Real democracy in Tunisia?

While I could not agree more with Mamoun Fandy's opinion that nothing is more urgent in the Arab world today than democracy and a peaceful transfer of power ("Tunisia's emerging democracy," Oct. 27), I find shocking his conclusion that Tunisia "is an emerging democracy" and that the reelection of President Zein Al Abdeen ben Ali, with a striking 99 percent of the votes, "marks a watershed in Arab politics between autocratic rule of the past and new politics of pluralism."

On Oct. 24, the heads of two insignificant parties stood for election against the incumbent president, whom they have supported since his bloodless coup on Nov. 7, 1987.

The Tunisian Constitution, tailored in 1959 to secure the hegemony of the ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) and its president, was amended in June to allow the heads of two minor political parties to run for president.

Can Dr. Fandy really deem such elections, where the incumbent president tailors the Constitution to handpick his challengers and the election law to grant seats to yes-men, "democratic" and "pluralist"? He does not explain how free and fair elections can take place when the press is tightly muzzled and civil society is kept on a short leash.

International press freedom groups consider the Tunisian government one of the top abusers of press freedom in the world. Serious human rights abuses such as the detention of hundreds of political prisoners are documented not only in the latest annual reports of human rights groups, but also in the US State Department Report on Human Rights Practices.

The victims of such serious abuses are not only Islamists, as Fandy mentioned, but also prominent intellectuals, political figures, lawyers, and highly educated women. The crackdown on free speech has reached such a peak that it prompted intellectuals who have never been involved in public life to action. Tunisians deserve more, beginning with an honest assessment of the recent elections.

Kamel Labidi Cairo, Egypt

Monarchy can be good government

As a longtime admirer of the Monitor's usually balanced and well-informed editorials, I was disappointed by the cynical, biased, and misinformed editorial regarding the recent Australian elections over whether or not to retain Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state ("Queens and Presidents," Nov. 8).

Republics and monarchies are forms of government. Democracy is a type of government. A republic has a constitutionally elected head of state, whereas a monarch is normally inherited. Both forms of government can be either dictatorships or democracies.

Few, if any nations today can claim to have a more democratic type of government that Australia, and having a constitutional president with weak powers, or even a directly elected president with executive powers, is not going to improve the democratic system Australia already has.

Ron Dutton Los Angeles

Artists' responsibilities

Dana Mack's thoughtful discussion on what art is was most welcome ("It isn't pretty ... but is it art?" Nov. 9). Artists must take responsibility for the art they do. But artists cannot take responsibility for how an audience deals with that art.

The question of freedom of speech versus censorship is a very real one for both the audience and the artist. It is critical for freedom of speech not to be denied, but it is also critical that an artist understands the ethical foundation for claiming that right.

Loralee Cooley Pampa, Texas

The Monitor welcomes your letters and opinion articles. Due to the volume of mail, we can neither acknowledge nor return unpublished submissions. All submissions are subject to editing. Letters must be signed and include your mailing address and telephone number.

Mail letters to "Readers Write," and opinion articles to Opinion Page, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or fax to 617-450-2317, or e-mail to oped@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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