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Tunisians Press for Democracy

Many who backed crackdown during controversial Gulf war urge picking up reform pace

IN mid-February, at the height of passions here over the Gulf war, a group of Islamic fundamentalists attacked a small branch office of the ruling party, setting a fire that trapped and killed one guard and badly burned another. It was this kind of provocation that convinced a growing segment of the Tunisian population that the government's controversial outlawing of an-Nahda, the fundamentalists' political party, was perhaps wise after all.

It was equally this kind of violence that left many Tunisians, even though emotionally fired by what was largely judged an unjust war, indulgent toward government measures controlling spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity with Iraq.

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But that was three months ago.

Democratization sought

Today, a tolerance for what one Tunisian observer called "a security stop on the road to democracy" is slipping. A growing number of Tunisian citizens, from intellectuals down to the man in the street, are calling for the country's hesitant democratization process to get back on the road again.

"Tunisians are generally a moderate and careful people, so they don't mind seeing those same qualities in their leaders," says Hedi, an accounting student on internship at a national bank. "But I think people are realizing that democracy is the only answer to our problems and they want to see the hesitations give way to more opening up."

There are signs the government is getting the message. Last month President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali announced new measures of support for the country's six legal opposition parties, including financial assistance (about $60,000 a year) and access to nationally owned television and radio - the latter a longtime opposition demand. Also part of the package is financial assistance to party newspapers, most of which have had to cease publication for lack of funds. Opposition leaders welcome the measures.

Yet they complain that, since the ruling party has a monopoly in the national parliament and in local government bureaucracies, the measures neither go far enough nor to the root of what still separates Tunisia from true democratic practices.

"These remain good-faith gestures from the president, they are not institutionalized, and that means they could be revoked at any moment," says Mustapha Ben Jaafar, general secretary of the Democratic Socialist Movement. "This is progress, but it means little until we get to the point where we have guaranteed rights and are not simply benefiting from a personal decision."

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Opposition urges reform

Like other opposition leaders, Dr. Ben Jaafar says good intentions at the highest levels of the government are not upheld "in the ranks of power." The key to true democratic practices, he says, is "a reform of government mechanisms that block multiparty power-sharing."

To illustrate his argument, Ben Jaafar says too many Tunisians still have to "go through the party in power for housing, for basic social needs, even for employment."

Government officials counter that the principles of multiparty government are in place, but that the opposition has lacked the appeal to climb out of its marginal state.

A number of Tunisian intellectuals, however, say their country still has to achieve fundamental reforms of "political consciousness," and not merely institutions, before true democratic practice can be installed.

"Democracy's secret is that it defends the rights of the defeated as well as those of the victors," says Yadh Ben Achour, a noted legal scholar and university professor. "We have yet to develop the notion of the victors' limits, or of the democratic transition of power."

Government in no hurry

Although intellectuals find themselves in such reflections, two elements continue to encourage a "go-slow" attitude from the government: the headlong and unpredictable democratic experience in next-door Algeria, and the Islamic fundamentalists.

Just a few months ago, many Tunisians expressed envy over Algeria's democratic reforms, which had permitted an opposition party - the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) - to win pluralistic elections for the first time in an Arab country. Now, as Algeria approaches legislative elections next month, the tone is more cautious.

"People are waiting to see what happens, there is a realization that democracy can lead to dictatorship, too," says Rachid Driss, a political scholar and former diplomat. "The feeling is that Tunisia is advancing slowly but surely, whereas if the FIS wins, it's not necessarily a victory for democracy."

Adds Abdallah Amami of the Information Ministry, "The attitude here is, democracy yes, but not to the point of eliminating rights, such as those of women, or of questioning established guarantees."

Despite the growing strength of fundamentalists in Tunisia, speculation is growing that the government may now have an opportunity for opening up to what remains the country's largest opposition movement.

After the February attack against the ruling party office, a number of the fundamentalists, including some of the group's founding members, denounced the violence and said they were putting their participation in an-Nahda on hold.

The moment was seized by Mr. Ben Ali, who opened dialogue with the moderate fundamentalists. The government is approaching the split cautiously, however. Officials say it is too soon to tell if the moderates are sincere or are using the situation as a ruse to gain legitimacy.

Given the alternative of a sizable outlawed opposition, Ben Ali - who Western observers believe is sincerely interested in promoting democracy - could move toward recognition of an Islamic party.

One key could be the Algerian elections: An FIS victory, observers say, is likely to send chills up the government's spine that would stop any move toward legalization.

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