The meeting scheduled in Washington today between President Reagan and Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Mzali occurs at a pivotal moment in the 25-year history of this Arab North African state.
Tunisia's strategic stock has gone up in the eyes of Western military planners. But officials here intimate that the United States will have to respond to the country's economic plight, if Tunisia is to maintain its diplomatic equilibrium abroad and its political equilibrium at home.
''We prefer a balance in the occident and the orient in the affairs of our country, but the occidental market must do more for us, and better understand our problem,'' Tunisian Foreign Minister Beji Caid Essebsi said in an interview here this week.
''There are no obstacles to further strengthening ties with the United States , but our real need is for Western business investment.''
However, just as the economic challenge seems greatest, US assistance will godown, from $40 million annually to $20 million. Said one American official: ''Tunisia has graduated in the eyes of Washington to the point where it is no longer in that category of third world countries eligible for concessional aid.'' This, at a time when US military sales to Tunisia are expected to jump to
A large part of the prime minister's efforts while in Washington will therefore be devoted to stirring US private sector interest in his country of 6. 4 million, sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean directly across from Italy.
As US aid declines, Tunisia is turning more and more toward Libya and the Arabian Gulf states for both financial assistance and markets for its excess manpower. ''We have problems with our relations with the European Economic Community, and it will be even harder for us to sell our products to the EEC following the entry of Spain and Greece,'' said Essebsi. He added that he was ''very satisfied'' with economic assistance from the Gulf countries.
Concerning Libya, the foreign minister said: ''The Gassa incident passed, and we hope to enter a new era of relations with our neighbor.'' (In January 1980, the southern mining town of Gassa was attacked by Libyan-backed insurgents, in an ill-fated attempt to spark a nationwide revolt.)
Tunisia needs capital investment to support its ''fixed''five year plan, and to pay for recent wage hikes conceded by the government of President Habib Bourguiba to the Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT).
The ''fixed'' plan would build factories in the economically depressed interior and raise the minimum wage to meet the challenge of high unemployment and politically volatile disparities in regional development.
''Government must find a solution to unemployment because many of those without jobs are young, educated and politically active. If it doesn't, there will be great social unrest,'' warned Tayeb Baccouche, Secretary General of the UGTT. Though the government officially concedes a 14 percent jobless rate, the real figure is closer to 25 percent, according to foreign economists.
Ahmed Mestiri, a former cabinet minister and secretary general of the oppositionist Movement of Social Democrats, said, ''The main danger for Tunisia is rising social tensions which outsiders would take advantage of.'' But Mestiri was unwilling to criticize the government's economic program. There is speculation here that a rapprochement has been achieved between him and Bourguiba.
While appearing to have reached a modus vivendi with the organized opposition , government has effected a compromise with the formerly strike-prone UGTT over wages and the contents of the new ''fixed'' plan.