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Tunisia troubled by economy, disgruntled youth, specter of Libya

As Tunisia prepares for its first leadership change since it gained independence from France in 1956, many Tunisians are concerned about the nation's stability.

At least one issue - how to achieve an orderly transfer of power from the ailing 81-year-old President, Habib Bourguiba - is settled. The Constitution designates that upon the President's death, the prime minister will take his place.

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What President Bourguiba's successor faces is a faltering economy, a growing feeling of alienation among Tunisian youth, rising Islamic extremism, and a meddlesome neighbor, Libya. In 1980 Libya allegedly sponsored a riot in the mining town of Gafsa. As many as 2,000 disaffected Tunisians receive military training in Libya, according to a Western diplomat.

The United States, which wants to maintain stability along the coast of North Africa to protect NATO's southern flank, is providing Tunisia with roughly $67 million in military aid and $20 million in economic aid for this fiscal year.

Some Tunisians say threateningly that they will never allow Prime Minister Mohammed M'zali to become president of this country of 7 million people. It was Mr. M'zali who announced price increases for bread, semolina, and pasta that led to rioting last January. Though the government backed down and decided to raise prices gradually, many Tunisians still perceive M'zali as insensitive to the poor.

Political observers in the capital of Tunis say the succession will probably not provoke much violence.

''There is generalized discontent, but there is no visible popular movement underway,'' a Western diplomat says.

Foreign and Tunisian political observers say, however, the new president will never have the same authority as Mr. Bourguiba.

''Nobody is big enough to replace Bourguiba,'' says Elbakki Hermassi, an administrator and professor at Tunis University.

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''His historical legitimacy sets him apart. He's like de Gaulle. He created a national liberation movement, fashioned the country and its institutions.''

Bourguiba's presence is felt everywhere: The main street of virtually every village, town, and city is named after him. His portrait is displayed on roadside billboards, public buildings, and inside restaurants, cafes, and shops.

According to the Western diplomat, it is Bourguiba's backing that ensure that M'zali is firmly in place to become the next president. M'zali has also strengthened his position by filling his Cabinet mostly with natives of Monastir , his and Bourguiba's home-town. (Political allegiances in Tunisia are based largely on regional loyalties rather than on parties and ideologies.)

Although most observers do not expect a power struggle, some are less sure. One diplomat here paints a possible scenario in which Bourguiba enters a period of senility and the opposition pushes M'zali out of the prime ministership.

Some opposition members are proposing that general elections be held 40 days after M'zali succeeds Bourguiba.

Domingo del Pino, a specialist on Arab affairs, writes in the Spanish daily El Pais that the following ''already compete openly for the succession'': Beji Caid Essebsi, the Minister of Foreign Affairs; Ahmed Mestiri, leader of the Democratic Socialist Movement; and Muhammad Sayagh, former head of the ruling Socialist Destourian Party.

Mr. Del Pino indicates that M'zali, Mr. Essebsi, and Mr. Mestiri are ''liberal and progressive,'' while Mr. Sayagh is a hard-liner, opposed to the steps toward democracy Tunisia has been taking.

Opposition parties are allowed to exist, but have little power; the 1981 legislative elections were rigged in favor of the Destourian Socialist Party. An independent press functions, but is forced to stop publishing when it becomes too critical of the government.

Moncef Ben M'rad, editor of the independent weekly Realites, says Islamic fundamentalists could take advantage of the type of mob violence Tunisia experienced in January.

''Visit the mosques and you'll see the fundamentalists are well-organized,'' he says.

Every time a leader of the outlawed Islamic Tendency Movement is arrested a new leader takes his place, Mr. M'rad says. But M'rad says he believes M'zali will soon legalize the Islamic Tendency Movement. ''He's going to try to make them participate. . . . He will consult them soon, I think, to get them on his side.''

Professor Hermassi says stability depends on greater democracy: ''M'zali must establish his authority. Whether he does depends on how well he responds to the cries for political participation and economic justice.''

The fundamentalists, he adds, are more interested in playing a role in the system than in overthowing it: ''They don't question the principle of women's liberation and free enterprise.''

Bourguiba's free-enterprise policies of the 1970s created a group of young businessmen whom M'rad describes as ''great businessmen, who work in a modern way. They are very wealthy. They own pleasure boats and villas, wealth which is new to Tunisia.''

This wealth must somehow be distributed more fairly, M'rad says.

The government lists unemployment at 13 percent, but the combination of jobless and underemployed people puts the figure much higher. A Western diplomat says, ''It may be 30 percent overall and possibly as high as 50 percent for 16- to 25-year-olds.''

The underemployed include seasonal agricultural workers as well as those many youths who roam the cities shining shoes, selling jasmine, newspapers, and other items. A population growth of 2.6 percent and the return of Tunisian workers from France, Italy, and Libya put additional pressure on the weak economy.

Mr. Hermassi says the growing number of alienated youth is central to the nation's problems. Having benefited from Bourguiba's generous education policies , young Tunisians expect to play a role in society and become frustrated as opportunities diminish.

''The government has no more ideas to get things done, to absorb young people and to appeal to them,'' says Hermassi. ''The top elite lives in the past, whereas the youth lives in the present and future . . . in terms of jobs and participation. The legitimacy of the struggle for independence is no longer valid.''

The writer recently spent two months in Tunisia.

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