Tunisia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Tunisia received a downward trend arrow because of an intensifying campaign of harassment against political opposition.


Escalating government suppression of dissent in 2001 met with unprecendented defiance from Tunisian rights groups and opposition politicians. As President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's ruling Consitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) prepared to change the constitution to allow him to seek a fourth term, rights activists called for democratic reform and an end to one-party rule.

Following Tunisia's independence from France in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba pursued secular, pro-Western policies while moving toward social liberalization and modernization. In 1987, Prime Minister Ben Ali succeeded Bourguiba, who was deemed medically unfit to govern, and offered brief promise of an open political system. However, his rule became increasingly autocratic and repressive. Intolerant of public criticism, he has allowed almost no credible opposition to exist; opposition parties have been banned or crippled by arrests and harassment. The government has consistently targeted trade unionists, human rights activists, student leaders, and the media, but it treats Islamists most harshly, claiming the need to avoid the kind of unrest seen in neighboring Algeria. Ben Ali has escaped meaningful criticism from Western governments, in part because much of the worst abuse is aimed at Islamic fundamentalists, but also because Tunisia is an important trading partner for several European countries.

The 1959 constitution provides for a president with broad powers, including the right to select the prime minister and to rule by decree during legislative adjournments. Under Ben Ali, the role of prime minister was reduced from leader of the government to "coordinator" of ministerial activities. The unicameral legislature is elected to fiveyear terms by universal suffrage. The president appoints a governor to each of Tunisia's 23 provinces, and municipal councils are elected.

Presidential and legislative elections held in October 1999 were widely described as a farce. Despite the prior amendment of electoral laws to relax restrictions on presidential candidacy and to mandate a 20 percent allotment of legislative seats to opposition candidates, Ben Ali won 99.4 percent of the presidential vote and his party, the RCD, won 80 percent of parliamentary seats. Elections in May 2000 for seats in Tunisia's 257 municipalities were equally suspect; the RCD won 94 percent of seats after running unopposed in nearly 75 percent of municipalities. In both elections, opposition candidates openly acknowledged that their role was largely symbolic.

What Amnesty International called "an increasing, relentless campaign" against government critics drew unprecedented protests from Tunisian activists and from the international community. Among the most notable cases, a Tunis court disbanded the leadership of the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) in February 2001 after two RCD-affiliated members of the League brought a suit charging that the League's October 2000 elections were unfair. In June, authorities arrested leading rights activist and journalist Sihem Ben Sedrine and charged her with "spreading false information aimed at undermining the public order." Ben Sedrine was freed in August after a vocal solidarity campaign, but was attacked, along with her family and other rights activists, by police on her way to a celebration for her release. Her right to travel abroad was revoked in September. Journalist Taoufik Ben Brik and his family suffered ongoing harassment and intimidation by authorities for criticizing Tunisian human rights abuses. Reacting to the LTDH case, the European Parliament sent a harsh statement condemning harassment of human rights activists. In March, 272 political activists, intellectuals, professors, and trade unionists published a petition opposing a constitutional amendment allowing Ben Ali to run for reelection in 2004. Despite calls for democratic reform, the amendment is widely seen as a certainty given the RCD's domination of parliament.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Tunisians cannot change their government democratically. The ruling RCD and its predecessor parties have controlled the political system since independence. No political party based on religion or region is permitted, and all parties must be licensed. Despite a slight relaxation of restrictions on opposition candidates in the 1999 presidential elections, the elections were neither open nor competitive. The two opposition leaders who met the stringent conditions placed on potential candidates were little-known figures who received almost no media attention.

The judiciary is subject to political interference by the president and the government. In July, Human Rights Watch quoted from an open letter to Ben Ali from a Tunis civil court judge charging that judges "render verdicts dictated to them by political authorities and enjoy no discretion to exercise any objectivity or critical scrutiny." Despite 1999 legal reforms that broadened the state's definition of torture and reduced the length of incommunicado detention, illegal detention and torture continued in 2001. Suspected Islamist sympathizers face severe repression. Actual or suspected members of the outlawed An-Nahdha movement constitute the majority of an estimated 1,000 political prisoners in Tunisia, according to Human Rights Watch. Many others are in exile. Former political prisoners and their families are often deprived of their passports, monitored and searched by police, and discriminated against with regard to employment.

In April 2001, parliament amended the press code, eliminating the offense of "defaming public order," and reduced the number of press offenses punishable by prison terms. The government uses newsprint subsidies and control over public advertising revenues to limit dissent and encourage self-censorship. Prepublication submission requirements allow authorities to seize publications at will. Foreign publications are censored. Domestic broadcasting is government controlled and presents only pro-government views. In January, police surrounded the home of journalist Taoufik Ben Brick, where about 100 people had gathered for the launch of a new paper edited by Ben Brick's brother, Jalel Zoghlami. Officers barred entry to the house, confiscated copies of the paper, and beat a student activist who was present. On February 3, Zoghlami was assaulted by unidentified individuals, and on February 6, Zoghlami and seven companions were again beaten by plainclothes police. Ben Brik's sister and brother-in-law were charged in September with "participating in an altercation," "breach of accepted standards of good behavior," and "being insulting" after a neighbor of the couple filed a complaint, according to Reporters Sans Frontieres. On October 27, border authorities confiscated documents, a computer, and an audio tape from Taoufik Ben Brik when the journalist was on his way to Paris to promote a book. The political weekly El Mawkif was seized in January, the October issue of Le Monde Diplomatique was banned in October, and a London-based Arabic television station was taken to court twice in 2001 for its reporting on the arrest of Sihem Ben Sedrine. Opposition activists broadcast their messages into Tunisia via satellite and Internet.

Permission is required for public gatherings. On February 12, a Tunis court nullified the 2000 election to the leadership of the Tunisian Human Rights League based on a complaint filed by four League members who charged that the vote was unfair. On June 21, an appeals court upheld the ruling and ordered a new election. According to Human Rights Watch, the League continued to operate, but its meetings were sometimes prevented by police. Moncef Marzouki, former spokesman of the National Council of Liberties in Tunisia, saw his 12-month prison sentence, handed down in December 2000, suspended in September 2001. Marzouki continued to live under police surveillance and a travel ban.

Islam is the state religion, and it is practiced under intense government scrutiny. The government controls and subsidizes mosques and pays the salaries of prayer leaders. Proselytizing by non-Muslims is prohibited. Other religions are generally tolerated, with the exception of Baha'i, whose adherents may not practice publicly.

General equality for women has advanced more in Tunisia than elsewhere in the Arab world. Inheritance law is based on Sharia (Islamic law) and discriminates against women, although the government enacted legislation in 1998 to improve women's rights in matters of divorce and property ownership. Women are well represented in academia and the professions. Twenty-one seats in the national legislature went to women in October 1999 elections.

Tunisia's sole labor federation, the Tunisian General Federation of Labor, operates under severe government constraints. Workers may bargain collectively and strike