are severely constrained in terms of their freedom of belief. The government trains, appoints, and pays the salaries of all prayer leaders and other religious officials, who must toe the administration's line. Individuals showing signs of special religiosity (e.g., those who pray frequently, men wearing full beards, and women wearing headscarves) invite harassment from security personnel.[20] Political parties based on religion are not permitted; en-Nahda failed to receive recognition for this reason. Baha'is - whom the government perceives as a heretical sect of Islam - can worship only privately. Finally, reflecting the government's ongoing efforts to quash political Islam, in 2003 AI expressed concern that antiterrorism legislation being considered in parliament would become an additional tool with which the regime would restrict freedom of belief.[21]

The right of association is only selectively granted. Trade unions played a pivotal role in the Tunisian independence movement; as a result of this legacy, the constitution guarantees the right of unionization, and the state respects this right in practice. For other types of associations, the constitution guarantees the right of association within "conditions defined by the law." The government denies legal registration to political parties based on political orientation (e.g., the Communist Party). Several human and legal rights organizations have also been denied legal status. Moreover, the government places substantial obstacles in the way of civic, business, and political associations organizing, mobilizing, and advocating for peaceful purposes. The regime's repertory of control tactics includes subsidizing groups so as to undercut their political autonomy, infiltrating potentially threatening organizations with party loyalists in order to control them from within, and founding duplicate organizations that dilute their counterparts' influence.[22] Rights organizations experience particularly pernicious forms of government repression: Their funds have been blocked, their property damaged or taken, their activists harassed and imprisoned, and their meetings and elections disrupted. Organizations must obtain interior ministry permission to hold public meetings, rallies, or demonstrations. This requirement, combined with the regime's well-known aversion to public expressions of dissent, means that demonstrations and public protests are a rare occurrence. Press reports of the few protests that did occur in 2003 and 2004 suggest that police responses by and large avoided the excessive use of force.

The RCD bureaucracy appears to be politically neutral in its treatment of business people, thus refraining from pressure to join the ruling party.[23] At the same time, analysts commonly disclose anecdotal information that belonging to the ruling party can yield preferential treatment, for example, in terms of the allocation of bank loans, waivers on zoning restrictions, and scholarships and housing preferences for university students.[24]

Rule of Law: 


While the constitution holds that the judiciary is independent and subject only to the law of the land, in practice there is little independence, impartiality, or nondiscrimination in the administration of justice - and seemingly none where sensitive political and human rights cases are concerned. Executive pressures on judges are manifold. AI notes "a pattern of executive interference with the administration of justice,"[25] and there seem to be minimal adequate protections against the practice. Former senior magistrate Mokhtar Yahyaoui, who was fired from the bench in 2001 after publishing an open letter to President Ben Ali criticizing the lack of judicial independence in Tunisia, asserted that the government dictates verdicts to judges and intimidates and coerces them into pronouncing those verdicts (rather than their true legal convictions) in part by placing plainclothes informants in their courtrooms.[26] When positive inducements (e.g., an offer to make him ambassador to Lebanon) failed to convince Yahyaoui to abandon his public campaign, Yahyaoui's phone, e-mail, and mail communications were monitored and tampered with; his chambers were repeatedly ransacked; he has been physically assaulted and barred from leaving the country; and his family has been subject to extensive harassment.[27] Presumably, other judges have similarly been deterred from speaking out.

Judges must be university graduates and pass an exam to gain entry into the Magistrate High Institute (MHI), where they pursue a two-year course of study. However, this gateway to judgeship is state run and thus likely shapes judges' training in ways that suit the regime. The executive branch presides over judicial appointments, career paths, and dismissal through the High Council of the Judiciary. The president presides over the council and appoints the vast majority of its members; he also personally selects judges to fill top-ranking positions in the judicial system (such as the president of the appeals court). There is substantial evidence that executive management of judges' careers is not carried out in a fair and unbiased manner. The fate of Yahyaoui is only the most glaring case in point. In addition, lawyers who run afoul of the government are similarly placed under surveillance, harassed, and physically assaulted.

