- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia - There was conspic- uous silence from Washington as congratulatory telegrams from around the world greeted another five-year term by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who received 94.48 percent of the vote.

The day after the Oct. 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, a State Department spokesman, although praising “Tunisia’s long-standing friendship,” said that “there are questions about the degree to which these elections were fully contested.” He added, in the jargon normally used to camouflage criticism: “Our concern was that opportunities for political participation in this process were not everything we had hoped for, or that the standards that we’ve set out for indicated.”

The regimented Tunisian press, usually limited to officially sanctioned announcements, did not publish the statement, but its translation into Arabic and French was circulated among the ruling circle celebrating what was hailed as “the victory of the democratic process.”

The statement was tantamount to a bombshell.

The criticism from Washington, which had enlisted Tunisia as a valued partner in the war in terrorism, clashed with laudatory messages from Third World potentates hailing the country’s “presidential democracy.”

Some Western statesmen carefully couched their congratulatory wishes, with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder hoping to “develop mutual relations” and French President Jacques Chirac looking to “strengthen our cooperation.”

A senior member of the Ben Ali government told The Washington Times: “We are stunned by the negative reaction from the United States. We have a successful leader who has achieved growth, stability, openness. There is no single field that hasn’t been reformed.”

Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia said, “The Tunisians voted massively because they are grateful to the president.”

Except for a few vocal opponents in exile, there was no challenge to the officially announced 91.52 percent voter turnout, described by one French news outlet as reminiscent of the Stalin era, and the overwhelming re-election of Mr. Ben Ali, who has held power for 17 years.

On election day, some Tunisians joked that they were voting for “our president for life.” This was irony, because Mr. Ben Ali had seized power in 1987 by removing president-for-life Habib Bourguiba on grounds of senility.

Two years ago, a referendum extended the president’s eligibility for office to age 75. Mr. Ben Ali will be 74 before the next election, and thus eligible to stand again. If his health and political circumstances allow, by 79 he will have served 27 years at the helm of this North African nation of 10 million.

There is no heir apparent on Tunisia’s political horizon, and the subject of a potential successor to Mr. Ben Ali is never mentioned in the press here.

Several weeks before the Oct. 24 elections, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell spoke to Mr. Ben Yahia about Washington’s expectations of a “genuine political opening.”

Indeed, as the best-educated electorate in the Arab world went to the polls, it had a choice of four presidential candidates and six political parties. But three of the presidential hopefuls had little hope — together they garnered 5.52 percent of the vote — and the parties of the “legal opposition” were dwarfed by Mr. Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) which, as planned, captured 152 of the 189 seats in parliament.

The opposition, which subscribes to Mr. Ben Ali’s “National Pact,” won the 37 seats allotted to it with 12.41 percent of the ballots cast, also as planned. One party boycotted the elections, but with little, if any, effect.

Washington apparently had expected a different kind of openness from one of the few Arab countries supporting U.S. efforts in the Middle East. But it also was obvious that the candidates running against Mr. Ben Ali were little known, had little charisma, and offered no programs better than his. The parties competing with the RCD are devoid of different ideas.

Although some of the “legal opponents” complained about the limited press attention to their platforms, the defeated candidates accepted the official version of “openness and democracy” during the vote.

From outside Tunisia, the uncompromising Islamic opponents of Mr. Ben Ali decried the elections as a sham. Equally critical was the press and television in France, Tunisia’s former colonial master, though French reports noted that Tunisia under Mr. Ben Ali has attained the highest standard of living in North Africa, reduced poverty and eradicated illiteracy.

The voting took place amid an unprecedented heat wave for October in North Africa and during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the faithful abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk and end each day with feasting after dark.

Tourists faced sleepy hotel staffs, most rest-aurants were closed in the middle of the day, and everyone waited for an end to the ordeal. As one Tunisian publication noted: During Ramadan, “the Arab-Muslim world limits its horizons to the breaking of the fast, and sets the pace of its life by nocturnal vigils that rarely agree with the requirements of the workday.

“The price is a heavy one. Productivity does not resist the sluggishness of society and quality is among the victims. In short, during a whole month, the country lives beyond its means and, paradoxically, [food providers] profit from an excess of consumption.”

On election day, the red Tunisian flags flew from countless masts, and gigantic billboards with the president’s smiling face dominated the broad boulevards of Tunis and the narrow alleys of ancient quarters. Soldiers in heavy capes with sabers drawn marched outside the ornate gate of the presidential palace in suburban Carthage.

After the voting, Mr. Ben Ali pardoned what the press described as “a number of detainees,” and announced plans to implement his campaign pledges of “elevating Tunisia to the ranks of developed countries” and further promoting the status of women, the country’s main rampart against Islamic fundamentalism.

Under a new plan, working mothers will get two-thirds of their salaries even if they work half-time, and more women will be recruited to executive positions in private enterprises.

“We are now fighting for a better integration of women in the economy and political life,” said Neziha Ben Yeder, who leads the Ministry of Women’s and Family Affairs. “Equality already exists, but now we want women to become complete partners.”

Speaking in her carpeted office near the Roman Catholic cathedral in the heart of Tunis, she listed “the achievements of the Tunisian model, [which is] no longer an experiment”: Women now constitute 40 percent of university instructors, 42 percent of the medical profession, 32 percent of architects and 31 percent of lawyers.

In the white-walled villa of the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies, Zouheir Mdhaffar, its director general, supplemented the statistics: “All children, even from nomadic families, go to school, [and] 80 percent of Tunisian families own their homes.”

The institute studies economic and political developments in the world and their effect on Tunisia. In one of the recent reports submitted to the presidential palace, the institute concluded that the enlargement of the European Union “was not a menace but an opportunity” for Tunisia.

The elections, Mr. Mdhaffar said, “once more confirmed the positive balance sheet of Ben Ali’s presidency. Democracy advances — perhaps too slowly, but surely.”

Nouri Jouini, head of the Ministry for Economic Development and International Cooperation, listed problems facing the country at the outset of Mr. Ben Ali’s new mandate, particularly 13.9 percent unemployment, and the effect on agriculture of the continuing four-year-old drought.

“Out of 80,000 young unemployed, 43,000 hold university diplomas,” Mr. Jouini said.

“At this stage, we are spending 55 percent of our budget on social programs, including education. We have 344,000 university students.

“Europe is our main partner,” he concluded. “Eighty percent of our 5 million tourists every year come from Europe, 80 percent of our exports go to Europe. We hope that by the year 2007, there will be no tariffs between Tunisia and the European Union countries.”

“We are still searching for ways to implement the common struggle against terrorism,” said Mr. Ben Yahia, summarizing Tunisia’s diplomatic priorities in the new glass-and-marble headquarters of the Foreign Ministry.

“We are working to muster Arab consensus on key issues and trying to persuade Israel that collateral damage in areas like Gaza is counterproductive.”

Tunisia, he added, “is becoming an open society. The elections were a big event in Tunisia; we hope that this will be understood elsewhere.”

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