The Myth of a Moderate Tunisia

Beneath the modern trappings of President Ben Ali's regime lies just another repressive dictatorship.

When Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane arrives in Washington on April 26, he will most certainly present himself as the representative of a "moderate" Arab state that is friendly to the West. As a representative of Human Rights Watch, however, I recently witnessed another side of this supposedly "modern" regime.

My organization released a report last month detailing the Tunisian government's treatment of political prisoners, and a group of us planned to hold a press conference in Tunis to announce it, in the hopes of sparking a dialogue that would lead to change. This was an approach we had tried in 2004, when we released a report on the situation of political prisoners, and in 2005, when we published a study on Internet freedoms in the region. Both releases occurred without incident. This time, however, we found our path blocked at every turn: All of the hotels we contacted stated that they lacked the space to accommodate us, and the room we eventually rented was mysteriously flooded while we were at dinner. The government banned journalists from our news conference and physically barred those who tried to attend. State security agents followed us wherever we went.

Under President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who has held office since 1987 and was just reelected in 2009 for a fifth term, even the most minor dissent is treated as a serious threat. Independent journalists, human rights organizations, union organizers -- anyone who raises concerns about the government's actions -- find their actions tracked and their outspokenness punished.

Tunisia often attempts to cover up its repressive measures behind a thin veneer of legality, hoping to convince the West of its relative liberality. The government contends, for example, that there are no political prisoners in Tunisia. Of course, that may be true under the government's strict interpretation of what constitutes a political crime. Following that line of reasoning, there have been few, if any, people prosecuted under laws that criminalize political activity or opinion during Ben Ali's multiple terms -- hence, no political prisoners. The government prefers to prosecute its critics using trumped-up charges of common crimes.

Taoufiq Ben Brik, a dissident journalist who has been a favorite target of the regime, is a case in point. In October 2009, Ben Brik was charged with "violating public decency," "defamation," "assault," and "damaging another person's property," allegedly for assaulting a woman. He claims the victim was actually a state security agent and maintains that it was she who in fact assaulted him as he was on his way to pick up his daughter from school. The government carefully crafted a scenario that not only landed Ben Brik in jail, but also called into question his moral standing.

I personally witnessed the same atmosphere of intimidation in March, when I visited Tunisia to research union organizing efforts in various parts of the country. During my visit, I found that independent unionists suffered the same fate as journalists and local human rights activists. As with the repression of political dissidents, the government's anti-union activities are rarely explicit: Under Tunisia's liberal law of association, in fact, those who wish to form a union or a non-governmental organization are simply required to inform the government of their intention. If the Interior Ministry does not object within 90 days, the new union or NGO is considered legal. How then -- despite a robust human rights community -- are there only two legally recognized human rights organizations and only two labor unions in the entire country?

Here's where the smoke and mirrors come in. To halt the legalization of a new union, the government needs only to claim that it never received its application. For this reason, it never provides the applicants with a receipt that they can use as proof of their submission. This legal loophole allows the government to assert that all activities of the newly formed union are illegal.

According to many unionists, the government has expended great effort over the years to keep the upper echelons of the nationwide umbrella organization, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), loyal. Since the government prevents independent unions from attaining legal status, this effectively gives the regime a monopoly over labor union activity.

In return, UGTT keeps a tight leash on its more independent members. In 2008, teachers organized under UGTT led a mass anti-corruption uprising, which involved thousands of protesters over a six month period. In response, the UGTT expelled all the movement's leaders. They were reinstated only after substantial local and international pressure.

The Tunisian government has also proved itself more than willing to get its hands dirty when it perceives a threat to its power. The National Union of Tunisian Journalists (NSTJ), the only legally authorized independent union outside the UGTT following its inception in 2007, earned Ben Ali's ire in 2009, when its leaders announced that the union would remain neutral in that year's presidential and parliamentary elections. The authorities retaliated by concocting an elaborate plan to oust the union's president and his board and replace them with pro-government journalists.

