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Relief greets unexpectedly smooth changing of the guard in Tunisia

Arab and Western leaders are breathing a quiet sigh of relief that the longest-awaited political transition in the Arab world has occurred without incident. Tunisians appear to be reacting calmly to the sudden removal of their President for 31 years, Habib Bourguiba, who was overthrown in an efficient, bloodless coup over the weekend. Mr. Bourguiba's departure ends one of the post-war era's longest and most illustrious political careers.

Tunisian Prime Minister Zine al Abidine Ben Ali seized power from the country's ailing patriarch Saturday, saying the 84-year-old ``President for life'' is no longer capable of ruling.

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Mr. Ben Ali, a former general and interior minister, was formally sworn in as Tunisia's second President Saturday.

Bourguiba was revered for his role in winning Tunisia's independence from France in 1956 and for presiding over decades of relative political stability and economic prosperity. But his departure has also produced relief that a long period of suspense over who would succeed him is now over.

Observers partly credit Tunisia's so-far seamless transition to Ben Ali's skillful appeals to the country's Constitution, which empowers the premier to oust the president in the event of incapacity. Bourguiba's erratic performance in recent months contributed to a growing impression that he is no longer capable of governing effectively.

That Saturday's announcement produced no violence is also attributed to Ben Ali's accent on continuity in retaining key Cabinet members and assuring Tunisians that Bourguiba would continue to be treated with respect. The government said yesterday that Bourguiba was well-treated but under armed guard in the presidential palace in Carthage.

``He hasn't come across as a revolutionary young colonel seizing power,'' says one Western diplomat of Ben Ali's performance.

Word of the Tunisian coup came as leaders from around the Arab world converged on Amman, Jordan, for yesterday's start of an Arab League summit to discuss the Gulf war and other issues.

Observers say the coup may have been linked indirectly to the summit: Ben Ali apparently decided not to lead Tunisia's delegation to Amman fearing that Bourguiba, who has recently been playing musical chairs with his Cabinet, might appoint a new prime minister in his absence.

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``The feeling was beginning to shape up that Bourguiba was going to change his mind every two weeks'' about his Cabinet appointments, says one longtime Jordanian analyst.

By accepting a delegation headed by Ben Ali's newly appointed foreign minister, the Arab leaders have effectively granted ``instant recognition'' to the new regime, says the Western diplomat.

Bourguiba was one of the longest-ruling heads of state in the Arab world.

In a reign that spanned seven American presidential administrations, the lawyer-turned-politician transformed Tunisia from fledgling independence into one of the most stable, pro-Western countries in Africa.

Starting in the mid 1930s Bourguiba led the fight to free Tunisia from French colonial rule, which began in 1881. During the next 20 years, between prison terms in French jails, he founded the country's ruling party, now known as the New Destourian Socialist Party, and its leading newspaper, L'Action.

As President, Bourguiba was credited with economic reforms that turned the impoverished country into an early model of their-word development. He granted equal rights to women and fought what he considered outdated Islamic traditions. He kept a tight reign, however, on domestic political opposition.

Ben Ali, a specialist in military intelligence, takes over at a time of worsening political and economic troubles for Tunisia. With no independent political base, analysts say Ben Ali will have to move cautiously as he negotiates with powerful unions, copes with high unemployment, and deals with antagonist factions within his own ruling class.

In addition, his key role in the crackdown this year on Tunisia's Islamic fundamentalists may leave a bitter political legacy at a time of Muslim reawakening in the Arab world. Despite the crackdown, some observers say Islamic leaders may find in Ben Ali's call for political liberalization just the political opening they have been seeking. Ben Ali, 51, has promised to liberalize the regime by ultimately introducing a free multi-party democracy and has said Tunisia will never again have a president for life.

The new President has also stressed that Tunisia will continue its traditional Western-oriented foreign policies. In Washington, the State Department issued a statement praising Bourguiba, but signaled an intention to work with the new government.

This weekend's coup has been welcomed by most of Tunisia's North African neighbors, including Libya, who feared that prolongued uncertainty over the succession issue could lead to instability, with negative regional consequences.

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