Tunisia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2007

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Political Rights
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President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in February 2006 announced plans to release several hundred political prisoners. Many such prisoners, including high-ranking members of the banned Islamist movement Ennahda, were in fact freed as part of the amnesty. In November, the president once again called on political parties and intellectuals to “provide…their views and proposals” on democratization. Those who had heeded such requests in the past had often faced imprisonment if their views contradicted Ben Ali’s. Separately, the president cancelled a European Union–sponsored conference due to be held in the summer of 2006, drawing criticism from the EU. Also that year, the government began enforcing a ban on the wearing of headscarves by women in public.

Tunisia, which had been a French protectorate since 1881, gained its independence in 1956. The country was then ruled for more than 30 years by Habib Bourguiba, a secular nationalist who had been an opponent of the French presence. He ran Tunisia as an autocratic, one-party state, focusing on the modernization of the economy and society, rather than the introduction of political liberties. Under Bourghiba’s rule, women’s rights were advanced and the economy fared better than in many neighboring countries. Tunisia maintained positive relations with Western powers, as well as with fellow Arab states.

In 1987, then prime minister Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ousted Bourguiba and seized the presidency in a bloodless coup. He continued in Bourghiba’s footsteps to a large degree, working to advance Tunisia’s economy, as well as women’s rights. However, he also emulated the former leader’s autocratic style. His initial promises to allow more political openness were quickly eclipsed by the imprisonment of opposition leaders, intellectuals, and journalists, and it became clear that Ben Ali would not tolerate much dissent. Subsequent democratization pledges were also followed by crackdowns on the opposition. Islamists in particular drew the attention of the authorities, and hundreds were imprisoned after sham trials in the early 1990s. On a positive note, Ben Ali in February 2006 announced plans to release several hundred prisoners whose detentions were considered political, and also said that the government-appointed human rights group would have the right to visit prisons unannounced.

The government has generally reacted with indifference to constant pressure from international human rights groups over the years. Local human rights activists have been punished with imprisonment, beatings, threats, and harassment. The European Union and the United States have often tolerated Tunisia’s poor rights record in light of its economic modernization, its advances in women rights, and its nonideological role in regional conflicts. Ben Ali has also positioned himself as ally in antiterrorism efforts, further shielding his government from criticism. However, in recent years, the United States and the EU have begun to focus on the country’s human rights conditions and have publicly criticized Tunisia on several occasions. The EU openly scolded Tunisia for its cancellation of an EU-sponsored regional labor conference in September 2006.

Ben Ali has exhibited few signs that he intends to move Tunisia toward democratization and openness, and his hold on government institutions remains strong. He won the last presidential election in October 2004 with over 95 percent of the vote amid opposition boycotts and claims of fraud, and his party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), currently controls more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament. In November 2006, the president again asked the opposition to offer their reform ideas, but those who have responded to similar requests in the past have faced a backlash by the authorities. The officially recognized opposition groups remain mostly toothless, and unrecognized opposition figures have been detained, harassed, beaten, and prevented from leaving the country.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Tunisia is not an electoral democracy. President Ben Ali has exercised authoritarian rule since he ousted former president Habib Bourghiba in a 1987 coup. Beginning in 1989, he won four successive five-year terms in tightly controlled elections, either running unopposed or easily defeating token challengers. A 2002 referendum removed the constitution’s three-term limit for presidents, allowing Ben Ali to secure reelection in 2004. The president appoints the cabinet, the prime minister, and regional governors. The bicameral legislature, composed of a 189-seat Chamber of Deputies with five-year terms and a Chamber of Advisors with 126 members appointed or indirectly elected to six-year terms, is a rubber-stamp institution dominated by Ben Ali’s RCD party. Parliamentary elections are neither free nor fair.

A handful of nominal opposition parties operate in Tunisia, but any party with real popular support or an agenda that opposes Ben Ali’s policies is banned.

