Could Tunisia become the Lebanon of North Africa? That's a question many obervers are asking as they watch tensions in the small country mount. Since independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has been regarded as one of the most stable and Western-oriented of the Arab nations. But ailing President Habib Bourguiba may not be able to continue to provide the kind of strong-fisted leadership that has characterized his government in the past.
Tunisia is in a state of cultural, social, economic, and political transition. In addition to social unrest generated by high unemployment in the ranks of youth and political rivalries among various countenders for Bourguiba's office, there are now pro-Libyan, pro-Algerian, pro-American, pro-Syrian, and pro-Iraqi groups active in the country.
``One false move by any of these groups and Tunisia could be blown apart and [become host to] bloody struggles similar to those which have ruined Lebanon,'' says a well-placed French source.
Further heightening tensions has been the recent behavior of the United States, which at first appeared to sanction the Oct. 1 Israeli bombing of the Palestine Liberation Organization's headquarters in Tunis. The bombing and the immediate aftermath has fed the causes of political factions within Tunisia who seek to tie their fortunes to foreign issues.
The national consensus upon which the Neo-Destour party, led by Bourguiba, built its strength is coming apart as a result of four distinct political situations analysts here say:
Prime minister Mohammed Mzali is Bourguiba's handpicked choice for successor. But he is being hotly contested by Ahmed Mestiri, who leads the MDS [Social Democrats] and by the MTI (the Islamic Tendency, a semi-clandestine pro-Islamic Party).
The south is at odds with the north. It claims to be grossly underrepresented in Bourguiba's administration and economically neglected by the government.
Moderates are met with growing opposition from progressives on the left and fundamentalists on the right.
The strong, traditional, pro-Western trend of the middle class is now challenged by passionately anti-Western fundamentalists.
Now even the French are beginning to fear that their country's traditional influence and interests in Tunisia may be threatened. Strategically, economically, and politically the Maghreb (North Africa) has impact on France's vital interests. The possible destabilization of that area worries Paris the same way radicalization of Central America troubles Washington.
``We are not opposed to the US providing Tunisia with all kinds of assistance. But a US high-profile policy in Tunisia, and clumsy moves -- such as the initial approval by the US of the Israeli raid followed by Undersecretary of State John Whitehead's trip to Tunisia aimed at repairing the badly shaken bilateral relations -- are certain to be counterproductive,'' says one Tunisian intellectual living in Paris.
``We need to help bring the Tunisians together rather than split them further. If Tunisia turns anti-US it will by the same token turn anti-French,'' he adds.
Fundamentalism has made strong inroads in Tunisia. A growing number of Tunisian women are wearing the chador.
Students -- many of them educated in the West -- have recently spoken out against ``corrupted values of the West'' and demanded that Tunisia identify with the Arab world and with Islam. Young military officers felt ``betrayed'' and voiced anger at the US in recent weeks.
According to one Tunisian official, Washington has played into the hands of the fundamentalists and given rise to anti-American feeling by ``. . . initially approving the Israel raid against the PLO headquarters, [and] by offering to provide Tunisia with arms to protect itself from Libya in exchange for naval and air facilities for US forces in Tunisia.''
The US presence in Tunisia, this official believes, will polarize the population and divide it, as he says it did in Egypt and, earlier, in Iran. ``The US contributes to aggravated tensions between Bourguiba and [Libya's] Lt. Col. Muammar Qaddafi. By dragging Tunisia into the East-West global rivalry [the US] may unwittingly be helping to break it apart,'' he adds.
. ``Slowly, Tunis is being dragged into the baroque world of Arab intrigue. Tunisian factions are being manipulated from Tehran, Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad, Algiers, and Tripoli. In the long run this can only spell disaster,'' a French diplomat says.