Tunisia - Leadership

From the start, the tasks facing the new president were numerous and challenging, particularly the struggling economy and the Islamic fundamentalist movement. Promising a democratization of Tunisia, Ben Ali moved quickly to reconcile the government with the various opposition groups, notably by freeing hundreds of political prisoners, establishing contacts with exiled opposition, abolishing the state security court, and paving the way for a multi-party system. He changed the name of the DSP to the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), and recognized new political parties. However, he would not tolerate any party based on religion. Ben Ali has refused to recognize the Islamic party, which has since been renamed al Nahda (Renaissance). His strong and unchanging opposition to the Islamist factions in Tunisia have won him praise from the West, though increasingly the means he uses to shut down opposition are causing concern both within the country and outside.

Ben Ali initially faced an increasingly cynical public and alienated youth due to the tight control he maintained over the political process, the suppression of effective opposition, and his poor human rights record. Despite cosmetic changes to the Constitution and electoral process, he and his RCD party refused to allow any effective opposition to emerge. However, by 2000, new legislation showing a move toward greater democratic freedoms gave Ben Ali a more respectable image internationally.

In November 2002, on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of his assumption of power, Ben Ali announced a series of measures destined to permit Tunisia to proceed on the path to democracy and development. Some of the issues concerning Ben Ali were reform of the electoral code, the life of political parties, information, education, and the development of economic infrastructures designed to construct the "Republic of Tunisia of tomorrow." DOMESTIC POLICY One of Ben Ali's greatest achievements has been success of the National Solidarity Fund (NSF), established on his initiative in 1992. Its basic mission was to implement a national strategy extending from 1993 to late 2000 in over 1,000 of the country's poorest villages. Nearly one million people lived in these areas, where they lacked stable incomes, basic facilities, schools, health, roads, or drinking water. Through the NSF, about US $400 million was used to build over 30,000 houses, 122 health care centers, 140 schools, 3,565 km (2,228 mi) of road, and a number of "youth halls." NSF activities also made it possible to connect 63,151 households to the power grid and to the potable water network and to launch sanitation and anti-desertification projects. Furthermore, the NSF generated thousands of jobs. These achievements were carried out under direct supervision by President Ben Ali, who dedicated many cabinet meetings to the NSF. Ben Ali demonstrated his commitment to the NSF by making personal visits to the needy areas. The NSF served as the model for the World Solidarity Fund supported by the United Nations (UN), also initiated by Ben Ali.

Ben Ali's government has engaged in economic policies, with varying success, to promote private investment in industry and agriculture; increase irrigation agriculture through a number of dam constructions; consolidate landholdings in order to achieve cereal self-sufficiency; search out new markets for its olive oil, date and citrus exports; encourage a broadening of manufacturing industries and modernization and improved marketing plans of the traditional industries of textiles (which accounts for 45% of Tunisia's export earnings) and fish processing; promote petroleum exploration and export through liberal terms offered to the more than two dozen foreign companies currently involved in that industry in the country; renovate plants and promote its internal market for calcium phosphate, of which Tunisia is the world's fourth-largest producer; and promote industrial zones and its offshore banking sector to achieve an economic goal to make Tunisia a "Mediterranean Singapore."

In 2001, Ben Ali announced a major constitutional reform initiative to pave the way for the "Republic of the Future." The reform bill, which was adopted by the Chamber of Deputies in 2002, provided greater protection of civil liberties and public freedoms, stronger oversight over the constitutionality of laws and, for the first time, consecration of the notions of human rights and tolerance as constitutional values. One amendment called for the creation of a second legislative branch, the Chamber of Advisors, with 120 members elected for six-year terms. There will be no term limits stated for the presidential office, but the maximum age ceiling for candidacy was set at 75 years. The constitutional reform bill was approved in a 26 May 2002 referendum, with99.52% of voters voting in favor of the changes. Also in 2002, Ben Ali initiated a draft law for the creation of a children's forum within parliament that will be called Children's Parliament. The purpose of the forum is to raise awareness of children's rights issues and to consider ways to provide better education and opportunities for children.

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