Washington — The North African nation of Tunisia has sent a strong message that it intends to be tough with those that it considers its opponents, United States analysts say. Tunisia's long-time President named his chief security minister heir apparent Friday. Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali, the new prime minister, retains his role as interior minister, in which he has directed a major and controversial crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists and other opposition forces over the last year.
President Habib Bourguiba, 84, who has anointed and dismissed several successors during his tenure, also took the unusual step of naming Mr. Ben Ali head of the ruling Socialist Destourian Party. Neither of the two previous prime ministers held that key post.
Meanwhile, last week's verdicts against 90 Islamic fundamentalists charged with subversive violence and fomenting revolution in Tunisia have US specialists concerned. The rise of fundamentalism complicates the inevitable succession of President Bourguiba, according to a former US diplomat with long experience in the region, and raises the ``real possibility of serious instability and violence.'' The US has ``important interests'' in a smooth transition and the continuation of a friendly regime in Tunisia, he says.
``Any basic change of regime [from secular to religious] would be seen as a defeat for the West and be important for the balance of forces in the region,'' he adds.
Though these specialists say Ben Ali is among those who believe the Tunisian regime needs to be tough with opponents to give the government breathing space for economic recovery, one expert says the interior minister was among those who argued that the government should not create martyrs of Islamic fundamentalists in the process of suppressing them.
Tunisia has long been a voice of moderation in the Arab world and is one of the most Westernized Muslim countries. Its 6.6 million people are relatively well educated and prosperous for a developing country. Tunisians are noted for their search for centrist solutions to major problems, specialists say. Tunisia also has a record of 31 years of stable rule by Bourguiba, US specialists agree.
Nevertheless, Tunisia's human rights record has ``seriously'' deteriorated over the past year, according to Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, as its government struggles to deal with a growing attraction to Islamic fundamentalism. Amnesty reports a significant increase in torture and beating allegations in the last six months.
The government has cut off many avenues of legitimate opposition, creating a vacuum that Islamic fundamentalists are beginning to fill, US officials and scholars argue. This could be a recipe for trouble, they say, and could invite unwanted intervention from Iran, which has supported some local Islamic extremists, or from neighboring Libya, which has a record of meddling in Tunisian affairs.
The problem is deeper than Islamic fundamentalism, says Susan Waltz, professor of international relations at Florida International University in Miami. It is epitomized by the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI), the leader of which was sentenced Sept. 27 in Tunis to life in prison.
Ms. Waltz, who specializes in the region, argues that the Tunisian government has basically rendered powerless other possible centers of opposition to the regime, such as secular parties and trade unions. This has fed the growth of Islamic fundamentalism as a channel for expressing opposition, she says, despite efforts to suppress it.
The Tunisian government has blamed MTI for clandestine violent opposition as well as many public protests. Since last winter, the Bourguiba regime has arrested more than 1,000 alleged fundamentalists. The trial, which concluded last week, sentenced seven to death, gave 56 others various prison terms, and acquitted 14.
A number of US specialists say the Tunisian government is making more of the MTI than it merits and could be pushing the movement to become more radical than it is. Although the Tunisian government was clearly trying to show that the MTI and radicals were all one group, Waltz doubts that was the case. By many standards, the MTI is fairly moderate in its statements, she says, and has consistently asked for the right to participate in an open democratic system.
US specialists are unsure of whether the MTI per se was behind recent bombings and other acts of violence in Tunisia, but agree an extremist Islamic fringe exists. A US official says the use of political violence for political ends is relatively new in Tunisia. US intelligence sources say there is strong evidence of some Iranian involvement.
The MTI has specifically ruled out the use of violence, Waltz says, and denied any responsibility for four tourist hotel bombings in August as well as other similar acts. The Islamic Jihad in Paris claimed the bombings, officials say. Similarly, US officials who follow the area say the Islamic movement is far from a monolith and includes democratic elements as well as some tied to Iran and willing to use violence.
The former US diplomat and Waltz say the Islamic problem comes back to the succession question: Bourguiba has long displayed a great ability to hang on to power and to outlive many of those who predicted his demise - and therein lies a problem. Bourguiba's ``unwillingness to let go of the reins of government until he dies almost amounts to contempt for his successors,'' because it will very much complicate their task, the diplomat explains.
US officials and other observers were pleased with the relatively moderate verdicts handed down for the 90 alleged MTI members. A senior French official who specializes in North Africa called this a ``very wise decision'' and added that by focusing on those who committed violence ``one does not create martyrs.'' A number of well-placed US and Tunisian sources said the verdict had been the subject of long debate inside the Tunisian government and that France, Algeria, and the US had privately urged moderation.
Official Tunisian sources reached by phone defended the government crackdown on the MTI as ``a preemptive measure to stop a movement prepared to overthrow the government.'' The fundamentalists and their Iranian supporters were banking on a ``weak and old president,'' but misread the situation, they said.
``When individuals or groups go beyond the limits of Tunisia's traditional tolerance and break the law, justice has to take its course,'' added a spokesman at the Tunisian Embassy here.
In Monday's Monitor, a story on Tunisia said that the new prime minister, Zine al-Abdine Ben, was named head of the ruling Socialist Destourian Party. In fact, the new director of the party is Mahjoub Ben-Ali. Initial wire reports confused the two men.