- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia. — One late evening, while much of North America was in a deep freeze this January, I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to meet Minister Habib Ben Yahya. He said he was looking forward to the visit of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with President Bush in mid-February. In preparation for that meeting, Secretary of State Colin Powell had visited here Dec. 2 to consult with Mr. Ben Ali. The two had discussed the war on terrorism and Tunisia’s assistance in persuading Libya to give up its nuclear weapons program. The February meeting with Mr. Bush would clearly seem a reward for Tunisia’s role.

This small North African country, however, has had only two leaders since its independence from France in 1957. Mr. Ben Ali has held office since Nov. 7, 1987. In the last election, he won an astounding 90 percent of the popular vote.

On the other hand, Tunisia’s parliamentaryopposition, which holds 20 percent of the seats, is not necessarily one that the United States might wish to take power.

Hajji Hichen, an academic and opposition leader, advocates a Marxist economy, an end to political patronage and the elimination of Israel. To give the opposition its due, Tunisian democracy seems full of American-style pork barrel patronage of the big-city kind — who gets what and when depends on political decisions.

But in a country of 9.5 million — in which 62 percent of the population is urban, 80 percent of Tunisians own their own homes and the poverty rate is less than 4.2 percent — it is hard for an American to criticize the pace of their political reforms. Tunisians often laugh at foreign suggestions that the political opposition needs more legislative seats, as though the joke is on the foreigner.

“One size does not fit all,” the foreign minister said, alluding to Mr. Powell’s delicate Dec. 2 remarks encouraging Tunisia to speed up its political reforms. “Tunisia will reform at its own speed. My friend Colin Powell himself said that it took 200 years for an African-American soldier to be able to serve as U.S. secretary of state. And Britain industrialized before it gave women the right to vote. We gave women the right to vote before our independence in 1957. So be patient with us.”

The minister, who once served as Tunisian ambassador to the United States, has a flair for rhetorical flourishes. On U.S. relations, he stressed, “We don’t have problems between the U.S. and Tunisia. We have only the problems of others.”

Offering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as one major source of U. S.-Tunisian difference, he said, “Tunisia has always supported a two-state solution; and when President Habib Bourguiba proposed that solution at the first Arab League meeting, there were protests, demonstrations and even riots against Tunisian government embassies in Arab countries.”

Tunisia’s Jewish community of Djerba, some 3,000 souls, was a source of national pride, said the minister. His remark confirmed an observation made earlier by American diplomats who did not wish attribution. Tunisians feel a great deal of pride in having one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, dating back to the Roman conquest. “The Israeli foreign minister is Tunisian,” said Oussama Romdhani, director-general of external government communication. “He cheers for the Tunisian soccer team when they play Israel.” Yet Israeli-Tunisian relations have some distance to cover before they can be said to be normal.

In April 2002, when a suicide bomber attacked the Djerba synagogue, Africa’s oldest synagogue, most Tunisians were horrified and the country went into a day of mourning. “Tunisians consider Tunisian Jews fully Tunisian,” said one American diplomat in Tunis, who wished anonymity. At the same time, Israel’s El Al airline does not yet have flights to Tunis.

But unlike Israel, Tunisia has not had the trained immigration it needs to boost its GDP and technology. Almost unique for an Arab country, it has, therefore, turned to its women, rather than expatriate workers, to augment its traditional male labor force.

Unlike many other Mediterranean countries along North Africa’s coast, this site of ancient Carthaginian and Roman ruins appears to have weathered the tourist slump following September 11. Tourism now accounts for 17 percent of the country’s annual revenues. And Tunisia has placed a bid to host the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament.

Despite its location, Tunisia has been long free of the violence in neighboring Algeria and repression in Libya. Tunis, the capital, selected by the American Battle Monuments Committee as the site for the North American Cemetery, holds all of our war dead in North Africa. The gravesite of 27 acres, the resting place of 2, 841 fallen military during World War II, has a limestone wall with the names of 3,724 of the missing — a haunting record in an otherwise unassuming landscape. But fewer than 100 Americans visit the site each year. The numbers could improve now that the ever-resourceful Tunisians, with the chutzpah of Israeli tourism, are promoting the site as one of their major tourist attractions for the 61st anniversary of the WWII Allied victory here.

Carl Senna is an American writer and journalist living in St. John, New Brunswick.

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