Habib Bourguiba, one of the last surviving founders of independent Africa, is granting his first newspaper interview in more than a decade. Television cameras are whirring in the background: Any public move made by the 82-year-old Tunisian leader these days automatically leads the evening news.
Without waiting for the first question, Bourguiba raises his right hand stiffly and proclaims loudly: "I freed my country, and I liberated Tunisian women. What is more, I was the first leader of a Moslem country to accomplish this."
The president's jaw juts forward proudly as he speaks, a reminder of his youthful political harangues on the need to transform Tunisia into a modern, westernized state.
Seated attentively on either side of Bourguiba's Napoleonic Empire-style desk in the presidential palace, which overlooks the ruins of ancient Carthage, are Tunisia's prime minister and information minister. When the president's thoughts begin to wander, or his memory needs jogging, they interrupt to help him along.
These are the twilight days of a charismatic leader who won independence from France in 1956 and went on to preside over one of the most dramatic social revolutions in his nation's history. It is also a period of anxious waiting to see what will become of a country once regarded as a model for the rest of the Third World but whose future stability is threatened by a backlog of political and economic problems.
Bourguiba, who is still recovering from a heart attack he suffered at the end of last year, is due in Washington June 18 for talks with President Reagan. His determination to go ahead with the visit reflects the pronounced pro-American sympathies of an Arab politician who has known every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The Tunisian leader's precarious health has become a major topic during the past few months in other North African capitals. The way the political succession is handled in Tunisia, a country that holds the key to the central Mediterranean, could have important repercussions in the Maghreb, a region that stretches from Morocco in the west to Libya in the east.
The optimistic scenario is that Bourguiba's successors will be able to channel the frustrations of a predominantly young population into a multiparty democracy no longer subject to the whims of a single charismatic figure. The pessimistic scenario is that glaring disparities of wealth, the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism for a large part of the country's youth and interference by Libya and other foreign powers could result in violent political upheavals.
"The Tunisian intelligentsia is genuinely worried about the post-Bourguiba period," remarked Baki Hermassy, a sociologist at the University of Tunis. "Tunisians who witnessed the struggle for independence view Bourguiba the way Americans view the founding fathers. But young people do not."
With 75 percent of Tunisia's 7 million people under the age of 30, the vast majority of Tunisians have no direct experience of the struggle for national independence personified by Bourguiba. Dubbed "the supreme fighter" by the official news media, the president is regarded as a kind of historical dinosaur by large numbers of young people.
"In his younger days, Bourguiba did a lot for his country. But now he is too old, and the people around him are squabbling among themselves to take over power. Life for ordinary Tunisians has become much more difficult," said a factory worker from the central town of Qairouan, echoing a fairly widespread opinion.
Elected president for life in 1975, Habib Bourguiba seems omnipresent in modern Tunisia. His statue stands in the main square of every town in a country roughly the size of Georgia. Every evening, state-run Tunisian television carries reruns of his old political speeches, which are presented as his "instructions" to the nation. Tunisian newspapers run virtually daily pictures of his regular afternoon walks. Web of Memories
When Bourguiba appears in public, crowds of enthusiastic supporters are mobilized by the ruling Destour Socialist Party, which he founded in 1934 to fight for Tunisia's independence, to line the streets. They applaud and wave flags. The president waves back stiffly and lets drop occasional remarks such as, "My succession is not for tomorrow."
In the privacy of his home, the president seems caught in the web of memories. The walls of his office are lined with photographs of world leaders he has known and admired.
Pride of place is given to two men whose portraits he keeps permanently on his desk: French former prime minister Pierre Mendes-France, who granted internal autonomy to Tunisia in 1955, and an obscure U.S. diplomat named Hooker Doolittle, who befriended him during World War II and who is probably the most celebrated American in Tunisia today.
Leaning for support on a visitor's arm as he shuffled around his office pointing out historical mementos, Bourguiba paused in front of a framed photograph of himself in prison uniform.
"I was five years in prison under the French," he said proudly, trying to fit his shrunken thumb against the thumb print taken by the French colonial police nearly half a century ago.
Like many old men, Bourguiba now seems excessively preoccupied with such details as his personal travel arrangements. In the course of a 15-minute conversation, he repeated several times that, to reach Washington, he would fly from Tunis to Paris, where he would catch the Concorde to New York.
"Reagan will send a special plane to take me from New York to Washington," he said contentedly.
Most of all, however, Bourguiba takes pride in the modernization of Tunisian society accomplished under his leadership.
"I had a mission to liberate women from the chains that held them in centuries of backwardness," Bourguiba said in written answers to questions submitted before the interview. "The personal statute code proclaimed in August 1956, just four months after independence, was the first in an Arab and African country to make women a full legal partner in the family unit: It forbade polygamy and subjected divorce to a judicial procedure that bound the husband as well as his spouse. Women enjoyed the right to vote from the time of the first elections for the constituent assembly."
He cited his personal physician, Amor Chedli, in support of his contention that Tunisian women now enjoy equality with men.
"Professor Chedli tells me that when he gives a lecture at the medical school, half the classroom is made up of women and half of men," the president said, repeating the same remark a couple of moments later.
Tunisian officials said that Bourguiba's advanced age prevented an extended audience. At their insistence, the bulk of the interview was conducted in the form of written questions submitted in advance and answers approved by the president.
