- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

TUNIS, Tunisia — An orderly crowed chanted last month in a cavernous meeting hall in a suburb of the Tunisian capital.

The audience rhythmically applauded a burly man with jet-black hair dressed in an impeccable pinstripe suit. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 67, in power nearly 16 years, had just announced that he would stand for another five-year term under a constitutional amendment approved last year.

His victory is certain. Under his leadership, this North African country of nearly 10 million people has reached unprecedented prosperity and become known as “the only Arab country that works” — without oil or other resources except its population, on whose education 20 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product is spent.

“I will always be with you,” Mr. Ben Ali promised the crowd of supporters from the governing party he created, the Democratic Constitutional Rally, known by its French initials RCD.

Frequently a target of liberals in France for his tight president-centered democracy, Mr. Ben Ali is backed by the United States and several Western nations as representing his country’s stability and hope. The World Economic Forum has named Tunisia Africa’s leading success.

The rest of France’s former possessions in North Africa do not fare so well. Bordering Libya to the south and Algeria to the west, Tunisia is situated in what one senior official describes as “a rough neighborhood.”

The Tunisian leadership feels that lack of progress in Algeria and Morocco hampers its own economic efforts. “Tunisia cannot do it alone,” said Mohammed Ennouri Jouini, minister of development and international cooperation.

Economic cooperation among the three former French North African territories “cannot be carried out satisfactorily, for political reasons,” he added in an interview. Libya was an Italian colony and has no significant trade with Tunisia.

To most observers, the regional picture is somber.

Algeria is torn by a struggle of clans, by corruption and by the power of the army, which is the main support of the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The bulk of Algeria’s oil income and the country’s cash reserves of more than $13 billion are used to support the military and security apparatus, which cannot seem to end the simmering and periodically exploding struggle with Islamist extremists. Since it erupted in the early 1990s, the conflict has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Further complicating Algeria’s stability is its Berber minority’s clamor for autonomy. Some demands, including recognition of a separate Berber dialect as an official language, have been granted — without any lasting impact on the unrest.

Earthquakes, droughts and floods have further hampered Mr. Bouteflika’s efforts as a leader, and he is often bitterly criticized by the freewheeling Algerian press.

In May, an earthquake of magnitude 6.2 left 3,000 dead, 9,000 injured and 15,000 homeless. Jerry-built dwellings in the area of Boumerdas, east of Algiers, collapsed like houses of cards. Rescuers were slow to arrive, and the devastated inhabitants dug in the rubble for survivors with their bare hands.

Other events also have been unkind to the country. Algerian journalist Ghania Mouffok said the nation has been shaken “by a double earthquake — that of the civil war and of the radical change of its economy.”

Western analysts say that during the past 12 years, under the pressure of international monetary institutions, the denationalization of Algeria’s economy has caused the collapse of public enterprises and the loss of nearly 1 million jobs. A new rich class has surfaced, particularly since the end of state control of foreign commerce.

The poor and the disillusioned are demanding a new social contract, so far without success, Mr. Mouffok says.

Farther to the west in Morocco, ruled by young King Mohammed VI, the government has yet to stem an increase in poverty that stands in bitter contrast with the wealth of a small elite.

The enthusiasm that accompanied the monarch’s accession to “the perfumed throne” four years ago after the death of his father, King Hassan II, has turned into mass discontent, accentuated by the steady growth of Islamic opposition.

In May, 41 persons were killed at Casablanca in attacks blamed on Islamist terrorists. Elements of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, many trained on the battlefields of Afghanistan, are reported to be active again, despite increased repression.

“The terrorists are not members of a single structure,” said Mohammed Tozy, a Moroccan specialist on terrorism.

“They consist of many different groups, most of them created around mosques,” Mr. Tozy said. “In many cases, Islamic activists have become active in schools and food-distribution channels, claiming that, if necessary, ‘We will fight a hundred-year war.’”

Late last month, King Muhammed acknowledged that the government had not done enough to fight poverty. He stressed that his regime would not allow the country to be used as a springboard for “terrorism in the name of religion.”

At the same time, the king said, the growth and permanence of huge shantytowns around the country’s main cities had created breeding grounds of dissatisfaction and terrorism.

The quarrel between Morocco and Algeria over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara, held by Morocco since 1975, seriously complicates any moves to enhance unity of the Maghreb — North Africa’s “setting sun” region, comprising Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Mauritania.

The secretary-general of the Arab Maghreb Union, Habib Boultares, a Tunisian scholar and politician, says he is stymied and that all moves toward any form of North African unity are paralyzed by Algeria’s support for the Polisario Front, which demands independence for Western Sahara.

Tunisia itself almost slipped into turmoil during the 1980s, when aging and senile President Habib Bourguiba lost his grip on the country and fell victim to intrigues.

Mr. Bourguiba was removed constitutionally in 1987 by Mr. Ben Ali, whose economic reforms and strict control gave the country stability but stopped short of major political changes.

Now, Tunisian opposition parties are insignificant and have no programs different from Mr. Ben Ali’s. The president is on record as promising full political pluralism, but only step by step.

Western chanceries generally approve of the way Mr. Ben Ali has handled the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which at one stage was poised to take control. Now, one official said, “we have vaccinated the population against fanaticism.”

Veteran Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia said, “Religion should not be propagated with a machine gun. Democracy should not be based on citations from the Koran.”

Andrew Borowiec, a teen-age resistance fighter in Poland during World War II and veteran foreign correspondent in the decades since for major newspapers including The Washington Times, has written two books on North Africa. The latest, “Taming the Sahara: Tunisia shows the way while others falter,” was published Aug. 1 by Praeger Publishers. Mr. Borowiec is based in France and Cyprus and travels frequently throughout Europe and surrounding regions.

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