Uncertainty of Tunisia's future leadership paralyzes government

As he left the hospital last week, Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba was carried triumphantly on the shoulders of his bodyguards. Waving to a cheering crowd, President Bourguiba returned home to convalesce.

Bourguiba's illness renewed the longstanding question of his political succession - an issue that has dangerously paralyzed the government here in the face of sharpening challenges to Tunisia's stability.

Bourguiba no longer controls his country as decisively as he once did after leading it to independence from France in 1956. Analysts from various viewpoints , who asked that their names not be used, agree that Bourguiba vacillates under pressure from several clans in his entourage that are battling to succeed him.

Constitutionally, it is the prime minister who will replace Bourguiba as president. But the current prime minister, Mohammed M'zali, is opposed by factions aligned with Bourguiba's powerful wife, Wassila, and the right wing of the ruling Destourian Socialist Party.

Most analysts assume that the constitutional mechanism will be followed, but that, as president, Mr. M'zali might be stymied in the face of his opposition. For diplomatic as well as Tunisian observers, this scenario would raise the question of possible military intervention - something thought impossible while Bourguiba is alive.

Empty grocers' shelves in Tunis testified to the tension caused by Bourguiba's heart troubles, as people hoarded staple foods against the uncertainty that would have followed his passing.

Diplomats, Tunisian intellectuals and some government officials agreed, in interviews, that the ill-concealed war for the succession is keeping the government from effectively addressing the nation's problems.

''Now that he is ill, Bourguiba will be more dependent on those around him,'' a Tunisian journalist said.

''He cannot make decisions alone. He simply takes the advice of the last person he spoke to.''

Both the ruling party and M'zali have lost a substantial amount of popular approval. Indeed, diplomats here wonder how they will rally enough support to govern after the death of Bourguiba, who, as the father of his nation, remains the most important prop of the government.

The fragility of Tunisia's pro-Western regime has brought expression of concern from the United States, which gives the nation substantial military aid. Tunis plays a significant role among moderate Arab governments in their continual face-off with militant regimes, notably by serving as headquarters for both the Arab League and Yasser Arafat's moderate wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In North Africa, Tunisia does its best to maintain good relations with larger and more bellicose neighbors - Libya, Algeria, and Morocco. Last August's Moroccan-Libyan confederation treaty underlined a regional polarization in which Tunisian officials regard Libya as a threat. Despite bilateral cooperation in certain areas, periodic quarrels and border incidents have kept tension high between Tunisia and Libya, ever since Libyan-backed exiles tried to start a revolt in southern Tunisia in 1980.

The most pressing menace to Tunisia's stability, however, is its economic stagnation, which has given rise to a growth in Islamic fundamentalism. Unemployment is estimated by Western economists at 25 to 30 percent, and is especially high in the impoverished south and west, which have suffered from government favoritism for development projects in the coastal regions.

Tunisia's youth are relatively well-educated and have easy access to European media, including television and radio broadcasts. Exposed to the material wealth of European societies, Tunisia's young people are ambitious and discouraged.

The frustrations of students and youthful unemployed helped fuel nationwide rioting last January, after the government cut bread subsidies, allowing bread prices to double overnight. The Army had to put tanks in the streets to quell the uprising - the third time in six years that the military has had to come out of its barracks.

Tunisia faces further difficulties, with new price increases scheduled for next year, under an urgent government plan to reduce its subsidy expenses.

During the coming three or four years, European protectionism and the expansion of the European Community will tighten Tunisia's major outlet for both exports and excess labor. Also, during the same period, Tunisia will become a net importer of oil as its own limited production dwindles.

Since the January riots, interviews with Tunisians throughout the country have supported the conclusions of opposition leaders and diplomats that both the ruling party and Prime Minister M'zali have lost popular support and credibility. All signs of discontent, such as a rash of strikes and student activism, have been played down or ignored by the government and party press - but there is no real evidence that the party or M'zali are regaining lost ground.

M'zali has in the past gathered support by pressing for the liberalization of Tunisian politics and press controls - both policies encouraged by Western diplomats here. And a pro-M'zali government official said last week that Mzali could ''retake the helm'' of public opinion by emphasizing liberalization and fighting corruption.

But Ismail Boulahia, a leader in the moderate opposition Movement of Socialist Democrats and himself a former government official within the ruling party, insists that M'zali faces a losing battle with the right wing of the ruling Socialist Destourians.

''Within his own party, he faces people who have become very wealthy and powerful because of their grip on state authority,'' Mr. Boulahia says. ''They will not permit a real democratization in Tunisia, and M'zali cannot defeat them while he is in the position of having to please Bourguiba.''

The pro-M'zali official agrees that M'zali, who remains a ''dauphin'' at the pleasure of Bourguiba, can no longer take initiatives.

''But,'' he says, ''neither could (former Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat show the strength of his personality while serving under Nasser.''

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