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Throughout 2008, Tunisian security forces sporadically clashed with hundreds of nonviolent protestors in the mining town of Gafsa. Although some political prisoners were released during the year, the authorities continued the practice of restricting freedom of expression and systematically harassing and imprisoning opponents of the government.
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.
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. 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.
Throughout 2008, security forces sporadically clashed with hundreds of nonviolent protestors in the mining town of Gafsa, arresting and charging dozens. In November, authorities released 21 political prisoners to commemorate the twenty-first anniversary of Ben Ali’s rise to power. Nevertheless, many prisoners remain in custody, and authorities continued to crack down on activists and critical journalists throughout the year. Also during the year, the government blocked an internet site, and a journalist opposed to Ben Ali was beaten and warned to stop writing about the president and his family.
Tunisia is not an electoral democracy. President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali has exercised authoritarian rule since ousting 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 a constitutional three-term limit for the presidency, allowing Ben Ali to secure reelection in 2004 with over 95 percent of the vote, amid opposition boycotts and credible and widespread claims of fraud. The country is slated to have another round of presidential and legislative elections in 2009.
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 party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). The RCD dominates both chambers of the parliament and currently holds nearly 90 percent of the seats in the lower chamber. 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 strictly monitors and 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 is less prevalent than in some other Arab states, but those close to the president and his family have increasingly employed their positions for financial gain. Tunisia was ranked 62 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The situation for journalists in Tunisia is one of the worst in the Arab world. The government has enacted some cosmetic measures to placate external critics, but substantive change has yet to occur. A press law that, in theory, protects free expression remains largely ignored in practice. Tunisia continues to block free expression in print journalism, 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 subjected to seemingly arbitrary police surveillance. At times, thugs linked to the Tunisian secret police have physically assaulted opposition journalists or vandalized their property. Government-approved media regularly feature praise of Ben Ali and his associates, and criticism of Ben Ali is not tolerated. Tunisian authorities carefully monitor the work of foreign journalists, and those who offend the government can be expelled.
In August 2007, 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. Kalima’sInternet news site was hacked and disabled in October 2008 and was still shuttered at year’s end.Also in October, the government issued a summons for another editor at Kalima to appear in court for accusing the government of perpetrating the site’s destruction. Independent journalist Slim Boukhdhir, who has written critically about Ben Ali’s family and received a one year prison sentence last year, was released in July 2008. By September, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Boukhdhir was briefly abducted, beaten, and ordered by plainclothes officers to stop writing about the president and his family. Throughout 2008, multiple issues of local and foreign publications were confiscated for addressing politically sensitive topics. Authorities blocked access to a large number of internet sites during the year, particularly news sites that have hosted material critical of the government.
Tunisia’s official state religion is Islam, 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, which may remain open only during prayer time, and Imams are state appointed and salaried. In late 2006 and early 2007, government forces briefly fought what they described as armed Islamist militants for the first time in recent memory,
Authorities limit academic freedom. While academics may discuss sensitive topics with relative openness in private settings, the government does not allow these topics to be discussed at public forums.
Freedoms of association and assembly are guaranteed in the constitution, but the government restricts these rights in practice. Independent human rights organizations are repressed 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 was prevented from leaving the country on multiple occasions in 2007 and 2008. Many other activists and independent voices continue to be denied new passports or permission to leave the country.
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.
Starting in January 2008 and again in May, June, and July, security forces violently clashed with demonstrators protesting the rising cost of living and other deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in the southern mining region of Gafsa. In May, the government arrested dozens of individuals and charged them with disturbing public order and subordination. In a June demonstration, government forces killed one person as they violently dispersed a group of protestors. In the following months, the government detained and charged a number of opposition figures that marched in solidarity with protestors, most notably local activist and opposition party member Zakia Dhifaoui, who was sentenced to eight months in prison; four other activists received four-month sentences. In a November round of presidential amnesties commemorating the twenty-first anniversary of Ben Ali’s rise to power, 21 protestors were reportedly pardoned, although many others remain in government custody.
The Tunisian judiciary lacks independence and regularly issues convictions in politically motivated cases. In 2008, the practice of detaining political activists continued unabated. Credible local and international sources report that detainees are routinely tortured in prison and in police custody. Throughout 2008, multiple credible sources continued to report that political prisoners are regularly denied access to medical treatment or the ability to perform religious rites. In August, authorities detained Tunisian human rights activist Tarek Soussi after he criticized a round of government arrests on al-Jazeera television. Soussi is active in a group called the International Association in Support of Political Prisoners (AISPP), which the authorities have described as “unrecognized.” He has been charged with disseminating false information “in bad faith.” If found guilty, he could face up to three years in prison.
On social policy, Tunisian authorities have been fairly progressive, especially in the area of women’s rights. Women in Tunisia enjoy 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 mothers and foreign fathers are automatically granted citizenship, which is not the case in many neighboring countries.