TORN between volatile public opinion at home and mounting pressures on the international front, Tunisia has tried to hold to a neutral stance in the Gulf crisis. But the increasing division among Arab countries may make Tunisia's tightrope walk impossible. Tunisia felt the sting of the division this week as Egypt called for the immediate transfer of the Arab League headquarters from Tunis to Cairo. Tunis interprets Egypt's proposal as punishment for its refusal to participate in the League summit that Cairo hastily called for Aug. 10.
If this country on the sidelines of the conflict is forced to choose a side, it will provide one more example of how profoundly Iraq's occupation of Kuwait is shaking the Arab community.
Until now, the government of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has labored to treat the conflict as a crisis between two brothers that can only be resolved peaceably within the Arab family. The government called for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait but adamantly opposed the intervention by United States and Western military forces, insisting it only complicated an already explosive situation.
But with an anti-Iraqi majority solidifying within the League of Arab States, and the number of separate Arab diplomatic initiatives multiplying, scant hopes for a much-touted ``Arab solution'' are diminishing further.
``What possible Arab solution?'' asks Omar s'Habou, founder and director of the Maghreb, a news-commentary magazine. ``The Arab countries are too deeply divided to produce any kind of solution.''
Arab League Secretary-General Chedli Klibi, a Tunisian, resigned Monday because of criticism over the way he had handled the Gulf crisis, Arab diplomatic sources in Tunis told Reuters.
The League's 21 members, including Tunisia, had already voted to return the headquarters to Cairo, but not until September 1991. Egypt's demand for an immediate return may relate not only to Tunisia's failure to attend the Cairo summit, but also to Mr. Ben Ali himself and a speech he gave the day after the summit to explain his decision.
The speech contained a restatement of Tunisia's support for ``international legality'' and its call for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait. But Ben Ali reserved his punch for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. His speech referred liberally to the ``bitter reality'' of ``foreign forces on Arab soil'' - a situation that Ben Ali made clear he considers Egypt's doing.
Cairo will need participation from two-thirds (14) of the League's 21 member-countries at a meeting it has called for Sept. 10 for the vote on the League's move to take place.
But already people in Tunis are talking about a shattered League. ``The League in two'' proclaims the headline on the front-page editorial of this week's popular paper Tunis Weekly. Below the headline, the question is asked, ``Are we going toward two Arab Leagues, one in Cairo, led by the Egyptians and supported financially by the Gulf countries, the other in Tunis, grouping Iraq and its Arab allies?''
The government here does not want to be forced into any camp. But the margins for ``neutrality'' are falling; its latest hope - Monday's foreign ministers' meeting of the five Arab Maghreb Union members - apparently made little headway toward an Arab common ground.
Government officials say they have no doubt now that a military conflict would end in a ``US victory.'' But they insist it would come at the price - for the West and moderate Arab governments like their own - of turning Iraqi President Saddam Hussein into a martyr for the Arab masses.
And despite public indications to the contrary, the government says it would take a firmer position against Iraq if diplomatic alternatives continue to fail.
``Give us [Arabs] more chance to work in favor of peace,'' says Havib Ben Yahia, secretary of state for foreign affairs. ``If that fails, Tunisia will be even more committed to the side of international legality, and our public opinion would understand it.''
Tunisia has important financial dealings with Kuwait, including investments in public infrastructure and private tourism developments.
But officials say it is ultimately Tunisia's desire to see ``consistency'' in the application of international laws that would dictate any eventual harsher stance against Iraq. They point out US ``inconsistency'' in systematically applying its UN Security Council veto to votes on Israel's West Bank occupation. ``Until the US government can approach the Palestinian issue more even-handedly,'' says a government official, it will remain suspect among the Arab people.''