TUNIS, Tunisia (UPI) — Sipping a cappuccino in a Parisian-style cafe in the capital here is a good place to contemplate the conundrum that is modern Tunisia. The capital of this Muslim nation of 10 million, tucked between Algeria and Libya, is one of the most Westernized and secular corners of the Arab world. Its wide boulevards are lined with manicured trees and crisscrossed by sleek trams. Unlike most other Arab countries where nearly all women wear headscarves, in Tunis women walk by in tight jeans and sparkling earrings, their hair cascading down their backs.

But lest you think you have accidentally landed on the other side of the Mediterranean, observe what happens when the government — particularly President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, comes up in conversation.

Do we have to whisper ?’ I asked my Tunisian friend, who was speaking about a recent case involving a political dissident. We were in a trendy bar, drinking beers. ’It`s just habit,’ he said, his lips barely moving. ’No need for everyone to hear what we are going to say.

Tunisia may project a sense of liberalism, but it remains closed politically. Ben Ali, who has run the country since 1987, places strict limits on the nation`s media and political opposition. Phones are tapped and many Internet sites — including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International — are blocked. E-mails that mention the president`s name are unlikely to go through. Liberal democracy activists are regularly harassed and intimidated. Islamist opposition politicians are jailed or exiled.

It is theater,’ said Kadija Cherif, who heads a feminist organization called the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats, explaining the tension between the appearance and reality of Tunisia. ’The regime wants to show to the world there is democracy, that there is civil society, but at the same time, they do the opposite. They want to control all the people, all the organizations.

Three years ago, Cherif was battered by police. Sometimes when she travels, she finds her passport is not valid. The police cut her phone line regularly and listen to her calls. Her Internet connection has been shut off since November. Her crime ? Along with some 100 other female activists, she calls for equal rights for women and small steps toward democracy, particularly freedom of speech and association.

Whether you are moderate or radical, the government cannot accept your activity and the response is the same. All activists are treated this way for the past 10 years. The government confiscates their cars, fires them from their jobs, goes after their husbands, or wives, or even their children,’ she said.

Tunisia has a strong relationship with the United States and France, its former colonial ruler. Tourists flood into the country, with about 5 million visiting per year. The economy has been relatively well managed. It is outpacing its neighbors, growing at some 5 percent annually.

The regime is stable because it has three pillars of support, said Hamadi Redissi, a professor of political science at the University of Tunis. Women, who benefit from the most liberal laws toward women in the Arab world ; labor unions, which back the government`s French-socialist style policies and constantly rising minimum wage ; and business owners, who rely on the regime to give them the advantages they need to function.

Redissi argues that the police in Tunisia enforce but are not at the foundation of Tunisia`s political bargain. Indeed, the security presence is subtle here, mostly consisting of lurking plain-clothes intelligence officers and traffic police on BMW motorcycles. Yet activists know what will happen to those who step out of line.

In the Parisian-style cafes, politics does not, in fact, come up very often, activists say. Most Tunisians look to their neighbors for examples of how much worse things can be : to Libya, an isolated police state, and Algeria, whose war against its own radical Islamic political forces lasted a decade and took 200,000 lives.

As in other parts of the Arab world, the Tunisian regime has made the choice for its citizens a stark one : either side with us, or open the way to Islamist politicians who will usher in socially repressive systems and perhaps pursue their aims with violence. Opposition figures like Cherif, who seek to undermine the government`s claims to secular legitimacy, must be shut down, because they represent a third way which the government does not want to discuss.

But can the regime legislate in favor of modernity and secularism without also allowing in the ideas of liberalism ? Nearly all Tunisians speak French, and in the cities, the rhetoric of the small group of democracy activists — likely less than 1,000 people — is informed by extensive reading of Western political thought and mellifluent ideals of the French revolution : liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Even in the small, largely Berber town of Tozeur in the country`s south, liberal ideas, conveyed in French, are penetrating. Along a curved street there, a Berber storekeeper with blackened teeth invited me into his shop, not to hawk souvenirs, or offer tea, but to show me his current reading : a dog-eared copy of Descartes, Plato`s Phedra in French, and an Arabic tome by Ibn Khaldun, Tunisia`s most famous philosopher, who blended anthropology, sociology, and history in the 14th century.

The case of Tunisia brings to mind the long-standing question of what people value more : stability or freedom. For now, most Tunisians appear to back the political bargain here, and for that reason, some thinkers see little movement toward reform on the horizon.

We spend time each evening with our friends, and drink our wine. There is nothing else to do,’ said Redissi, sighing, when asked how he lives as an intellectual under such conditions. ’Few are really interested in talking about democracy. In fact, there is very little to talk about.

Source : United Press International