Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Tunisia's Tiny Free-Speech Steps

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Tunisia's Tiny Free-Speech Steps

Article excerpt

Two US-funded projects - a university newspaper produced by Tunisians with advice from Ohio students, and a bland program of public debates - highlight the difficulties Washington faces in spreading democracy in the Arab world.

"Once people even get a small taste of liberty, they're not going to rest until they're free," said President George W. Bush in a speech last month. "We will help those countries' peoples stand up functioning democracies in the heart of the broader Middle East."

But giving Arabs even "a small taste" of democracy is proving harder than US diplomats expected. Sponsorship of local programs is complicated by popular anger over US policy in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. And some governments in the region are worried US efforts to stoke democratic reforms will destabilize their regimes.

"What we started out with in 2002 is obviously not where we are now," says a US official here, acknowledging the challenges facing the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). Begun in 2002, the 17- nation program is meant to carry out US democracy-building policy across the Arab world through direct funding ($430 million budgeted over the past five years) to nongovernmental groups. "This is not development assistance. It's foreign policy with assistance attached to it."

MEPI's student newspaper project, in partnership with the Institute of Press and Information Services (IPSI), the government's journalist training center at Manouba University near Tunis, was halted after only a year because of "bureaucratic problems."

"This is not a political problem ... I don't know why [it was halted] exactly," says Mohamed Ali Kembi, one of two professors at IPSI who participated in the program that included exchanges with Ohio's Bowling Green State University. "It was really a successful program."

In a weekly newsletter called "Perspectives," a dozen students covered university news, dorm life, sports, and foreign news. There were exchanges between Tunisian journalism students and professors and their American counterparts.

The goal was to teach objective journalism. In a country whose media is tightly controlled and journalists need government approval to work, getting IPSI on board for the project for the first year was seen as a major victory, says the US official at MEPI.

But as preparations were made for a second year, IPSI unexpectedly "made it clear it would be on hold indefinitely," says the US official.

What halted the project may have been broader problems with the US effort to create "functioning democracies" in the Arab world. "There was a failure on the part of the administration very early on to understand how complicated the process of 'promoting' democracy is," says Guilain Denoeux, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and a member of the MEPI Reference Group from 2003-2005. …

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