PARIS -- Arriving in Tunis for the first time a visitor enters a time warp, seeing a small southern French town that somehow has escaped change for 20 years. The cafes lining the wide, shady boulevards, the carefully tended vegetable and fruit shops and the soft Mediterranean architecture reflect a bygone Europe more than the Arab world.
A first meeting with Habib Bourguiba was just as disorienting, though for different reasons. In his prime, Bourguiba towered like a colossus on the horizon of his small and placid country. His energy and vision made him, in Jean Lacouture's phrase, one of the Third World's demigods as the age of independence dawned.
He knew before the other Arab rulers that they would have to make peace with Israel. He told them so in 1965. He even told them how to do it. And, like anyone who was ever right when his boss or best friend was wrong, Bourguiba was never forgiven.
I happened to be with Bourguiba on the October Saturday when the 1973 Arab-Israeli war erupted. A trembling aide interrupted our conversation to show Bourguiba a news dispatch reporting that Anwar Sadat had ordered the Egyptian Army across the Suez Canal.
Bourguiba exploded in rage. "I told Sadat not to do this," he said as he thwacked his open palm on his desk. "The Arabs cannot crush Israel in war. They will never get even part of Palestine back this way."
As his temper settled, he reflected on the failure of the Arabs to accept the United Nations partition plan in 1947 and to agree to peace talks with Israel in the intervening years. Now they would try to get back what they turned down in 1947, and still fail.
To be Arab, he suggested, was to accept an outcome as inevitable only after the passage of time had made it impossible to achieve.
The same sort of judgment must now be rendered about Bourguiba. He was deposed as president for life at age 84 last weekend by the man whom he had appointed prime minister a month before, Zine Abidine Ben Ali.
Bourguiba had clung tenaciously to power despite his declining mental and physical health, cheating his country out of a decade of leadership.
The image of Oedipus shoving his father from the throne has been a more frequent political model for Third World nations than the works of Locke or Jefferson. The successor generation has had to pry the Founding Fathers out of power, sometimes in bloody fashion, when no system for an orderly transition has been established.
Ben Ali, 51, staged a medical hearing rather than a coup. He was able to get six physicians to certify with surprising speed that Bourguiba was incapacitated, suggesting that Ben Ali had lined up the political support to make the medical decision stick before it was made.
Policy makers in Washington and Paris have been deeply concerned about growing instability in Tunisia and the campaign by Libya's Col. Moammar Gadhafi to persuade his neighbors in the Maghreb that he has become a responsible citizen. Ben Ali's ascension should significantly reassure the West.
Ben Ali is a military intelligence specialist who was trained in that field in the United States. He has kept close ties with the U.S. intelligence community in his rise from the Army to become defense minister and then prime minister.
"He thinks more like a policeman than a soldier," says a western diplomat who knows Ben Ali well. "He is a law-and-order man. Bourguiba may have intended to use him to restore order and then get rid of him. But Ben Ali was too smart, and had too much help."
While he has been careful to stay on good terms with Gadhafi, Ben Ali is likely to prove to be a valuable ally for the United States against the Libyan leader, who is on the prowl again after a quiet period of licking his wounds.
Washington has been able to back up its renewed efforts at diplomatic quarantine by catching the Libyans redhanded in a couple of major operations. The first was learning that Libya swapped mines to Iran in return for chemical weapons a few months ago.
Then in October, U.S. intelligence spotted a Panamanian cargo ship, the Eskund, loading up with tons of weapons, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, AK47 assault rifles and explosives, in Tripoli harbor. It then headed toward the North Atlantic. Tipped off, French customs officials grabbed the Eskund Oct. 31 as it apparently was making its way toward Northern Ireland.
Net result in North Africa: Bourguiba goes into history as a lion who did not know when to call it a day. His neighbor Gadhafi remains a leopard whose spots have not changed.