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Gaining Confidence of Opposition Once Silenced by Bourguiba : Tunis Leader Winning High Marks for Reforms

October 15, 1988|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

TUNIS, Tunisia — It may not look like much compared to a set from "L.A. Law," but Noureddine Bhiri's new law office is nonetheless a remarkable sign of the dramatic change that has come over Tunisia in the 11 months since former President Habib Bourguiba was pried from power.

As recently as last January, the young lawyer for Tunisia's illegal Islamic Tendency Movement was receiving visitors in a small, ramshackle room inconspicuously tucked away in one of the dark and anonymous recesses of the Casbah, the old quarter of Tunis. Released only a few months earlier from prison, he still had the hollow and haunted look of a man on the run.

Nowadays, however, Bhiri looks like the better half of a before-and-after picture of himself. Seated in his comfortable new office on the Rue Charles De Gaulle, he speaks openly and confidently now of the "liberation of Tunisia's future" that the Islamicists, along with other opposition groups, feel they have an opportunity to take part in for the first time.

Thanks to the liberalizing reforms introduced by President Zine Abidine ben Ali, Bourguiba's successor, Tunisia's Islamic fundamentalists have not only come out of hiding but have moved uptown.

"We are proud to see Tunisia turning to democracy at this moment," Bhiri says, adding that, "we believe the president is sincere about reform and about the right of all political parties to participate in the liberation of Tunisia's future."

The Islamicists, who believe in the power of faith, clearly are investing a lot of it in Ben Ali, a former army general and interior minister who adroitly engineered the bloodless coup that ousted Bourguiba only one month after the latter appointed Ben Ali to be his prime minister and constitutional successor.

This might seem surprising, at first glance, since it was Ben Ali who, as interior minister, supervised the crackdown that sent Bhiri and several thousand other fundamentalists to jail last year in the waning months of Bourguiba's 31-year reign.

But since assuming the presidency Nov. 7, Ben Ali has stayed a step ahead of those who might otherwise be his critics by demonstrating a clear if sometimes cautious commitment to democratic reform.

One of his first acts as president was to empty the jails of most of the political prisoners that he had arrested on Bourguiba's orders. He relaxed press censorship, abolished the infamous State Security Court and promulgated a new constitution eliminating the president's right to hold office for life.

He has appointed opposition figures both to official and advisory posts and has so far legalized four new political parties. The Islamic Tendency Movement, known by its French initials MTI, is not one of them. But its leader, Rachid Ghanouchi, was among those released from prison, and the party is expecting to reform itself and be legalized in the near future.

"Ben Ali has made all the right moves," a Western diplomat says. "It is still not a democracy in the American sense, but the climate has changed radically."

Indeed, so radical is the change that "most Tunisians now date everything to before Nov. 7 or after it, like before and after Christ," says Khemais Chamari, secretary general of the Tunisian Human Rights League.

Chamari, who himself did a hitch in jail under Bourguiba for "defaming public order," now serves on the Economic and Social Council, a 90-member panel appointed by Ben Ali to help advise on change.

Like other opposition leaders, he gives Ben Ali high marks for liberalizing Tunisia's political climate. But he also worries that the president may be moving too slowly, that his popularity may wane and the atmosphere of detente may dissipate before he can build the "national consensus" that Chamari says is crucial for the even harder economic reforms that lie ahead.

"We, the politicians, are absorbed in our politics," Chamari said. "But what concerns the people are rising prices, the continuing freeze on salaries and unemployment. Contrary to what many observers are now saying, time is not in favor of democracy here. The economic crisis can still jeopardize it."

Economists note that there has been no weakening of Tunisia's resolve to deal with its economic problems since Ben Ali took over. Burdensome price supports are being phased out while state industries are gradually being turned over to the private sector, which is still rebuilding itself following a disastrous experiment with socialism in the 1960s.

Growing Dissatisfaction

But inflation and unemployment are running neck and neck at almost 20%, there is growing dissatisfaction with a wage freeze in effect since 1983 and agriculture has been hard hit this year by drought and locusts. Perhaps worst of all, there is a demographic time bomb ticking in Tunisia--nearly 65% of its population of 7.5 million is under the age of 25.

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