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Democratic Bubble Bursts in Tunis

Opinion by David Monyae, Business Day (Johannesburg), 7 June 2002

THE political achievements of Tunisia, a small north African and Arabic nation, have been hailed as extraordinary. The transformation began in 1987 with the bloodless coup that freed the country from President Habib Bourguiba’s dictatorship after 31 years

The new president, Ben Ali, slowly navigated the country towards democracy. He was considered a pragmatic leader poised to influence the entire Maghreb region in favour of democracy.

Democratic institutions, including the media were encouraged to engage in dialogue. Two democratic elections took place in Tunisia, the first in 1989 and second in 1999, with the participation of the opposition parties an unprecedented move in most countries in northern Africa.

Now, Ali seems to have got carried away with his political achievements. The democratic bubble in Tunisia has burst. A highly disputed constitutional referendum was carried out last month, in which the president had control of voting procedures.

The constitutional limits on the terms of office and age of the president were changed to accommodate Ali’s political ambition to stay in power until his death, just like his predecessor, the late Bourguiba.

The indefinite extension of the presidential terms of office is an undesirable event in any democratic society. There have been endless attempts by African leaders to do this.

President Sam Nujoma of Namibia successfully extended his stay in power. Attempts to do the same by Fredrick Chiluba were met with strong resistance by civil society in Zambia.

Unfortunately, the Tunisian government is unlikely to be opposed, at home or abroad, as it slides down the dictatorial slope.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the Tunis regime has strong diplomatic and economic ties with the developed countries, particularly France. Secondly, Ben Ali is perceived like most autocrats in north Africa, as an ally of the US in its war against terror.

Signals from Tunis are frightening. In the past few weeks a truck loaded with gas exploded near a synagogue in the capital city.

This has sparked fears that the negative role played by some religious extremists is being used by Ali’s regime to suppress genuine political parties seeking positive change.

Double standards continue to be applied in dealing with African governments. Events in Democratic Republic of Congo (with rich oil reserve), Zimbabwe (massive land problem) and now Tunisia illustrate the selective bias by the custodians of democracy when looking at African issues.

The Tunisian government is reported to have more than a thousand political prisoners in its jails. The media is fully controlled by government. What is even more disturbing is that the Tunisian government has a wellknown record of human rights’ violations but the world turns a blind eye to its undemocratic behaviour.

The African Union (AU) ought to consider banning leaders who overstay their welcome at the helm of a country through unethical means.

The AU launch in July in SA could be an ideal platform to address this issue. Above all, African civil societies have to play a constructive role in the AU and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad).