Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a secular Tunisian lawyer, was in Washington last week, declaring his candidacy for Tunisia's Oct. 24 presidential elections. Chebbi said that his country did not have a true democratic system and that a complicated electoral system blocked challengers to President Zine Abdine Ben Ali.

"We are in a president-for-life situation," Chebbi said. He noted that a constitutional amendment passed by referendum on May 26, 2002, removed presidential term limits, allowing Ben Ali to remain in office.

Ben Ali was appointed prime minister in October 1987, and took over as president of the North African country one month later when Habib Bourguiba was ousted after more than 30 years in office. Ben Ali was elected to a full five-year term in April 1989, pledging that presidential terms would be limited. He was reelected in 1994 and in 1999, after which he would have been blocked from running again.

Chebbi said the electoral system was designed "to help reproduce a monolithic totalitarian system." He charged that independent candidates outside the ruling Democratic Constitutional Assembly, previously known as the Neo-Destour Party, are screened out of the process, despite the legalization of some political parties during Ben Ali's rule.

Tunisia is divided into 23 provinces, each headed by a governor appointed by the president. Appointed government councils and elected municipal councils assist the governors. In 1994, two potential candidates were stricken from the ballot for failing to secure the required endorsement of 30 legislators or municipal council heads.

"I have come here to tell policymakers that all debate on reform strategies has to move from the platform of speeches to practical implementation, whether in Tunisia, Venezuela, Lebanon or Mozambique," Chebbi said.

"Tunisian citizens would like to see the international community sensitized to their rights to participate and exercise a choice. Political reform is the only way to get around the present form of exclusion."

When asked about the fear of extremist Islamic forces taking over, Chebbi said most fundamentalist activists were in jail or in exile, or had been marginalized and kept out of administrative and academic positions.

"Fundamentalists are used as an alibi for dictatorship," he said. Of 15,000 people taken prisoner following street demonstrations in 1989, about 600 remain in jail, several thousand have been exiled and about 11,000 have not been able to find employment, Chebbi added.

Failure to open up the political system, Chebbi said in an interview here last week, "is a serious problem," and may lead to "more fundamentalism and more violence. We are not asking the U.S. government to interfere in our domestic affairs, but the notion that Arab and Muslim populations must be integrated into the decision-making process cannot remain a simple slogan."

Chebbi also referred to reports by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union projecting that economic growth in Tunisia will not be possible until the political system is reformed and an independent judicial system is secured.

One IMF study he referred to, released last July, said the climate in Tunisia was not favorable to outside investment. Chebbi said his country would not be able to absorb a 15 percent unemployment rate, which would result if private and public investments did not increase.

In December, when China will get a break on free trade as quotas on textiles and apparel expire, Tunisia stands to lose 100,000 jobs, half of them in the industrial sector. "The Chinese are qualified and, with low prices, are unbeatable," Chebbi said.

New Envoys in Town

Seven new ambassadors presented their credentials to President Bush on Sept. 15. They are: Neven Jurica of Croatia, Vinci N. Clodumar of Nauru, Fritz K. Poku of Ghana, Ranendra Sen of India, Carlos Westendorp y Cabeza of Spain, Kedar Bhakta Shrestha of Nepal and Samuel Zbogar of Slovenia. The choice of Iraq's new ambassador to Washington has not been made in Baghdad, but the list has been narrowed to three names, officials said.