The release of 21 Tunisian political prisoners at the end of July, on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Tunisian Republic, provoked satisfaction among local and international human rights groups. However, no one ventured to describe the conditional liberations as a sign of softening on the part of President Zein al-Abedin ben Ali’s police state.

The most prominent of these former political prisoners was Mohammad Abbou, a human rights lawyer whose arrest and three-and-a half-year prison sentence in 2005 spurred an international outcry and embarrassed even Western leaders on friendly terms with Tunisia’s autocratic ruler. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who like his predecessor Jacques Chirac never earned a reputation for caring much about human rights in former French colonies, nevertheless publicly said that he had raised Abbou’s case during talks in Tunis with Ben Ali in July.

Abbou’s main “crime” was to denounce attacks on freedom of expression and association unheard of even under the French protectorate, and to compare torture in Tunisia’s prisons to the conditions that existed in Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison under American command. Scores of Tunisian political prisoners have died under torture or from lack of medical attention in recent years. Abbou’s critical articles were posted on Tunisnews, one of the dozens of Web sites blocked in Tunisia.

The other political prisoners freed are members of the banned Islamist Al-Nahda movement. Most of them had spent nearly 15 years in prison following trials in military courts deemed unfair and politically motivated by international human rights groups and Western diplomats. Nearly 30 leading figures of Al-Nahda remain in prison, and those previously released on parole are regularly harassed by the police and denied the right to earn a living and to travel. Furthermore, hundreds of young people are currently held in prison under a 2003 anti-terrorism law, which turned out to be a license to impose more constraints on Tunisia’s already greatly curtailed freedoms of expression and association.

Despite the constantly alarming reports by local and international human rights groups and by Transparency International, which elevated Tunisia’s ranking on its list of corrupt countries from 32nd in 2000 to 51st in 2006, many maintain that the country remains one of the best qualified in the Middle East and North Africa to emerge as a democracy.

This optimistic view seems to be shared not only by many Tunisians of different backgrounds, but also by foreign observers familiar with Tunisia. A similar perception prevailed in the wake of independence in 1956, when President Habib Bourguiba launched a bold policy of social and economic reform that granted Tunisian women unequalled rights in a Muslim country and courageously combated poverty and illiteracy. But this perception soon vanished as Bourguiba and his ubiquitous Destourian Socialist Party tightened the screws on civil society, eventually creating the conditions for Ben Ali’s coup in 1987.

The re-emergence of the idea that it would be easier to democratize Tunisia than most other Arab countries is due to the fact that despite 20 years of unprecedented political repression and rising corruption, Tunisian society remains one of the best-educated and least crippled by social injustice and prejudice in the region. Ironically, countries with higher rates of illiteracy, poverty, corruption and social injustice, such as neighboring Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania or Egypt, today offer more room for freedom of expression and association than Tunisia.

Brave and highly educated female human rights defenders are regularly harassed and called prostitutes by Ben Ali’s police in the streets of Tunis, simply for being on the frontline in the peaceful struggle for democracy. There is resistance to continuous government attempts to silence the Tunisian League of Human Rights, the first of its kind in the Arab world, and to stifle mushrooming non-governmental organizations such as the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia, the Observatory of Press Freedom, Publishing and Creation, the Tunisian Association against Torture, and the International Association to Support Political Prisoners. This gives an idea about the strong feeling among Tunisians against injustice. Many of them pride themselves on the fact that their country enshrined limits on absolute power in the region’s first constitution in 1861. Tunisia abolished slavery in 1846 and was the first Arab country to see the emergence of an Amnesty International section in 1988.

There is no doubt that the policy of free education for all under Bourguiba contributed to the society’s growth and maturity. Unfortunately, the level of education has been rapidly deteriorating in the past two decades. Young Tunisians today are less educated than their parents and less inclined to serve their communities. This is due at least in part to pervasive nepotism and poor management of educational institutions.

Nearly 1,000 parents, for instance, recently protested a government attempt to close down a successful private school which was competing with a new private school allegedly affiliated with the country’s first lady, Leila Ben Ali, and Suha Arafat, the widow of the late Yasser Arafat. Ben Ali’s recent and unexpected decision to strip Suha Arafat of her Tunisian nationality might mean an end to the parents’ protest.

The policy of repression, compounded by confiscation of public property and murky privatization deals by Ben Ali’s relatives and cronies, has prompted many Tunisians to take steps publicly to help stop the degradation of what used to be a well-managed economy and educational system. “Tunisia needs us,” says Mahmoud bin Romdhane, an economist and former chair of Amnesty International Tunisia. His diagnosis of the Tunisian economy is alarming, but seems to reflect that there is still hope to push Tunisia forward on the road to democracy.

Thousands of competent professionals and committed human rights and political activists of different leanings are eager and able to help lead reform Tunisia. Tunisians and foreign observers who believe that the country is one of the best candidates to become democratic argue that it is the responsibility of Ben Ali’s friends in the European Union and the United States to advise him not to run for the presidency in 2009 and to start paving the way for a democratic transition.

But this would mean Western states will have to believe that Tunisians and Arabs in general deserve to live in democratic societies. The Westerners must also be able to address, and to accept, the sometimes dangerous consequences of compelling dictators like Ben Ali to take the healthy initiative of ceding power. Will they go through with it?