Wednesday, March 03, 2004


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By William Fisher

The Cold War resulted in many strange bedfellows for the United States, including repressive and authoritarian regimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and many others. With these countries, the US shared a common enemy: The Soviet Union. Today, the War on Terror is having a similar effect, and for the same reason. This makes it possible for President Bush to engage in Wilsonian pronouncements about democratizing the Middle East, yet welcome to the White House the leader of one of the most authoritarian and repressive of the Arab regimes, President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia.

Last fall, President Bush said the US would no longer accommodate authoritarian Middle East governments simply to achieve security and stability. America, he said, would start putting its power in the service of democratic values throughout the region. He pledged that "when the leaders of reform ask for our help, America will give it.”

But it requires a giant leap of imagination to characterize President ben Ali as a “leader of reform”.

Politically, Tunisia has made negligible progress since Mr. ben Ali seized power in 1987. He has engineered his reelection three times, claiming more than 99 percent of the vote each time. He plans to run for yet another term this October, and recently pushed through constitutional changes to allow him to retain power through 2014.

In the human rights area, Tunisia’s record is similarly dismal. According to Human Rights Watch, the country’s “security forces continue to violate legal guarantees deliberately, a situation apparently for the most part tolerated by the highest state authorities. There are frequent cases of arbitrary arrests without warrant; falsifications of the dates of arrest; detentions which exceed the lawful maximum period; detainees denied their right to call for a medical examination or to have their family informed of the detention. Torture continues to be reported in a general climate of impunity.”

Civil liberties groups also charge that Tunisia uses increasingly sophisticated means to control communications. Fax and telephone lines are believed to be routinely tapped and are regularly cut or diverted. Internet access is arbitrarily blocked and e-mail to selected accounts never arrives. Regular mail may be opened and torn. Press freedom is severely restricted.

So Mr. ben Ali’s White House visit was not about rewarding a ‘leader of reform”. It was the Bush Administration’s same-old same-old. It was Washington’s usual way of acknowledging Tunisia’s support for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and Mr. ben Ali’s opposition to Islamic extremism -- which he has loudly proclaimed to justify the repressive actions of his regime.

This is exactly what Mr. Bush told Americans he would no longer tolerate. Has he forgotten so soon?