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Democracy, Tunisian style

Tunisia has been praised as peaceful and competitive, but its next election will have little to do with democracy

By Brian Whitaker

The Guardian, Wednesday 9 September 2009


Tunisia is the most peaceful country in Africa, according to the latest Global Peace Index. It is also the top African country in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index.

The news has clearly delighted the Tunisian government.

"These new rankings reflect the political stability enjoyed by Tunisia and the depth of the social dimension of its economic policy over the past two decades," it said in a statement reproduced on the Isria website. "They provide further evidences that strengthen the singularity of the Tunisian model and the correctness of its national choices, one of the foundations of which rests in the close correlation between the political, economic and social dimensions..."

But let's look more closely at the "correctness" of Tunisia's national choices.

Despite some important achievements in the field of women's rights, Tunisia has one of the Arab world's most repressive regimes. It generally escapes criticism by keeping out of international conflicts and dressing up its political system to look vaguely democratic.

President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is also rather smart. He seized power in 1987 – not through a military coup but by strictly legal means. Just five weeks after becoming prime minister he had President Bourguiba declared medically unfit for office (which indeed he was) and then stepped into his shoes as ordained by the constitution.

In 2004 he stood for re-election, trouncing three other candidates with 94.5% of the votes – an incredible victory that is not readily attributable to his popularity.

He is due to be re-elected again next month and is able – more or less – to choose which candidates will compete against him. The only people allowed to stand are the general secretaries of political parties approved by Ben Ali.

One would-be candidate has already pulled out because of "the absence of minimal conditions of freedom, of honesty and transparency" in the campaign.

Another candidate, Ahmed Brahim of the Ettajdid Movement, has accused the authorities of impeding distribution of his party's newspaper and obstructing some of its other activities. He said the party had to cancel three meetings in a single week after the authorities pressurised hotels in Tunis to prevent them from renting space.

Meanwhile, Ben Ali says he is eager to ensure "good conduct" in the electoral process and has set up a special committee to monitor it. All the committee's members are said to be either members of Ben Ali's party or close to it.

Of course, it helps to have the media on board too. Yesterday, following a court order, police evicted independent members of the journalists' union from their building so that a new (government-backed) board could move in.

This was the culmination of a battle that began last May when, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists criticised the state of press freedom in the country.

Three pro-government members of the union's board resigned in protest at the criticism and organised a "no-confidence" petition seeking to oust the remainder of the union's leadership.

Union members were then pressurised into supporting the petition, according to a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists at the time:

"Either you sign the petition or take the risk of losing your job," Bghouri [the now-ousted union president] told CPJ. "Privately owned media are pressuring their journalists to sign the petition for fear of being deprived of public support and advertising revenue." In Tunisia, advertising is selectively granted by the Tunisian Agency for External Communication to newspapers aligned with the government.

At a special congress last month the union's members did what was required of them and elected a new pro-government leadership.


Editor's note: this article was amended at 19.50 BST on 9 September to make clear that the Isria website merely reproduced the Tunisian government's statement as part of its diplomatic intelligence service and does not endorse its contents.

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