- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

TUNIS, Tunisia

For Neila Charchour Hachicha, a blogger and democracy activist who seeks increased political freedom in Tunisia, the crackdown came quickly and steadily, until she was no longer able to stand it.

In January, her husband was sentenced to 10 months in prison for violating a zoning law in a real-estate sale. Next, her car disappeared while she was shopping. In March, state security agents appeared at her daughter’s engagement party, photographing guests and cars. A few weeks later, doctored and sexually explicit photos of her daughter arrived in the mailboxes of all the those who had attended the party.

Mrs. Hachicha, 51, a mother of three whose political activism is carried out through the Internet, then lost access to her e-mail, and the Web site of her one-woman political entity, the Mediterranean Liberal Party, was blocked throughout Tunisia.

Fighting back, she wrote in April to the Lebanon Star ,decrying her treatment and calling for freedom of speech in Tunisia. In response, she was taken to a police station for four hours of questioning.

In mid-April, the U.S. State Department issued a statement supporting Mrs. Hachicha. The actions against her and other “citizens seeking to express dissident views peacefully and organize legally … are part of a pattern of harassment” by the Tunisian government, it said.

Her obligation

Mrs. Hachicha remained defiant. In an April 27 interview at her spacious Tunis home, she said it was her obligation as a mother and a citizen to help move Tunisia, a single-party state under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, toward a dialogue about democracy.

“This is no longer Tunisia; this is Ben Ali’s land,” she said. “The constitution is made for him; justice is used in his service. The press is used in his service; it’s all propaganda for him and his family.”

As the date of her husband’s imprisonment approached, Mrs. Hachicha began to lose her nerve. Her daughter began to blame her for her husband’s situation. Her brother stopped calling. Friends began to avoid her house, showing up only in taxis so they couldn’t be identified easily.

“If my husband is freed, I will stay silent, at least for a while,” she said earlier this month. “But if he is imprisoned, I will need more than ever to speak out.”

On May 18, her husband lost his final appeal; he is now behind bars.

Mrs. Hachicha visits him four times a week. Instead of defiance, however, she feels only defeat. “I’m retiring from politics,” she said. “I’m facing the terrible reality that I have failed. If I’m not able to face that now, I’m a fool.”

Image vs. reality

The Tunisian government denies playing any role in any crackdown against Mrs. Hachicha or other political activists in Tunisia, a small Mediterranean coastal nation of 10 million between Libya and Algeria.

“The allegations are baseless. Tunisian civil society is operating freely,” said Taoufik Chebbi, press counselor at the Embassy of Tunisia in Washington.

Political opposition figures and human rights organizations say what is happening to Mrs. Hachicha is common government practice in Tunisia. Her case and others like it, they say, expose the distance between the postcard-perfect Tunisia marketed to the 5 million tourists who visit each year and the tough reality of Tunisian politics.

Tunisia, the site of ancient Carthage and a protectorate of France for 75 years until 1956, is one of the most Westernized and secular corners of the Arab world. Its economy is growing, and its literacy rates are high. Women are guaranteed equal rights and polygamy is banned.

In Tunis, French-style boulevards and sleek trams give the impression of a modern, progressive Arab state, but Western diplomats and analysts say the regime has bought stability by cracking down on even moderate public dissent.

As Islam rises as a political force in the region, Tunisian officials consider the government to be the bulwark that can prevent this traditionally secular country from falling to religious rule.

Activists challenged

Telephones are tapped and many Internet sites — including those of Amnesty International and even at times the U.S. Embassy — are blocked. E-mails that mention the president’s name are unlikely to reach their destinations. Newspapers and other forms of media are tightly controlled, and public figures are monitored.

“It is theater,” said Kadija Cherif, who heads the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats, explaining the distance between appearance and reality in Tunisia.

“Whether you are moderate or radical, the government cannot accept your activity and the response is the same. All activists are treated this way for the past 10 years. The government confiscates their cars, fires them from their jobs, goes after their husbands or wives or even their children,” she said.

Mrs. Hachicha tried to chart her own path among activists in Tunisia. Most people involved in the small community of democracy activists here — perhaps 500 to 1,000 people — band together in human rights groups, nongovernmental organizations or recognized political parties. Mrs. Hachicha worked mainly alone.

She approves of the Bush administration and its military overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a region where U.S. foreign policy is widely despised. Most democracy activists here come from a leftist tradition; Mrs. Hachicha’s ideas are rooted in Western liberalism.

In French and English on her Web site (plmonline.blogs.com), she sought international support, which she felt was the only way to influence the Tunisian regime.

Calls for help

Though she has run her unofficial political party since 1999, her profile did not begin to rise until last year, after she began an Internet correspondence with American newspaper columnist Daniel Pipes, a prominent conservative. Mr. Pipes put her in touch with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington think tank known for its neoconservative views.

In January, she traveled to Washington to speak at an AEI conference that brought together democracy activists from throughout the Arab world. She then appeared on Al Jazeera television and spoke about political repression in Tunisia.

“In Tunisia, there is no freedom of expression and no freedom of association. For three people to gather, they need a license from the Ministry of Interior. How can a dialogue be established under this pressure?” she asked on the air.

A few weeks after she returned home, the crackdown began.

Mrs. Hachicha said she hoped that the U.S. government would continue to back her against the government of Mr. Ben Ali, much as President Bush promised in his second inaugural address when he said the United States would stand with democratic reformers facing repressive regimes.

Activists in Tunisia say she feels isolated.

“I thought that speaking out would be my protection,” she said after her husband’s imprisonment, as she weighed out loud whether to write articles and continue her Web site. “But I am discovering the hard reality that, in a regime like this, it is not.”

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