Tunisia has been a friend and ally of the U.S. for more than two-hundred years. And it has supported U.S. policies, including the war in Iraq and the global war against terrorism.
These were among the issues that U.S. officials discussed with Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on his recent visit to Washington. Also on the agenda, said Secretary of State Colin Powell, was Tunisia’s human rights record:
“We had some continuing concerns with respect to political reform, with respect to media access and other similar issues where I think Tunisia could do more. . . . And as you can with strong friends, you can discuss issues that are in contention.”
Under its first president, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia led the Arab world in granting rights to women. President Ben Ali’s government has generally continued to respect women’s rights since Bourguiba was ousted in 1987. But in other areas, Tunisia’s human rights record remains poor. The right of Tunisian citizens to change their government is severely limited. Freedom of speech, assembly, and association are restricted. And security forces harass, detain, and sometimes torture those who publicly criticize the government.
Kamel Labidi is a former director of Amnesty International-Tunisia and was a longtime journalist in Tunisia until the government took away his press accreditation. He says that President Ben Ali “has quashed virtually all dissent and silenced” Tunisia’s civil society.
In his White House meeting with Mr. Ben Ali, President George W. Bush said the U.S. recognizes that Tunisia has “an education system that is modern and viable; that women. . .are given equal rights.” In the same spirit, Mr. Bush says Tunisia needs a press corps “that is vibrant and free, as well as an open political process”:
“Tunisia can help lead the greater Middle East to reform and freedom, something that I know is necessary for peace for the long term.”
Despite the current restrictions, as Kamel Labidi put it, “Tunisians still hope that democracy will take root in their country.”