TUNISIA: Government cracks down on press freedoms, opposition before elections

October 23, 2009 | 6:24 am It's a big weekend for Tunisia's longtime ruler, Zine el Abidine ben Ali. Less so for its voters. Ben Al...

October 23, 2009 | 6:24 am

It's a big weekend for Tunisia's longtime ruler, Zine el Abidine ben Ali.

Less so for its voters.

Ben Ali, who has ruled the North African country since wresting power from previous lifetime President Habib Bourguiba in 1987, is expected to extend his mandate Sunday through an election his critics have described as a "masquerade."

Ben Ali has introduced constitutional amendments to allow himself to run for another term, limit the number of opposition candidates and guarantee his Constitutional Democratic Rally an overwhelming majority in parliament.

The U.S.-based advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists has criticized the Tunisian government for its news media crackdown, including the arrests and violent attacks on critical Tunisian writers. This week, French reporter Florence Beauge was detained while attempting to enter the country and sent back to Paris.

But Tunisia's relative stability and secularism have made it a Western ally in the global "war on terror," and the same international community that condemned Iran's and Afghanistan's flawed elections is unlikely to exert the same pressure on Tunisia, despite recent crackdowns on reporters and serious opposition figures.

This month, authorities seized an entire edition of opposition newspaper Al Tariq Al Jadeed for printing the manifesto of leftist candidate Ahmed Brahim, a former university professor and Ben Ali's most credible rival. The two other candidates are practically anonymous in a race that pits them against a president with plenty of campaign cash at his disposal in addition to control over state media.

Brahim told the Financial Times that his election manifesto could not be distributed because the authorities objected to references to corruption among important political families.
"Tunisia could progress in democracy and address the challenges of development if we broke with authoritarianism," Brahim told the London-based paper. "They [the regime] compare us with Arab societies that have no democracy, but why don't we compare ourselves with Greece or Portugal?"

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

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