US pleased with Tunisia's early changes. But officials see need for tough political and economic reforms

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

United States officials and specialists are cautiously optimistic about last weekend's constitutional coup in Tunisia. Newly declared President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali is pro-Western and an effective manager, officials and private experts say. Heddi Baccouche, his prime minister, is seen here as ``very capable.''

US officials are hopeful that the new team will more creatively face the challenges confronting Tunisia. They are pleased at the initial signs that the new government sees the necessity of political liberalization. Tunisia will amend its Constitution to abolish the life presidency and press controls, the prime minister said at his first news conference, according to the Associated Press. The nation will remain friendly with the West, and encourage private enterprise and ``a progressive liberalization of trade,'' Mr. Baccouche said Tuesday.

US specialists say the government must build political legitimacy. Simultaneously, it must continue to revive Tunisia's economy, with difficult reforms. If the government cannot make progress in these areas during its honeymoon, Tunisia may witness continued growth of Islamic radicalism and political tensions that have unsettled the usually calm nation in the last year, they warn.

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Tunisia's economy has not been able to keep up with population growth and with expectations for the 1980s, a senior US diplomat with long experience in Tunisia says. There are 65,000 new job seekers for 40,000 jobs each year. Simultaneously, the political system remains clogged for new ideas and free popular expression, he says. Deposed President for Life Habib Bourguiba educated young people but then did not give them opportunities, while at the same time restricting the legal opposition, says a Tunisian official reached by telephone. He termed the resulting situation ``explosive.''

Mr. Bourguiba, who ruled Tunisia from its independence in 1956, remained rooted in his European training, while Tunisia's youth (60 percent of the country's population is under 20 years of age) felt increasing attraction to their Arab and Islamic heritage, the US diplomat adds.

The ruling Destourian Socialist Party, he says, is not providing attractive options for disgruntled Tunisians, but the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI) has. ``The Western political model is alive but not well,'' he says.

The Islamic Tendency Movement encompasses a wide range of political opinions, but is generally moderate, says Susan Waltz, a professor of international relations at Florida International University. It sprouted, she says, out of the ``political vacuum'' created as Bourguiba over the years continually closed other channels for political participation. Most MTI leaders seek to participate freely in the political process and seem oriented toward political reform rather than revolution, she says.

The MTI has welcomed Bourguiba's removal and has asked to be legalized. US officials say the new government will be more oriented toward the Arab world and culture than was Bourguiba. As interior minister earlier this year, Mr. Ben Ali led the move against the MTI and Islamic radicals. Baccouche told the press conference the MTI was free to join in a peaceful political debate, though he had earlier said it must change its name.

Although most observers believe radicals are a small percentage of the Islamic movement, there have been bombings and violent attacks on officials. There is also solid evidence of Iranian support for some radicals, US and Tunisian officials say.

These links to Iran led Bourguiba to order a massive crackdown on the MTI. Large trials took place this past summer. Two people were executed this fall, and many others are still in detention. An MTI leader, condemned to death in absentia for nonviolent crimes, was arrested Oct. 14 and could be executed, Professor Waltz says.

These actions generated international criticism and concerns that the radicals would be strengthened by martyrdom. A spokesman for the London-based human rights group Amnesty International says that the trials were irregular and that Tunisia's human rights record had seriously deteriorated over the past year, with increasing reports of torture and beatings. All opponents of the regime - trade unions, students, and fundamentalists - have been targeted in one way or another, he says.

A religiously motivated movement, like the MTI, is relatively incorruptible and very hard to repress, according to a former senior US official with long experience in North Africa. Though he thinks Tunisians are ``too sensible'' to have a civil war, he is concerned that poor handling of the MTI could generate enough instability to lead to a military intervention. Other officials say Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi could meddle in Tunisia, as he has in the past.

Indeed, US specialists say these worries were on Ben Ali's mind when he removed Bourguiba. Though he led the crackdown, US officials say Ben Ali argued strenuously against creating martyrs by too many executions. Reports from Tunis, confirmed over the telephone by a Tunisian official, say that Bourguiba's plans for retrials and executions of MTI officials, including its leader, sparked Ben Ali to assume the presidency.

Tunisia specialists in and out of the US government hope the new government will move to allow legal opposition including room for Islamic moderates. Waltz, for example, says the government should establish its credentials by overturning many of the verdicts against MTI leaders and freeing detainees. In his press conference, Baccouche said political prisoners will be reviewed on a ``case by case'' basis.

A US diplomat adds that political liberalization could strengthen the ruling party, because of a resultant competition of ideas, and help it become an alternative to the MTI for younger Tunisians. These specialists, however, were unwilling to predict how far the new government is willing to go.

The removal of Bourguiba was extremely well planned and coordinated, US officials say. This apparently reflects a wide consensus among Tunisia's leaders that the time for action had come - President Bourguiba was just no longer mentally fit to rule, they say.

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