By all accounts Tunisia’s president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali managed to keep a straight face when officials of an Italian University conferred on him an honorary doctorate at a Rome ceremony on December 4. The university (Ancona) wanted to honour the achievments Tunisia had made under his leadership in the fields of ‘economic management and the development of human and social rights,’ the officials said.
Ben Ali - who has more than 2,000 political prisoners locked up, sanctions widespread torture, and runs a one-party dictatorship - did not bat an eyelid as the Italian academics hailed Tunisia as ‘a shining example of the democratic option in North Africa and the Middle East.’ The achievement was all the more remarkable in a region ‘bedevilled by the rise of fundamentalist cultures,’ they enthused.
The Tunisian ruler, who is used to hearing fulsome praise from western politicians, perhaps believes that academics are not that different after all. The decision to confer the honorary doctorate on such a blood-stained dictator is certainly as unprincipled as the western governments’ support for Ben Ali. Moreover, it appears to share the same motive - namely, the desire to reward any successful suppression of Islamic movements in the region.
Ben Ali is widely credited with crushing the An-Nahdha movement, Tunisia’s largest, albeit ‘moderate’ Islamic organization. He has simply locked up thousands of its activists and has driven many more into exile. And having apparently successfully suppressed it, he has now turned on those secular activists who helped him crush it.
The champion of human rights has just put in place an amendment to the country’s Penal Code which introduces the new offence of defaming the nation, to deal more effectively with secular opponents of his regime. Any criticism of his person or policies would be constructed as defamatory of the nation.
The new amendment stipulates heavy sentences for those who ‘deliberately contact agents of a foreign country or a foreign or international organization with the aim of spreading false information which is meant to harm or results in harming the vital interests of Tunisia.’
Ben Ali has already banned most political parties, shut down all opposition newspapers and has thrown out most western correspondents, including reporters working for the BBC, Reuter and AFP. The amendment is designed to block the only information Tunisians smuggle out of the country to expose his bloody suppression of Islamic and secular opposition alike.
Even women, who the regime has always claimed to be decently treated and consequently happy in Tunisia, are not spared by the crackdown and openly criticise the regime. Most embarrassingly, women organized public protests on the tenth anniversary of Ben Ali’s assumption of power. He took power on November 7, 1987, when his predecessor, the aging and ailing Habib Bourguiba, was declared unfit to govern by seven doctors.
Yet western governments would praise his regime as ‘liberal’ and continue to do business with him. After visiting Tunisia last January, for instance, Erik Derycke, the Belgian foreign minister, praised the country for its ‘firm steps towards respecting human rights,’ adding that they are ‘not merely symbolic but real.’
When Ben Ali visited Paris on October 20-22, he was given red carpet treatment by the French government, which preferred to praise ‘positive aspects’ of Tunisian life (e.g. the relatively favourable status enjoyed by women there) instead of taking the Tunisian ruler to task for his systematic violation of human rights. Moreover, Ben Ali was able to sign two economic agreements while in Paris.
Three quarters of Tunisia’s trade is with the European Union with France the main partner. On the other hand, Tunisia receives its largest imports from France - importing from there, for instance, as much as Russia does.
It is true that the odd fringe European party would occasionally criticise Ben Ali’s human rights record. Ecologist and communist deputies, for example, boycotted a reception for the president during his Paris visit. But mainstream parties or ruling coalitions would continue to do business with the tyrant of Tunisia as long as the teaming inmates of his overcrowded prisons continue to be members of the Islamic movement.
Muslimedia: January 1-15, 1998