- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

TUNIS, Tunisia — Not far from the ruins of ancient Carthage, a long line of cars typically waits to enter the parking lot outside Tunisia's latest marvel — a giant shopping center.
"Libyan, Algerian, another Libyan," said the taxi driver, pointing to license plates. "They have oil but come to us to buy food."
What the Tunisians call their hypermarket is the latest sign of growing prosperity of this North African nation between unpredictable Libya and unrest-plagued Algeria.
The country with the highest literacy rate and the lowest birthrate in the Arab world, Tunisia hopes to become "a young developed nation" in the foreseeable future.
An estimated 5 million tourists from Europe are expected this year, attracted by Tunisia's proximity, by 1,000 miles of golden sandy beaches — and by political stability.
Liberals in France, the former colonial power, often accuse Tunisian President Zine Abidine Ben Ali of having imposed regimentation on Tunisia's 10 million people. Mr. Ben Ali ignores such accusations with supreme indifference.
According to a British diplomatic assessment, "the regime will hold as long as the economy holds." And the Tunisian economy has been "holding" with astounding results that some diplomats are at a loss to explain.
Construction is booming, turning parts of Tunis into hives of activity under the burning sun. Some 5,000 women head private firms and more than half of university students are female.
There are no strikes and the regime controls the labor unions strictly. Policemen are omnipresent. Although having virtually eliminated the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, the regime is taking no chances.
The Islamists who 10 years ago appeared poised to seize power have lost their audience. Their slogans are banned, together with all political parties using religion in their manifestos.
The young generation "knows nothing about fundamentalism or its objectives. It is a post-fundamentalist generation," said Samir Abdou, a Tunis lawyer.
Nonetheless, government officials remain cautious.
They point to the intense fundamentalist propaganda aimed at the Tunisian expatriate community in France, using Web sites in conjunction with some European left-wing parties.
"Europeans are afraid of Islamic fundamentalists but not afraid of leftists," a government official said. "The latest fundamentalist tactic is to hide behind their leftist friends and their claims to democracy."


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