- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

As Tunisia tries to assert itself as a major player in the Middle East, President Bush pressed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali yesterday to increase press freedom and open the political process in the country.

Tunisia, already an ally in the war on terrorism, is aiming to take on a larger role in the Middle East peace process when it hosts a meeting of Arab leaders March 29.

“Tunisia can help lead the greater Middle East to reform and freedom, something that I know is necessary for peace for the long term,” Mr. Bush said.

Both the president and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who visited the capital Tunis in December, emphasized that the country must make strides toward democratic reform.

“I look forward to talking to you about the need to have a press corps that is vibrant and free, as well as an open political process,” he told Mr. Ben Ali in front of reporters before their Oval Office meeting.

Many international rights groups have cited Tunisia for what the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a letter to Mr. Bush, called a “dismal press freedom record.”

“We encourage you to urge Ben Ali to do everything in his power to ensure that journalists are able to work freely, without the threat of intimidation and harassment,” said the letter, signed by the group’s director, Ann Cooper.

Although considered a moderate Arab state — and one with strategic implications as it shares a border with Libya — White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tunisia must follow up its economic and social progress with changes in the political realm. Only then, he said, could Tunisia have the leading role in regional reform that it is seeking.

Mr. Ben Ali told Mr. Bush: “We share principles together, Mr. President, and that is the establishment of states on the basis of democracy, human rights and combating terror.”

Mr. Bush thanked Mr. Ben Ali for his support in the war on terrorism and praised him for his social reforms. “I appreciate the fact that you’ve got an education system that is modern and viable, that women in your country are given human rights,” Mr. Bush said.

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