Tunis. -- Some say this is the finest little dictatorship in Africa.
Recent events -- the guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization packing their shadowy troubles off with them for Gaza after 12 years in exile, and more than 50 heads of state attending the annual get-together of the Organization of African Unity last month -- have diverted the focus from the backdrop Tunisia provides for such drama.
Yet, a farmer planting seedlings on a hillside spits out the words: "There is no democracy here -- you are 500 years ahead of us in America."
And a journalist tells how he was fired after he suggested that reporters should not endorse the president for re-election and then published an interview with the only person to try to oppose the head of state in the March election.
Indeed, that candidate -- Moncef Merzouki, head of the Tunisian League of Human Rights -- was jailed and remains in jail on charges of insulting the government. Unopposed, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali went on to win more than 99 percent of the vote in March.
His photo is plastered by the thousands on every street, shop and office in a cult of personality rarely seen in this decade. The fettered press calls him reverentially "the artisan of the Change," referring to the 1987 coup in which he ousted the senile President-for-Life Habib Bourguiba.
But given the chaos, violence and poverty in the immediate neighborhood -- Algeria and Libya -- and the carnage of Rwanda under debate at the OAU meeting, an observer is struck by the visible evidence that people have a fairly high standard of living here.
Some 80 percent of the people own their own homes, the economy provides jobs, and neither street crime nor Islamic fundamentalism troubles the days and nights. One sees little evidence of hunger, disease or extreme poverty. Hundreds of thousands of German and French tourists bask on the beaches. And the fields, olive trees and villages reflect a degree of organization and care that reminds one of Europe rather than the Third World.
Tunisia is an African country that works.
So many Third World countries I've visited in Africa and Latin America -- even those with oil wealth such as Venezuela and Algeria -- may have a high national income that remains concen
trated in the hands of a narrow, self-serving elite. Meanwhile, the majority remain rural peasants or urban slum dwellers.
"How did you create a middle class?" I asked the director-general of the Ministry of Planning and Regional Development.
The government official listed the steps taken since 1986:
"Education is free. Health care was free. Transport was subsidized. Government loans allowed people to own their homes. The key was that we spent 18 percent of the national income on social expenses."
On the equally critical plane of creating the income to be %J distributed, Tunisia's one-party state made several wise decisions: To create jobs, loans for investment in industries -- big well as small -- were subsidized, offered at 4 percent below the open market.
And agriculture, which provides 25 percent of Tunisia's jobs, was liberalized to allow farmers to increase income. As often happens with Third World governments anxious to please the population
close to urban centers of power, farmers here before 1986 had to sell crops cheaply to the state.
Now, farm income is up and Tunisia's products compete on world markets, contributing to the rising of exports by 15 percent a year in the late 1980s.
The results are easily apparent, despite the thicket of presidential photos and other disturbing signs of the one-party state.
Tunisians make, sell or use with confidence European-style clothing and cars, as well as traditional robes and carpets.
The families who live and work in the 700-year-old maze of Tunis streets and shops are as busy, confident and alert as those in the sprawling, modern suburbs outside.
There's none of the beaten-down, humble or resentful attitude one often notes among the Third World poor in the presence of government officials, foreigners and the wealthy elite.
As in successful East Asian and Southeast Asian states such as South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore, a middle-class society has been constructed under an authoritarian umbrella.
"We are the Switzerland of Africa," says a taxi driver. "And it's all due to this man," he says, pulling out a picture of President Ben Ali.
A Western diplomat with long experience in the Middle East comments: "The cult of personality comes because there is a problem with authority. A confusion between authority and the holder of authority."
The result is that newspapers are plastered with six and seven articles per issue extolling the president's role as defender of the handicapped, women's rights, Africa's environmental issues and -- in a fine example of Orwellian double-speak -- human rights.
This sycophancy reached a high point last month with the arrival of the OAU's leaders -- most of whom are comfortable with a controlled press and electoral victories with 99 percent of the vote.
And to top it off, Tunisia was elected to lead the OAU for the next year.
Given the orgy of self-congratulations filling the press, and the relatively prosperous conditions of many Tunisians, it's unlikely that any short-term storm will shatter the calm.
But in the long term, said the diplomat, President Ben Ali has spoken too much about democracy to keep people pretending it's the same as living in Africa's finest little dictatorship.
Ben Barber is a free-lance journalist.