Given this environment, judicial decisions against the executive branch are rare. In the 1990s, courts ruled twice to protect the Tunisian Human Rights League against government interference. However, evidence suggests that such decisions, as well as the choice by the executive branch to heed them, are driven as much by sensitivity to international criticism and political expediency in general as they are by principle and respect for the rule of law.[28] No other such challenges to the executive have been reported.

Tunisia possesses an administrative tribunal to which private citizens and firms may appeal all executive and administrative decisions (save presidential decrees), including cases of abuse of power. However, when they encounter political pressures, not all tribunal judges faithfully defend the laws and annul improper decisions taken by public institutions. Political pressures on the tribunal undoubtedly bear down when human rights and other politically sensitive charges are being brought by citizens, and in these situations justice is rarely done.[29]

According to the constitution, Tunisians charged with a criminal offense are presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, this provision is not upheld.[30] Citizens as a rule do not enjoy fair trials. Detainees do not have a right to legal counsel prior to arraignment. For the post-arraignment phases of judicial proceedings, although the state provides free legal assistance to poor defendants, in sensitive political cases defendants often are not notified of their right to legal representation. The court process often is slow. Prosecutors often prevail in verdicts despite having produced insufficient evidence for conviction, while the rights of defense lawyers and their clients are severely curtailed: Confessions extracted under torture are admitted into evidence without investigation; defendants have been tried more than once for the same crime; the defense (particularly in political trials) may not even be able to address the court; and, often in "terrorism" cases, civilians are tried before military courts.[31]

Currently, civilian authorities are in firm control of the Tunisian police, military, and internal security services, which are fully free from the influence and direction of non-state actors. However, under Ben Ali, whose career was launched in the military and security forces, the security apparatus has quadrupled in size and become increasingly operationally capable.[32] This apparatus is more pivotal to Ben Ali's rule than it was to his predecessor, and it enjoys substantial prestige and privileges as a result. Some observers are concerned that the military or security forces could move against Tunisia's civilian leadership if they felt that their position was becoming undermined.[33] Civilian direction of the security apparatus is far from democratic. Here again the executive branch dominates. Plainclothes security agents play an intimidating role in courtrooms, and the security services are intimately involved in a regime-directed process of repressing political dissidents through the practices of surveillance, harassment, and torture. Save for the most courageous of individuals, Tunisians as a whole have been forced into complete silence in the public sphere by the actions and ubiquitous presence of the security forces.

Article 14 of the constitution confers the right to own property "exercised within the limits established by the law." In its 2004-2005 Global Competitiveness Report, the World Economic Forum gave Tunisia a fairly strong score of 5.14 (on a scale of 1/worst to 7/optimal) for the performance of its public institutions; local business executives' opinions on whether "[p]roperty rights, including over financial assets, are clearly defined and well protected by law" represented one-eighth of the total weight of the score.[34] Citizens have no substantial concerns about property rights, with the important caveat that those who incur the political wrath of the regime have been retaliated against in this domain. Citizens judged to be politically threatening allegedly "run the risk of ... abusive tax reprisals if they are industrialists, artisans, merchants, or members of the professions."[35] In addition, the government deprived thousands of Islamists of their identification cards in the early 1990s, which effectively blocked them from making major financial transactions such as purchasing a car or signing for a loan.

Anti-Corruption and Transparency: 


Since the 1980s, Tunisia has been engaged in economic liberalization - deregulating, privatizing, and encouraging foreign investment. As it has made considerable progress, the Heritage Foundation's 2004 Index of Economic Freedom assigned Tunisia a score of 2.5 on the question of government intervention in the economy on a scale of 1 to 5 where 5 is most repressed. The Heritage Foundation assigned Tunisia a 3.0 on the issue of regulation, noting the bureaucracy's slowness and lack of transparency. The bureaucracy has a long tradition of seeking to license and monitor all aspects of business affairs; it confronts entrepreneurs with substantial controls and paperwork requirements. At the same time, Tunisia's civil service is characterized by "decent remuneration, secure employment ... specialized training ... esprit de corps and security of tenure."[36]

