On October 24, 1999, over 90 percent of Tunisia’s eligible voters flocked to the polls to overwhelmingly support the state’s incumbent President, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali, 62, easily won a third five-year term, an outcome that had been widely expected. The most notable aspect of this campaign was that it marked the first presidential election in Tunisia’s 43-year history in which opposition candidates were allowed to challenge the President.
Nevertheless, human rights groups criticized the election process by declaring that despite the government’s commitment to political pluralism and press freedom, the gap between rhetoric and substantive action remains wide. While Ben Ali has recently promised greater political liberalization, many citizens still question whether there will in fact be any modification in the tough measures used to restrain Islamists, trade unionists, and human rights activists.
Soon after being re-elected, President Ben Ali backed up his election promises of economic reform and growth by reshuffling his Cabinet and appointing the economist Mohamed Ghannouchi as the state's new Prime Minister. Ghannouchi (58) replaced Hamed Karoui, who had served in this post for the past 10 years. The new Prime Minister developed his solid reputation by serving as Minister of International Cooperation and Foreign Investment and as Minister of Finance and Economics. During the past decade, Ghannouchi was a key negotiator during talks with the World Bank, IMF and the European Union.
Ben Ali's selection was hailed by both Tunisian and international businesspeople. They believe that Ghannouchi comprehends the needs of international investors and that he will help further the country's integration into the global economy. Ben Ali's Cabinet makeover did not end with Ghannouchi's designation. The President appointed four female ministers, doubling the number in the previous government. Additionally, he replaced Foreign Minister Said Ben Mustapha with Habib Ben Yahia, who had served in the Defense Department. The President, did, however, maintain consistency and stability in the economic and business departments, retaining Taoufik Baccar as Finance Minister and Abdellatif Saddam as Minister of Economic Development.
Tunisia’s government has continued to face the wrath of human rights groups. This North African country's human rights record had received wide-scale international attention following the hunger strike by local journalist Taoufik Ben Brick. This affair brought negative publicity to Tunisia, threatening to taint its relations with the European Union and diminish its allure to foreign investors.
Responding to claims that the government intimidates opponents by confiscating or refusing to renew passports, in mid-May Tunisian President Ben Ali affirmed the "inalienable" right of Tunisians to bear passports and travel without restriction.
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)