- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

NICOSIA, Cyprus — In a move designed to strengthen its defense against Islamic fundamentalism, Tunisia is preparing an electoral experiment to guarantee at least 20 percent of parliament’s seats to women.

The measure, clashing with a growing anti-feminist trend in many Arab countries, is likely to give Tunisia one of the largest proportions of female lawmakers in the world, according to Tunisian officials.

The ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party has earmarked 38 — or 25 percent — of the 152 parliament seats it hopes to win for female candidates in the Oct. 24 vote for parliament and the presidency. Because of the party’s overwhelming strength in Tunisia’s 26 electoral districts, the victory of its candidates is virtually certain.

In the outgoing legislature, the opposition parties have 19 seats, and some also are fielding female candidates. To balance the dominant role of the governing party, 20 percent of the seats in the new 189-member legislature have been reserved for the opposition.

Critics see the system of assigning seats as a political ploy rather than an advancement of Western-type democracy. Tunisian authorities claim the method gives the country a progressive move toward democracy while containing the forces trying to destabilize it.

Tunisian women have been in the forefront of opposition to Islamic fanaticism in the pro-Western North African country and are considered to be one of the main defenses against the fundamentalist quest for power.

During the past five years, Tunisian women have held posts as Cabinet members, ambassadors, judges and airline pilots. They constitute 40 percent of Tunisia’s medical doctors and 51 percent of university students.

Although Tunisia claims that Islamic fundamentalism no longer represents a major threat to its system, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali insists on continued vigilance. He feels that the fundamentalist threat is growing in a number of Arab states and is likely to affect their neighbors.

Tunisia has escaped the turmoil of much of the Arab world because of its effective and conspicuous security force, intensive compulsory education, the advancement of women in all fields and a continuing pro-Western orientation. Today, it is one of the few Arab countries supporting U.S. peacemaking efforts in the Middle East and its war on terrorism.

The plan to bolster the female presence in the legislature, known as the Chamber of Deputies, is perhaps the only important feature in the two-track elections, parliamentary and presidential.

The body is rarely more than a debating society and, because of its domination by the ruling RCD, has no record of challenging major decisions from the presidential palace.

Although four candidates of the parties known as “the legal opposition” are running for the presidency, Mr. Ben Ali is virtually guaranteed re-election. He has been at the helm since 1987, when he removed from power the senile president-for-life, Habib Bourguiba.

Under a constitutional amendment, Mr. Ben Ali, who is 69, can remain in office until the age of 75.

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