The latest outbreak of violence in Tunisia comes after months of growing uneasiness in a country long regarded as a model for the Third World.

Since the end of French rule in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba has given his Georgia-sized country a stable government and a steadily improving economy. Above all, he provided a dynamic and enlightened leadership.

Bourguiba was the first Arab leader to abolish polygamy, introduce birth control and mass education, advocate women's rights and other reforms that many industrialized societies took years to adopt. He was the first Arab to propose peace talks with Israel back in 1965 - a suggestion that made him the target of Arab abuse.

In a way, Tunisia now seems to paying the price of its successes - perhaps a normal development in an African country where impressive living standards have been achieved and where per capita annual income exceeds $800.

By investing 30 per cent of its budget on education - one million of the nearly six million Tunisians are in some kind of school - the Bourguiba government has educated a new generation that demands changes.

That is part of the problem in a nation where more than half of the population is under 20 and increasingly oblivious to the past successes of the president and his neo-Destour Socialist Party.

Tunisia's tourist industry, olive oil, phosphates and its small oil production, which provide most of the country's foreign exchange, are not sufficient to meet an upsurge of rising expectations. Moreover, Washington, which has provided Tunisia with nearly $900 million in aid since independence, has made it clear that U.S. funds will be reduced in the future.

Hence the current struggle between Bourguiba's government and the 65,000-member General Union of Tunisian Workers is over basic economic issues. The government has failed to resolve the country's pressing unemployment problem. Future labor unrest seems likely as Tunisia's economic outlook seems less favorable for the rest of the decade.

Although Bourguiba, 74, still dominates Tunisian politics and towers over politicians who hope to succeed him, the president's health has been deteriorating. He became president-for-life three years ago and this only served to underline his precarious health. He has had at least two heart attacks and viral hepatitis and suffers from hardening of the arteries.

A key question is whether Tunisia's one-party system can outlast matic rule under which the country has moved to a status between the underdeveloped and industrialized societies.

Recent changes in the cabinet, apparently caused by disagreements over ways to deal with labor unrest that has flared into violence, may provide a foretaste to the post-Bourguiba era.