Neila Charchour Hachicha is the founder of Tunisia's Parti Libéral Méditerranéen. Born in Tunis in 1955 and trained as an architect, Hachicha is the daughter of the late Mahmoud Charchour, a prominent Tunisian diplomat and key figure in the ruling Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique (Constitutional Democratic Rally) party, long led by modernizing strongman Habib Bourguiba. Following Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 1987 seizure of power, Hachicha became increasingly active in opposition and has become one of Tunisia's chief dissident voices, using her Parti Libéral Méditerranéen platform to advocate for an end to the one-party state and for the establishment of a democratic, multiparty liberal system in its place. Todd Orenstein, a research assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, interviewed Hachicha by e-mail on February 24, 2005.
Reform in Tunisia
Middle East Quarterly: What does the Parti Libéral Méditerranéen seek to achieve in Tunisia? What are its goals?
Hachicha: The Parti Libéral Méditerranéen, PLM, believes that democracy can strengthen national cohesion rather than create divisions and animosity within the population. Specifically, the Parti Libéral Méditerranéen aims to strengthen liberal political and economic views. For too long, we have endured a socialist economic system that facilitates dictatorship. We seek to educate both the people and regime about the necessity of moving toward liberalism. We also aim to build popular support around the Maghreb Union, which should help us integrate into the greater Mediterranean region. As a Tunisian Muslim woman, I feel closer to Mediterranean culture than to the Arab Islamic world. But we cannot achieve our goals without the Parti Libéral Méditerranéen's legalization. In Tunisia, though, party legalization is not a right but rather a favor that the government may or may not choose to bestow.
MEQ: Ben Ali won a fourth presidential term in October 2004, with 94.49 percent of the vote over two opponents. Was this election legitimate?
Hachicha: We cannot say that the election itself was not legitimate. The Constitutional Democratic Rally has held power since independence. With two million members, its power is beyond doubt. The international community supports Ben Ali. He has at his disposal the exclusive support of the entirety of state machinery. Ben Ali may hold legitimacy because he is party leader, but this is different from democratic legitimacy derived from all Tunisians. The election may have been technically legitimate, but under these conditions, it seemed like a race between a sports car and a wheel chair. It was unfair and undemocratic at all levels.
MEQ: How does Ben Ali use the mechanism of the state to marginalize opposition?
Hachicha: The regime uses all sorts of unfair and even illegal procedures to suppress opposition. He restricts access to media and financial support, even to legal candidates and parties. As a result, the opposition remains fairly unknown. There was no comparison between the time that President Ben Ali and his spouse had on television during the presidential campaign and the time that the other candidates had. There was no debate. Although illegal, repression was high. While democracy requires leadership accountability, ultimately the responsibility for action is upon the citizenry. Because of citizen complacency, it was quite easy for Ben Ali to win over 90 percent of the vote.
MEQ: Can internal pressure force Ben Ali to accept democratic reforms?
Hachicha: Internal pressure is very weak. Although it is necessary, it is far from enough. Since we have neither freedom of speech nor assembly, and because intimidation is rife, Tunisians feel uncomfortable with any political activity. Fear controls thinking. As a result, no political movement has popular or transparent enough support to really pressure Ben Ali. We are still at the stage where each political movement is only trying to build credibility in order to gain legitimacy.
MEQ: Do opposition parties carry significant weight in the political landscape?
Hachicha: Absolutely not! The regime does not show any willingness to share the political landscape. There is no opening for national dialogue. The situation is worsened because the international community keeps silent in the face of the regime's abuses. When President George W. Bush received President Ben Ali at the White House, Bush insisted on the necessity of freedom of speech and political freedoms. Almost simultaneously, [French] President Jacques Chirac talked about the Tunisian miracle and said that the primary human right is to be able to eat and drink. Recently, the Italian defense minister cited Tunisia as an example of democracy in the region. Hopefully, President Bush's tour in Europe will tighten trans-Atlantic relations and allow the United States and Europe to coordinate their views, declarations, and actions to help us feel more confident in ourselves to resolve our internal problems.
MEQ: Then, there is a role for outside pressure?
Hachicha: The international community has a number of tools to pressure such regimes but should not interfere in internal domestic issues since we all think that national sovereignty is very important. Unfortunately, the world community never pressured dictatorial regimes seriously until after 9-11, when such issues reached the U.S. government's agenda. Even so, there are still countries like France that support dictatorships. Because of geography and history, Europe's political impact is much stronger on a country like Tunisia than is that of the United States with whom we share no vital interests.
MEQ: Can the Bush administration's Middle East Partnership Initiative make U.S. pressure more effective?
Hachicha: While Washington is actually doing quite a lot, I am not sure that the American administration is resolving the problems the right way. Let me give you two examples. The Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) may be an excellent initiative that provides a lot of money to strengthen civil societies in the Arab world. But in a country like Tunisia that has no independent civil society, with whom will MEPI work? Will it be with the legal civil society—an extension of the regime? Or will it work covertly with unrecognized associations or political movements? I think that before spending any money, the American administration should first favor a better political context that will allow an independent civil society to grow fairly and freely. Only then will the Middle East Partnership Initiative be efficient. Ironically, when I published a summary of a conversation I had in Tunis with Scott Carpenter, deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for the MEPI, in which I suggested that the American administration apply pressure to force presidents elected with more then 90 percent of the vote to resign from their ruling parties in order to allow other political figures to develop, the Tunisian government censored the Parti Libéral Méditerranéen's Internet site, and the State Department did not show any support. So what kind of democratization and freedom of speech can we expect? America should not put less pressure on Tunisia just because it is more developed than other Arab countries. Also, many American nongovernmental organizations are not allowed in Tunisia even though they could be excellent spaces of liberty, cooperation, and training. It is much easier for the American administration to get such organizations implemented in Tunisia than for Tunisians to form organizations in their own country. At least members of American nongovernmental organizations will not be persecuted.
