Tunisia. After 23 years in office, incumbent President
Zayn al-Abidin Ben Ali won his fifth straight presidential
election on October 25. He received 89.6 percent of the
vote, which was less than in any previous election.
turnout was 84 per cent. One of the opposition's strongest
candidates, Nejib Chebbi of the Progressive Democratic Party
(PDP), was forced to refrain from running after Parliament
legislated that candidates must have been the leader of
their party for at least two years before the election. The
only truly opposition candidate was Ahmed Ibrahim from the
Ettajdid (Renewal) party who claimed he was not allowed to
run any actual campaign. In the parliamentary elections held
simultaneously, the ruling Constitutional Democratic
Assembly (RCD), which has ruled since independence in 1956,
took 161 out of 214 seats.
Regime-friendly journalists took control of the Tunisian
Journalists' Association in August. Press freedom in the
country was already limited, but according to the Press
Freedom Organization Reporters Without Borders, the takeover
meant that the situation deteriorated. The regime-critical
journalist Taoufik Ben Brik was sentenced in November to six
months in prison. According to the court, he had attacked a
woman, but the human rights organization Amnesty
International condemned the verdict and said it was
The president continued his past policy: economic
liberalization and the "hard hand" of politics. One of the
opposition's main politicians, Mohamed Moada, was sentenced
in October 1995 to 11 years in prison for publishing a
document on the restrictions on freedoms in Tunisia and for
having hidden contacts with a "foreign power" ( Libya ).
World Bank President James Wolfensohn visited Tunisia in
April 1996, taking the opportunity to characterize the
country as the "World Bank's best student in the region".
Still, the forecasts said that the rising liberalization of
the economy would cause about a third of the country's
businesses to disappear, further exacerbating the imbalances
in income in the country.
In June 1997, the IMF urged the government to accelerate
economic reforms, especially in the area of privatization.
However, the fund also noted that the unemployment rate of
15% was alarmingly high.
At the end of the year, Parliament passed a law giving
the president the right to print a referendum for amendments
to the constitution.
The entry into force of a free trade agreement with the
EU in January 1998 gave Tunisian goods better access to
European markets. Similar agreements were made with Egypt,
Libya and Morocco. The waiver of customs duties was offset
by an increase in VAT. The opening to regional markets and
the rapid privatization process prompted the IMF to continue
its support for the government.
The first multi-party elections in the country's history
were conducted in October 1999, giving an overwhelming
victory to President Al-Abdine Ben Ali, who received 99.4%
of the vote. His party, the Constitutional Democratic Union
got 148 of the parliament's 182 seats, while the other six
parties shared the 34 seats left for the opposition. One of
the new government's first actions was the release of about
600 political prisoners - predominantly from the Al-Nahda
Movement and the Workers Communist Party.
Habib Bourguiba's death in April 2000 brought together
political leaders from Europe and the Arab world. Presidents
Jacques Chirac of France, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria
and Yasser Arafat of Palestine attended the funeral that
took place in the former president's birthplace, Monastir.
In March 2001, Amnesty International (AI) called on the
authorities to stop an unprecedented violent wave of
harassment and repression against human rights activists in
the country. In a new report, AI pointed out that the
campaign had been launched when Tunisia's Human Rights
League in November 2000 had been banned. Since then, all
meetings in the league had been hindered by the security
police. The report also pointed out that the authorities had
initiated legal action against the league's chairman, Moktar
Trifi and several others.
The Constitution limits the number of periods a person
can hold the presidential term to 3 periods of 5 years, but
in September 2001 RCD's central committee appointed Ben Alí
as its presidential candidate for a 4th term in 2004. As the
RCD controls the National Assembly, it was considered that a
proposal for amendment of the Constitution at this point
would encounter little or no resistance at all.