TUNIS -- Tunisians today seem to have a lot to be thankful for. Prices for their oil exports are back up, the winter rains have been abundant, tourists are flocking back and Libyan troops that had been massed menacingly close by were recently shifted to Chad.
Moreover, 83-year-old President Habib Bourguiba, who guided this country to independence and has led it ever since, has been in better health in recent months. Although weakened by heart troubles, age and arteriosclerosis, Bourguiba has recovered from a 1984 heart attack -- and has tightened his grip on authority.
But an increasing number of Tunisians worry that revitalized Bourguiba control is coinciding with arbitrary government action that they fear bodes little good.
Bourguiba last year divorced his politically influential wife, Wassila, fired long-time prime minister Mohamed Mzali -- who fled to Europe -- and appointed a new successor.
With them went a three-year-old experiment with political pluralism, as Bourguiba sought to concentrate power in the ruling Socialist Destourian Party that he has dominated for more than 50 years.
A crackdown on the official opposition parties was so harsh -- complete with the refusal to allow public meetings or access to state-run radio and television -- that they boycotted last November's parliamentary elections.
Last month, the only political opposition publication left, the weekly "Al Mostaqbal" of the moderate Social Democrat Movement, was banned.
If Tunisians have grown accustomed to Bourguiba's personal style of governing, critics say they have been taken aback by his manipulation of the courts, the confiscation of passports and other seemingly arbitrary acts.
Currently attracting attention is the case of Moncef Thraya, an engineer who ran a successful Tunis-based consulting firm respected throughout the African continent.
Fearing discrimination at the hands of Mansour Skhiri, the director of the president's office whom he had fired years earlier, Thraya moved to Paris last year. The government sought his extradition on embezzlement charges involving public works contracts. A French court turned down the request.
But the apparent attempt at personal retribution has shocked Tunisians -- even more than the trials of Mzali family members condemned for allegedly helping Thraya cross the Algerian border last September, apparently to avoid arrest.
Among the achievements for which Bourguiba is known are Tunisia's education system, its support of womens' rights and its standard of living, which is the highest in Africa.
But in his efforts to keep a hold on power Bourguiba has tightly controlled the political leadership. He has forced out many leading politicians including three potential successors, who have been forced into exile during the past two decades.
Bourguiba's daily activities in his palace in suburban Carthage are recorded on nightly television news where he is often seen surrounded by his closest advisers.
Bourguiba's entourage includes his niece Saida Sassi, influential in banishing his wife; Skhiri; the tough Interior Minister Zine al Abidine Ben Ali and Education Minister Amor Chadli, his personal physician. Less prominent is Prime Minister Rashid Sfar, an economist credited with turning state finances around. He is believed to lack the charisma many deem necessary to make good his status as Bourguiba's constitutitional successor.
Despite high unemployment and serious structural economic problems, Tunisia's financial and economic situation has improved recently, thanks to last summer's devaluation, austerity measures and massive foreign aid.
Only last year Tunisia was suffering from negative growth and a $300 million balance of payments deficit, declining oil prices, a steep drop in tourism income due to Israel's bombing of Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters here as well as a poor harvest.
"After last year's scare everything is ready for takeoff," a leading businessman said. "But nothing is happening because there's no confidence."
Tunisians seem torn between hope and despair. Typical of this sentiment was one resident's remark: "watching Bourguiba speak at the recent trade union congress, I didn't know whether to applaud because he was standing up and speaking on his own, or cry because he was a shambling and rambling old man."
For opposition politician Ahmad Mestiri, Bourguiba only expresses concern for Tunisia's "future stability now that the door has been closed on the parties, opposition press and trade unions."
Tunisia's best chance to recover, Mestiri said, is to forge a broad arrangement, similiar to that adopted by the Spanish political forces in the post-Franco period in 1975, where "everyone from royalists to communists agreed on the rules of the democratic game."