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Journal of Democracy 12.3 (2001) 183-188

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Documents on Democracy


On March 20, a remarkably eloquent statement calling for a transition to democracy in Tunisia was issued by 93 leading Tunisian intellectuals. Entitled "Tunisia 2004: Manifesto of Progressive Tunisian Democrats," the document was distributed through direct contact and e-mail. Copies were also sent to all the major newspapers in Tunisia, but none published it. Portions of the document appeared in two Arab newspapers printed in London, Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq al-Awsat. Excerpts, translated from the French, appear below:

1. In the past few years, Tunisia has fallen into a grave political and moral crisis characterized by two main features: the negation of politics and the privatization of the state. . . .

2. Politics, the high art of regulating the conflict and consensus that are part of living together, is now prohibited. The current regime is undergoing an unprecedented drift toward absolute personal power taken to the extreme; demagogic populism that infantilizes the masses and the elite; the stripping away of all substance from constitutional, political, and professional institutions to the point where they become docile instruments of the power of one man; and the stifling of civil society. These are all harbingers of extreme danger.

The expression of disagreement is banished, freedoms are confiscated, radio and television are monopolized, and political commentary is muzzled. The government press, a propaganda machine aimed at glorifying the leader, is increasingly used to support the vilification of opponents and dissidents. Recognized political parties are made into satellites or marginalized, and any others are systematically repressed. The few associations that represent civil society are targeted for perpetual harassment. Political activists and especially human rights advocates regularly wind up in court. They are imprisoned and, at times, physically attacked. Their houses are broken into, their goods ransacked, and their telephone lines cut. In certain cases, repression even strikes members of [End Page 183] their families. Some are forced into exile. Torture is routinely practiced in police stations, the premises of the Ministry of the Interior, and prisons.

As for citizens, they are consumed by fear and terror. They find themselves caught in the net of a vast surveillance apparatus: police sting operations, "units of the R.C.D.," "district committees," phone-tappings, and postal controls. If they refuse to succumb, they run the risk of unemployment (if salaried) and of abusive tax reprisals if they are industrialists, artisans, merchants, or members of the professions. . . .

This inexorable drift toward the rule of lawlessness is dramatic. The new "rules" that govern in the place of politics lie deep within the fortress-regime. At the helm of the state, docile bureaucrats with no point of view other than that of the president are being recruited. The only prevailing rule in dealing with all other political tendencies is "He who is not with me is against me." And the only means of settling political disagreements alternate between psychological pressure, physical coercion, and financial punishment. Opposition to the regime is considered treason, signifying the confusion between the general interest of the nation and the personal interests of the rulers.

Under such conditions, rational public debate based on freedom and mutual respect is nonexistent.

3. Today, the rule of lawlessness is extending its influence to all fields. Its institutions, whether they attend to the maintenance of "order" (administration, police, and justice) or circulate its propaganda in the guise of "information," are enlisted and implicated on a grand scale in a vast enterprise of private appropriation, the privatization of the state.

The confusion between the function of the head of state and the person holding the office originated with the charismatic rule of Habib Bourguiba, a leader who could claim a historic legitimacy, overestimated but nonetheless real. Unfortunately, in complete contradiction to the republican spirit, it led to a paternalistic management of political power. Today, another shift has occurred: paternalistic power has been replaced by patrimonial power; a father jealously guarding his children has been succeeded by a son jealously guarding his property--Tunisia. This "privatization" of the state has meant that the public sphere has gone from...


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