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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Tunisia's 2 Faces of Progress

The North African nation is a model of development and stability. But dissent is quashed, and an Islamist movement is growing.

June 10, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUNIS, Tunisia — The men pounced, their beefy hands grabbing, pushing, shoving. There were a dozen of them, at least, and they hurled themselves at anyone in their way. Others banged bottles on a car, menacing a group of women as they tried to flee.

The assailants didn't identify themselves, but here, as in much of the Arab world, there was no need. It wasn't so much the clothes, which were casual, as much as it was the attitude: These men could do whatever they wanted, whenever they felt like it. They were the police.

In this case, they'd been dispatched by the government to stop a group of human rights activists from demonstrating for the release of political prisoners.

"Tunisia presents itself as this good student to the international community," said Omar Mestiri, the founder of a banned human rights monitoring group who sported a deep purple bruise under his eye after the recent fracas. "It's very progressive in economic matters, and it says it is working on human rights. That's the face of it. But on the inside, it is a police state."

Tunisia's general-turned-president, Zine el Abidine ben Ali, promised democracy when he came to power in 1987 in a bloodless coup. He instituted the usual trappings, allowing for opposition press, freeing some political prisoners and even abolishing the post of president-for-life.

But all it takes is a quick stroll down most any street here in the capital to experience what it's like to be followed by agents who make little attempt to stay hidden. The system is designed to intimidate--and to keep the ruling group in power. Just last month, the president pushed through a constitutional change that will, in effect, allow him to serve as president for life.

Like many regimes in the Arab world, Ben Ali's government is sitting on a volcano of popular discontent stoked by religious fervor and international events such as the Palestinian intifada. Tunisians, like many Arabs in the Middle East, are also immensely frustrated with their own entrenched leadership, limits on democracy and the widespread use of force and intimidation to silence political opposition.

Tunisia is a stable country in North Africa, sandwiched between two volatile and even more oppressive neighbors, Algeria and Libya. Its capital, Tunis, is a cosmopolitan city, with a European flair and majestic palm trees lining the main boulevard. Tunisia does more than 70% of its trade with Western Europe, spends more than 50% of its budget on social and developmental programs and reports that 85% of the population owns a home.

Its streets are clean, its shops are filled, and it is eager to present itself as a modern, secular state.

Fear of Speaking Out

The government rejects the notion that the nation is a police state, but from Tunis to the coastal resort towns of the south, many Tunisians--shopkeepers and homemakers, nurses and senior citizens--speak of a regime that relies on fear and intimidation to keep everyone, not just Islamists, in line. Speak out against the regime, and your mother might be harassed. Join a banned organization, and your children might be thrown out of school. Your phone lines might be cut. Your cars stolen. Offices ransacked. Passports confiscated. Jobs taken away.

Bashir Abeid, 34, is a typical example of what happens when someone gets involved in activities the government doesn't condone. He was studying general history more than a decade ago when he became a student leader calling for better conditions for students and prisoners. Over the years, he's been arrested, held in prison and had his passport taken away, though it was returned.

Worse, he says he has been repeatedly tortured, charges that have been supported by independent human rights groups. The authorities, he says, shocked him on his genitals, manacled his wrists behind his ankles and beat him while suspended from a rod. He says he was hanged from his neck, dropped in a vat of urine and kept awake for days at a time.

"I have chosen this path, and these are the consequences," he said. "It is not easy fighting a police state."

The modern state of Tunisia was fathered by Habib Bourguiba, a French-trained lawyer who led the country to independence from France in 1956. His was a dictatorship, but a relatively enlightened one for the region. He granted unparalleled rights to women, including the right to vote and serve in government, to sue for divorce and to have an abortion. Polygamy, permitted in the Koran, was outlawed.

Roots of Repression

In the 1980s, the Bourguiba regime concluded that the Islamic movement Nahda had gained too much power. Motivated by the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran and financed by Persian Gulf states, Nahda, according to government officials, was planning to overthrow the regime. Islamists were rounded up en masse and thrown in prison, and the party structure was dismantled.

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