The Looney Tunes

I usually complain to virtually anyone who'll listen that Tunisia is always forgotten in the long list of rather nasty Arab regimes. This is because it's a small country and not politically important, but also because the regime there is quite clever at appearing moderate and buying off the foreign press when it needs to (particularly in the Arab world, but also in Europe).

So I am pleasantly surprised to see a lot of media attention given to the regime and its appalling record:

Human Rights Watch:

(Tunis, November 14, 2005) – Today as a global summit on the Internet got underway, the Tunisian government did all it could to smother a local summit on the same topic. One might think that a world conference on improving global Internet access represents a prime chance for the government to reverse its reputation for intolerance of dissent, but the day’s events proved it to be an opportunity missed.
AP:

Already, rights watchdogs say, both Tunisian and foreign reporters on hand for the summit have been harassed and beaten. Reporters Without Borders says its secretary-general, Robert Menard, has been banned from attending.

These groups -- including a coalition of 14 freedom of expression organizations -- argue that such practices makes Tunisia unfit to host an event whose goals include promoting free expression and bringing Internet access to as much of the world as possible.
ADNKI:

There were tussles on Monday involving members of Human Rights Watch and several other NGOs, who say they were prevented by Tunisian policemen from accessing a venue where a preparatory meeting for a non-authorised 'fringe summit' was to be held. A reporter from the French newspaper Liberation, who had been investigating alleged human rights abuses, was stabbed and beaten in a busy central neighbourhood of Tunis last Friday, and says nearby police did nothing to help him.

The only demonstration the authorities are allowing is a protest by Tunisian students against the presence of an Israeli delegation at the summit - despite the fact that Israel and Tunisia do not have diplomatic relations. The delegation includes Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, who was born in Tunisia, and who is being accorded the status of a head of state, as he is attending in prime minister Ariel Sharon's place.

Tunisians drawn from various strands of the opposition have been taking a rare chance to focus the attention of the hundreds of foreign journalists gathered at the summit on what they see as Tunisia's shortcomings in the areas of press freedom and human rights: they have been staging a hunger strike since 18 October to protest at the lack of government reforms in these areas.
Le Monde, 14 November editorial (worth reading in full):

Arrivé au pouvoir il y a dix-huit ans à la suite d'un "coup d'Etat médical", le président Zine El- Abidine Ben Ali a, depuis longtemps, transformé la paisible Tunisie en une caserne où toute contestation est interdite, mais dont la réalité politique échappe aux millions de touristes venus profiter de son soleil.

A quelques jours de l'ouverture du sommet, le régime a cherché à donner le change, en offrant une image plus présentable : des dizaines de sites et de blogs de l'opposition, qui pourtant ne se privent pas de dénoncer le pouvoir en place, sont accessibles. Cette éclaircie ne trompe personne. Elle ne durera que les trois jours du sommet. Le régime n'a pas l'intention de s'amender, comme le prouvent les méthodes violentes utilisées par la police il y a quelques jours, pour disperser une manifestation de soutien à des opposants en grève de la faim depuis près d'un mois.

Since he seized power 18 years ago after a "medical coup d'etat," President Zine El-Abdin Ben Ali has transformed peaceful Tunisia into a police state where any dissent is forbidden, a political reality unseen by the millions of tourists who have come to enjoy its sun.
A few days before the opening of the summit, the regime tried to put on a new face: tens of opposition websites and blogs critical of the regime are now accessible. But this reprieve fools no one. It will only last for the three days of the summit. The regime has no intention of reforming, as the violent methods used by police against a demonstration in support of dissidents on a hunger strike for a month now has proven.

The article ends with an appeal to the French government to issue a stronger condemnation of Tunisia and praise the US for having already urged further political reform. Also read this fine article on Tunisia in today's issue of Le Monde:

Y a-t-il des Tunisiens heureux ? Sûrement, mais ils sont rares. "Les gens souffrent. Les uns parce qu'ils n'arrivent plus à faire de l'argent comme autrefois. Les autres parce qu'ils se heurtent à des problèmes de survie ou de surendettement", souligne le docteur Fethi Touzri, médecin psychiatre. D'une façon ou d'une autre, tous sont écrasés par le système savamment mis en place par le régime Ben Ali depuis dix-huit ans, à base de peur et de clientélisme. A la peur omniprésente s'ajoute la honte de participer à un système que très peu se sentent la force d'affronter à visage découvert. Chacun redoute de voir sa famille touchée par des représailles en cascade : agressions physiques, perte d'emploi et d'aides financières, contrôle fiscal, procès montés de toutes pièces, etc.

Are there happy Tunisians? Surely, but they are rare. "People are suffering. Some because they are no longer to earn as much as they were able to. Others because they face problems of survival or debt," says Dr. Fethi Touzri, a psychiatrist. One way or the other, all are crushed by the system savagely put in place by the Ben Ali regime for 18 years, based on fear and clientelism. In addition to omnipresent fear is added the shame of participating in a system that very few have the strength to confront openly. Everyone is afraid of having their family hurt in reprisals: physical aggressions, loss of jobs and financial aid, tax audit, invented lawsuits, etc.
Let's not forget, of course what happened a few days ago to Christophe Boltanski, a reporter for the French left-wing daily Liberation. He was attacked by four men a few minutes from his hotel in Downtown Tunis, sprayed with tear gas, punched and kicked and finally stabbed in the back. His clothes were covered in blood. The one of the assailants yelled, "enough" and ordered the others to stop. They stole his briefcase, which contained his papers. After being taken to an emergency room, he called the police to register the attack. They suggested he come to the police station the following day. Boltanski had just written a sympathetic article about a hunger strike by Tunisian human rights activists. Liberation itself has complained that the pro-Ben Ali French government took over 40 hours to file a complaint. Gaullists in general have an appalling record of supporting Arab regimes -- while doing research on Iraqi Shias, I remember coming across a book written by a French rightist MP/journalist titled "Saddam Hussein, Un Charles de Gaulle Arabe."

A few days later, a Belgian documentary team was also assaulted and its Tunisian helpers were threatened. A videotape was confiscated.

Tunisian activists have also launched a website for their "citizens' summit" here. It has been intermittently blocked from Tunisia, where the president's wife owns the main ISP (a profitable monopoly). I'd also recommend reading this article, written by an old friend (under a pseudonym), on press freedoms.

Update: Le Figaro has another strong article on this today, in which among other things it states that many countries are downsizing their delegation: Condoleeza Rice is no longer going, several EU states are sending lower-ranking officials, and Cees Hamelink, Kofi Annan's advisor on communication issues, has resigned in protest of the "ridiculous" summit. Today's edition of Le Monde adds that participating countries are being embarrassed by a summit they think is important for the UN but has become about Tunisia. It also reports a new attack on journalists, this time from the French satellite channel TV5.

Update II: I should have posted this excellent op-ed by the great Kamel Labidi earlier.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.