Friends of Tunisia
(An Affiliate of the National Peace Corps Assoc.)
P.O. Box 25245  Washington, DC 20007
Tel. (202) 526-0897

December 1999


In the September newsletter, members of Friends of Tunisia were asked to vote for or against Bob Prince's proposal to create a committee to monitor human rights issues in Tunisia. Out of approximately 200 members in 25 states, only six individuals voted -- some for, some against. Do the rest of you care one way or the other? Unknown.

Bob Prince, consequently, has dropped his proposal, which has disappointed Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. "Some of your members," he said, "confuse friendship with Tunisia with friendship with its government. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch depends on organizations such as yours to do something about the information we gather. We only collect and disseminate information."

Nevertheless, there is some good news to report on human rights in Tunisia. After the October 24th election (see next page) and just prior to Tunisia's November 16-17 meeting with the European Union's Council of Ministers, the Tunisian government released hundreds -perhaps as many as 1,000 -- inmates from prison. Several hundred of these prisoners were common criminals, but some were in jail for charges stemming from political or human rights activities as menial as providing money to the wives and children of fundamentalists who were in jail or exile. Included among those granted their freedom were five members of the Tunisian Communist Workers Party who had been convicted this summer of "maintaining an association that advocates hate." Furthermore, Khemais Ksila, whose three-year conviction was judged "arbitrary" by the United Nations, was earlier released from jail, as was Abderaraouf Chamari, the marina owner who was convicted this August for reasons that seemed to have more to do with his older brother than him.

Such moves by the government should be applauded. However, there is still reason for caution. Not everyone who was convicted of "crimes" related to basic human and political rights has been given their freedom, and even as hundreds were released from prison, veteran human rights activists Dr. Moncef Marzouki and Mustapha Ben Jaffar were hauled into court to answer charges for being critical of the October 24 election.


Before the October 24 parliamentary and presidential election, there was considerable interest in Tunisia and the rest of North Africa and the Middle East about the possible reaction should President Ben Ali receive significantly less than 85-90 percent of the vote. such issues are now moot since Ben Ali garnered 99.44% of the vote. The governing Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) received 2.8 million votes while opposition parties received 260,362 votes, up from 64,204 votes in 1994. (opposition parties are guaranteed 20% of the seats in the legislature. Therefore the opposition parties will take 34 of the 182 seats.) There were 117 female candidates. Of those, 20 RCD members and one opposition candidate won seats.

Although the European press criticized the election because only government-approved opposition parties were allowed to run candidates, Tunisian authorities insist that the election is an important first step in an evolution to complete democracy. Furthermore, Bob Pelletrau, former ambassador to Tunisia, noted at a Washington symposium held just prior to the election that 40 percent of the ruling party slate consists of non-incumbents. The RCD, he pointed out, has managed to "open itself up and make itself relevant" to each new generation. He contrasted the RCD to Algeria's FLN, whose leaders were among those who seized power from the French and are still exercising control.


Abelkader Hachani, a leader of Algeria's outlawed Islamic Salvation Front, was shot twice in the head on November 22 as he was leaving a dental clinic in Algiers. Hachani had spoken out in favor of the government's peace and reconciliation measures but had also been under police supervision for anti-government activities. No group claimed responsibility. It is generally believed that extremists on either side could have ordered his execution. Over 100 Algerians have died in terrorist attacks in November. The reconciliation offer expires in January.


