Promise of `New Era' Is Lagging for Tunisians

Critics credit leader with good intentions but say actions fall short

ALL around Tunis, in shop windows, splashed across building facades, pasted to fruit stalls and newsstands, are posters and portraits of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The ubiquitous pictures, some showing peasant women holding up their arms to Mr. Ben Ali as if they are beholding a personal savior, are reminiscent of Soviet-style propaganda and indicate how much the exercise of power here remains a personal affair.

"It is a little overpowering," says one government worker, whose own office nevertheless boasts two presidential portraits.

The five years since Ben Ali wrested power from ailing President-for-Life Habib Bourguiba are referred to in official literature and by the pro-government press here as the "new era," during which this small North African country claims to have moved confidently and irreversibly down the road to democracy.

While Tunisia has made progress in important areas, from economic growth to the status and role of women, it would be far-fetched to include democratization among its attributes.

The parliament holds just one party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally, whose leader is Ben Ali. The RCD's role in doling out jobs, contracts, and sundry favors at all levels of public life makes it a virtual state party and discourages pragmatic Tunisians from taking an interest in other political organizations.

The six official opposition parties have been unable to develop a true alternative force, partly as a result of their own inexperience but also because the system emphasizes "consensus" and labels any critics as suspect.

The Constitutional Council, the supposedly independent judicial body that reviews proposed legislation for conformity to the Constitution, recently was rocked by the resignation of two prominent members who found a new law on associations blatantly unconstitutional. The two members were convinced the law targeted the Tunisian Human Rights League, one of the country's few watchdogs and the oldest such organization in the Arab world. The law was passed and the League was dissolved.

The stagnation in Tunisia's democratic march is not fully the fault of Ben Ali, who has taken some steps to encourage opposition parties and is said by aides to genuinely want to foster democracy. Officials also claim that the country's "problem" with Islamic fundamentalists is now largely "solved" after the summer's trials of hundreds of fundamentalists accused of sedition and violence, and that the democratization process is picking up new steam.

Yet where government supporters see progress, critics see a great gulf between official discourse and reality.

"Ben Ali may indeed have good intentions, but what counts are results, and on that level things aren't too encouraging," says Yadh Ben Achour, one of the two Constitutional Council members who resigned. "It's not just stability that encourages democracy, as the government seems to think, but a certain climate where people read, speak, and pursue their ideas freely," he says. "Instead of that, however, the Islamists have been used as an alibi to perpetuate a climate of fear."

Mr. Ben Achour says the regime took a wrong turn when Ben Ali assumed the leadership of the RCD early in his presidency. "From that point on the party took back the reins of the state, and the personalization of power became a logical consequence."

Others find Ben Ali's calls for building a true democratic opposition inconsistent with laws that have been passed during his reign. "On the economic and social levels there has been progress, but the political scene is blocked and that is directly attributable to the screws the regime has placed on any form of opposition," says Mohamed Sayah, a former minister and diplomat under Mr. Bourguiba.

Laws have tightened the RCD's grip on parliament and virtually guaranteed that presidential elections will be one-man races, he says, while a law on political parties discourages new and potentially appealing organizations.

"The diversity of Tunisia that could serve as a base for a genuine democracy ends up submerged," Mr. Sayah says. "Those who associate themselves with the regime lose credibility, while any others are shunted aside. What's left is the street, frustrations, and violence."

Government sources counter that a new electoral law will be passed soon to facilitate the entrance of opposition parties into parliament. But several sources say they expect the new law to allow no more than 29 seats go to the opposition, since 30 parliamentary signatures are needed to launch a presidential candidacy.

Legislative elections are set for 1994, but some observers say they could be moved up to the end of next year if Ben Ali wants to end the embarrassment of a single-party parliament. The next presidential election is in 1995.

Officials say Tunisia will continue moving at its own careful pace toward democracy. The experience of Algeria, where "a hasty rush" into multiparty elections almost led to an Islamic fundamentalist state earlier this year, is held up as evidence that Tunisia is following a wiser course.

Tunisia's tradition of modernity and reform perhaps make it a test of progress in the Arab world, Ben Achour says.

"Our real challenge, which is the same one posed by [fundamentalists], is whether we can become a modern state. Tunisia can afford the luxury of political freedoms," he adds, "but steps in that direction are constantly put off. How long do we have to wait?"

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