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Tunisia Faces Transition as Leader Ages

November 22, 1985|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

TUNIS, Tunisia — For nearly 30 years under Habib Bourguiba, Tunisians have prided themselves on their stability and prosperity. But the future of both seems increasingly in doubt as Tunisia's president-for-life nears the end of his term.

Officially 81 but believed to be closer to 85, Bourguiba has been at the helm of his tiny country since independence from France in 1956. He has steered Tunisia on a stable, pro-Western course, creating a relatively strong economy despite a paucity of resources and a progressive social system with the highest literacy rate in North Africa.

But Bourguiba's health is failing. His speech is slurred and his grasp of day-to-day affairs is slipping. Political rivalries that were held in check by the force of his charismatic leadership are emerging into the open.

Islamic fundamentalism is beginning to exert a powerful pull on the young, who have grown frustrated with a system that has educated them to expect more than it can deliver. About 25% of the work force is unemployed.

Also, young people who were raised with an awareness of the Arab-Israeli conflict are beginning to question the values of an older generation whose political biases were forged in the struggle for independence.

Caught between a traditional affinity for the West and its place within the Arab world, Tunisia is facing an identity crisis as it tries to anticipate the post-Bourguiba era. The strains are evident as the economic, political and social problems mount, prompting the government to turn to increasingly repressive solutions.

For years, Tunisia could boast of having the most independent and successful labor movement in the Arab world. But unemployment, double-digit inflation and disputes over wage demands have triggered a government crackdown.

Earlier this month, the authorities placed Habib Achour, leader of the country's largest labor federation, under house arrest after accusing him of instigating "social agitation and violence." This action followed clashes between workers and the police in which, according to union sources, three demonstrators were killed.

Labor leaders charge--and many Western diplomats agree with them--that Premier Mohammed Mzali is trying to consolidate his position as Bourguiba's chosen successor by muzzling Achour's Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). The consensus is that he is succeeding, but some analysts warn that the success could backfire.

In the absence of a democratic system, the politically active labor federation has served as a "useful and important channel for venting discontent," according to a Western diplomat.

"If the government goes too far in bullying the unions," this diplomat warned, "it will cause problems because without the unions, the malcontents will express themselves on the streets."

That has happened twice in the last two years, once in 1984, when bread riots shook Tunis, and just last month, when bands of youths took to the streets to denounce the United States and Bourguiba's pro-American policies after the Israeli raid on the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization here.

The first incident was widely viewed as having seriously undermined Mzali's position, which was not good to begin with. Seeking to ease the burden of costly price supports, Mzali eliminated the subsidy for bread, effectively doubling the price overnight.

Two days later, after bloody rioting that was quelled only when the government called out tanks and troops, Bourguiba personally rescinded the price increase, saying that he had not been consulted. The result was that Bourguiba received the credit for lowering prices while Mzali was left with the blame for raising them.

The premier has since managed to reconsolidate his position, filling key government posts with his loyalists and using a recent crisis with Libya to further isolate his chief rival, the labor federation's Achour.

Mzali seized on the union's failure to quickly denounce Libya's expulsion of 30,000 Tunisian workers as an excuse to accuse Achour of treason and justify a series of other moves against him, culminating in his being placed under house arrest Nov. 8.

But while diplomats agree that Mzali managed the Libyan crisis to his advantage, they say his major drawback continues to be a weak power base. Regarded as competent but far from charismatic, Mzali is said to lack popular support.

"His main problem is that he's boring," a Western diplomat said. "People fall asleep during his speeches."

Few doubt that Mzali will succeed Bourguiba as planned, but for how long is another question. If Mzali cannot control Tunisia after Bourguiba dies, there are others said to be eager to try--among them Mohammed Sayeh, former head of the ruling Destourian Socialist Party and now minister of housing, Foreign Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, and Ahmed Mestiri, head of the opposition Social Democrats.

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