Rarely has the Supreme Combatant appeared so active. After a succession of ailments, 76-year-old Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba seems to have taken a new lease on life. But the daily jogging sessions, the juggling of political appointments, the comings and goings at the seaside presidential palace amid the ruins of ancient Carthage are regarded as futile gestures by the more cynical of his 6.2 million subjects. While criticism tends to be muted of the insomniac warrior who has led this North African nation for 24 years since independence from the French, exasperation is common. Al-
though Tunisia is comparatively prosperous, its problems have abruptly come into focus due to a leadership crisis and an attempted coup. “Bourguiba is out of touch with reality. He is shuffling his old cronies around but nothing can really change here until he goes,” commented a young Tunisian sitting at a café on the capital’s main thoroughfare, Habib Bourguiba Avenue.
After decades in power the only authorized party, the Destourian Socialist Party (DSP), has lost its dynamism. Outside its thickening arteries swirl numerous opposition groups. Thirteen extremist opponents of the government were recently hanged and two sentenced in absentia for their part in an
armed uprising in January. At least 48 people lost their lives in the attack on the phosphate mining town of Gafsa. The attempt, which failed abysmally when the local population offered little support, prompted France to dispatch aircraft and ships, while the United States speeded up deliveries of military equipment as another pro-Western state looked in danger of destabilization. It was a legitimate fear since the raid was organized and supplied by neighboring Libya, a country known for its aid to a multitude of liberation movements. One of the commando leaders executed, known as One-Eyed
Cherif, reportedly was told by Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Khadafy before the attack: “At Gafsa it is a question of life or death for the Arab nation.” And the Libya-based Free Gafsa Radio has been urging the Tunisians to revolt, while reporting nonexistent Tunis street clashes supposedly involving American marines. Khadafy has not concealed his hostility for the Bourguiba regime since a scheme for union of the two countries ended in 1974.
Bourguiba, jutting his heavy chin more pugnaciously than ever, has been using the Gafsa fiasco to whip up patriotic support. But by late winter he suffered another blow when his most obvious successor, Prime Minister Hedi Nouira, was suddenly rushed to a Paris hospital with a brain hemorrhage.
Though said to be recovering, Nouira, aged 69, was recently replaced as prime minister by his stand-in, Education Minister Mohamed Mzali. Flexible, hardworking 55-year-old Mzali keeps in trim with regular 1,000-yard runs. But cynics suggest his chief qualification for the PM’s seat may be that he was born in the same town as Bourguiba and Nouira. Some Tunisians had nurtured the hope that Nouira might eventually move the country toward a multiple-party system, but there are doubts that Mzali has the stature to make significant changes.
From many standpoints Bourguiba’s rule has been a success. The country has enjoyed high economic growth—a per capita annual income of $1,000 is respectable by African standards, threequarters of the population can read and write, light industry and tourism have been developed. A population growth of 2.5 per cent annually is much lower than in neighboring Algeria and Libya, due to emphasis on family planning. Astonishingly for a Moslem country, Tunisia has legalized abortion and contraceptives are freely available—the pill costs 12 cents each.
Canada has played an important part in Tunisian development, committing $140 million in aid over a 16-year period and assisting in such fields as health, technology and agriculture. But the aid is tailing off just when the Tunisians say they really need it. Rising expectations, a flow of rural jobless to the cities and a growing gap between rich and poor are potent sources of discontent. The situation boiled over two years ago when the trade unions challenged the government by calling a general strike. When rioting broke out the army was called in, and between 50 and 150 people were killed. A number of the hundreds arrested on Black Thursday are still in jail and one union leader, Habib Achour, is still said to be under house arrest. With the unions tamed, wage increases have hardly kept pace with inflation. Allegations of torture in Tunisian prisons are frequent and complaints of inhuman conditions are common. Though an opposition press is permitted, the police are quick to crack down on extremists. Recently they invaded Tunis University where some factions called for support for the Gafsa rebels. Other youngsters look to the Khwanjia, a revivalist Islamic brotherhood with considerable sway. The DSP has no appeal for young idealists but recently, in an apparent bid to widen its support, eight expelled members who urge greater democratization were invited back into the party. One man not on that list was Ahmed Ben Salah, a Bourguiba minister until he was jailed in the early ’70s. He organizes his leftist Popular Unity Movement from exile.
But amid a fragmented opposition there is no obvious challenger in sight to Bourguiba,the Supreme Combatant, nor is there an obvious successor among his ministers. The Tunisians, renowned for their pragmatism, may want change but as one diplomat said: “They like to know where the bus is going before they get on.” Few climbed aboard the Gafsa bus, for Tunisians have no love for Khadafy. While the Arab League has been mediating between Libya and Tunisia over that incident which came close to plunging the countries into war, it is always possible that the revolutionary colonel with his dream of Arab unity may decide to back another rebel thrust. Libya has nearly twice as many soldiers as its neighbor and a mighty arsenal of modern arms. It also has within its boundaries thousands of Tunisian migrant workers from whom it can recruit and train commandos. One longtime political exile, Ibrahim Tobal, who claims broad support for his opposition movement, grimly told Maclean's: “The only answer to reactionary violence is revolutionary violence. Another Gafsa could happen tomorrow and the next day and the next
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