Tunisian textile expert Dagmar Painter gave a fascinating talk in October to Washington-area members of Friends of Tunisia on symbolism in Tunisian textiles. Painter came at her subject from both an anthropological and a graphic-design perspective. Her presentation focused mainly on women's clothing, which she used to illustrate the evolution from meaningful traditional symbols to the modern-day "design for design's sake." Stan Hallett, an architect in Tunisia in '64-66, pointed out that many of the same symbols were incorporated into the design of traditional buildings. Painter, who spent five years in Tunisia, is also an expert on textiles from Thailand and Nigeria and has appeared on NBC's Today Show. Currently she runs Artisana, a small company dealing in ornament and textiles from traditional cultures. Artisana works with individuals as well as interior designers and corporations to find pieces for their collections or displays. Among her ever changing inventory are some magnificent gold- and silver-embroidered Tunisian wedding tunics, flat weave throws, and antique pillows. You can contact Dagmar at Artisana, 6360 Dockser Terrace, Falls Church, VA 22041. Tel 703-914-5588/FAX 703-914-3961. Visits by appointment only.


Kath Rooney, '82-84, wrote to alert FOT members that there is another Tunisian RPCV writer in this world. Tim McLaurin, who worked on a dairy farm in Siliana (near Maktar) in '82-84, is the author of several novels and non-fiction works, including The Acorn Plan, Woodrow's Trumpet, Cured by Fire, The Last Great Snake Show, Lola, and Keeper of the Moon. The main subject of these books is hard-scrabble North Carolina, which is where Tim grew up. Knives, blue collars, guns, drunken rages, and a lot of death fill these pages, but you'll also find a lyricism and poignancy that counters the hard edges. Keeper of the Moon is Tim's autobiography. It covers his life until he got -- and conquered -- cancer in his mid-30s. It depicts his family and his own adventurous climb out of a world where homes had no indoor toilets and no one aspired to more than a steady job at a mill or, at the lowest rung, to harvest and cure tobacco. Along the way, he served in the Marine Corps in the early '70s and the Peace Corps in the mid-80s. He has also been a snake handler and a Pepsi salesman, but now is, besides a writer, a professor at North Carolina State University. His first book, The Acorn Plan, was written in Tunisia, but he mentions Tunisia only in the autobiographical Keeper of the Moon. It's a brief account of one incident: after straining an abdominal muscle and reporting to Tunis to have it checked out, he drank too much Jack Daniels at the Peace Corps director's house and ended up badly hung-over in a Tunis hospital where his appendix was (probably needlessly) removed. Which is how a lot of his stories seem to go.


President Clinton has nominated Mark L. Schneider to be the next PC director. Schneider is a former volunteer in El Salvador and currently USAID's Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean. In the Carter Administration, he was a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Rights at the State Department.


The National Peace Corps Association has provided FOT with two kits which are designed to help teachers and community activists raise issues about quality of life in a world of six billion people. The kit includes teaching aids and slides. Anyone who wants to receive this kit (free), should write FOT.


The last newsletter mentioned that Stephanie and Sebastian Mahfood had set up a website for Tunisian RPCVs. It has been moved to a new location. You can currently reach it at


- Rumors persist that relatives of President Ben Ali, including his wife's family, are cutting themselves into business deals throughout Tunisia. The effect, it is said, adds thousands of dinars to the cost of licenses, import permits, etc. The overall effect is said to cost the country millions of dinars. In fact, the rumors have become so rampant that a Tunisian joke about it appeared in the October 21 online version of the French newspaper Le Monde: One day President Ben Ali is out for a walk and discovers a genie who says he will grant the president one wish. Since Ben Ali is always pressed for time, he requests a highway be built from his palace in Carthage to his ranch in Argentina. The genie is annoyed. "It's not easy to build a highway across an entire ocean," he points out and suggests that Monsieur le President make another choice. So Ben Ali gives it some more thought and finally says, "Well, my relatives are grabbing so much money these days that it's really starting to cause me political trouble. I wish you would convince them that enough is enough, that they should desist from extorting any more money from people." Without hesitation the genie replies, "Would you like that highway to be two-lane or four-lane?"

- President Ben Ali announced in October the creation of a new National Employment Fund similar to the National Solidarity Fund (the "26-26 Fund") which supports rural development. The new fund will be called "the 21-21 fund" (the numbers are "zip" codes for mailed contributions) and will provide training and job opportunities for unemployed men and women.

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