Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tunisia's President expels Arafat’s widow

Tunisia has revoked the citizenship of the widow of the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, after she fled the country last week. The 44-year-old widow Suha Arafat had moved to Malta where she is living with her Palestinian brother. She settled in Tunis after Arafat's death in November 2004 and was granted citizenship two years later. Suha had a long and so far unresolved dispute with the Palestinian authorities where she left homes in Ramallah and Gaza. According to Arab news reports Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali withdrew Arafat's naturalized status in a special decree last week. The decree offered no reason for the withdrawal.

Suha Daoud Tawil was raised as an affluent Catholic in the West Bank. Her father was Daoud Tawil, a wealthy banker with business in the West Bank and Jordan. Suha studied at the famed Sorbonne University in Paris. She met Arafat while on assignment in Jordan for a French newspaper. Although 34 years younger that Yasser, they married secretly in 1990 after she converted to Islam. The secret was not revealed for another two years. The marriage took place in Tunisia where Arafat lived in exile. Tunis had been the PLO headquarters since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 which forced Arafat to leave Beirut.

When Arafat finally returned to Palestine after the 1994 Oslo Accords, his wife followed him. However she moved again to Paris in July 1995 to give birth to their only daughter Zahwa. Suha stayed on in Paris with her mother and daughter. She took no further part in Palestinian politics and was believed to be estranged from her husband. She remained abroad while her husband was held under house arrest by the Israelis and she attracted much criticism from Palestinians for her supposedly unpatriotic actions.

When Arafat died Suha and Zahwa attended a memorial service in Cairo but were advised by Palestinian authorities not to attend the Ramallah funeral service on security grounds. After her husband’s death she moved back to Tunis where the couple first lived. She lived in a Tunis suburb until last week when she fled to Malta. While the Palestinian embassy in Tunis declined to comment, some reports attributed the decision to revoke her citizenship to a disagreement with some of her partners on projects in Tunisia.

It remains possible that Suha has somehow attracted the ire of long-term Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Last summer a Tunisian website reported that she secretly married the President’s brother. However Arafat has denied the reports. What is less in doubt is the autocratic regime of Ben Ali who has been in power since 1987.

In fact, Tunisia has only had two leaders in the half century since independence from France in 1956. The country’s first leader was Habib Bourguiba, known as the “Supreme Warrior” and the “Father of Tunisia”. Bourguiba was a rarity in early Arab-African politics – a consistently secular and pro-West president who made French the official language ahead of Arabic. After leading the fight for independence from France, Bourguiba ruled with an iron fist for over 30 years.

Bourguiba’s downfall was orchestrated by Muslim activist leader Rached Ghannouchi. Ghannouchi was an academic who returned from exile in France to lead the Islamic Tendency Movement’. He rejected Bourguiba’s secular approach and argued for a return to Tunisia’s indigenous Arab-Islamic heritage. Bourguiba imprisoned Ghannouchi in 1981 for three years as an “Islamic threat” and again in 1987 claiming his movement was plotting to overthrow the government. Ghannouchi was given a life sentence but Bourguiba ordered a retrial and demanded the death sentence.

Outraged by Ghannounchi’s second arrest, the Islamic movement threatened to break out into open rebellion. Bourguiba’s second in command Zine el Abedine Ben Ali took advantage of the crisis to seize power. Ben Ali moved quickly to legitimise his regime by releasing Ghannouchi and making concessions to the Islamic Movement. However all that changed with the First Gulf War when Ben Ali claimed there was a plot against him. He destroyed the power of the Islamists by a sweeping series of police actions. Ghannouchi fled overseas and was sentenced in absentia.

Since then Ben Ali has consolidated his regime with internationally neutral politics dominated by a pragmatic attitude. He gained a reputation as one of the most reliable leaders in the third world. However his troubles remain at home. Journalists and politically moderate activists have been persecuted and imprisoned for demanding democracy and freedom of speech. Ben Ali shows no sign of retiring. His presidency was rubber-stamped in 2004 for another five year term and constitutional amendments could see him stand again in 2009.

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