Michael Slackman (Los Angeles Times)
International Herald Tribune

TUNIS: The men pounced, their beefy hands grabbing, pushing, shoving. There were a dozen of them, at least, and they hurled themselves at anyone in their way. Others banged bottles on a car, menacing a group of women as they tried to flee.
The assailants did not identify themselves, but here, as in much of the Arab world, there was no need. It was not so much the clothes, which were casual, as much as it was the attitude: These men could do whatever they wanted, whenever they felt like it. They were the police.
In this case, they had been dispatched by the government to stop a group of human rights activists from demonstrating for the release of political prisoners.
"Tunisia presents itself as this good student to the international community," said Omar Mestiri, the founder of a banned human rights monitoring group, who sported a deep purple bruise under his eye after the recent fracas. "It's very progressive in economic matters, and it says it is working on human rights. That's the face of it. But on the inside, it is a police state."
Tunisia's president, Zine Abidine ben Ali, promised democracy when he came to power in 1987 in a bloodless coup. He instituted the usual trappings, allowed for opposition press, freed some political prisoners, even abolished the post of president-for-life.
But all it takes is a quick stroll down most any street here in the capital to experience what it is like to be followed by agents who make little attempt to stay hidden. It is designed to intimidate and to keep the ruling group in power. Just last month, the president pushed through a constitutional change that will, effectively, allow him to serve as president for life.
Like many regimes in the Arab world, Ben Ali's government is sitting on a volcano of popular discontent stoked by religious fervor and international events such as the Palestinian intifada. Tunisians, like many other Arabs in the Middle East, are also immensely frustrated with their own entrenched leadership, limits on democracy and the widespread use of force and intimidation to silence political opposition. Tunisia is a stable country in North Africa, sandwiched between two even more oppressive neighbors, Algeria and Libya. Tunis is a cosmopolitan city, with a European flair and majestic palm trees lining the main boulevard. Tunisia does more than 70 percent of its trade with Western Europe and spends more than 50 percent of its budget on social and developmental programs.
The government rejects the notion that it is a police state, but from Tunis to the coastal resort towns of the south, many Tunisians speak of a regime that relies on fear and intimidation to keep everyone, not just Islamists, in line. Speak out against the regime, and your mother may be harassed. Join a banned organization, and your children might be thrown out of school. Your phone line might be cut. Your car stolen. Offices ransacked. Passports confiscated. Jobs taken away.
The modern state of Tunisia was fathered by Habib Bourguiba, a French-trained lawyer who led the country to independence from France in 1956. His was a dictatorship, but a relatively enlightened one for the region. He granted unparalleled rights to women, including the right to vote and serve in government, to sue for divorce and to have an abortion. Polygamy, permitted in the Koran, was outlawed.
So-called moderate regimes such as those in Egypt and Tunisia have succeeded in minimizing the influence of Islamic-based opposition groups with strict security measures. In Tunisia, government critics say the iron-fisted approach has turned a moderate Islamic movement with limited support into a radical underground group with widespread sympathy.
They say the April suicide bombing at an ancient synagogue on the resort island of Djerba is a sign of such a backlash. The explosion left at least 16 dead and has been linked to Osama bin Laden's Qaeda network.
Mokhtar Yehyaoui, a Tunisian magistrate who was thrown off the bench when he appealed to the president for judicial independence last year, said: "The lack of democracy, the lack of a political process and the lack of pluralistic society brings Islamists together and will make all or most of the opposition go toward the Islamists. Religion is the only tool left that will integrate society together. It is this emptiness that makes everyone turn to Islam as the last resort." Radiha Nasraoui, a leading human rights lawyer and wife of an imprisoned opposition leader, belongs to a political class that initially supported the crackdown on the Islamists. These were people who wanted Western-style democracy, who looked to Europe as a model, not to its other Arab neighbors.
Three years after Ben Ali came to power, Nasraoui defended an opposition political leader who had been charged with a crime. When she entered the courtroom, she was arrested and held in prison until her release many days later.
Sihem ben Sedrine, another activist who has been beaten, harassed and jailed for her human rights work, said: "What we realized was he was not just crushing the Islamists. He was crushing democracy and civil society, too."
Today, Ben Sedrine and Nasraoui and others of their political leaning find themselves pressing for Islamists to be allowed to join the political process and for the all of the 1,000 political prisoners held by the state, the majority of whom are Islamists, to be granted amnesty. They may not support the Islamists' agenda, but they support their right to pursue that agenda.
Nasraoui and her colleagues in the democracy movement wanted to discuss the referendum to allow Ben Ali to run again, so they gathered two days before the May 26 vote. When they arrived for the meeting, a crowd of men was standing outside, bunched together in a knot, staring at everyone who went in, following some as they left.
Taha Sassi was sitting on the steps outside the room when he spotted a man in a green suit, smoking a cigarette trying to mingle with the crowd. Sassi jumped up and grabbed the man's lapels and hurled him down the stairs.
He said he knew the man was an informant. Sassi, a 27-year-old philosophy student, had already spent more than a year in jail because of informants, and he had no tolerance for them.
Two days after Nasraoui and her colleagues met, the polls opened for the 3 million Tunisians eligible to vote on the referendum. When a government official was asked how soon vote results would be available, he said, "Officially, we expect this to pass."
The government was eager for a large turnout, hoping to give the president some justification for staying in office, but apathy on the streets appeared widespread and polling stations in several towns were empty during the day. One Western diplomat said he expected no more than a 50 percent turnout. But when it was all over, the headline on a newspaper, La Presse, said, "A Giant Yes." The government reported 96.15 percent voter turnout - and a 99.61 percent "yes" vote. The results, Interior Minister Hedi M'henni said at a news conference, "surprise only those who do not know Tunisia."