The people of this North African country are quietly proud these days of what seems like a revolution without pain, their ability to end the long reign of elderly Habib Bourguiba without bloodshed, without fanfare and without panic.
“It was a great historic event,” Khemais Chamari, long known as an opposition leader, told a group of American journalists Sunday, “but it has passed as if it were no event at all.”
“People are very proud,” said an international foreign aid specialist who knows the Tunisians well. “For years, everybody was worried about what would happen to Tunisia after the end of Bourguiba. Now they know, and they are happy.”
Takeover a Positive Step
After ruling Tunisia since its independence from France 31 years ago, Bourguiba, who is at least 84 years old, was declared mentally and physically incompetent by a medical commission Saturday and, in line with the constitution, removed from the presidency by Premier Zine Abidine ben Ali, a 51-year-old general, who took over as president.
The new president has promised a democratization of a political system long under the autocratic and sometimes repressive control of Bourguiba.
Many opponents of Bourguiba have accepted the pledge of Ben Ali even though he served as Bourguiba’s minister of interior during some of the regime’s most repressive periods. Even the extreme fundamentalists known as the Movement of the Islamic Tendency have issued a statement from Paris hailing the takeover as a historic and positive step.
At first, the fundamentalists attacked Ben Ali. But Chamari, who is secretary general of the Tunisian League of Human Rights, said the fundamentalists changed their minds after he explained to their leaders that Bourguiba’s oppression of their organization had precipitated his downfall.
Bourguiba, according to Chamari and other sources in Tunis, was furious over the outcome of the September trial of a number of fundamentalists on charges of terrorism and subversion. The court ordered the execution of two defendants and condemned five others to death in absentia. Although the sentences shocked some observers, Bourguiba thought them too lenient.
The president, Chamari went on, ordered a new trial of fundamentalists, including a few already tried in September, to start today. Chamari said Bourguiba wanted at least a dozen condemned to death and executed in less than a week.
“It was an obsession that came out of his senility,” said Chamari. “It was his fixation. I am convinced that if Bourguiba had succeeded in obtaining a dozen to 15 executions, this country would have plunged into a civil war.”
Bourguiba’s obsession with executing the fundamentalists, the last of a long series of examples of his erratic and irrational behavior, was the last straw for Ben Ali and most of the Cabinet.
“They were ashamed of what the country was, and they knew what it could be,” said the foreign aid specialist. “The people who acted are a cut above most Tunisians, and they know that Tunisia is really a cut above most Third World countries.”
Many opposition leaders are supporting the new government even though they do not know the details of its program for more democracy. Asked about his support of a former interior minister accused of human rights violations, Chamari, the human rights leader, replied, “We know the history of Ben Ali, but it’s important to judge someone on his acts now and not on his past.”
The mood in Tunis this weekend was not one of euphoria but of gentle pleasure at the change of regime. At the Ministry of Information, one official, talking with reporters, was asked about the empty picture hook on a wall that once held a portrait of Bourguiba.
“He’s an ordinary citizen now,” the official said.
Asked if Bourguiba was under guard, the official replied, “He’s under the guard of his doctors.”
Hedi Baccouche, the new premier in President Ben Ali’s Cabinet, denied news reports that Bourguiba had been removed from the presidential palace near Carthage, outside Tunis.
Palace Still Guarded
An armored car still guarded the front of the palace while patrol boats kept close to its seaside. Many diplomatic sources, however, believe that the new government will move Bourguiba soon to one of his homes in a more remote area of Tunisia.
The handling of Bourguiba is a delicate issue, for he is not regarded as a deposed tyrant but as a great nationalist leader now infirm and addled with age.
“Many people are worried about Bourguiba,” said the foreign aid specialist. “If anything happened to the old man, they would get very upset.”