In the three decades in which Bourguiba has been in power, Tunisia has changed enormously. Literacy rates have shot up from around 30 percent at the time of independence to more than 90 percent today. Education, which Bourguiba saw as the key to modernizing a backward society, now consumes roughly a third of the national budget. Scooters and Pop Music
The twisting narrow streets of the historic walled medinas of such towns as Tunis, Sousse and Qairouan reverberate to the sound of motor scooters and pop music blaring from cassette players. Slums have sprouted television aerials. The coastal strip from Tunis to Monastir, Bourguiba's hometown, resembles a gigantic building lot with modern factories standing alongside half-finished tourist hotels.
Many of the problems Tunisia faces reflect this rapid but uneven development. The south of the country remains desperately poor. Regional inequalities have been heightened by corruption and political patronage. Most of the government's key figures, including the present prime minister and his predecessor, come from the same region as Bourguiba.
In January last year, around 100 persons were killed and nearly 1,000 injured as riots sparked by a doubling in the price of bread spread from the impoverished south to northern coastal towns including Tunis. Calm was restored only after Bourguiba went on nationwide television and announced that the price increases would be withdrawn.
"Ten or 20 years ago, a Tunisian peasant was prepared to accept his fate, but he doesn't accept it any more," commented Ahmed Mestiri, a former government minister who now leads a moderate opposition party. "People here are much more in touch with the outside world than they used to be. They travel and have transistors. They both want more and feel more frustrated." 'What's My Future?'
The burden of rising unemployment has fallen on educated young people who pour out of the schools and universities but are unable to find jobs. Schoolteachers report that many students have taken to saying: "Educated or not, what's my future? Unemployment awaits us." In Arabic, the slogan rhymes and makes a useful chant.
The dissatisfaction of young people and the long, drawn-out political transition has created a mood of uncertainty about what will happen after Bourguiba's death. Tunisia increasingly has become a pluralist society, but political power has remained concentrated in the hands of Bourguiba and his Destour Socialist Party.
"Everything has changed in Tunisia except the nature of the regime," said Mestiri. "Bourguiba's reforms have only been partially successful because he has not been prepared to modernize the political system. Development and stability cannot be guaranteed in what remains a single party system."
Although opposition parties are legal in Tunisia, they never have succeeded in winning a single seat in any election. Opposition politicians complained that blatant ballot-rigging and the harassment of opposition candidates have combined to prevent the popularity of the ruling party from being put to a fair test.
"Bourguiba's biggest error is that he still thinks the country is behind him," said Hamadi Jebali, one of the leaders of an illegal Islamic fundamentalist movement that has been attracting increasing support from young Tunisians. "He thinks that the Tunisia of 1985 is the same as the country of 1955. He needs someone to stand up and say 'no' to him."
The contrast in the resources available to the Destour party and the opposition becomes apparent as soon as the visitor sets foot in their respective headquarters. The ruling party is housed in a sumptuous building on a hill overlooking Tunis from where thousands of full-time officials oversee the work of 600,000 party members in every village in the country. 'The System Is Paralyzed'
The principal opposition party, the Movement for Social Democrats, occupies four cramped rooms in the center of the city. On one of the walls is a map of Tunisia with several dozen colored stickers attached. Red stickers signify towns in which the party's offices were burned down during a local election campaign last month; black stickers illustrate attacks on party activists by gangs of thugs.
The elections were boycotted by all the opposition parties, including the Movement for Social Democrats, because of lack of guarantees that the poll would be free. According to official figures, strongly contested by opposition leaders, more than 92 percent of Tunisians voted in favor of the Destourians.
"Bourguiba tried to copy the West, but he copied it badly," said Abdelfattah Mourou, a lawyer who leads a moderate wing of the Islamic movement. "He has installed parliamentary institutions here, but they are not real. At the moment, the system is paralyzed. It's as if Bourguiba has created a political vacuum."
In contrast to many other Third World countries, where all political opposition is banned, Tunisia enjoys a limited form of democracy. Opposition leaders are free to criticize the government as long as they do not threaten the power of the ruling party. For all its faults, the press is livelier than anywhere else in the Maghreb, as are the trade unions.
Most opposition politicians, as well as a fair number of people within the ruling party, seem convinced that this peculiar mixture of pluralism and authoritarianism will not survive long after Bourguiba's death. Sooner or later, these analysts say, the government will be obliged to choose between suppressing popular discontent or channeling it in a constructive direction.
"Change is both necessary and inevitable. Either it will happen in the way we want or in another way," said Mestiri, pointing out that violent social protests have become rampant in Tunisia.
But when Bourguiba was asked about the succession, he said in his written response: "I do not see any problem here. I remain fit in body and mind despite my long and hard struggle for liberty and progress . . . . The constitution regulates the manner of succession. In the event of vacancy in the presidency, the prime minister would immediately take over until the end of the current legislature. After that, presidential elections will be organized."
Leaders of the Destour party talk about the need to defend the gains of Bourguiba's social revolution, but there is disagreement over how this should be accomplished. The leadership is widely believed to be split between a faction led by Prime Minister Mohammed Mzali that is said to favor greater democracy and a rival group, which includes the president's son Habib Jr. and Housing Minister Mohammed Sayah, that is ready to resort to more authoritarian measures.
Noting that until 1982 the Destour Socialist Party was the only legal political formation, Bourguiba said opposition parties now were entitled to take part in the country's political life provided they remained untainted by foreign influence.
"For me what is essential is that democracy should not mean the division of the nation to whose unity I have dedicated my life, a deviation toward fanaticism and intolerance, or an open door to the forces of backwardness," he said in his written answers.
In an interview, Destour party director Hedi Baccouche was carefully ambiguous about the direction Tunisia should take after Bourguiba's death. At first he said that, without its founder, the Destour Socialist Party inevitably would become a political party like any other. But he went on to suggest that it was the only party capable of expressing a national consensus in Tunisia.