TUNIS (JTA) – To the east is Libya, a vast desert nation ruled by strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi, where not a single Jew remains from the forced exodus that followed Israel’s founding in 1948.
To the west is Algeria, a bloodstained country that once boasted 140,000 Jews and today is home to barely 100.
Squeezed between these two oil-rich giants is Tunisia, a Wisconsin-sized oasis of tranquility that safeguards its 1,500 Jews, foots the bill to restore old synagogues and even welcomes Israeli tourists – despite the lack of diplomatic relations between Tunis and Jerusalem and Tunisia’s history as PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s home during the 1980s.
In many ways, Tunisia is distinct in the Arab world.
The country is home to the Arab world’s only Jewish legislator, an 81-year-old senator who also is president of Tunisia’s Jewish community. In November, World ORT returned to the country after a 35-year absence, inaugurating a computer laboratory and IT center at the Chabad School of Tunis at a ceremony attended by Education Ministry officials.
And despite the absence of diplomatic ties with Israel, in 2005 an Israeli delegation that came to a U.N.-sponsored telecommunications conference in Tunis was headed by Tunisian-born Silvan Shalom, at the time Israel’s foreign minister.
But stability in Tunisia – for its Jews and for the country as a whole – has come at a price, analysts say: democratic rights.
“Unfortunately, Tunisia is a long way from democracy,” said Nejib Ayachi, founder and president of the Maghreb Center, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on North Africa. “They keep saying they’re working on it, but I personally believe that institutions and the rule of law should come first, before establishing a democratic system that works effectively.”
President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, after Ben Ali has been in power since ousting the ailing Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987.
Though Tunisia has held several presidential elections, few take them seriously. In 1999, Ben Ali’s party won 99.66 percent of the vote. In 2004 he officially won 94.48 percent of the vote after a constitutional change two years earlier enabled him to seek re-election.
But supporters point out that under Ben Ali’s rule, Tunisia has been able to develop one of the highest levels of literacy in the Arab world, as well as one of its lowest rates of infant mortality and unemployment.
Roger Bismuth, the Jewish member of Tunisia’s Chamber of Deputies, credits the 71-year-old president for keeping Tunisia on a moderate course, promoting education and protecting Tunisian Jews from the chaos and religious extremism enveloping much of North Africa.
“The president is good to us,” Bismuth said, adding, “We are very careful. Our security is very tight, even if you don’t see it.”
“There is a national consensus around Ben Ali,” Mohamed Nejib Hachana, Tunisia’s ambassador to the United States, told JTA. “He is the savior of Tunisia, and he’s putting our country on the right track in this very risky and difficult moment. He is deadly serious about democracy and pluralism.”
The threat of Islamic terrorists groups like al-Qaida has given Arab dictatorships a handy excuse to crack down on civil liberties, even in monarchies where there’s been some nominal movement toward democracy, such as Jordan and Morocco, says Abdeslam Maghraoui, a North Africa expert and visiting associate professor at Duke University.
“The regimes are dealing with this threat in a very efficient way,” said Maghraoui, who is also the former director of the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “However, they’re clamping down on civil liberties, freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Democracy may actually be suffering because of this.”
Experts say terrorist activity is on the rise throughout North Africa’s Maghreb, a region that encompasses Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania.
Last month, twin car bombs in Algeria devastated a government building and the U.N. headquarters in the capital city, Algiers, killing more than 50. Also last month, a French family of four vacationing in Mauritania was gunned down.
Both attacks are believed to be the work of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, a terrorist group increasingly active in North Africa.
The last serious attack in Tunisia took place in 2002, when al-Qaida agents attempted to bomb North Africa’s oldest shul, Djerba’s Ghriba synagogue. The truck bombing didn’t damage the synagogue, but it killed 21, most of them German tourists, and scared away visitors for several years.
“They wanted to shut down the tourist industry, and in fact they did,” Bismuth said. “And in December 2006 we had some more incidents, which were definitely traced to al-Qaida.”
Bismuth visited Washington in November to meet with Jewish members of Congress and to lobby for U.S. help in Tunisia’s battle against extremists.
Although it is far removed from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Tunisia commands respect in the region both for having hosted both the Arab League – after the organization pulled out of Cairo following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel – and the PLO, which operated out of Tunis from 1982 to 1993.
Hachana said Tunisia was instrumental in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, despite an Israeli attack on the PLO’s Tunis headquarters in 1985.
“Tunisia played a very constructive and positive role in the Middle East peace process,” the ambassador said. “The first dialogue between the Palestinians and Americans was in Tunis. This was followed by the first official dialogue between the PLO and Israel.”
Those two dialogues, he said, gave birth to the Oslo peace agreement and the historic 1993 summit between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Yet unlike Egypt and Jordan, Tunisia has not formally recognized the State of Israel.
“It all depends on the peace process,” Hachana said. “Tunisia has said very clearly that when there’s progress on this issue, Tunisia will react favorably on the normalization of relations with Israel.
“But we must see tangible progress on the Palestinian-Israeli track: a sovereign state of Palestine living side by side with Israel. The main issue is still not solved.”