The government resorted to a barrage of bribery, threats, and blackmail aimed at convincing journalists in the union to sign a petition calling for the board's dismissal. Newspaper owners were threatened with the withdrawal of paid government announcements unless their employees complied. Those announcements bring in 600 percent more revenue for the newspapers than private advertising -- it's a handy way to keep news editors in check.

Many journalists who refused to support the coup were fired. The NSTJ subsequently held new leadership elections that were, predictably, mired in corruption -- half the voters weren't even union members, let alone journalists. The Tunisian government claims that it had nothing to do with the union's internal politics and that it was pure coincidence that the new, illegally elected board consisted almost entirely of journalists loyal to Ben Ali's government.

Despite Ben Ali's best efforts to conceal his government's dishonest methods to silence and quash dissent, the carefully crafted façade of "modern, democratic, and moderate" Tunisia is coming apart at the seams. This is in large part thanks to Tunisia's systematically repressed, persecuted, but tireless human rights activists.

When the foreign minister comes to Washington, the Barack Obama administration should pressure him on these and many other issues, making it clear that Tunisia's complete disregard for the rights of its citizens needs to change. The Western world owes far more to Tunisia's beleaguered human rights advocates, who need all the help they can get.



Africa Needs a New Map

It’s time to start seeing the redrawing of the continent’s colonial borders as an opportunity, not a threat.

Muammar al-Qaddafi isn't exactly known for brilliant ideas on maximizing political justice; his own country, Libya, is essentially his private fiefdom. But a few weeks ago, he had a pretty good one: to partition Nigeria, "the giant of Africa," as he called it, in half. Religious violence along the border between the country's north and south seemed to have drawn a pretty clear battle line; Nigeria's massive and massively diverse population seemed to warrant separate states. After years of watching this oil-rich country of 150 million struggle to manage its obvious divides, Qaddafi just gave voice to what others must have been thinking: Time to split Nigeria up.

But in Africa, the declaration fell on deaf ears. Nigeria recalled the Libyan ambassador and firmly rejected the idea. Even for a continent accustomed to Qaddafi's antics, this time the Libyan leader went too far. Talking about redrawing continental borders -- which are today almost exactly as they were at the time of independence 50 years ago -- is something of a cardinal sin. But Qaddafi did not exactly repent. He had misspoken, he said: Nigeria should not be split in two, but perhaps into three or even four nations. 

Silence about borders has become Africa's pathology, born in the era of strongman leaders that followed decolonialization. Loath to lose any of their newly independent land, the continent's leaders upheld a gentleman's agreement to favor "stability" over change. Today, the unfortunate result is visible in nearly every corner of Africa: from a divided Nigeria, to an ungovernable Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to the very real but unrecognized state in Somaliland. Borders created through some combination of ignorance and malice are today one of the continent's major barriers to building strong, competent states. No initiative would do more for happiness, stability, and economic growth in Africa today than an energetic and enlightened redrawing of these harmful lines.

Like it or not, talk of a new map is echoing around Africa today for one very clear reason: Sudan, the continent's largest country by landmass, is scheduled to hold a referendum vote next January, in which the people of the country's autonomous south could decide to secede. Many see the prospect of instability as threatening. Yet there is no better time to rethink the tangled issue of African borders. If it works in Sudan, perhaps other countries should follow.

In fact, many thought the borders would change back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when most African nations broke free from colonial rule. "An aversion to the international borders drawn by the colonial powers, if not their complete rejection, has been a consistent theme of anticolonial nationalism in Africa," wrote the scholar Saadi Touval in 1967. He went further, pretty much summing up the problems that still persist today: "The borders are blamed for the disappearance of a unity which supposed existed in Africa in preolconial times; they are regarded as arbitrarily imposed, artificial barriers separating people of the same stock, and they have said to have balkanized Africa. The borders are considered to be one of the humiliating legacies of colonialism, which, according to this view, independent Africa ought to abolish."