MEQ: What about Europe? In 1998, Tunisia signed an association agreement with the European Union obligating the Tunisian government to promote human rights and political pluralism. Has the agreement been effective? Has the EU been a force for democratic reform?
Hachicha: Yes, Tunisia signed an agreement with Europe, but the agreement is more economic than anything else. As for human rights and political pluralism, Europe exerted little pressure because the regime argued both that reform might lead to another Algeria-style debacle and that reform could only occur upon the resolution of the Palestinian problem. While European leaders understand that democracy begins with the respect of minorities' rights, their priority continued to be stability at any price. Only a superficial pluralism emerged that was under the total control of the regime.
MEQ: The Tunisian government outlawed Al-Nahdha, the main Islamist party. Would Islamists dominate a democratic Tunisia?
Hachicha: If Tunisia were a democracy, Al-Nahdha wouldn't dominate at all. In a dictatorship, they seem to be the only effective opposition since they have access to people through the mosques and don't need to rely on freedom of the press or any authorization to associate. In fact, both the regime and the Islamists serve each other. The regime holds the Islamists up as justification for restrictions upon democracy, and the Islamists use the regime's repression as a claim to legitimacy.
MEQ: But couldn't democratic reforms lead to a repeat of Algeria's bloody 1992 debacle?
Hachicha: A legal Islamist party in Tunisia would not lead to a repeat of Algeria. Any party the Tunisian government authorizes could hardly be more restrictive than the current regime. Tunisia is also immunized to the Algerian example for two reasons. First, the women's education and civil status that President Bourguiba imposed at independence are now irrevocable rights. Women are half of the voters, and Islamists will have no choice but to respect their voices exactly. Second, our economy is based on tourism. Islamists can't restrict tourism since, unlike our neighbors, Algeria and Libya, we have no oil or gas. Any Islamic party would have to be moderate to get votes and survive in the political arena.
Differences between Tunisia's and Algeria's post-independence evolution would also limit the reach of the Islamists. While we were very open to the West, Algeria leaned more toward Arab nationalism. The Algerian army also played an important political role, which their Tunisian counterparts never did. Oil—or lack of—is also important. Algeria's oil and gas wealth has been a great incentive for people to sacrifice even their lives in pursuit of power and control.
MEQ: Who supports Tunisia's Islamists?
Hachicha: Officially, no one supports them. Unofficially, we all think that Islamic regimes financed them at least until 9-11. Being a good Muslim does not mean being an Islamist or supporting an Islamist political movement, as Al-Nahdha sometimes argues. Tunisians are moderate Muslims and are quite secular in their mentality even though secularism is not enshrined in the constitution. Of course, since 9-11, Tunisians feel protective of their religion, but they would not massively support any Islamist party, especially after all the violence they saw in Iraq from the Sunni Islamists. Tunisians are not violent people and would not allow outside Islamists to import violence. Hard-core Islamists have long since fled into exile in the West. The fact that they have not returned indicates that they do not see a bright future here. At least in the West they have access to the press and can continue their demagoguery.
MEQ: Will Iraq's election have an impact in Tunisia?
Hachicha: Of course, there is no doubt about it. It will not only impact Tunisia but it will impact the whole region. As President Bush said, "The seeds of freedom do not sprout only where they are sown; carried by mighty winds, they cross borders and oceans and continents and take root in distant lands." Iraqi elections will not immediately affect those who are already in power and are able to get over 90 percent of the vote, but they will surely impact the political maturity of all oppressed people. The freedom process, although quite slow and often violent, is irreversible now. We can see it clearly in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia. The domino effect is working. As for Tunisia, only one year ago, I would not have dared speak my mind like I am doing right now. But today keeping silent is more dangerous in the short run than giving a constructive opinion. Hopefully, Ben Ali will listen carefully to avoid a political crisis in Tunisia.
MEQ: You have written about a national reconciliation initiative. Why is national reconciliation necessary in a seemingly stable political system?
Hachicha: You said it: "A seemingly stable political system." Indeed, Tunisia seems stable, but it is a stability imposed through repression, a stability that is too much at the expense of human dignity and human rights. We need real stability built upon individual liberties, freedom, democracy, and rule of law to insure a lasting authentic stability. Now why the reconciliation? Islamism is not fate. Islamism is the result of dictatorship mixed with poverty and despair. Islamism is the proof that our political system failed in establishing rule of law. Both the regime and the Islamists are responsible for dictatorship since both, in different ways, do not respect the constitution. This circle of condemnation is counterproductive. We need national reconciliation. Otherwise, how can any political, democratic movement be credible, especially when the regime totally denies the existence of political prisoners? How can we exclude even a minority of citizens from the political landscape and pretend at the same time to be democrats? Reconciliation is necessary if there is to be any true democratization. If we want to be an example of democracy in the region, President Ben Ali's resignation from the ruling party should be the first step. We need an open, nonviolent government while proceeding toward an authentic inclusive democracy.
 Parti Libéral Méditerranéen at http://www.plmonline.org/.
 White House news conference, Feb. 18, 2004.
 Feb. 21-24, 2005.
 "Middle East Partnership Initiative," U.S. Department of State, accessed Apr. 27, 2005.
 "The EU's Relations with Tunisia," EU External Relations, Europa website, accessed Apr. 27, 2005.
 White House news release, Bratislava, Slovakia, Feb. 24, 2005.
 Neila Charchour Hachicha, "Appel à la Réconciliation Nationale," Parti Libéral Méditerranéen, Feb. 13, 2003.