Tunisia, the North African country most receptive in the past to Western secular influence, faces a rising Moslem fundamentalist movement not dissimilar to that facing Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and other regional leaders.
Moslem zealots in Tunisia, hundreds of them young people, including university students, aim to bury 78-year-old President Habib Bourguiba's generation of secular reforms and eventually install in Tunisia an Islamic government inspired by those in Iran, Pakistan, or neighboring Libya.
So seriously does Prime Minister Muhammed M'Zali, Bourguiba's probable successor, view the fundamentalist threat that the government has prosecuted and jailed many of its leaders for vaguely-defined offenses. It has refused to recognize the zealots as a legal political party in Tunisia's new multiparty system, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for November.
On Sept. 4, a Tunis court sentenced 107 of the Moslem militants to prison terms of six months to 11 years. Thirty of the militants were tried in absentia. Six were given suspended sentences and two acquitted. The president and general secretary of the fundamentalist movement, Rashid Ghannouchi and Abdelfattah Mourou, received 11- and 10-year sentences respectively.
Arrests of the militant fundamentalists (or "brethren" as Tunisians call them, recalling Egypt's illegal Moslem Brotherhood) began July 18. They followed months of turbulent, sometimes violent challenges to secular authority, such as criticism of Tunisian laws to liberate women, demands for stricter religious observance, distribution of tape cassettes of fiery sermons in Tunis mosques, including some praising Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's attacks on U.S. "imperialism."
During a visit to Tunis in August, this reporter heard from many Tunisians that the last straw for the Bourguiba government was a raid last June by the "brethren" on a summer vacation beach resort of the Club Mediterranee in Tunisia, where Europeans in bikinis and shorts live la dolce vita, in full view of their Tunisian hosts.
The club's alleged Israeli connections (it has resorts in Israel) and the alleged promiscuity of its vacationers led to fundamentalist slogans that the resort in Tunisia was a "hotbed of corruption and Zionism," and therefore deserved the trashing it got from a crowd of several hundred young Tunisian zealots.
Until then, the activity of the militants had been limited to the mosques and universities, as much of that of like-minded Moslem religious zealots in Egypt, Sudan, and elsewhere in the Arab and Moslem worlds.
A direct attack on a major tourist venture like the Club Mediterranee, however, threatens Tunisia's profitable tourist industry, a main source of foreign currency for an economy plagued by unemployment and riddled with problems stemming from the growing gap between rich and poor.
Publicity surrounding the Club Mediterranee incident also unfavorably impressed diplomats of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other wealthy and more or less fundamentalist Arab states, whose investments in Tunisia are growing. Many senior Arab diplomats are stationed at the new Arab League headquarters in Tunis.
Since Sadat's 1979 peace treaty with Israel caused the League to move from Cairo to Tunis, Tunisia, to quote one Iraqi diplomat here, "is much more of a window and a real part of the Arab world" than it was in its earlier, relatively isolated and bucolic North African existence. Then, it was heavily influenced by France, the colonial power here until 1956, and other Western European countries. Now, Arab influence waxes as European influence wanes.
If there ever were to be a Tunisian Khomeini, or a Tunisian Muammar Qaddafi, in the manner of the Libyan leader, in the future, two of the most likely candidates, both in their 30s, are now behind bars with fellow militants in so-called Mouvement de Tendance Islamique (MTI).
One of them is Mourou, a former lawyer and judge, who was jailed for 11 years. He was disbarred earlier for his political activity and, for a few months, forbidden to preach his fiery political sermons.
The other principal imprisoned MTI leader, Ghammouchi, a professor at Tunis University, is a charismatic crowd-pleaser. His personal stronghold is the medieval mosque of Sidi Youssef, among the old Arab and Ottoman-era buildings of the Tunis casbah.
In 1979, before the Iranian revolution developed its present murderous internecine strife, Ghammouchi glorified the ayatollahs of Tehran to his followers.
