The official poster of the special Congress of Tunisia's ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally was not subtle: A strong hand grasps the hand of the republic as the latter is about to sink beneath the waves. The poster proclaims the ``Congress of Salvation.'' The watch on the rescuing hand reads Nov. 7, the date last year when Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali replaced Habib Bourguiba as Tunisia's president.
The Congress of Salvation, which ended Sunday, was intended to crown nine months of change by putting Mr. Ben Ali's new, liberalizing stamp on the party. Under Mr. Bourguiba, the party, known as the Destourian Socialist Party, was a monolithic instrument of his rule.
By installing a new, younger party central committee and democratizing internal structures, Ben Ali said the party will once again be an instrument of change as it was when it led the fight for Tunisia's independence from France.
He emphasized that the future lies in pluralism, and the party will no longer monopolize power. For the first time, leaders of the three legal opposition parties were invited to address the congress.
But the congress made clear that Ben Ali sees the ruling party as the main force for carrying out change. The opposition had hoped that the President would resign as party leader, placing himself above it as the ``President of all Tunisians.'' But he did not.
And, Ben Ali dismissed opposition demands for new general elections this year to replace a National Assembly chosen in the repressive last years of Bourguiba's rule. He promised partial elections this year, but said general elections must wait until the end of the present session in 1989.
The opposition parties boycotted the last general elections, held in 1986, at which the ruling party took all 125 seats.
Ben Ali said he hopes to create a ``national pact,'' grouping all elements of Tunisian society - opposition parties, unions, Islamic fundamentalist - in a consensus to plot the country's future.
The Congress of Salvation capped a week of changes demonstrating what is seen here as Ben Ali's flare for dramatics. On July 25, the anniversary of the the republic, he promulgated the new constitutional amendments limiting the president's term of office, and released 167 prisoners, including most of the remaining members of the fundamentalist Islamic Tendency Movement.
Ben Ali also announced a major Cabinet reshuffle. Except for Prime Minister Hedi Baccouche, virtually every holdover from the Bourguiba Cabinet was swept out.
The new faces include a new foreign minister who, like Ben Ali, is a former general, and three figures who were once opponents of Bourguiba.
The new Public Health Minister, Saadeddine Zmerli, was the head of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, and a prominent critic of Bourguiba's imprisonment of political opponents.
Another symbolic figure is the new Youth and Sports Minister, Hammouda Ben Slama. He was a founder of the opposition movement of democratic socialists and only joined the ruling party after Ben Ali deposed Bourguiba. But he managed the constitutional amendments through the parliament and is clearly a rising star.
A third new face is Habib Boulares, a liberal journalist and playwright who was one of the few independent deputies in the parliament of 1981-86. He is the new minister of culture.
During the party congress Ben Ali sat at a table with the two other key figures of Tunisia's ruling triumvirate, Prime Minister Baccouche and Interior Minister Habib Ammar, the former national guard commander who helped Ben Ali stage the ``constitutional coup'' of Nov 7.