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Tunisian Visitors Explore Student Liberties at UCLA

Tunisian Visitors Explore Student Liberties at UCLA

Four guests from North African state probe limits of student political activism on an American campus.

By Gohar Grigorian

Two representatives of Tunisian opposition parties who are also active in human rights groups, a prominent journalist, and a member of the Tunisian parliament visited UCLA February 18 as part of a 21-day State Department program for emerging leaders. Their goal was to study grass roots democracy, popular mobilizations, and how nongovernmental organizations affect national policy. The State Department briefing that accompanied the group noted that "Although Tunisia is making progress toward a democratic system, citizens still do not have full political freedom. There are curbs on the press and on freedom of speech and many critics have called for clearer, effective distinctions between executive, legislative, and judicial powers."

The UCLA visit came the same day that Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali met with U.S. President Bush at the White House. In 2002 the Tunisian parliament approved constitutional amendments making Ben Ali, who came to power in a coup in 1987, eligible to stand for re-election in October 2004 and again in 2009. His government is accused by human rights groups abroad of jailing dissidents on false charges, using torture against political prisoners, and sharply restricting press freedoms.

The visitors included:

  • Mr. Mokhtar Mohamed Jalali, a member of the Political and International Relations Commission of the Tunisian Parliament. He is also an attorney for the Supreme court of Tunis.
  • Mr. Zyed Krichen, director of the production team for the French and Arabic weekly magazine "Realites."
  • Mr. Jalel Lakhdar, deputy director of the opposition Socialist Democratic Movement and a member of the Human Rights Organization.
  • Ms. Khedija M'Bazaia, a member of the political bureau of the opposition Popular Unity Party and president of the Tunisian Human Rights League.

They met with Berky Nelson, Ph.D., director of the Center for Student Programming, to discuss student government, and to see how students organize and govern themselves. In addition they had a meeting with International Institute Outreach Director Jonathan Friedlander, who is also assistant director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies, and Southern California Fulbright Coordinator Ann Kerr.

Berky Nelson told the visitors that he advises some 900 groups, including religious, cultural, and political student organizations. Students, he said, are very active, and if displeased, will be involved in demonstrations. Berky's role is to be a liaison between the students, the UCLA administration, and the police, and he has to be trusted by all three groups.

He was asked to give some examples of demonstration on campus by students. He recalled one time when the CIA came to recruit students, and students who opposed the CIA broke up the meeting. He told them that there are many student demonstrations on campus on issues from support to the Palestinian issue to opposition to higher student fees.

"Was there a demonstration against the war in Iraq?" he was asked. "Yes," he replied, "many students don't agree with what the government is doing." He commented that there are a large number of Muslim students on the campus, "And I am proud to say that after 9/11 there were very few attacks on Muslim students. The students felt safe."

One visitor asked, "If a student expresses his or her political view, will he or she be prosecuted?" No, Berky reply, "they don't keep lists of names of students [who make protests] to protect their individual identity."

Jonathan Friedlander told the visitors about a new project submitted to the State Department to bring 20 high school students to UCLA for 5 weeks from the Arab world. "If we get the grant," he said, "two will come from Tunisia."

The Tunisian visitors' program was sponsored by the State Department and coordinated by the Mississippi Consortium for International Development. It was administered locally by the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles. Their itinerary at UCLA was arranged by the International Institute's International Visitors Bureau.

UCLA International Institute