Tunisia keeps lid on fundamentalists, at a price


TUNIS, Tunisia -- The Tunisian government, in an effort to eradicate the outlawed Islamic fundamentalist movement from the political landscape, has stepped up measures including censorship, frequent detention of suspected movement members, and harassment of those who have beards or wear veils.

The moves have crippled the Islamic movement, which has seen its leaders and hundreds of followers flee into exile, land in prison, or go into hiding. It has swelled the confidence of Tunisian authorities, who once tried a policy of reluctant accommodation of the fundamentalists. It has also brought a collective sigh of relief among Egyptian, Moroccan, and Algerian officials, who are struggling to contain their own Islamic movements.

"We are in full serenity," said Noureddine Mejdoub, the second-ranking official in the Foreign Ministry. "Things are under control."

But the crackdown has created consternation among Western diplomats, opposition leaders and campaigners for human rights. They argue that the repression has halted Tunisia's tentative steps away from a one-party state, weakening the democratic movement and bolstering the credentials of fundamentalists.

"The government is at an impasse," said Mustapha Benjaafar, secretary-general of the opposition Movement of Social Democrats. "It has the fundamentalists under control, but if it keeps these security measures in place over the long term, it will destroy our efforts to create a democratic society. It will leave us with a discredited party clinging to power by any means and radical extremists who appear to be the only alternative."

Tunisia, in a small corner of North Africa between Algeria and Libya, has avoided the upheavals endured by its two neighbors. The government spends 50 percent of its budget on education, health, and social services. Even the slums around Tunis lack the squalor and overcrowding of those in Cairo or Algiers.

But Tunisia remains a dictatorship, governed for over 30 years by the party now known as the Democratic Constitutional Union, and its officials show no sign that they are ready to hand over power. The democratic reforms promised by President Zine Abidine Ben Ali when he took power in 1987 remain unfulfilled.

The press is not permitted to publish communiques from the Islamic movement or reports by the Tunisian League for Human Rights. Twelve opposition publications, including the Islamic newspaper the Dawn and the main independent weekly, the Magreb, have been shut down or suspended. The editor of the Magreb, Omar Shabou, remains in prison.

Officials of human rights groups say that the security forces, which set up nightly roadblocks throughout the country to search for Muslim militants, have beaten and tortured suspects in detention, a charge the government denies.

But fundamentalist leaders say the fervor of their followers will only be fueled by persecution.

"You can lock us up for 20 years," said Abdelfatah Mouro, one of the founders of the Tunisian fundamentalist movement, who has been allowed to remain at liberty because of his repudiation of violence, "but the day we get out of prison, we go right back to working for an Islamic state."

While the Tunisian authorities contend that they have managed to check the fundamentalists internally, they say there is little they can do to block the activities of militants abroad.

"The fundamentalists across North Africa have built an intertwined network that allows them to work in tandem," said Interior Minister Abdullah Kallal, "and they clearly get money from outside sources to carry out their activities."

But the current crackdown, however successful, has generated sympathy for the fundamentalists, who appear, especially to many young people, to be the only force standing up to the government.

"About half of the students sympathize with the fundamentalists," said Adel Benlagha, a 23-year-old student at the University of Tunis. "The more these fundamentalists suffer, the more support they have."

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