Gaining Confidence of Opposition Once Silenced by Bourguiba : Tunis Leader Winning High Marks for Reforms

Times Staff Writer

It may not look like much compared to a set from “L.A. Law,” but Noureddine Bhiri’s new law office is nonetheless a remarkable sign of the dramatic change that has come over Tunisia in the 11 months since former President Habib Bourguiba was pried from power.

As recently as last January, the young lawyer for Tunisia’s illegal Islamic Tendency Movement was receiving visitors in a small, ramshackle room inconspicuously tucked away in one of the dark and anonymous recesses of the Casbah, the old quarter of Tunis. Released only a few months earlier from prison, he still had the hollow and haunted look of a man on the run.

Nowadays, however, Bhiri looks like the better half of a before-and-after picture of himself. Seated in his comfortable new office on the Rue Charles De Gaulle, he speaks openly and confidently now of the “liberation of Tunisia’s future” that the Islamicists, along with other opposition groups, feel they have an opportunity to take part in for the first time.


Thanks to the liberalizing reforms introduced by President Zine Abidine ben Ali, Bourguiba’s successor, Tunisia’s Islamic fundamentalists have not only come out of hiding but have moved uptown.

“We are proud to see Tunisia turning to democracy at this moment,” Bhiri says, adding that, “we believe the president is sincere about reform and about the right of all political parties to participate in the liberation of Tunisia’s future.”

The Islamicists, who believe in the power of faith, clearly are investing a lot of it in Ben Ali, a former army general and interior minister who adroitly engineered the bloodless coup that ousted Bourguiba only one month after the latter appointed Ben Ali to be his prime minister and constitutional successor.

This might seem surprising, at first glance, since it was Ben Ali who, as interior minister, supervised the crackdown that sent Bhiri and several thousand other fundamentalists to jail last year in the waning months of Bourguiba’s 31-year reign.

But since assuming the presidency Nov. 7, Ben Ali has stayed a step ahead of those who might otherwise be his critics by demonstrating a clear if sometimes cautious commitment to democratic reform.

One of his first acts as president was to empty the jails of most of the political prisoners that he had arrested on Bourguiba’s orders. He relaxed press censorship, abolished the infamous State Security Court and promulgated a new constitution eliminating the president’s right to hold office for life.

He has appointed opposition figures both to official and advisory posts and has so far legalized four new political parties. The Islamic Tendency Movement, known by its French initials MTI, is not one of them. But its leader, Rachid Ghanouchi, was among those released from prison, and the party is expecting to reform itself and be legalized in the near future.

“Ben Ali has made all the right moves,” a Western diplomat says. “It is still not a democracy in the American sense, but the climate has changed radically.”

Indeed, so radical is the change that “most Tunisians now date everything to before Nov. 7 or after it, like before and after Christ,” says Khemais Chamari, secretary general of the Tunisian Human Rights League.

Chamari, who himself did a hitch in jail under Bourguiba for “defaming public order,” now serves on the Economic and Social Council, a 90-member panel appointed by Ben Ali to help advise on change.

Like other opposition leaders, he gives Ben Ali high marks for liberalizing Tunisia’s political climate. But he also worries that the president may be moving too slowly, that his popularity may wane and the atmosphere of detente may dissipate before he can build the “national consensus” that Chamari says is crucial for the even harder economic reforms that lie ahead.

“We, the politicians, are absorbed in our politics,” Chamari said. “But what concerns the people are rising prices, the continuing freeze on salaries and unemployment. Contrary to what many observers are now saying, time is not in favor of democracy here. The economic crisis can still jeopardize it.”

Economists note that there has been no weakening of Tunisia’s resolve to deal with its economic problems since Ben Ali took over. Burdensome price supports are being phased out while state industries are gradually being turned over to the private sector, which is still rebuilding itself following a disastrous experiment with socialism in the 1960s.

Growing Dissatisfaction

But inflation and unemployment are running neck and neck at almost 20%, there is growing dissatisfaction with a wage freeze in effect since 1983 and agriculture has been hard hit this year by drought and locusts. Perhaps worst of all, there is a demographic time bomb ticking in Tunisia--nearly 65% of its population of 7.5 million is under the age of 25.

The re-establishment of diplomatic relations with neighboring Libya last December provided one economic windfall as thousands of commodity-starved Libyans descended on Tunisian markets, snapping up with locust-like voracity everything from plastic kitchenware to construction bricks. But like most silver linings, this one came wrapped in a dark cloud: the Libyan demand for Tunisian products created serious shortages in a number of essential commodities and drove up prices even further.

Under the circumstances, Chamari and other opposition politicians say they are a bit disappointed that Ben Ali has chosen to put off parliamentary elections until November, 1989. The current Bourguiba-era parliament is not representative, and the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party is still stacked with old-guard politicians who resist reforms.

“The train is on the right track, and the locomotive is working well, but it is pulling a lot of cars in which the brakes are still on,” Chamari said.

Another concern, shared equally by the government and the secular opposition, is the appeal that the Islamicists will be able to exert on the young who, lacking jobs or a real political voice yet, still perceive themselves as being disenfranchised.

The campaign that Bourguiba waged against the Islamicists assumed, in his final year in office, the intensity of persecution. MTI’s membership was imprisoned or driven into hiding. Even women who wore the hegab , the traditional Muslim head scarf, could be arrested on the street.

Most analysts now believe Bourguiba greatly exaggerated the fundamentalist threat, with several self-fulfilling effects. He radicalized a number of MTI members who, along with sympathizers in the police and the army, would later plot to assassinate him; he generated sympathy for the Islamicists among Tunisians who would not ordinarily have identified with their cause; and he gave members a degree of legitimacy that they probably would not have attained on their own.

Ben Ali’s approach has been far more conciliatory and aims at co-opting the more moderate Islamicists with promises that they can participate in the new political order provided they don’t campaign in the mosques or run on a platform of being more Islamic than anyone else.

Although a fierce debate is rumored to be going on within MTI over Ben Ali’s offer, Ghanouchi, the group’s leader, says he is ready to cooperate.

“Since our inception, our battle has been a battle for existence. But now the situation has changed,” he said in an interview.

In private, some Tunisian politicians, and many diplomats, still voice doubts about whether Ben Ali is really committed to Western-style democracy--or whether he perhaps envisions something closer to the ersatz Egyptian model, in which opposition parties are a funnel for dissent and a way of keeping the ruling party on its toes without seriously challenging it.

But, for the moment at least, such doubts remain overshadowed by what even the most cynical of observers seem to agree are Ben Ali’s accomplishments so far.

In less than a year, he has “transformed the political situation in Tunisia into one that no longer justifies a radical opposition,” says a Western diplomat.