Islamists eclipsed.

Position:Tunisia's political and economic prospects

THE MASS TRIAL LAST August of Islamic militants marked the culmination of the Tunisian government's campaign to crush Ennahdha (Renaissance), the fundamentalist party which though illegal has been able to draw on widespread popular support. Its leadership is now either in prison, in exile or has simply given up. "I honestly see no point in carrying on," one former Ennahdha official was quoted as saying last summer. "We entered into direct confrontation wanting to take over and we lost. I see no prospect of any change now."

In the short term, perhaps not. The regime of President Zein al Abidin Ben Ali has managed to keep tight control of the domestic political situation and seems under no threat in 1993. But the economic grievances which have fuelled unrest (particularly unemployment among the young) still provide ample ground for dissidence. While effectively suppressing Ennahdha, the regime has so far provided no alternative legitimate channel for criticism.

This is not entirely its own fault. The ruling Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD) has all the seats in parliament, largely because the secular opposition has proved to be ineffectual and divided. The biggest opposition party, the Mouvement des Democrates Socialistes, has broken up into several factions while the rest of the opposition is equally fragmented. The trade union movement, led by the Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail, has been refused permission to form a political party of its own which might carry some weight.

If he is to defuse the threat of civil disorder in the future, President Ben Ali must pay more than lip service to the promise of gradual democratisation he held out after coming to power in 1987. On the other hand, the non-government parties must show themselves to be a credible rather than squabbling and self-indulgent opposition. If neither side evolves, Ennahdha will rise again.

The major test will be legislative elections due in 1994. The government agreed in December to introduce a system of partial proportional representation which will make it easier for non-RCD candidates to enter parliament.

Political immobility contrasts sharply with the regime's enthusiastic efforts to liberalise and rationalise the economy and throw off the shackles of the Bourguiba era. A structural readjustment programme was launched under the aegis of the IMF in the mid-1980s and been largely successful. It should be possible to make the dinar fully convertible by 1996.


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