Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Tunisia: "A Country That Works"; Justice Minister Describes Tunisia's Battle against Islamist Takeover

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Tunisia: "A Country That Works"; Justice Minister Describes Tunisia's Battle against Islamist Takeover

Article excerpt

TUNISIA: "A COUNTRY THAT WORKS"; Justice Minister Describes Tunisia's Battle Against Islamist Takeover

Tunisian Minister of Justice Sadok Chaabane is a man with two missions. This author and former professor of law and political science at the University of Tunis is determined to protect his Muslim country's moderate and secular political system from what he sees as the three outside extremist ideologies that have swept the Middle East since Tunisia obtained its independence: communism, pan-Arabism, and Islamism. Although communism never took root in any Arab country, pan-Arabism is alive if not particularly well right next door to Tunisia in Libya, and Islamism is the subject of a bloody guerrilla war in Tunisia's other next door neighbor, Algeria.

The vigorous, prematurely gray government minister's second mission is to put into perspective charges that Tunisia's current government has abused the human rights of political opponents. He does this by pointing out the hypocrisy of Western human rights organizations that have criticized Tunisian measures to curb extremists, but then ignored similar measures in Western countries to prevent terrorist acts by those same extremists.

To make his points, Dr. Chaabane cites some key dates in Tunisia's political history since it obtained its independence from France in 1956. "Before 1987, particularly in 1986, there was a great crisis -- a true societal crisis," the justice minister asserts. "The fanatic [Tunisia's Islamist An Nahda] movement had undertaken serious preparations to seize power, with a special focus on Tunisia."

Chaabane maintains that Tunisian Islamists drew their funding and political support from competing sources that saw Tunisia as the gateway to its larger neighbors, Algeria and Morocco. These Islamist sources were Iran's Islamic revolutionary government, representing Shi'i Islam, and wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, representing Orthodox Sunni Islam. Although Tunisians adhere to Sunni Islam, the minister said, the Islamist leaders accepted help wherever they could find it.

Referring to the assumption of presidential powers on Nov. 7, 1987 from ailing "President for Life" Habib Bourguiba by Tunisia's former prime minister and current President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Chaabane asserts: "When we say that Ben Ali saved Tunisia, the word has real meaning. On Nov. 8 Islamists were planning to assume power. There was a great challenge to save Tunisia from a current that had infiltrated society and managed to deceive people. The Islamist movement feeds on social deprivation."

Moving to his second theme, Chaabane continues: "What made matters difficult for us was that the international community was not convinced of the danger. Now that has changed. What we said was that there was coordination of efforts and that the Tunisian Islamists did not want democracy as they claimed, that they wanted power and that they were extremists.

"Therefore we had to take action in the schools, in the mosques which the Islamists had tried to politicize, and even the libraries which were filled with their Islamist books. The newspapers played a role in raising awareness about the danger of extremists, who also had infiltrated the security apparatus, the military and the judiciary. The Tunisian approach has focused on education, job creation and the elimination of poverty through assistance to the underdeveloped regions of the country. Women's emancipation and promotion have also been an asset in the fight against extremism."

Chaabane charges that while the Tunisian government was engaged in doing all of these things simultaneously with the transition from Bourguiba's long and increasingly arbitrary rule, "some foreign support for the Islamists came from the human rights organizations. They provided a door through which the religious movement was able to publicize itself. But we had faith in our progress, determination, and fighting spirit. …

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