How Arabs Fight Islamism: A Letter from Tunis

How Arabs Fight Islamism: A Letter from Tunis

The Challenge of Human Rights

Just as the war on terrorism raises human rights issues, so does Tunisia's war on Islamic fundamentalism. The government has arrested hundreds of suspected Islamists, passed laws making it a crime to incite religious fanaticism and clamped down harshly on any suggestion of an association with Al-Nahda. At times this zeal has spilled over to members of outlawed secular groups like the Parti Communiste Ouvrier Tunisien (PCOT). It ought, therefore, to be no surprise that Tunisia is heavily criticized by human rights organizations for a variety of misdeeds--ranging from prison conditions to political prosecutions for defaming the government to refusal to allow political activists exit visas. These charges should not be minimized, though they are often overstated by NGOs. They certainly pale in comparison to the level of human rights violations by its neighbors to its east and west--let alone by the "axis of evil" states.

The government's response to these criticisms is to point to the concrete threat of fundamentalism. Sadok Chaabone, a former justice minster, has argued, "When we started, we had 1,000 people in the prisons. . . . But it's better than 100,000 dead, like in Algeria." At the same time, the government has embraced the normative grammar of human rights. It has restructured cabinet portfolios to raise the profile of human rights concerns through a Ministry of Justice and Human Rights (now held by Bechir Takkari). Indeed, Tunisia even has its own human rights league (the Arab world's first): the Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de L' Homme (LTDH), which it continually pressures but steadfastly recognizes. In a recent Republic Day speech, the President affirmed "the supremacy of the law", underscoring that "the foundations of the republican system include the protection of the right to differ."

At the same time, senior magistrate Mokhtar Yahyaui--who was suspended without pay in July 2001 when he complained about the "total lack of independence" in government--was restored to office. A torture victim, Ali Mansouri won a court case against government officials and received $210,000 in compensation. In May 2001, President Ben Ali pardoned Nejib Hosni, a legendary Tunisian lawyer and civil rights advocate. In January 2002, Mohammed Mouda, head of the opposition socialists, was conditionally released after a hunger strike and is back at the helm of MDS. Hamma Hammani, the leader of the barred PCOT, who was jailed after coming out of hiding last February, was recently released on health grounds. And in August 2002, former Prime Minister Muhammad Mzali returned from 15 years in exile to praise Tunisia's economic and social stability within the context of a movement toward democratic pluralism.

There is no doubt that the government would prefer to control the human rights debate. It tried to "stack" the membership of LTDH (presumably to influence its policies), and it has refused official recognition to a second, competing human rights group: the Civil Liberties League, which leaves its membership open to prosecution. Indeed, its efforts to ward off criticism have led to a unique and humorous moment in human rights advocacy: the battle of competing human rights websites. After a series of critical reports by Amnesty International, a pro-government website went online with the confusing address of Amnesty cried foul, charging that the government was creating a deceptive website. Tunisian officials claimed ignorance of the entire affair. The faux website was eventually moved to www.rights-tunisia.organd is not currently operational. The bad blood between the government and the international human rights community has colored perceptions on all sides. And even when the government is responsive to human rights complaints, as when it set up a commission of inquiry on jail conditions, it gets little credit.

The big civil liberties issue up for grabs, however, is freedom of expression and freedom of the press in particular. State officials seem to take personal offense to attacks in the press and react harshly when criticized. Tunisia has found itself afoul of press freedom groups worldwide. To the government, this is largely the result of a vendetta by the left-wing French press, especially Le Monde and L'Express. Many in the government, however, have begun to appreciate the foolishness of barring foreign media who air negative news stories when more and more homes have satellite dishes. Besides Al-Jazeera in Dubai, Al Musta Killah, a London based cable network, has specific Tunisian-focused programming. Its weekly no-holds-barred talk show, Le Grand Maghreb, offers discussion with dissidents of various stripes.

In April 2001, the Tunisian parliament revised the country's press code, eliminating the charge of "defaming public order" and removing the possibility of prison sentences for falsely presenting advertising material as news items and other selected code violations. The period of suspension was shortened from six to three months. And in May 2001, the president spoke out on press freedom, calling on journalists to "write on any subject you choose. There are no taboos except what is prohibited by law and press ethics." The following year, however, Zouhair Yahyaoui, publisher of a web-zine, was jailed for two years. His crime: "putting out false news." Another journalist, Hedi Yahmed, was similarly charged when he published a critical report on the country's prisons. His case has not yet been adjudicated.

Tunisia remains a North Africa success story. One can point to its economic growth, political stability, integration of women into the workforce, successful war on terrorism and support for a moderate Islam as elements of that success. Still, its challenges in the coming decade are great. First is the continuing challenge of social stability, which it is far better positioned than its neighbors to achieve. Second is continued economic development, including the ultimate challenge of free trade with the EU. Here, too, Tunisia is progressing past its Maghreb neighbors and looks likely to meet its EU target of full free trade by 2010. Third is the continuing challenge of Islamic fundamentalism that is often propelled by regional developments.

Finally, there is the challenge of democracy and human rights. Ben Ali has staked his country's survival on a philosophy of gradualism, one in which economic and social stability provides the basis for what one of his closest advisors has called "the road to pluralism" and respect for law. Gradualists are inherently open to the criticism of not moving fast enough. If the language of democracy is not fortified by pluralistic politics, the hopes for a democratic civitas can easily atrophy. Further, there is a real danger that the very restrictions on democracy and freedoms designed to ensure stability can themselves create instability. By choosing a top-down, drawn out process of democratization, Tunisia may well find itself riding the proverbial tiger, forced to choose more authoritarian solutions to ensure stability because the democratic aspirations of the moderate center are being too slowly fulfilled. To paraphrase former Solicitor-General Archibald Cox: Once loosed, the idea of liberty is not easily cabined.

Marshall J. Breger is professor of law in the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America.

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