Skip to main content

The Myth of a Moderate Tunisia

Beneath the modern trappings of President Ben Ali's regime lies just another repressive dictatorship

Published in: Foreign Policy

When Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane arrives in Washington on April 26, he will most certainly present himself as the representative of a "moderate" Arab state that is friendly to the West. As a representative of Human Rights Watch, however, I recently witnessed another side of this supposedly "modern" regime.

My organization released a report last month detailing the Tunisian government's treatment of political prisoners, and a group of us planned to hold a press conference in Tunis to announce it, in the hopes of sparking a dialogue that would lead to change. This was an approach we had tried in 2004, when we released a report on the situation of political prisoners, and in 2005, when we published a study on Internet freedoms in the region. Both releases occurred without incident. This time, however, we found our path blocked at every turn: All of the hotels we contacted stated that they lacked the space to accommodate us, and the room we eventually rented was mysteriously flooded while we were at dinner. The government banned journalists from our news conference and physically barred those who tried to attend. State security agents followed us wherever we went.

Under President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who has held office since 1987 and was just reelected in 2009 for a fifth term, even the most minor dissent is treated as a serious threat. Independent journalists, human rights organizations, union organizers -- anyone who raises concerns about the government's actions -- find their actions tracked and their outspokenness punished.

Tunisia often attempts to cover up its repressive measures behind a thin veneer of legality, hoping to convince the West of its relative liberality. The government contends, for example, that there are no political prisoners in Tunisia. Of course, that may be true under the government's strict interpretation of what constitutes a political crime. Following that line of reasoning, there have been few, if any, people prosecuted under laws that criminalize political activity or opinion during Ben Ali's multiple terms -- hence, no political prisoners. The government prefers to prosecute its critics using trumped-up charges of common crimes.

Taoufiq Ben Brik, a dissident journalist who has been a favorite target of the regime, is a case in point. In October 2009, Ben Brik was charged with "violating public decency," "defamation," "assault," and "damaging another person's property," allegedly for assaulting a woman. He claims the victim was actually a state security agent and maintains that it was she who in fact assaulted him as he was on his way to pick up his daughter from school. The government carefully crafted a scenario that not only landed Ben Brik in jail, but also called into question his moral standing.

I personally witnessed the same atmosphere of intimidation in March, when I visited Tunisia to research union organizing efforts in various parts of the country. During my visit, I found that independent unionists suffered the same fate as journalists and local human rights activists. As with the repression of political dissidents, the government's anti-union activities are rarely explicit: Under Tunisia's liberal law of association, in fact, those who wish to form a union or a non-governmental organization are simply required to inform the government of their intention. If the Interior Ministry does not object within 90 days, the new union or NGO is considered legal. How then -- despite a robust human rights community -- are there only two legally recognized human rights organizations and only two labor unions in the entire country?

Here's where the smoke and mirrors come in. To halt the legalization of a new union, the government needs only to claim that it never received its application. For this reason, it never provides the applicants with a receipt that they can use as proof of their submission. This legal loophole allows the government to assert that all activities of the newly formed union are illegal.

According to many unionists, the government has expended great effort over the years to keep the upper echelons of the nationwide umbrella organization, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), loyal. Since the government prevents independent unions from attaining legal status, this effectively gives the regime a monopoly over labor union activity.

In return, UGTT keeps a tight leash on its more independent members. In 2008, teachers organized under UGTT led a mass anti-corruption uprising, which involved thousands of protesters over a six month period. In response, the UGTT expelled all the movement's leaders. They were reinstated only after substantial local and international pressure.

The Tunisian government has also proved itself more than willing to get its hands dirty when it perceives a threat to its power. The National Union of Tunisian Journalists (NSTJ), the only legally authorized independent union outside the UGTT following its inception in 2007, earned Ben Ali's ire in 2009, when its leaders announced that the union would remain neutral in that year's presidential and parliamentary elections. The authorities retaliated by concocting an elaborate plan to oust the union's president and his board and replace them with pro-government journalists.

The government resorted to a barrage of bribery, threats, and blackmail aimed at convincing journalists in the union to sign a petition calling for the board's dismissal. Newspaper owners were threatened with the withdrawal of paid government announcements unless their employees complied. Those announcements bring in 600 percent more revenue for the newspapers than private advertising -- it's a handy way to keep news editors in check.

Many journalists who refused to support the coup were fired. The NSTJ subsequently held new leadership elections that were, predictably, mired in corruption -- half the voters weren't even union members, let alone journalists. The Tunisian government claims that it had nothing to do with the union's internal politics and that it was pure coincidence that the new, illegally elected board consisted almost entirely of journalists loyal to Ben Ali's government.

Despite Ben Ali's best efforts to conceal his government's dishonest methods to silence and quash dissent, the carefully crafted façade of "modern, democratic, and moderate" Tunisia is coming apart at the seams. This is in large part thanks to Tunisia's systematically repressed, persecuted, but tireless human rights activists.

When the foreign minister comes to Washington, the Barack Obama administration should pressure him on these and many other issues, making it clear that Tunisia's complete disregard for the rights of its citizens needs to change. The Western world owes far more to Tunisia's beleaguered human rights advocates, who need all the help they can get.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country