"The example of Iran," he exhorted them, "shows us the time of awakening has come. Fight against license and make sacrifices! To correct others and make our own revolution, we have to correct ourselves and worship God."
Last winter, a group of fundamentalist students at the University of Tunis seized and held hostage the dean of the science faculty until he was freed after rough battles with the police. The students published a manifesto proclaiming:
"We are a social, educational, and cultural movement, working to stir up this society to recover its deep Moslem roots and to spread Islamic culture."
Many Tunisians are worried about the possibilities of turbulent elections in November and, even more, about what will follow when Bourguiba, who is president for life, leaves the scene. Many new political parties now springing up will challenge Prime Minister M'Zali (who would become interim president until elections were held) and the traditional leadership.
Until Bourguiba last spring gave the green light to allow other political parties besides the official ruling Socialist Destour Party, this country had been run as a one-party state.
According to Bourguiba's critics, it was largely out of fear of the rising tide of Moslem fundamentalism and in hopes of checking it by allowing another outlet for radical activity that Bourguiba this summer legalized the hitherto outlawed Tunisian Communist Party, a small but articulate group of pro-Moscow Tunisian intellectuals.
Tunisia's constitution recognizes Islam as the state religion, but about 14,000 Roman Catholics (mainly French and Italian residents), the Greek Church, French Protestants, and the Church of England are represented in what has always been a tolerant and open society.
Since leading the country to independence from France in 1956, Bourguiba has abolished polygamy, permitted wives to institute divorce proceedings and generally encouraged women to enter virtually all trades and professions, including the army and police.
Over a long period, he has also unified and Westernized the court system by abolishing most of the powers of the Moslem religious courts and the rabbinical tribunals of the Jewish minority and turning those powers over to civil courts.
Tunisia's 208 Koranic primary schools have been nationalized and all distinctions between religious and public schools abolished. A strong source of the Islamic fundamentalist movement is among the teachers of various high schools and Islamic institutions.
In the past, Tunisia has received some of the largest amounts of American aid in proportion to its small population of any African or Arab country -- between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. This aid is tapering off because the per capita national income has passed $1,000, making the country ineligible for most types of U.S. financial help.
Much of the foreign aid and investment, which has also poured in from France and West Germany, and now from wealthy Arab states, has been used to create new industrial and agricultural projects for Tunisia's growing numbers of unemployed school graduates and dropouts.
The aid has been well used, compared with many other Third World countries, and this has helped to create the image of a hard-working, Westernizing little country where people are more attuned to Paris, Rome, or even Washington than to Moscow or Mecca.
During the 1960s and 1970s, many young Tunisians thought it fashionable to be Marxist or leftist; now the new "radical chic" is Islamic. Girls cover their heads and wear long gowns over sometimes fashionable European dresses or pants suits. The French language still predominates among the older elite, but the young and middle-aged agitators of MTI are urging that the country's entire educational system be speedily Arabized.
Critics of Bourguiba, in MTI and in other opposition groups, contend that his measures to liberate women have benefitted chiefly the upper crust. Wassila ben Amar, the president's vigorous and imposing second wife, who has her own palaces and summer homes, is especially resented by the fundamentalists, not unlike those in Egypt who criticize Jihan Sadat, the president's wife.
Most fundamentally, the MTI leaders have demanded that religion no longer be relegated to private life, but that Islam be established as a public institution dominating government and public life.
Since the crackdown on MTI, officially inspired Tunisian newspapers no longer treat Libya's Qaddafi as Tunisia's public enemy No. 1. The Aug. 19 dogfight in which Qaddafi lost two planes to the U.S. Navy's fighters in the Gulf of Sidre even drew some sympathy for Qaddafi from Tunisian media, despite strong Tunisian suspicion and hostility toward Libya since a Libyan-based guerrilla attack on the southwestern Tunisian town of Gafsa in January 1980
In today's Tunisian media and other public forums, Khomeini has become the main external foe, accused of spreading Iran's strife and discord to the shores of North Africa.