In this environment, corruption is a problem at both the highest and lowest levels of government, but not in its main ranks. In the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report, one-half of Tunisia's score of 5.14 was determined by indigenous business executives' answers to questions regarding the pervasiveness of bribery.[37] In Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index, Tunisia received a score of 5.0 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being "clean."[38] Industrialists report that businesses do not have to pay bribes in order to succeed and that what corruption exists is petty, taking place at the lowest levels of the bureaucracy.[39] In contrast, many would add that President Ben Ali appears to be using his office illegally to benefit his extended family financially. As University of Exeter Lecturer Larbi Sadiki has pointed out, "Bin Ali's in-laws all have been linked to corrupt activities, including the illegal appropriation of prime real estate, and acquisitions of formerly State-owned companies at substantially depreciated prices."[40]

Reports of nepotism surrounding the presidency suggest that the state does not adequately ensure transparency, open bidding, and effective competition in the awarding of government contracts. Furthermore, in June 2004 opposition party leader and former presidential candidate Abderrahmane Tlili was found guilty on several charges of abuse of power while at the helm of Tunisia's Civil Aviation and Airports Bureau. One charge was that he awarded contracts to cronies, and his defense lawyers pointed out that, as the head of a public company, Tlili would have required "the direct approval" of government officials in order to carry this out.[41]

The Tunisian state has long adhered to a developmentalist ethos, and the priority it currently places on generating strong economic growth through liberalization means that the state has a core interest in ensuring that public institutions support that objective. Thus, while state agents may commit human rights abuses essentially with impunity, the same cannot be said for more quotidian financial and other nonpolitically sensitive abuses and acts of corruption. Financial disclosure regulations are in place to prevent conflicts of interest among public officials. The Cour des Comptes (Audit Office) is charged with verifying the correctness of all public sector actors' books, and the IMF reports that this institution generally produces high-quality work.[42] The Disciplinary Financial Court is in charge of sanctioning when financial laws and regulations are violated by public authorities.[43] The World Bank reports that this court renders on average 20 condemnations annually; these are made public and punished, typically with fines.[44] Given that corruption is not a major problem in the main ranks of the bureaucracy, these processes appear to have some substantial effect.

Less encouraging is the fact that the Cour des Comptes is not independent of the executive branch.[45] The executive can interfere with this body's functioning, a practice that probably occurs in order to deter scrutiny of the corruption that allegedly takes place at the very top of the party-state system. Allegations and findings of corrupt behavior are not widely aired in the news media, given the cowed and docile nature of the press and the regime's determination to cultivate a public image of Tunisia as an investment-friendly state. Finally, investigation and punishment of wrongdoing sometimes have political motivation. Tlili's long career in the public sector and his status as leader of an opposition party suggest that the case brought against him, albeit legal, is punishment for having crossed a red line vis-a-vis the regime.

The budget is carefully developed in the executive branch. Tunisia's rubber-stamp parliament then examines and discusses it extensively. Genuine debates about the budget, as with all other legislation, occur in secret during parliamentary committee sessions that are closed to journalists, and whose proceedings are not made public.[46] Moreover, even in these sessions parliament has done little more than review[47]; it cannot substantially alter the proposed budget's provisions. Information regarding politically sensitive matters, such as human rights, is not made publicly available. For example, the findings of a committee created in December 2002 to investigate prison conditions were not publicized. There is only limited provision of budgetary and audit information to the public.[48] The government does a better job when it comes to information regarding more mundane issues and public services. Many ministries post information on accessible Web sites, for instance.[49] There is no freedom-of-information legislation.

Corruption and graft in the higher education system are not pervasive. The large plainclothes security presence on campuses deters questionable actions such as the bribing of faculty for good grades. Instead, association with the ruling party is more likely to make a difference vis-a-vis gaining admission to preferred universities.

No information indicates that the state places obstacles in the way of the legal administration and distribution of foreign assistance. It does not, however, tolerate foreign assistance targeted at human rights organizations, political parties, or other nodes of civil society perceived as threatening to the regime.

