Freedom in the World
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The government of Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who has ruled Tunisia for 18 years, continued in 2005 to be marked by a poor human rights record, a restricted press, and attacks on and detentions of political opponents. During the year, a journalist who started an independent journalists' syndicate was harassed, and an imprisoned journalist began a hunger strike to protest his conditions. At the same time, Tunisia promised Human Rights Watch that it would cease its policy of prolonged periods of solitary confinement for political prisoners.
Tunisia had been a protectorate of France for more than seven decades by the time it gained full independence in 1956. For the next 30 years, the country was ruled by Habib Bourguiba, a secular nationalist who had been imprisoned several times by the French government for opposing France's rule over Tunisia. During his reign, Bourguiba worked toward modernizing Tunisia, both socially and economically, and this era was marked by great development in the area of women's rights. However, Bourguiba's rule was autocratic, and political and civil rights took a backseat to economic development. Diplomatically, Bourguiba was able to maintain positive relations with the West without alienating his Arab counterparts.
Bourguiba was deposed and marginalized in a bloodless coup led by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 1987, in what became known as "the change." The leadership of Ben Ali has earned praise over the years for its sensible economic policies and the advancement of women's rights. However, while Ben Ali initially pledged more openness in the political arena, his promises soon proved to be futile, as his rule (to a large degree) came to mirror that of his predecessor. Opposition movements suffered from periodic crackdowns, and the space for political dissent narrowed. Ben Ali's main initial foes were Islamists, who were summarily detained or imprisoned after sham trials in the early 1990s. However, it soon became apparent that Ben Ali would not tolerate any other opposition dissidents, who continued to face detention and harassment in 2005.
International human rights organizations, as well as a small group of brave local activists, have relentlessly attacked Tunisia's human rights record. Because of Tunisia's position as an economic trading partner and its strategic importance as a pro-Western ally in the fight against Islamic extremism, criticism from some of Tunisia's most important diplomatic and trade partners has been embarrassingly muted. However, recently the United States has taken a more public line in criticizing Tunisia's record, specifically referring to press freedoms and civil liberties as areas that the government needs to develop. The European Union (EU) has also been quietly lobbying Tunisia to reform its human rights record. Nevertheless, victories for human rights and civil liberties in Tunisia are few and far between. One positive development was Tunisia's promise to Human Rights Watch in 2005 that it would cease its policy of prolonged periods of solitary confinement for political prisoners.
Considering Ben Ali's ties to the West and his victory in the October 2004 election with 95.42 percent of the vote, it is unlikely that the situation will change dramatically in Tunisia in the coming years. The election itself was marred by allegations of manipulation and boycotts. To local observers, it was basically rigged to provide Ben Ali with the veneer of a democratic win. Ben Ali enjoyed the unqualified support of the local media, as well as that of business interests. The two candidates who opposed him garnered a miniscule number of votes. Ben Ali's political party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD), currently controls more than 80 percent of the seats in the parliament.
Citizens of Tunisia cannot change their government democratically. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who has ruled the country unopposed for 18 years, has the right to appoint the prime minister, the cabinet, and governors of the provinces, and he can rule by decree when the parliament-which is a rubber-stamp institution-is not in session. In 2002, in anticipation of the 2004 presidential elections, the Tunisian government held a referendum where the public voted on whether or not to remove the three-term limit on presidential terms. The referendum passed with 99.52 percent of voters in support of the change, thus allowing Ben Ali to run for reelection; he won easily, taking 94.5 percent of the votes in an election that was neither free nor fair. The government approves the powerless opposition parties that are permitted to field candidates in parliamentary elections, but Ben Ali's party dominates the legislature, which is a bicameral system comprised of a 189 member Chamber of Deputies, or Majlis al-Nuwaab, and a Chamber of Advisors. Both houses of the parliament are dominated by Ben Ali's party.
