How Tunisia Slid off Its Progressive Course

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Two hundred years ago, in August 1797, the Kingdom of Tunisia entered into a treaty of peace and friendship with the United States, and today it remains a close US ally in a volatile North Africa. In the many years since that treaty, Tunisia has been both beacon of hope and grave disappointment.

Tunisia gained independence 40 years ago, at which time its charismatic leader, Habib Bourguiba, set about modernizing the nation. This small country, sandwiched between Algeria and Libya, cast off 75 years of French colonial rule.

Mr. Bourguiba's decision to oust the last king, Mohamed Lamine Bey, came after the implementation of a series of far-sighted measures aimed at combating illiteracy and social injustice and loosening the grip of conservative religious authorities on society. The government ended polygamy and granted Tunisian women rights unparalleled even today in the rest of the Arab world. Bourguiba's reforms paved the way for social and economic progress, lifting most Tunisians out of poverty and creating an educated population.

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Yet, Bourguiba's progressive policies did not prevent him from clinging to power and building a domineering ruling party. In 1975 he was named "President for Life," a title associated with petty dictators and unworthy of a man of his accomplishments.

Many Tunisians uttered a sigh of relief when, 10 years ago, then-Prime Minister Zine el Abidine Ben Ali declared the old president "senile" and ousted him in a bloodless coup. A military general whom Bourguiba had enlisted to lead a crackdown on the growing Islamist movement, Mr. Ben Ali promised to turn the country into a democracy. After taking power, he released hundreds of political prisoners and committed himself to cooperation with opponents of the previous government. Briefly, Tunisia became a beacon of democracy in a troubled region.

BUT the promises were soon broken. Alarmed by the successes of Islamist political movements in neighboring Algeria, Ben Ali began a crackdown on Tunisia's Islamist political party, Al-Nahda. The crackdown gradually spread, silencing all political opponents and critics.

In the 1989 and 1994 presidential elections, Ben Ali made his intentions clear by announcing victories with more than 99 percent of the vote, brooking no opposition. Algeria's descent into a spiral of political violence became a convenient pretext to restrict basic rights and to crack down on civil society and the news media. Thousands of students and activists, mostly Islamists, were jailed, and many were tortured and denied fair trials.

Tunisians of diverse views, including politicians who until recently were on good terms with the president, ruefully realize today that they had more freedom under Bourguiba. Today, Arab monarchies such as Morocco and Jordan, and republics such as Egypt and Yemen, grant more freedom to the opposition and to the news media than Tunisia does. But no other government in the Arab world trumpets its human rights achievements so loudly while achieving so little.

Amnesty International estimates that there are nearly 2,000 political prisoners in Tunisia today. Press freedom has declined to such an extent that the World Press Association voted in June to expel the Tunisian Association of Editors from its ranks.

When South African leader Nelson Mandela visited Tunisia at the beginning of his "Long Walk to Freedom," nearly 35 years ago, the new republic seemed to be on course to become a leader in reform and modernization. Mr. Mandela, who received support from Bourguiba for the struggle for freedom in South Africa, never could have imagined that democracy would emerge from the ruins of apartheid before catching hold in the ruins of Carthage at the other end of the African continent.

* Kamel Labidi, who lived in Tunisia, is a human rights researcher and freelance journalist in Washington.

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