Tunisia gained its independence in 1956, largely thanks to the efforts of former President Habib Bourguiba, who died 13 years ago this past Saturday. His fight against French domination earned him the nickname “Supreme Warrior” of the nation.
Hailed as the savior of the country, he became the first president of the new Republic of Tunisia in 1957. The North African country had been a French protectorate since 1881. For many years Bourguiba had fought for independence and the creation of a Tunisian parliament that would enable him to rid Tunisia of the Bey, the last representative of the Ottoman Empire.
Bourguiba, who became the focus of a modest personality cult, was so popular that Tunisians dared not contradict him or criticize his actions. In 1956, while he was only Prime Minister, he passed the Personal Status Code, which granted Tunisian women progressive rights concerning marriage, divorce, and education. It was something of a revolution in the Arab world that a Muslim leader dare challenge Sharia (Islamic code inspired by the holy Koran). This law attributed to the national hero was in fact initiated by a group of scholars starting in 1952, while Bourguiba was under arrest in the prisons of France.
Bourguiba was never a religious man and he set aside religious considerations to focus on the economic reality of the poor in Tunisia. The country had never been a rich land with large reservoirs of oil such as Algeria and Libya. Bourguiba knew that a large population would be a handicap for the economy. He made birth control available, legalized abortion and, with the help of the United Nations Development Program, made family planning methods widely accessible. Such reforms made him more popular in the West but less accepted in the Arab world. In 1956, the populations of both Tunisia and Syria were under three million; but by 2011, Syria had three times as many inhabitants as Tunisia.
During the first years of his presidency, Bourguiba prioritized education, allowing all Tunisian children to go to school, even in poor, rural areas. The largest component of the state budget was dedicated to education and youth development. Child labor was prohibited and education was free of charge and compulsory until the age of 16. This was part of what Bourguiba called “the second fight.” For him, the eradication of poverty was as important as the struggle against French domination. In order to achieve social development, he believed one must start with the education of the population as a whole.
Economy at stake
Unfortunately, the “Supreme Warrior” was never able to navigate a safe economic policy. He relied during the 1960s on the experience of Ahmed Ben Salah, a Soviet Union-oriented minister whose collectivization initiative resulted in total economic failure. Prime Minister Hedi Nouira managed to stabilize the economy by introducing a law in 1972 that allows foreign investors to come to Tunisia in order to profit from its low labor costs and its close proximity to major European ports. Nouira took care of the economy, leaving Bourguiba to entertain his favorite pastimes, like giving long speeches about his glorious achievements.
In 1974, students and political activists began to mobilize, criticizing Bourguiba’s behavior and seemingly extravagant attitude. In order to silence dissent, Nouira passed a law allowing Bourguiba to serve as president for life. Even Bourguiba’s own son was not pleased with this law, which precipitated the decline of the “Supreme Warrior”.
The beginning of the end
In 1981, Bourguiba had to accept the reality of the country’s first political opposition party. Meanwhile, new Prime Minister Mohamed Mzali, a former teacher of philosophy, was never able to reinvigorate the economy. He was removed from his post in 1986 and his successor, Rachid Sfar, also struggled in the position. Bourguiba was compelled to rely on Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who, on November 7, 1987, forced the removal of the aging president, claiming he was medically incapable of carrying out his duties.
Bourguiba died on April 6, 2000 but had actually not been an active leader since 1969. He left a great mark on Tunisia and was a force in the region. In 1967, he was the only Arab president who dared speak to the Palestinians in Jericho about a peaceful settlement with Israel. His famous speech must have left quite an impression on Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who finally agreed to shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after many years of fighting.
This article was written by Ali Ben Mabrouk, a former English teacher and journalist at Le Quotidien. The post reflects the opinions of the author and not those of Tunisia Live as a publication.