Although the government announced the creation of a body tasked with reducing corruption, it remains unclear what the role of this body is and what work it has done. Tunisia was ranked 43 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
In a region-the Arab world-where free press is a rare commodity, Tunisia's press ranks among the worst. The private print press is hardly independent, benefiting from government subsidies. All the major dailies toe the government line and contain lavish praise of Ben Ali. Over the years, journalists and editors who challenge Ben Ali's leadership have been harassed, fired from their jobs, imprisoned, and physically assaulted. In August 2005, police detained and questioned Lotfi Hajji, the head of the independent Tunisian Journalists Syndicate (SJT), telling him that his newly formed organization was not to have its first scheduled congress. The harassment stemmed from a critical report that the SJT had released in May. Journalist Hamadi Jebali, who worked for Al-Fajr, the mouthpiece of the Islamist Al-Nahda party, went on a hunger strike in 2005 to protest his continued imprisonment; he has been in jail since 1991. The broadcast media are mostly government owned and reflect the government's positions. The few private broadcast media are owned by people close to Ben Ali and are mostly entertainment networks. Like some other Arab states, Tunisian authorities are resisting attempts by the pan-Arab station Al-Jazeera to open a bureau in Tunis, fearful of critical coverage.
One of the last places of refuge for critical voices in Tunisia is the internet, which is also severely restricted by the authorities. Since 2002, Tunisian authorities have arrested and severely punished critical internet journalists and web loggers. In April 2005, lawyer Mohamed Abou was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for writing an article published on the internet that criticized the government. He was found guilty of insulting the judiciary and disturbing the public order because of an article published in Tunisnews; the piece criticized Ben Ali and accused him of corruption for having invited Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to attend a conference in Tunis scheduled to take place in November. According to Human Rights Watch, observers suspected that this article was what prompted Abou's arrest, though he was officially charged for another online piece, published in August 2004, which compared conditions in Tunisian prisons to the U.S.-run prison at Abu Ghraib, in Iraq.
Islam is the state religion in Tunisia, but religious minorities are by and large free to practice their religions. The authorities' main interest, where religion is concerned, is Islamist movements. Mosques are monitored, controlled, and subsidized by the state, with imams receiving their salaries from the government. A 1988 law on mosques stipulates that only those imams appointed and paid by the government may lead activities in the mosques, which are required to remain closed except during prayer times.
Tunisian authorities also fear Islamist activity on university campuses and severely restrict and monitor universities. Open debates, or even courses about the role of government, are avoided. Authorities review academic journals prior to publication, and sensitive material can, like sensitive newspaper articles, be censored.
Freedom of association and assembly, although guaranteed in Tunisia's constitution, is sharply controlled. Politically oriented nongovernmental organizations remain unauthorized. The government refuses to legalize most independent human rights organizations, which function in a precarious state. Late last year, on international Human Rights Day, the police used force to break up a demonstration, according to Human Rights Watch. Independent human rights activists are often harassed by the authorities, who routinely monitor their telephone conversations and e-mail correspondence, prevent them from leaving the country, and sometimes arrest and beat them.
The General Union of Tunisian Workers is the country's only labor group. According to the U.S. Department of State, the union's current board of directors includes some former dissidents and has promised to be more involved in political life in Tunisia.
Tunisia's judiciary is a tool of the government, and it is used as a blunt weapon to punish critics. Trials are neither fair nor free. International human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have for years criticized the treatment of political prisoners, many of whom are tortured and, until recently, were held in solitary confinement for years. Most of the country's political prisoners are members of the banned Islamist Al-Nahda Party. Following pressure from human rights groups, particularly Human Rights Watch, Tunisia agreed in April 2005 to move all prisoners out of solitary confinement and invited Human Rights Watch to visit Tunisian prisons-something that no independent human rights group has done since 1991.
Compared with women in other Arab states, Tunisian women enjoy many rights and legal protections. Despite some societal challenges to women's equality, the overall trend is toward improvement. While some Arab countries have been recently changing their laws regarding nationality, Tunisia for years has allowed the children of Tunisian women to receive citizenship automatically. Also, the 1956 Personal Status Code grants both men and women the right to request legal divorces. One remaining area of discrimination is in inheritance laws, where men receive preferential treatment over women.