Tunisia is a constitutionally based republic with a population of approximately 10 million. Political life is dominated by a single party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally, and by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has been president since 1987. There were significant limitations on citizens' right to change their government. Local and international NGOs reported that security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees and arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals. The government imposed severe restrictions on citizens' privacy rights and on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association. The government remained intolerant of public criticism and used intimidation, criminal investigations, the court system, arbitrary arrests, residential restrictions, and travel controls to discourage criticism by human rights and opposition activists. The government continued to invoke a variety of laws and regulations to obstruct implementation of reform projects and initiatives.
A key U.S. government objective in the country is to promote democratic reform and respect for human rights. To support democratic principles and human rights, especially freedom of expression and freedom of association, the United States sustains a broad strategic dialogue with the government and civil society, which encompasses economic and social cooperation, as well as continued promotion of political reform. The U.S. democracy and human rights strategy recognizes the country's achievements on social and economic issues and works toward achieving similarly bold progress on political reforms and respect for human rights. Accordingly, the United States encourages the government to increase the pace and substance of critical political, economic, and human rights reforms and to create space for civil society, including independent media, to address these issues freely.
The ambassador and other high-level U.S. officials consistently raise human rights, democracy, and good governance with the government. The ambassador and other U.S. officials meet regularly with governing party and opposition party officials to promote freedom of expression, cooperation, and the free exchange of ideas. To promote greater awareness of freedom of expression and the rule of law, in 2007 the U.S. government sponsored two individuals to take part in a leadership and democracy program in the United States. The embassy devoted the month of July 2007 to a series of activities in support of the President's freedom agenda. Freedom was the theme of the ambassador's Fourth of July address, which he delivered to more than 1,500 individuals. The Fourth of July address also appeared as an op-ed in the local press. Also in July 2007 the ambassador met with the leaders of all opposition parties, in addition to a number of prominent intellectuals, academics, and other civil society leaders. The embassy engaged civil society leaders in dialogue regarding democracy promotion and increased freedom of expression.
Support for freedom of assembly and association is a key aspect of private dialogue with the government and public statements. The embassy works to strengthen civil society and its ability to influence and communicate with the government and urges the government to remove onerous NGO registration and funding restrictions. U.S. officials monitor political trials and encourage the government to respect freedoms of assembly and association at every opportunity. U.S. officials consistently raise specific cases of concern with the government. The U.S. government has issued public statements regarding the harassment of activists and the incarceration of individuals whose prosecution may have been motivated by their political activities. The United States also works to strengthen civil society organizations by supporting economic, media, and political reform through small grants. U.S. officials meet regularly with activists and NGOs that experience government harassment and restrictions and attend events hosted by these NGOs. When leaders of a legal opposition political party began a hunger strike in September 2007 to protest an effort to close their party offices, the ambassador met with them in their offices. Other U.S. officials made follow-up visits and attended press events. The ambassador's visit generated very strong criticism in the press but broadened interest in the issue among other foreign observers.
U.S. officials support judicial independence, independent media, and anticorruption efforts. The embassy sponsors forums for civil society and routinely brings high-profile speakers to the country to discuss freedom and democracy issues with think tanks, government officials, journalists, and university groups. Many speakers also participate in the embassy's monthly roundtables series, which focuses on topics related to human rights and democracy. The U.S. government promotes media independence and professionalism through programs for journalists and through regular interaction with media professionals.
The U.S. government consistently and publicly advocates for the advancement of key human rights issues in the country, including freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. The embassy distributes Arabic, French, and English-language resource materials, including U.S. government reports on human rights, religious freedom, and trafficking in persons; NGO reports on regional human rights issues; and electronic journals and articles on rule of law and transparency in government. For example, the embassy distributed copies of President Bush's June 2007 speech in Prague, in which he underscored the U.S. government's commitment to the freedom agenda. The embassy hosts a number of roundtables with journalists focusing on freedom of the press and the role that press should play in a democratic society. The ambassador and other U.S. officials also place opinion pieces and have interviews published in the local press, while consistently highlighting the U.S. commitment to human rights, transparency, and freedom of expression in speeches, media interviews, and publications.
The embassy makes full use of exchange, cultural, and professional programs to promote democratic values. In 2007 some 15 individuals participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program in the fields of government, rule of law, judicial reform, democracy, and the media. In 2007 the U.S. government sponsored another individual for an internship with an Internet society in the United States. Two local educators studied American civilization and democratic principles in U.S.-funded study programs in the United States. Mid-career professionals participated in exchange programs focusing on law. Six students were among Arab student leaders who participated in a leadership program in the United States. Students interacted with American and Arab students and learned about democratic principles and institutions.
Between 2004 and 2007, the United States also funded a program that included a "Project Citizen" component, which taught secondary students how to identify civic issues, express their opinions, and influence decision makers. U.S. projects also focus on increasing opportunities for women, including business and entrepreneurship training programs. The United States includes a human rights component in military training and education. In 2007 63 military personnel took part in U.S. training that included components on respect for human rights and rule of law.