Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Tunisia’s political rights rating declined from 6 to 7 due to credible accusations of rampant corruption among the president’s family and close associates.
Early in 2007, security forces clashed with what the government described as an armed Islamist insurgency. While the authorities continued to take small steps like releasing certain political prisoners during the year, they also maintained the practice of harassing and jailing government opponents.
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 favored economic and social modernization along Western lines but who severely limited political liberties. Bourguiba succeeded in advancing women’s rights and economic development, and his government was able to maintain strong relations with both the West and fellow Arab states.
In 1987, Prime Minister Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ousted Bourguiba and seized the presidency in a bloodless coup. Ben Ali’s rise to power had little effect on state policy. He continued to push market-based economic development and women’s rights, but he also repressed political opponents. Independent journalists, secular activists, and Islamists faced imprisonment, torture, and harassment. The Islamists, particularly those in the banned movement Ennahda, were jailed following sham trials in the early 1990s. Some political prisoners have been freed in recent years, and Ben Ali has publicly stated that the press and opposition should feel free to promote their ideas. However, the president’s critics still face beatings and incarceration, and even political activists who are released from jail often have their movements monitored and restricted.
Tunisian authorities have been able to react with indifference to the complaints of local and international human rights groups largely because they are not backed by diplomatic pressure. Tunisia has not faced the kind of intense criticism from the United States or European Union (EU) that is applied to other Arab states. The public statements that have been issued are not bolstered by threats to reduce diplomatic or economic ties. Tunisia is seen as a moderate Muslim ally in the fight against Islamic extremism, and U.S. and European officials are wary of alienating Ben Ali.
Tunisia is not an electoral democracy. President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali has exercised authoritarian rule since he ousted former president Habib Bourguiba 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 with over 95 percent of the vote, amid opposition boycotts and claims of fraud. 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 Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party. The RCD currently holds 152 of the lower house’s 189 seats, and parliamentary elections are neither free nor fair.
Opposition parties that are genuinely independent of state influence are weak and have almost no role in the formation of public policy. The state severely curbs their activities. According to Human Rights Watch, a Tunis court in October 2007 ordered the eviction of the Progressive Democratic Party’s weekly publication Al-Mawkef from its offices on the grounds that it had violated the terms of its lease. The party is one of the few critical independent movements in Tunisia.
Corruption in Tunisia may be less prevalent than in some Arab states, but those close to the president and his family have increasingly employed their positions to gain financially. In Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, Tunisia was ranked 61 out of 180 countries surveyed.
The situation for journalists in Tunisia is one of the worst in the Arab world. The government has taken some steps to placate external critics, but substantial changes have yet to occur. Tunisia continues to block free expression in print, television, and radio, and is among the most aggressive governments in policing the internet. In the decades since Ben Ali became president, Tunisian journalists have been detained, physically assaulted, fired from their jobs, prevented from leaving the country, and monitored by the efficient police services. A press law that endorses free expression is largely ignored in practice. Tunisian authorities have shown on numerous occasions that they are willing to use both judicial and extrajudicial means to punish dissenting journalists. When journalists are taken to court, they are often charged with vague violations of the penal code which may have no connection to laws dealing with free expression. Critical journalists at times are simply attacked by thugs.
Government-approved media regularly feature praise of Ben Ali and his associates. Independent journalists and activists continued to try to circumvent state restrictions and publish their work in 2007, but they faced routine government harassment. In August, Omar Mestiri, an editor of the online magazine Kalima, faced defamation charges in a case brought by a lawyer associated with the state. The case was eventually dropped, but the lawyer who defended Mestiri had his office burned the following day. The New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the government continued to harass Lotfi Hajji, a reporter for Qatar’s Al-Jazeera satellite television station and cofounder of the independent Tunisian Journalists’ Syndicate. He has been under pressure for years, and the government has used tactics including physical violence to hamper his work. Also in 2007, independent journalist Slim Boukhdhir, who has written critically about Ben Ali’s family, received a prison sentence; Lotfi Hidouri of Kalima and Ayman Rezgui of an Italian-based satellite channel were beaten by police; and Rezgui’s boss was briefly detained. In addition to the severe restrictions on local journalists, Tunisian authorities carefully monitor the work of foreign journalists and foreign publications coming into the country. Criticism of Ben Ali is not tolerated, and editions of foreign publications that do report critically on Tunisia are seized. Foreign journalists who offend the government can be expelled.
Tunisia is officially a Muslim state, but the small population of local Jews and Christians are generally free to practice their religions. The government is more concerned with militant Islam and closely monitors mosques for extremist activity. The state provides funding for local mosques, and they must remain closed when it is not prayer time. Imams are state appointed and salaried. In late 2006 and early 2007, government forces battled what they described as armed Islamist militants for the first time in recent memory.
Authorities limit academic freedom. While professors may discuss sensitive topics with relative openness in private settings, the government will not allow these topics to be discussed at public forums.
Rights to freedom of association and assembly are guaranteed in the constitution, but the government restricts them in practice. Independent human rights organizations are stifled and harassed. According to Human Rights Watch, genuinely independent human rights groups are consistently denied legal recognition, and their “illegal” status is then used to restrict their operations. Lawyer Mohamed Abbou, who had been in jail since 2005 and had criticized the government in internet postings, was released in July 2007. He has since been monitored and prevented from leaving the country. Authorities also briefly detained and harassed Tunisian human rights lawyer Samir Ben Amor in December. Ben Amor is active in a group called the International Association in Support of Political Prisoners (AISPP), which the authorities have described as “unrecognized.”
Recognized labor organizations like the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) are progovernment in orientation. The UGTT endorsed Ben Ali’s most recent presidential candidacy in 2004. Authorities limit independent labor activity, especially when it resembles or threatens to become organized political opposition.
The Tunisian judiciary lacks independence and regularly issues convictions in politically motivated cases. Credible local and international sources report that detainees are tortured in prison and in police custody. In 2007, Ben Ali ordered the release of over 30 prisoners, but the practice of detaining political activists continued.
One of the few areas in which Tunisian authorities have been more progressive is women’s rights. Tunisian women enjoy many more social freedoms and legal rights than their counterparts 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.