Yet by the time Touval published those words, alienation toward colonial borders had given way to their embrace. In 1964, the Organization of African Unity (the forerunner to today's African Union) decided that sticking with inherited borders promoted "stability." Faced with a secession attempt by the oil-rich and Igbo-dominated region of "Biafra," Nigeria stuck with the old map, brutally putting down the revolt three years later. At a cost of 1 million lives, the Biafrans were defeated, and Nigeria -- a nation the British stitched together out of three distinct "administrative" pieces only in the 1950s -- was made whole again.

That fidelity to colonial-era borders coexisted with the emergence of dictatorships in Africa in the 1960s and 70s. Governments on the continent were failing to deliver even basic services, preferring to behave as "vampire states" that preyed burdensomely on their own people, none of whom they wanted to let out of their territorial grasp. To be sure, there were a few cracks. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, leaving both countries militarized along their new, grudgingly accepted borders. Other minor adjustments here and there also took place, but the creation of Eritrea is the only major change in African borders since they were drawn by colonial powers a century and a half ago.

The result has been conflict, which often looks ethnic but is really all about territorial control. Borders in Africa don't come close to following tribal lines, splitting some groups up and artificially joining others together. The Ewe of Togo would surely rather be united with the millions more of their people living across the border in Ghana. The Igbo in Nigeria continue to dream of their own nation -- their troubadour, novelist Chinua Achebe, openly proclaiming that his ethnic group is no less deserving than Swedes or Danes of their own nation-state.

Rethinking the borders could go far to quelling some of these conflicts. Countries could finally be framed around the de facto geography of ethnic groups. The new states could use their local languages rather than favoring another ethnicity's or colonial power's tongue. Rebel secessionist movements would all but disappear, and democracy could flourish more easily when based upon policies, rather than simple identity politics. On top of that, new states based on ethnic lines would by default be smaller, more compact, and more manageable for governments on a continent with a history of state weakness. (Though by European standards, many of these new African nations would still not be small when compared with, say, Slovenia or Slovakia.)

And it's not just Nigeria and Sudan that would benefit from the redrawing. The DRC is surely at the top of the list. (As Africanist Basil Davidson said in 1994, "The Congo never should have been one state. It simply suited Belgian convenience.") Its war-torn and benighted eastern region -- a geographically coherent area -- would stand a much better change of integrating with the economically thriving nearby region as an independent state. It is already geographically connected to Rwanda through the Congolese border city of Goma. And Rwanda, as part of the East African trade community, could serve as a hub for that part of Congo in regional economic affairs. If this sounds too rosy, one shouldn't shy away from asking the hard-nosed question: Since Eastern Congo is today one of the poorest, worst-run places in the world, how could independence make things worse?

A similar regional synergy could be envisioned for South Sudan, now trapped in a northern-oriented government where all routes lead to landlocked Kharoum. The south Sudanese already trade heavily with Ugandans to the south. And the government of Kenya is preparing to build a massive port at Lamu, near its coastal border with Somalia, in part to move goods back and forth to South Sudan.

And what of Somalia, a benighted nation stitched together out of three pieces -- bequeathed by two European powers -- only in 1960? Somalia is today effectively three nations anyway, two of which, Somaliland and Puntland, cannot receive international recognition despite providing relatively decent services to their residents. If they were true "states" by international standards, aid, diplomats, and security assistance from, for example, U.S. Africa Command, could pour in.

Of course, splicing up Africa's countries is no panacea for the continent's woes. You might argue, for example, that conflicts would not be stopped at all; they would just go from being civil wars to interstate conflict between two divorced neighbors. That may well happen, and of course no conflict is good news. But the international community has much stronger deterrents for such country-to-country spats than internal civil war. And new states would likely be reluctant to incur the repercussions of diplomatic and economic isolation. Others will wonder if new borders can really change the continent's record of abysmal governance. The answer is a certain yes: There is no better incentive to get your house in order than taking over a responsibility as huge as running your own state.

Many of these concerns are valid. But the redrawing of Africa may happen whether we will it or not. Next year's vote in Sudan could finally put to pasture the acceptance of African borders as unchangeable -- and put the engineering of new African states at the top of the international agenda. Qaddafi was crazy enough to tackle the issue head on. Now who will be brave enough to be next?