Recommendations: 
  • The Rassemblement Constitutionelle Democratique's organization should be separated from the state administration to ensure that public funds cannot be used to finance the operations of the party in power.
  • The principle of the secret ballot should be ensured in elections, and independent international election monitors should be invited to oversee the balloting process.
  • All nonviolent political parties that seek to operate in the political arena should be legalized.
  • The government should act on its publicly stated commitment to a free press by rewriting the press code so that it cannot be used to prosecute critical journalists and by dispensing with both the licensing and depot legal processes for printed materials.
  • The government should stop blocking what it considers sensitive Internet sites.
  • The government should ensure that all allegations of torture by state agents are fully investigated and vigorously prosecuted.
  • Prison conditions should be brought in line with accepted international standards by ending solitary confinement, improving hygiene, providing adequate medical care, and addressing overcrowding.
  • The state tradition of progressiveness vis-a-vis women's affairs should be honored and carried forward by rewriting remaining statutes that discriminate against women, particularly with respect to inheritance law. Also, judges should be monitored to ensure that women enjoy full protection under and fair application of existing laws.
  • Controls on and restrictions of citizens' freedom of belief should be lifted. Authorities should cease the harassment of citizens whose physical appearance (e.g., beards and headscarves) reflects their religiosity. Mosques and their staffs should function free of state constraints and oversight.
  • All peaceful civic organizations should be granted legal recognition and the right to function autonomously.
  • Separation of powers should be augmented by removing the executive branch from the processes that govern the appointment, promotion, and dismissal of judges.
  • Judges should be unconstrained in their ability to render verdicts consistent with the law.
  • Citizens' guarantees to a fair trial - including counsel in all cases, an impartial civilian tribunal, and protection against torture - should be upheld.
  • The activities of the security services should be redirected exclusively to defense against external attack and violent domestic groups.
  • Bureaucratic controls over businesses and other private initiatives should be streamlined, and guidelines detailing all requisite procedures made publicly available.
  • The independence of the Cour des Comptes from the executive branch should be guaranteed by law and respected in practice.
  • Parliamentary deliberations over the budget should be opened to the public and to the press.
  • The state should make a much more comprehensive array of information and statistics from its key departments and agencies publicly available, via Web sites and other mediums.
Notes: 


[1] Susan E. Waltz, Human Rights and Reform: Changing the Face of North African Politics (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 60.

[2] Michele Penner Angrist, "Parties, Parliament and Political Dissent in Tunisia," Journal of North African Studies 4, 4 (Winter 1999): 89-104, 98.

[3] Ibid., 100.

[4] Yath Ben Achour, "Tunisia," in Herbert M. Kritzer, ed., Legal Systems of the World: A Political, Social, and Cultural Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2002), 1651-57, 1654.

[5] Stephen J. King, Liberalization Against Democracy: The Local Politics of Economic Reform in Tunisia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).

[6] "Tunisia 2004: Manifesto of Progressive Tunisian Democrats," issued 20 March 2001, Journal of Democracy's Documents on Democracy, 12, 3 (2001): 183-86, 184. See also Emma Murphy, "Ten Years On - Ben Ali's Tunisia," Mediterranean Politics 2, 3 (Winter 1997): 114-22, 119.

[7] Emma C. Murphy, "Women in Tunisia: Between State Feminism and Economic Reform," in Eleanor Abdella Doumato and Marsha Pripstein Posusney, eds., Women and Globalization in the Middle East: Gender, Economy, and Society (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2003), 169-194, 178-180.

[8] Eva Bellin, Stalled Democracy: Capital, Labor, and the Paradox of State-Sponsored Development (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 56-57, 80.

[9] Angrist, 95.

[10] "Human Rights Lawyers and Associations Under Siege in Tunisia" (New York: Human Rights Watch, 17 March 2003), http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/mena/tunisia031703.htm.

[11] "Worldwide Press Freedom Index" (Paris: Reporters without Borders), http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=11715.

[12] Neil MacFarquhar, "Tunisia's Tangled Web Is Sticking Point for Reform," the New York Times, 25 June 2004, A3.

[13] Larbi Sadiki, "Bin Ali's Tunisia: Democracy by Non-Democratic Means," British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 29, 1 (2002): 57-78, 71.

[14] Unless otherwise noted, the data contained in the next three paragraphs were drawn from "Tunisia: The Cycle of Injustice" (New York: Amnesty International [AI], 10 June 2003), http://web.amnesty.org/library/print/ENGMDE300012003.

