Politics & Policy

Fighting to Speak

Tunisia vs. a fundamental right.

It has been more than two years since President Bush requested Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to allow political freedoms and freedom of the press. Ben Ali ignored Bush’s request. There have been no substantive reforms. Rather, Ben Ali has increased oppression under the guise of combating terrorism. In reality, it is not terrorism the Tunisian regime is combating; its wrath is directed at even the most moderate and peaceful political voices.

In January, I spoke in Washington about the necessity of freedom of speech to make credible any democratic process. Winning the battle of freedom of speech would be to win an irreversible step toward democracy.

When I returned to Tunis, the Tunisian government sought revenge. They spared me, but targeted my family. I became, in the words of American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin, a “test case” to see how serious the White House was about promoting democracy and the rule of law. The State Department issued a “from-the-podium” statement which highlighted my case and that of Mohamed Abbou, a journalist imprisoned (and currently near to death from a long hunger strike) after criticizing Ben Ali.

Pressure works, but only if it is sustained. After the State Department’s statement, the Tunisian reaction was to stop its illegal censorship of my websites. It is a good first step, but my website is not the issue. The Tunisian government should end censorship of all peaceful political websites. While my website is unblocked, the Tunisian local server Planet continues to block my regular Internet connection. It is not by coincidence that Planet is owned by Ben Ali’s daughter.

The Tunisian regime has launched an unprecedented campaign against my husband. On April 29, they will send him to prison for ten months for the equivalent of a real-estate-zoning violation, an offense on which there is no precedent of incarceration. His lawyer resigned before the appeal could be heard. No lawyer can afford getting involved, knowing that the verdict will be dictated from the regime.

Other harassment continues. Multiple eyewitnesses saw the police confiscate my car; they denied their involvement and said it was stolen. Then, in the presence of two public notaries, the police refused to issue the standard statement necessary for insurance. When the notaries inquired upon what grounds they refused to issue a copy of their statement, they kicked us out.

It is this type of harassment that subjugates ordinary Tunisians. On April 16, the Tunisian Journalist Union put out a press release to announce that Selim Boukhedir, another journalist unfairly dismissed for thought crimes, already lost eight kilograms in the first two weeks of his hunger strike. Anyone who pushes too hard for freedom of speech or freedom of assembly faces arbitrary and unlawful punishment. So far I have been lucky. Other Tunisians whisper about instances of rape, arson, the planting of drugs in luggage, and so forth. This should not be acceptable in the 21st century.

When I set out speaking about freedom of speech, I was naïve. I did not realize just how sensitive the regime would be. Now, I have no choice but to continue. They have threatened my husband and sought to humiliate my daughter, something no mother can tolerate. I never expected to have to write article after article to make sure our suffering, and that of Mohamed Abbou and countless others, did not pass unnoticed.

Liberalism will perish unless the White House and its European allies keep up the pressure to keep Arab liberals safe. When Rumsfeld visited Ben Ali in February, he spoke only of strengthening military-to-military ties. But true stability and security requires some degree of freedom. Ben Ali will listen to the outside world if he believes that its warnings are serious. The Quai d’Orsay offered only a timid statement when Tunisian security forces assaulted French journalist Christophe Boltansky for having reported on the Tunisian government’s speech crackdown ahead of the World Summit on the Information Society. If outsiders are not even going to stand up for their own citizens, then why should the Tunisian government worry about opposition when they oppress Tunisians? After all, as the Tunisian ambassador to Washington told the American Enterprise Institute, why should Washington worry about “a person of no consequence” like me? The Tunisian government may say we are Islamists–I certainly am not–or cherry-pick statements to convince foreign officials that all opposition is radical, reactionary, or irresponsible. It is an old tactic, and experienced professionals should not fall for it.

The White House again stands at a crossroad. Not only in Tunisia but elsewhere in the Arab world, liberals and dissidents are waiting. Without freedom of speech and press, reformers cannot build credibility and legitimacy. Ben Ali should embrace reform, not repel it. We don’t ask for much–just the assurance that we will not be abandoned if we ask for freedom of speech. Do not worry about stigma; we are already stigmatized for seeking our rights. U.S. ambassadors throughout the region should not hesitate to meet with members of civil society or stand up for prisoners of conscience, just as they once did in the Soviet Union.

I do not know what they will do to me and my husband in the weeks to come. I hope that Washington, Paris, and human-rights organizations will not allow dissidents to be sacrificed upon the altar of realpolitik. We should not suffer for comments as innocuous as ours, or for speaking out in professional forums in Washington. Those of us who struggle in defense of freedom in Tunisia appreciate the help of the State Department. We hope it will continue, even as the Tunisian regime thumbs its nose at Bush. And regardless of what happens, I hope that you will pray for my family and for all of us in Tunisia.

Neila Charchour Hachicha is the founder of Tunisia’s Parti Libéral Méditerranéen.

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