When a group of young Islamists attacked a branch office of Tunisia's ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party in February 1991, they didn't know their act would end up a turning point in the country's confrontation with Islamic militancy.

The young men bound and burned two building guards, killing one of them. That act horrified the public - and provided the government with a pretext for a tough crackdown on Islamists. Thousands of militants were arrested, and hundreds were tried on charges of terrorism.

What struck many observers at the time was the broad public support the tough approach appeared to enjoy. ``It was the shocking nature of the [RCD attack] that was the beginning of an evolution in people's thinking,'' says Rachid Driss, president of the government's High Commission for Human Rights and Freedom. ``Tunisians want a peaceful and stable life, they don't want to see their country going the way of Algeria or Egypt.''

Today, however, a below-the-surface discontent is beginning to rumble. Highly visible police keep close watch on universities that have been the scene of Islamist unrest in the past, as well as on neighborhoods once known for their militant sympathies.

A closely watched press practices self-censorship and a Soviet-style brand of regime-worship. As a result, international organizations including Amnesty International paint a critical picture of human rights in Tunisia. In its review of 1992, Amnesty cited numerous cases of torture, secret jailings, and detentions without trial, usually of suspected Islamists.

``People talk of disappearences at the hands of the police, sometimes citing numbers as high as 4,000,'' says one rights analyst who asked not to be named. ``Even if the numbers are exaggerated, the fears that talk encourages has an oppressive effect.''

Even some supporters of the crackdown say public officials need to keep the police within the law.

``The repressive apparatus is developing a sense of freedom of action that risks turning against the state one day,'' says one ``supportive critic'' of government policy. ``It would be a tragedy if what Tunisia has accomplished and the example it can provide were lost now.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.