Tunisia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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The Tunisian government continued to maintain tight restrictions on political and civil liberties in 2002, while the scope of enforcement expanded with the imprisonment of an activist for Internet activity. A referendum in May changed the constitution to allow President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to seek a fourth term.

Tunisia obtained independence in 1956 under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, a charismatic lawyer who led opposition in the French protectorate. After becoming Tunisia's first president, Bourguiba devoted himself single-mindedly to social liberalization and development. The personal status code he introduced upon assuming office granted women far more extensive rights than they enjoyed anywhere else in Arab world. Eschewing the massive military expenditures and showcase development projects that sidetracked economic progress elsewhere in the region, Bourguiba urged his regional counterparts to make peace with Israel and devoted roughly a third of government spending to education--the cornerstone of long-term prosperity. Political and civil liberties, however, were strictly curtailed.

In 1987, President Ben Ali led a bloodless coup against the aging Bourguiba and promised to open the political system. However, his rule became increasingly autocratic and repressive. Over the last 15 years, the government has jailed hundreds of dissidents for peacefully exercising civil liberties. In particular, Ben Ali has treated Islamists harshly, claiming the need to avoid the kind of unrest seen in neighboring Algeria.

While public freedoms have remained as restricted as ever, Ben Ali has built a strong, diversified, market-oriented economy. Since 1987, the economy has grown at an average rate of 4.5 percent annually and inflation has been cut in half. According to official figures, more than 80 per cent of households now own their own homes.

While the government claims to be moving toward greater political openness, the regime's intolerance of dissent is gradually increasing. Arrests and indictments of dissidents declined in 2002 only because fewer Tunisians are willing to openly criticize the government. In May 2002, a referendum to remove presidential term limits was ostensibly approved by 99.5 percent of voters. As with most electoral outcomes in Tunisia, this margin was largely a reflection of the inhospitable climate of liberties in the country--several opposition activists were arrested after they signed statements opposing the measure. In October, the government barred a delegation of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) from entering the country, becoming one of only a handful of regimes worldwide to have obstructed such access in the commission's 50-year history.

While the present state of political and civil liberties in Tunisia leaves much to be desired, the socioeconomic foundations for a modern democracy are very strong. The al-Qaeda bombing of a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba in April 2002, which killed 19 people, did not lead to the kind of frantic arrest sweeps of suspected Islamists that have occurred in other Middle Eastern countries.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Tunisians cannot change their government democratically. The 1959 constitution provides for a president with broad powers, including the right to select the prime minister and cabinet, to rule by decree during legislative adjournments, and to appoint the governors of Tunisia's 23 provinces. Under Ben Ali, the role of prime minister was reduced from leader of the government to "coordinator" of ministerial activities. Although the president is chosen by popular vote, presidential elections are not even remotely competitive--Ben Ali claimed to have won 99.4 percent of the vote in 1999. Elections for Tunisia's unicameral parliament, the Chamber of Deputies (Majlis al-Nuwwab), are almost as heavily orchestrated, though designed to produce a facade of multiparty democracy. Elections in May 2000 for seats in Tunisia's 257 municipalities were also suspect; the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party won 94 percent of seats after running unopposed in nearly 75 percent of municipalities. No political party based on religion or region is permitted, and all parties must be licensed.

Although legal reforms introduced in 1999 broadened the state's definition of torture and reduced the permissible length of incommunicado detention, arbitrary arrest, illegal detention, and torture by the security forces have continued unchecked. Frequently, dissidents are harassed and beaten, deprived of their passports, and monitored closely.

The judiciary is subject to political interference by the president and the government. Political dissidents are usually tried in military courts, which issue verdicts that cannot be appealed, often after just minutes of deliberation, and which do not observe international legal standards. There are estimated to be 1,000 political prisoners in captivity, mostly suspected members of the outlawed Islamist group al-Nahda (Renaissance). Many others are in exile.

Freedom of expression is heavily restricted. The government controls domestic broadcasting and is entitled by law to halt circulation of domestic and foreign publications at will. In addition, the government uses newsprint subsidies and control over public advertising revenues to encourage self-censorship. Although amendments to the press code in 2001 reduced the number of offenses punishable by prison terms, the scope of the law remains vague enough to allow for the indictment of journalists whose reporting displeases government officials. Internet use is tightly controlled, and access to opposition Web sites is routinely blocked.

In June 2002, the editor of the dissident online publication Tunezine was arrested, tortured into revealing the password of the Web site so that it could be shut down, and sentenced to 28 months in prison for publishing false information and for "unauthorized use of an Internet connection." In August, a journalist for the Islamist weekly Al-Fajr was arrested, just 10 weeks after completing an 11-year prison term, because he violated an administrative order banishing him to the south of the country.

Freedom of association is greatly limited. The government has banned a number of opposition groups, most notably al-Nahda and the Tunisian Workers' Communist Party (PCOT). Members of human rights groups have been subjected to harassment and arrests. Permission is required for public gatherings. The size and frequency of demonstrations critical of the government declined precipitously in 2002.

In January 2002, three alleged members of the Islamist group Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'a (Followers of the Way of the Prophet and the Islamic Community) were sentenced by a military court to prison terms of 8 to 10 years for belonging to a "terrorist organization operating from abroad." In early February, four members of the PCOT who emerged from hiding were arrested and sentenced to prison terms.

Workers in Tunisia have the right, both by law and in practice, to form unions, bargain collectively, and strike. About 15 percent of the workforce are members of the Tunisian General Federation of Labor (UGTT), and an even larger percentage are covered by union contracts. Although the UGTT and its member unions are independent, they are subject to government pressure by the provision of state subsidies.

Islam is the state religion. While other religious communities may worship freely, Baha'is may not practice publicly. The government controls and subsidizes mosques and pays the salaries of imams (prayer leaders).

Political and social equality for women has advanced more in Tunisia than elsewhere in the Arab world. However, inheritance law still discriminates against women, and female illiteracy is twice as high as male illiteracy. Women constitute 29 percent of the workforce, occupy 21 seats in the national legislature, and hold several secondary cabinet positions.