Tunisia's tiny free-speech steps

US-funded efforts to spread democracy in Middle East meet with resistance.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Two US-funded projects – a university newspaper produced by Tunisians with advice from Ohio students, and a bland program of public debates – highlight the difficulties Washington faces in spreading democracy in the Arab world.

"Once people even get a small taste of liberty, they're not going to rest until they're free," said President George W. Bush in a speech last month. "We will help those countries' peoples stand up functioning democracies in the heart of the broader Middle East."

But giving Arabs even "a small taste" of democracy is proving harder than US diplomats expected. Sponsorship of local programs is complicated by popular anger over US policy in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. And some governments in the region are worried US efforts to stoke democratic reforms will destabilize their regimes.

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"What we started out with in 2002 is obviously not where we are now," says a US official here, acknowledging the challenges facing the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). Begun in 2002, the 17-nation program is meant to carry out US democracy-building policy across the Arab world through direct funding ($430 million budgeted over the past five years) to nongovernmental groups. "This is not development assistance. It's foreign policy with assistance attached to it."

MEPI's student newspaper project, in partnership with the Institute of Press and Information Services (IPSI), the government's journalist training center at Manouba University near Tunis, was halted after only a year because of "bureaucratic problems."

"This is not a political problem ... I don't know why [it was halted] exactly," says Mohamed Ali Kembi, one of two professors at IPSI who participated in the program that included exchanges with Ohio's Bowling Green State University. "It was really a successful program."

In a weekly newsletter called "Perspectives," a dozen students covered university news, dorm life, sports, and foreign news. There were exchanges between Tunisian journalism students and professors and their American counterparts.

The goal was to teach objective journalism. In a country whose media is tightly controlled and journalists need government approval to work, getting IPSI on board for the project for the first year was seen as a major victory, says the US official at MEPI.

But as preparations were made for a second year, IPSI unexpectedly "made it clear it would be on hold indefinitely," says the US official.

What halted the project may have been broader problems with the US effort to create "functioning democracies" in the Arab world. "There was a failure on the part of the administration very early on to understand how complicated the process of 'promoting' democracy is," says Guilain Denoeux, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and a member of the MEPI Reference Group from 2003-2005. The group was a collection of experts meant to discuss and brief US officials working on MEPI.

"Never from the get go [was there] a real effort to focus on the details – exactly how you were going to translate those noble ideas into tangible results on the ground. It's all the more [unfortunate] because there is a great deal of experience in the US on this. There was a tendency to reinvent the wheel and bypass those who knew [how to do it]," says Dr. Denoeux.

As the newspaper project languished, MEPI began supporting a program of roundtable discussions already under way with the help of al- Sabah newspaper journalist Ridha Kefi. About half a dozen discussions have been held so far this year, among intellectuals, members of professional associations, and representatives of the government. Among the relatively uncontroversial topics: US-Tunisian trade and the media's role vis-a-vis extremism.

The discussions, held in a hotel conference room, are videotaped, transcribed, and shared with the public in a newspaper supplement. The supplement is distributed by al-Sabah and its French sister publication, the second largest Arabic and French newspapers respectively.

"There is no conversation here between the people and the government at all.... So all we are doing in this roundtable is to have a discussion," says Mr. Kefi.

It's a smaller step towards reform than the student newspaper program, but it's the new definition of progress. "What they say [in the roundtable meeting] is not as important as [that] the roundtable took place and [the] accounts of these are published," says the US official.

"There are those who see democracy as an instantaneous process. We see it as a gradual reform process that requires a lot of effort," says a Tunisian official who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

But it isn't just governments that view US democratic ambitions here with a wary eye. Tunisia has a community of human rights, free press, and democracy activists that would appear to be natural allies of the US. "In all the Arab world the image of America is very bad," says Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, referring to US policies in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. "We cannot leave all of this and cooperate with MEPI and American programs."

That sentiment can make it difficult for those who work with the US. "We are facing a lot of problems because we are working with MEPI," says Kefi, but MEPI is one of the few sponsors he could find. "In our work and in our beliefs is the only hope we have. We have to push things – this [red] line – to [bring] freedom." [Editor's note: The original version mistakenly inserted 'MEPI' into this quotation by Mr. Kefi, changing the meaning. We regret the error]

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