Chebbi is articulate, well-versed in international politics and thoroughly pragmatic. Indeed, he fits precisely the profile of the "Arab democrat" I've heard western political scientists pining after. Now standing in his party's modest headquarters – which Chebbi says the government tried to seize recently to leave them with no place to organise – he politely shrugs off that the US and European embassies only privately express their support for his party. Instead he gestures across the room and states, "if you want a picture of democracy in Tunisia, this is it."
Since independence in 1956, Tunisia has been ruled by one party and two presidents – Habib Bourguiba and, since 1987, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Though political rights have supposedly expanded in this time, Tunisians' ability to actually exercise them effectively has been eliminated.
Today, foreign or domestic journalists who publish material that is seen as critical of the government quickly find themselves unable to work in the country. Similarly, Tunisians who join unapproved movements of any political shading are liable to find themselves followed by police and quietly dismissed from their job, while their family is harassed and they are perhaps thrown into jail or, worse, tortured.
The government has accomplished pervasive control by constructing a fearsome security apparatus and an extensive system of patronage and bribes that is continually leveraged to maintain the support of those who might otherwise cause problems for the regime, such as judges and the country's economic elite.
The common view from outside is that Tunisia is stable. Because Ben Ali's government has provided economic growth and avoided the violence of neighbouring Algeria, most Tunisians supposedly have acquiesced to the exchange of political freedom for economic and personal security. This view also forms the basis of a rather meagre argument from Tunisia's allies as to why they are not more critical of the regime. Essentially, Tunisia is not creating any headaches for the west, and – in the post-9/11 international order – can be relied upon as a western-friendly Arab regime that will co-operate on security.
But that does not mean this surface-level "stability" runs very deep. Most Tunisians I spoke to expressed real apprehension about the future. Though Tunisia's GDP grew steadily between the late 1980s and the mid-2000s, growth has slowed in recent years and unemployment has risen sharply. Economists suggest the actual (unpublished) rate of unemployment is around 25%, and possibly as high as 40% in the critical 18-25 age group.
With ever-fewer outlets for discontented individuals to express their views, many fear the outcome could be a "national drama", in which the west would be seen as complicit for not pressuring the regime to limit itself.
It is not as if there are no democrats for the west to partner with in Tunisia. Widely respected individuals with a commitment to democracy do exist, and their support seems to be growing at the margins where the state has not yet learned how to effectively repress it. Chebbi, for instance, says public sympathy for the PDP has widened markedly since the mid-2000s when the party began using international satellite channels, Facebook and other new media sources to disseminate its messages.
The party's supporters also are becoming younger. During the September hunger strike, nearly 80% of the support calls received by PDP offices were from people in their late teens to early 30s, most of whom said they had heard about the protest on Facebook. The question, though, is whether Tunisia's western allies will continue to stand silent while such individuals are arrested outside their embassy doors.
Chebbi told me: "We are not asking international observers to act in our place. We are the actors, but we are asking for political courage from them, to issue statements, anything that shows a clear support for democracy ...
"I can understand that foreign states are not activists, they have to manage their political and economic interests ... But in the case of Tunisia, what are the risks? … We are not a big country, we do not have a radical culture of Islam. We are an educated people. I think the chances to have a modern democracy in a country like Tunisia are great."
Chebbi makes a strong point. Tunisia lacks the religious sectarianism of Iraq or Lebanon; it has a true middle class, there is no wide extremist religious current, and it has a largely positive attitude towards western institutions and culture. In social and economic terms, it is objectively one of the best cases for a democratic experiment in the Arab world.
However, I didn't have a satisfactory answer for Chebbi as to why his English-speaking friends in the US and European embassies could not be more forthcoming in supporting Tunisians' own democratic aims.
Nearly a decade after 9/11, the US and EU are still desperate to bring the Muslim world on side. Throughout this period, they have been courted by Arab autocrats who saw an opportunity to shore up support for their rule by promising to co-operate on security. Yet despite jumping into bed with these supposed friends, anti-western extremism has not demonstrably been lessened. Meanwhile, the Arab democrats eager to befriend us in places like Tunisia politely tell us they view our governments as hypocrites.
If we truly want to improve the brand image of the west in the Muslim world, we ought to consider seriously whether our engagement in such countries is genuinely supporting the best outcome for their populations. Supporting citizens' desire to pursue their own political aspirations – whatever those may be – by resolutely standing by political freedom would seem a basic start, and something I would argue is the only justifiable option in Tunisia.