- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali arrives in Washington today with a warning about the extent of terrorism, “which transcends borders and requires diligent action.”

The Arab leader, who regards himself as an ally of the United States, said before his departure that he also would advise President Bush to “promptly tackle the situation in Iraq … to ensure stability and security while respecting Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The paralysis of the Middle East peace process will be among the items discussed during Mr. Ben Ali’s official visit, his second since he became president in 1987.

“We commend the U.S. administration’s position and President Bush’s personal and clear support to the establishment of the Palestinian state,” Mr. Ben Ali told The Washington Times in an interview in his Carthage Palace on the Mediterranean Sea.

“We hope the U.S. administration will pursue its endeavors with all the concerned parties to put an end to the grave deterioration of the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, to revive the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and also to revive the other processes to establish the foundations of a real, just and durable peace for all the peoples in the region,” he said.

Mr. Ben Ali became president when, as prime minister, he dismissed Habib Bourguiba, who would have been president for life, on charges of senility and incompetence in a constitutionally sanctioned takeover.

Since that day nearly 17 years ago, Mr. Ben Ali has dominated Tunisia’s life and institutions, raising the standard of living to an unprecedented level and turning the North African country of 9.9 million into the most educated nation in the Arab world.

Critics of the Ben Ali regime say the economic success has been carried out at the cost of political stagnation and rigid government control of the press. The government retorts that the existence of so-called “legal opposition” parties provides a political opening and evolution.

The legal opposition has little following, and its political platform differs little from that of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally, known by its French initials RCD, which Mr. Ben Ali created. Parties are banned from using religion in their platforms — a policy aimed at Islamic extremists.

Shortly before leaving for Washington, Mr. Ben Ali was nominated for another term by the ruling party. The nomination was hardly a surprise, and it involved no political risk.

Mr. Ben Ali firmly controls the country, including the highly effective security apparatus that has thwarted Islamist efforts to seize power.

In discussing the terrorist threat, Mr. Ben Ali recalled that he has been alerting the world of this danger as far back as 30 years ago.

Tunisia has become a key U.S. ally in the global war on terror. It also suffered a bombing, blamed on al Qaeda, at the historic Ghriba synagogue on the resort island of Djerba in 2002, which killed five Tunisians and 16 European tourists.

Mr. Ben Ali stressed that in addition to security measures, Tunisia’s economic and educational programs were essential in stemming the tide of militant Islam.

“Aware that religion-masked extremism feeds on poverty, deprivation and ignorance, we have endeavored to tackle its roots socially, economically, culturally and educationally, and to address the conditions conducive to its emergence and propagation,” he said.

Mr. Ben Ali was raised among 11 siblings in a humble family. He joined the army and undertook higher military training in France and then in the United States. He studied intelligence and security at Fort Holabird in Baltimore and antiaircraft artillery in Fort Worth, Texas.

Later, he served as military attache in Spain and Morocco and as ambassador to Poland.

Subsequently, he became national security minister and interior minister and was appointed as prime minister on his 51st birthday, Oct. 2, 1987.

Two months and five days later, he was sworn in as president and launched a vast political and economic program, with the aim of turning Tunisia into a “young, developed nation.”

Some diplomats say there is no adequate yardstick to judge Mr. Ben Ali’s popularity. He was last re-elected in 1999, and a constitutional amendment extending his term of office was passed in 2002 — both with a 99 percent approval. Another presidential election is scheduled for this fall.

No obvious successor to Mr. Ben Ali has emerged on Tunisia’s political horizon, and the subject never is discussed in the press.

One aspect of Tunisia’s transformation is the growing role of women. Women are active in all fields and dominate some areas, such as health care and teaching.

Many foreign analysts think the increasing role of women is an effective barrier against Islamic fundamentalism. Of Tunisia’s 360,000 university students, 51 percent are women.

In religious matters, Tunisia pursues the credo that “mosques belong to God.”

Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia said, “Democracy should not be based on citations from the Koran.”

The Tunisian government maintains that Muslim fundamentalists are exploiting the head scarves issue for provocative political ends.

The wearing of head scarves by Muslim women has been banned in Tunisia for years.

Tunisia has no substantial natural resources, and officials like to say that the country’s main asset is its people. Tourism is the main foreign currency earner, with more than 5 million foreign visitors a year.

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