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Tunisians wary of future leadership void

Each evening on the TV news, Tunisians watch a familiar sight: ``President-for-life'' Habib Bourguiba sits in his office at the Carthage Palace near Tunis, receiving ministers. The pictures always look the same, the narration barely changes. To many Tunisians, those frozen TV images illustrate their country's predicament. Tunisia today is in a period of suspended animation, waiting for a change of power.

Mr. Bourguiba, known as the ``Supreme Combattant,'' has ruled Tunisia since its independence from France in 1956. An energetic reformer, he transformed this impoverished state, which lies between radical Libya and Algeria, into a model of third-world development. He also established a pro-Western policy, becoming a valuable friend of France and the United States.

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But increasingly the US and France are concerned about whether Tunisia will continue to steer this course in a post-Bourguiba era. There is evidence that many of Bourguiba's policies are out of step with the country's youth. And so far, the Tunisian President has failed to prepare a new generation of political leaders to continue his programs.

Though the 83-year-old Bourguiba is ailing, he still seems determined to rule. In the last two years, he has tightened his control over internal dissent. Opposition party newpapers are banned, and their members complain of harassment; the government dismantled the independent General Union of Tunisian Workers and formed a new trade union; the head of the old trade union is in prison, and other members are under surveillance; this reporter was detained briefly by police after visiting a former trade union leader; and last month the government launched a nation-wide crackdown against Islamic fundamentalists - whom Bourguiba views as the greatest threat to his regime.

But what seems to bother Tunisians more than these measures is a sense that government decision-making is adrift.

``Officially it's always Bourguiba who decides. In fact, you can't say how decisions are made or who inspires them,'' says Dali Jazi, an opposition leader. ``One of our major problems is not having an interlocutor, who can decide what, when, and how.''

According to some Tunisia observers and Western diplomatic sources, the government lacks a long-term vision. ``The strategy is to get through the day, to get through the transition, and play palace parlor games,'' a Western diplomat says.

Though Bourguiba may continue to rule for many years to come, the gap is widening between his government and the country's young people, who form more than two-thirds of the population.

``There's no logic to what happens in the country, especially Bourguiba's decisions,'' says a student at the University of Tunis, reflecting the attitude of many of his peers. ``Sometimes he does the opposite of what he did the day before.''

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Over the past year, Bourguiba has banished many of his most intimate long-time associates, including his wife of 24 years, Wassila ben Ammar Bourguiba. For a while, he even shunned his only son, Habib ``Bibi'' Bourguiba Jr., one of his political advisers. At the same time, the government revealed a series of financial scandals linked to Mrs. Bourguiba's family and other disgraced senior officials.

Bourguiba has now surrounded himself with aides from his home region of Monastir. His powerful Cabinet director, Mansur Skhiri and his niece and personal attendant, Saida Sassi, come from there. Ms. Sassi and Mr. Skhiri are said, between them, to control access to the President.

``I saw him for a half-hour a day,'' former Prime Minister Mohammed Mzali, now in exile in Europe, told the Monitor. ``For other ministers it's even less. Sassi and Skhiri control everything.''

The unspoken matter of Bourguiba's successor preoccupies Tunisians. Officially it is Rachid Sfar, prime minister since last July. But many doubt his ability to handle a delicate transition. ``Sfar is a good, honest manager,'' a Western diplomat says. ``But his shoulders are too fragile to carry the weight of the succession.''

Bourguiba still holds the succession cards firmly in hand, and eligible candidates have learned to take a low profile lest they irk the President. Last July, Bourguiba dismissed Mr. Mzali, his premier for six years, for apparently behaving too ostentatiously as heir apparent.

Another potential key player in the succession struggle is Interior Minister Zine Abidine Ben Ali, a US and French-trained general. Bourguiba has been careful to keep the Army out of politics. Mr. Ben Ali's position marks the first time a former military man has occupied a key post in the Cabinet. He controls vital security sectors and meets with Bourguiba daily.

As one of the nation's founding fathers, Bourguiba still commands great prestige. After independence he dedicated a third of the budget to education and made a prosperous middle-class his base of support and source of legitimacy.

``Bourguibism is pragmatism,'' acknowledges one critic. ``He has an extraordinary political intelligence and modernizing vision.'' He also has canny instincts that enabled him to survive a military plot in the 1960s, a worker's revolt in 1978, Libyan-backed insurgency in 1980, and food riots in 1984.

Bourguiba has resisted, however, preparing a new generation of political leaders to continue his modernization program. ``He could never admit that new forces in Tunisia could be detached from him,'' says Driss Guiga, former interior minister now living in exile in France.

With a muzzled opposition and a government-controlled press, Tunisians have not been able to freely debate choices for what is expected to be a difficult future. First in a series of four articles.

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