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. According to countryaah, the turnout was 84 percent. 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 political.
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.