April 11, 2006

At 50, Tunisia prospers but rights advocates worry

By Sonia Ounissi

TUNIS (Reuters) - To its admirers, Tunisia is a star of the
global battle against poverty, boasting north Africa's
healthiest and best educated population and the Arab world's
most advanced rights for women.

To its critics, Tunisia is a de facto police state whose
democratic deficit may one day undermine the modernization
carefully nurtured since independence from France in 1956.

As the country of 10 million people takes stock at the half
century mark, neither camp disputes two truths of the country's
modern history: the tight control wielded by the government of
President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and the increasing wealth of
the region's largest middle class.

Whether further progress requires a push to full democracy
remains a debate that Tunisians tend to conduct in private.

For Abelaltif Metoui, a 60-year-old trader, the country's
achievements are obvious: a society with levels of health,
water provision and housing unthinkable in 1956.

"There is a big difference between now and those old days.
Really I would like to be a young man again now, when vital and
secondary services are provided," he told Reuters.

"I remember when I was 10 years old -- my family lacked
access to drinking water, it had to go out and look for it. But
now water and electricity are supplied to every family."


Economic growth under Ben Ali has averaged five percent a
year in the past decade. More than two-thirds of households own
homes. A fifth of the population owns a car, up from a tenth
two decades ago. Access to basic health care is available to

Life expectancy is 74, compared with 51 in 1961, and infant
mortality is 19 per 1,000 live births, down from 139 in 1966.

"Our country has limited natural resources but it has a
growing economy and a developed society due to the promotion of
its human resources," Development Minister Mohamed Nouri Jouini

Economic reforms have lessened dependence on volatile
farming and energy and boosted services such as tourism.
Tunisia has six million foreign visitors a year. Relations with
France, its top foreign trading partner and investor, are

Critics argue these gains are just window dressing for a
state apparatus that jealously guards its control.

Democracy campaigners point to an incident in the center of
the capital Tunis, a few days before independence anniversary
celebrations on March 20th, as evidence of repression.

Dozens of dissidents gathered to hold a street protest to
claim more political rights. Police swiftly dispersed them.

There was no protest by any foreign government.


Rights advocates say Tunisia escapes the kind of criticism
directed at other authoritarian governments in the area because
its Western allies tend to focus on its sound economic
performance and success in containing radical Islamist

They say it is high time to push for full democracy, with a
level playing field for all political parties and freedom of

"After 50 years of independence, no fair election, no
improvement in freedom, no free judicial system (and) a rise in
corruption," said Ayachi Hamami, a lawyer and rights activist.

"So, we have the right to ask for a second independence."

Ben Ali stands accused by human rights groups and some
opposition parties of creating a de facto police state
disguised as a democracy after he succeeded the father of
modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, in 1987.

The government replies that Ben Ali is committed to
establishing genuine democracy gradually. Multi-party politics
began in the early 1980s and the government says it recently
started granting legal opposition groups funding to boost

The government insists no action has been taken against
dissidents for their views and only those who violate the law
are punished.

Critics concede that Ben Ali enjoys support from much of
the business community which has prospered during his tenure.

The ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally,
dominates the legislature, as by law 80 percent of the seats in
the 189-seat parliament are reserved for the ruling party. The
remaining 20 percent are contested by six opposition parties.

Critics say that that is not good enough.

"The hard part is done: Tunisia has achieved great results
over the past five decades such as economic growth and social
progress based on women's liberation," former Education
Minister Mohamed Charfi told Reuters.

"But the political system needs reform and the democratic
process hasn't progressed, although it can be achieved in a few
months," added Charfi, now a member of the dissident camp.

Human rights groups accuse the government of harassing
journalists and beating and jailing opponents. They say 400 are
still in jail for their religious and political beliefs.

"We ask for a general amnesty...and to have talks involving
all the country's political groups" said dissident Hamadi

Jebali, a member of the outlawed Islamist Nahda party, was
freed in February in an amnesty of 1,600 detainees, after 15
years in jail for what the government called crime. He says he
was jailed for expressing his views in a newspaper.

(Additional reporting by Tarek Amara)