In the area of corruption, Tunisia was ranked 51 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

In theory, the constitution guarantees press freedom, but in practice Tunisia’s press is one of the Arab world’s most tightly controlled. Private and government-owned media outlets, both print and broadcast, are allied to Ben Ali and endorse his rule on a regular basis. Critical voices are generally excluded. The media are also used to attack opponents of the state. Independent and opposition journalists have been jailed, physically assaulted, threatened, monitored, and subjected to travel restrictions. Tunisia is home to some of the region’s longest-imprisoned journalists. Hamadi Jebali of the banned Islamist newspaper Al-Fajr was released in February 2006 after spending more than 15 years in prison.

Foreign media are also scrutinized by the state. In October, after the Qatar-based pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera interviewed Tunisian dissident Moncef Marzouki, the government accused the station of involvement in a campaign to destabilize the country. Marzouki said on the broadcast that Tunisians should peacefully protest government repression. Al-Jazeera did not have a bureau in Tunis due to opposition from the authorities, but the Tunisian government registered its displeasure with the station’s behavior by suspending diplomatic relations with Qatar.

Having been barred from the mass media, Tunisian dissidents and independent journalists have resorted to publishing their work on the internet. However, the government has moved to quash dissent there as well, imprisoning and threatening journalists and bloggers. Mohamed Abbou, a lawyer and human rights activist, has been jailed since his March 2005 arrest. The New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that Abbou is serving a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence for defaming the judicial process and publishing an article “likely to disturb public order.” On the website Tunisnews, Abbou had compared Tunisia’s prison conditions to those of the notorious Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib. According to the New York–based Human Rights Watch, another such internet dissident is Ali Ramzi Bettibi. He was also arrested in March 2005 and was sentenced to four years in prison for re-posting a statement containing terrorist threats from an obscure Islamist group during a scheduled visit to Tunis by then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. During the World Summit on the Information Society in November 2005, Tunisian authorities beat and threatened journalists and censored the speeches of participants who were critical of the government.

Islam is the state’s official religion, and the population is predominantly Muslim. The country’s small populations of Jews and Christians are free to practice their religions and are protected by the government, which appears more concerned with potential political activity by Muslims. Mosques are monitored, controlled, and subsidized by the authorities, and must remained closed except during prayer times. Imams are appointed and paid by the state.

Authorities limit academic freedom. Debates and discussions of politically sensitive topics are avoided by professors and student groups alike, and the government is wary of Islamist activity on campuses. The Ministry of Culture censors works of art that the government deems inappropriate. The play Captive Bodies by Tunisian playwright Jalila Baccar, which had a successful run in Paris, was banned in Tunisia.

Rights to freedom of association and assembly are guaranteed in the constitution. However, the government restricts or tries to infiltrate independent human rights organizations. The outspoken Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) has been harassed with numerous lawsuits, and according to international human rights groups, police have blocked access to several LTDH offices since 2005 without any legal basis for doing so.

Tunisia has one legal organized labor group, the General Union of Tunisian Workers. The government actively limits independent labor activity, particularly if it threatens the country’s image. In September 2006, Tunisian authorities cancelled the International Conference on Employment and the Right to Work in the Euro-Mediterranean Area, fearing that it could provide a platform to opponents of the regime.

The judiciary is largely seen as a pliant extension of Ben Ali’s regime. Local and international human rights activists have long criticized Tunisia for the routine detention and ill-treatment of opposition figures for political reasons. While the authorities still hold several political dissidents, Ben Ali announced in February 2006 that he would free about 1,300 prisoners and grant conditional parole to more than 350 others, including many considered by international human rights groups to be political prisoners. Many prisoners, including some senior members of the banned Islamist group Ennahda, were indeed released in February, but the exact number of those freed was difficult to ascertain. Ben Ali also announced that month that the state-appointed human rights monitor, the Higher Committee for Human Rights and Basic Freedoms, would now have the right to make unscheduled visits to prisons.

Tunisian women enjoy many more social freedoms and legal rights than women in other Arab countries. The 1956 Personal Status Code grants women equal rights in divorce, and children born to Tunisian women are automatically granted Tunisian citizenship. In September 2006, the authorities, ever wary of Islamist activity, began to enforce a 15-year-old edict that bars women from wearing headscarves in public places. Ben Ali criticized the garments as sectarian and said they were being used as a political tool, but human rights groups argued that the crackdown infringed on women’s right to free expression.