Whither Tunisia?

EARLY signs following last week's well-planned, peaceful coup in Tunisia are positive. The North African nation is expected to remain friendly to the West and usher in needed democratic reforms. Most foreign governments are cautiously optimistic; Tunisians are accepting the change quietly. A shift at the top had to come. Habib Bourguiba had declared himself president-for-life in 1975 and had been at the helm since Tunisia's 1956 independence from France. Though ailing, he was making no noises about retiring and had done little to groom a successor. He and four of his ministers are now under house arrest but are being treated with respect.

The charismatic Mr. Bourguiba, trained in the West, had stressed education, equal rights for women, and economic reform, making his nation a model for much of the developing world. But in recent years Tunisia's economic troubles had increased, and Bourguiba had grown intolerant of almost any opposition, Islamic or secular. He replaced key aides arbitrarily and often. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the constitutionally designated successor in the event of the president's incapacity, had been prime minister only since Oct. 2.

As Tunisia's new President, Mr. Ben Ali, who is expected to turn the country more toward its Arab roots, has promised to allow considerably more political and press freedom. He plans, too, to revise the Constitution to bar the automatic succession of any future president. The new prime minister, Heddi Baccouche, says private enterprise will be encouraged and a more liberal trade policy embraced.

How the new government treats Islamic fundamentalists may determine how well it succeeds in general. Ben Ali, a former Army general and security specialist, led the crackdown as interior minister over the last six months against the outlawed but relatively moderate Islamic Tendency Movement which seeks recognition as a political party. More than 1,200 members were arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the government. Though fewer were convicted, and with less harsh sentences than expected, Bourguiba had reportedly pressed for widespread executions and was urging a retrial and expanded crackdown just before he was deposed.

The former President's style in dealing with Islamic fundamentalists was authoritarian; he sharply limited areas where prayers could be said and traditional dress worn. Rather than quashing fundamentalism, such curbs on basic human rights have helped spur its growth.

Tunisia's new foreign minister has vowed that the crackdown will continue. In running the country until new elections are held, Ben Ali would do well to develop a more tolerant attitude than his predecessor toward the political demands of all groups. Mr. Baccouche's invitation to the Islamic Tendency Movement to join in the peaceful political debate is a step in the right direction. Resolving Tunisia's outstanding economic problems could also do much to diminish the appeal of radical fundamentalism.

For the moment, Ben Ali has made a good start; we wish him well.

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