[15] Unless otherwise noted, the material in the next two paragraphs is drawn from Laurie A. Brand, Women, the State, and Political Liberalization: Middle Eastern and North African Experiences (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 207 - 214.

[16] Ibid., 209-10.

[17] Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000: Trafficking in Persons Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of State, June 2004).

[18] "Tunisia: The Cycle of Injustice" (AI).

[19] Associated Press, "5 Killed as Truck Crashes Into Tunisian Synagogue," the New York Times, 12 April 2002, A4; Donald G. McNeil Jr., "Tunisian Jews at Blast Site: A Stalwart Remnant," the New York Times, 15 April 2002, A3.

[20] Jonathan G. Farley, "Tunisia: Forty Years on from Independence," Contemporary Review 270, 1574 (March 1997): 125-31, 127.

[21] "Tunisia: New Draft 'Anti-Terrorism' Law Will Further Undermine Human Rights" (AI EU Office, 30 September 2003), http://web.amnesty.org/library/print/ENGMDE300212003.

[22] Eva Bellin, "Civil Society in Formation: Tunisia," in Augustus Richard Norton, ed., Civil Society in the Middle East, Vol. 1 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995), 120-47, 139-41.

[23] Bellin, 2002, 77.

[24] See, for example, Sadiki, 68, and U.S. Dept. of State, 12. [25] "Tunisia: The Cycle of Injustice" (AI).

[26] Judge Mukhtar Yahyaoui, "Open Letter to President Ben Ali, 6 July 2001" (New York and Washington, DC: Human Rights First), http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/middle_east/tunisia/hrd_tun_1.htm.

[27] "Tunisian Judge Blows Whistle on Judicial Tampering" (Human Rights First), http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/middle_east/tunisia/hrd_tun_1.htm.

[28] See discussion in Emma C. Murphy, Economic and Political Change in Tunisia: From Bourguiba to Ben Ali (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), 206.

[29] "Tunisia: Breaking the Cycle of Injustice - Recommendations to the European Union" (AI), http://web.amnesty.org/library/print/ENGMDE300142003.

[30] "Tunisia: The Cycle of Injustice" (AI).

[31] Ibid.

[32] "Behind the Beaches," The Economist, 13 January 1996, 40 - 41; Michel Camau and Vincent Geisser, Le syndrome autoritaire: Politique en Tunisie De Bourguiba a Ben Ali (Mayenne, France: Presses des Sciences Po, 2003), 203.

[33] Christopher Alexander, "Back from the Democratic Brink: Authoritarianism and Civil Society in Tunisia," Middle East Report 205 (October - December 1997), 34-38, 38.

[34] "Global Competitiveness Report" (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2004), http://www.weforum.org/site/homepublic.nsf/Content/Global+Competitiveness+Programme%5CGlobal+Competitiveness+Report.

[35] "Tunisia 2004: Manifesto of Progressive Tunisian Democrats."

[36] Bellin, 2002, 79.

[37] "Global Competitiveness Report" (World Economic Forum), http://www.weforum.org/site/homepublic.nsf/Content/Global+Competitiveness+Programme%5CGlobal+Competitiveness+Report.

[38] "Corruption Perceptions Index 2004" (Berlin: Transparency International), http://www.transparency.org/cpi/2004/cpi2004.en.html.

[39] Bellin, 2002, 77-78.

[40] Sadiki, 69.

[41] "Tunisian Opposition Leader Jailed for 9 Years for Abuse of Power," Agence France Presse, 3 June 2004.

[42] "Experimental IMF Report on Observance of Standards and Codes: Tunisia" (Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund [IMF]), http://www.imf.org/external/np/rosc/tun/index.htm.

[43] Ben Achour, 1655-56.

[44] "Republic of Tunisia Development Policy Review: Making Deeper Trade Integration Work for Growth and Jobs" (Washington, DC: World Bank, Report No. 29847-TN, October 2004), 63.

[45] "Experimental IMF Report . . . Tunisia" (IMF), http://www.imf.org/external/np/rosc/tun/index.htm.

[46] Angrist, 98. [47] Waltz, 63-64.

[48] "Republic of Tunisia Development Policy Review" (World Bank), 62-63.

[49] "Experimental IMF Report... Tunisia" (IMF).