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One opposition figure with intimate experience of these pressures is activist Ahmed Néjib Chebbi, founder of the Progressive Democratic Party, Tunisia's most outspoken opposition party, which has no seats in parliament. When TIME interviewed him in Tunis, Chebbi, 64, was about to begin a hunger strike to protest an eviction order from his party headquarters, which he said was one of the few gathering places for activists. Although the party is legal, its members say it is shut out of parliament by being starved of exposure. "In 15 years as head of the party I've had eight minutes on national television," says Chebbi. Government officials dismiss him as little more than a handy antigovernment source for the foreign press. Béchir Tékari, Minister of Justice and Human Rights, complains: "Some people are content to take information from a certain minority of activists."
Any political challenge to Ben Ali has so far proved ineffective. Opposition candidates were allowed to run for President in 1999 and 2004, but some opposition parties endorsed Ben Ali who won 94% of the vote three years ago. Officials insist that this reflects genuine support, rather than a lack of choice. "Ben Ali is more than a party leader; he is a national leader," says Zouheir M'Daffar, the Minister in charge of administrative reform. Although the next presidential election is two years away, Tunis is already decorated with billboards imploring Ben Ali to run again in 2009. "The succession word is totally taboo," says Khélifa, the English professor. "Ben Ali is here to stay."
The human-rights record of Tunisia with its small population and economy should perhaps matter little to the West, compared with that of Libya and Algeria, whose mammoth energy reserves make them important strategic players. But Tunisia's crackdown against Islamic militants has made it a dependable partner in Washington's war on terror, and Tunisian intelligence officers provide "intense cooperation" with CIA and FBI agents, says Tahar Fellous Refaï, director general of external relations and international cooperation at Tunisia's Ministry of the Interior. In October the ripples from Tunisia's approach to human rights reached Washington: a federal judge ordered the U.S. government not to send a Guantánamo detainee home to Tunisia, fearing he'd be tortured in jail and suffer "devastating and irreparable harm." Ten Tunisians remain in Guantánamo, and Refaï says they can expect many years in prison if they are repatriated.
Tunisia's largest trading partner, France, broke years of silence over the country's human-rights record when President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Tunis last July. He told Ben Ali he was concerned about the arrest of a prominent lawyer, Mohammed Abbou, on what some regarded as dubious charges of assaulting a colleague and defaming the judiciary. Abbou was freed shortly after, ending two years in jail. In late October, the European Parliament's human-rights committee head, Hélène Flautre, visited Chebbi in the fourth week of his hunger strike, and told reporters that Tunisia's policies were "unbearable." Days later, Ben Ali revoked the eviction order against Chebbi's political party, and he ended his hunger strike.
But officials make no apologies for their tough stance on political dissent, which they say has helped to protect Tunisia from the kind of terrorist attacks suffered in Algeria and Morocco. "We have eradicated terrorism as a phenomenon," says Refaï. Scores of members of the Tunisian Islamic organization Ennahdha have been jailed or exiled to Europe. This crackdown has intensified since Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat last year renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and vowed to recruit terrorists across North Africa. In January, at least 14 people were killed in gun battles between security forces and groups of militants who had slipped across the border from Algeria.
To the government, these clashes proved that its hardline policies were justified. "Call it the politics of prudence," says government spokesman Oussama Romdhani. "Why open a Pandora's box by giving fundamentalists a political party? We are sitting peacefully." But even strict secularist laws might not shield Tunisia from growing Muslim fervor in the region. "Before, you never saw a woman veiled in Tunis," says Amel Belhadj Ali, a journalist for the Tunis magazine L'Expression, sitting in her office in jeans and a T shirt. "Now you see more and more." Anti-American sentiment may also be on the rise. The magazine's editor, Ridha Kéfi, hosts roundtable discussions between intellectuals and government officials. But, he says, many guests refuse to attend because the program is funded by the U.S. State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, which bankrolls efforts to promote democracy. Kéfi explains: "They don't want to be mixed up with American money."
That can hardly be said of Tunisia's business executives, who are busily promoting their country as an ideal launching pad for foreign investors seeking a cheap, well-located route into Europe's markets. Fifteen Tunisian businessmen flew to Washington in October to pump that message to Congressmen and executives, and a group of U.S. businessmen is slated to arrive in Tunis this month to scout for opportunities. At Eurocast, the aircraft-parts maker, engineering manager Bakir says revenues should jump from $5 million to $7 million next year, as more Western companies sign contracts. To him, the possibilities in Tunisia seem boundless. "I am part of this generation which has multiple choices," he says. "A lot of my friends left for the United States and Europe, but a lot have come back."
The returnees have found a nation that has learned to live on its wits and prosper in the global economy, just like the nations of southeast Asia. In Asia, it's often been said though never proved that economic success leads ineluctably to political openness. That hasn't happened in Tunisia as yet; but it would be really something for North Africa, the Arab world, and international society generally if, one day, it did.