Reflecting on Bourguiba, 13 Years after his Death

By Op-ed Contributor | Apr 9 2013 Share on Linkedin Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google Share on pinterest Print

Tags: Bourguiba ,independence ,Personal Status Code ,second-featured ,second-main-featured
Bourguiba gives speech in Bizerte.

Bourguiba speaking in Bizerte, 1952. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Social welfare

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.

Pro-western reforms

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.


Image courtesy of the Habib Bourguiba Facebook page.

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.

Social uproar

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.

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    I’m sorry, but it’s op-eds like this that make me think nothing has changed in the minds of Tunisians since the revolution. This sounds like someone dreaming of a great fatherly leader/dictator who does good things for the people. The “Supreme Warrior” built the dictatorship that Ben Ali filled. Not a word here about the police state that Bourguiba created or the persecution of his political opponents. Not a word about how even though independence from France was secured on paper, in reality the colonial dependency relationship remains intact even today. Habib Bourguiba gave his famous Jericho speech on March 3, 1965– not in 1967 when Gamel Abdel Nasser– not Anwar Sadat was President of Egypt. Anwar Sadat shook hands with Menachim Begin, not Yizhak Rabin at the signing of the Camp David accords in 1978. Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Yassir Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993.

    • dear reader,
      I have never thought that Bourguiba was an angel but I have tried to sum up his good actions. Thanks to Bourguiba you and I are today having the opportunity to carry on this correspondance in English. Can you tell me about other Arab leaders who paid so much attention to education. Most of them were only worried about their Swiss bank account. Bourguiba didn’t even have a Tunisian one.
      Many thanks for the exact names and dates, at my age it’s not easy for me to be so accurate.

      • it is good to be reminded…..whether people liked him or not whether he had terror gangs in place or not. He never made the mistake of allowing religion to mix with politics which is a big problem in Tunisia now. That policy allowed Tunisia to stay among the most current, modern, forward looking Arab countries in the world. This status has however always caused a problem for the Saudi’s for instance who have always sought to change Tunisia. Bourguiba died a peniless man. What other Arab leader has been that committed to the people, process or improvement

        • what? Bourguiba never allowed religion to mix with politics? He used religion and distorted it to fit his views.

          In normal times, and if Tunisians were allowed to discuss religious views and hence come up with agreements, there is absolutely no issues with mixing religion and politics.

          It is not because France has an extremist anti religion government that we have to do the same.

          • Bourguiba’s politics were never anti-religious. Islam has been still defined as a religion of the state in Tunisia and its identity as Arabo-Islamic. However, he was a modernist and secularist and this is only good. Secularism is one of basic stones of democracy, whether you like it or not. As I said before, Tunisians should be happy that they had a pragmatic secular leader, and not somebody like Gaddafi, Assad, Gamal Abdelnasser, Saud clan or some Ikhwani Islamic regime with “undistorted” and raw religious views.

      • Ali-

        It is great that Bourguiba cared so much about education, but the leaders of the former USSR also cared a lot about education. Where did all the most brilliant minds from the former USSR go? To places like the United States where the economy and society fosters INNOVATION through providing the people with FREEDOM. If smart young guys educated in the USSR didn’t move to the USA you would not have companies like Google and probably you would never have found Tunisia Live on the net without Google. Bourguiba created a Tunisia where all the creative and innovative Tunisians left for France, the UK, USA etc. because he took away political freedom which goes hand in hand with economic freedom… Tunisia still today is so far from being a place that keeps and retains the best minds and brings the best people to help develop the economy. It will remain that way as long as people are looking for a strong but good leader rather than building institutions that foster a freer press, police reform, an open government, the de-marginalization of particular regions, the decentralization of political power and so many other things that I am sure you know are important for the country.

        • Kouichi,

          I am afraid that you fail to take into account the fact that authoritarianism in Tunisia was not some Bourguiba’s invention. Do you seriously believe that Tunisia before the French occupation was a democratic country? Do you believe that Tunisia would have become a democratic country, if not for Bourguiba and his regime? Why you simply don’t look at other Arab countries and don’t ask yourself why they all became authoritarian regimes after the independence? The thing is that there was no real democratic tradition in the region. There was a large traditional uneducated mostly illiterate highly religious population, rigidly patriarchal society where women had status of second class citizens, blurred distinction between religion, law and politics and a tradition of strong autocratic leaders. Tunisia had the luck of having a pragmatic secular leader as Bourguiba and not somebody like Gaddafi, the Assad clan etc. The comparison with a genocidal anti-religious regime like the USSR is absurd. If anything, Bourguiba is comparable with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was also an autocratic leader (you could call him dictator), who prioritized educational, social and legal reforms at the expense of “freedom”. Just one example: do you believe that Tunisians would have agreed to improve the status of women in the 50’s in a referendum? Well, I have my doubts about that. Blaming Bourguiba for deficiencies of modern Bourguiba is pointless.

  1. High five to ben mabrouk l certain that 90% of the tunisian are gratefull to president bourguiba in what he achieved for all young tunisian as far as education health and women right with no wealth resources or good economy left by the french. All tunisians love him and most of their childrens now benefit whit what was bild in the first. Shame on ben ali who spoiled the good work that has been done. Bourguiba died and left nothing to his family he did nit have even a house to himself.

  2. A great dictator!
    If one attempts to reflect upon the personality cult of the late “President for life : Habib Bourguiba”, then one must go beyond enumerating his past achievements for the country, or rather for his own “region” and his Destour Party people.
    First of all one should take look into the events that led to the Independence of Tunisia in the fifties to be able to understand what kind of person Bourguiba was. He was absolutely not the only combatant that drove the French out of our beloved Tunisia. On the contrary he was cunning enough to (mis)use both his own people and the French authorities to help get rid of his best struggle buddies such as Salah Ben Yousef and many more freedom fighters. Do ordinary Tunisians know that after the disappearance of Saleh Ben Yousef in 1956, Habib Bourguiba’s Destour party on his own instigation had formed several militia’s which were aimed at abducting, terrorising, torturing and assassinating Tunisian nationalists who openly supported the Ben Yousef Movement? These Bourguibist militias had actually detention camps all over the country. For instance in Tunis they run the so called _Sabbat thlam or “The dark shoe “detention centre nearby the Kasbah and which was managed by a certain Hasan Al Ayadi , the “Beni Khalled” detention camp, headed by “Omar Chachia”, and, the detention camp of the NCLP itself situated in the building of the Party at the Kasbah and supervised by “Hassine Bouzayene”, last but not least the detention camp of “Souk Al-irbi’a”, headed by “Mahjoub Ben Ali”. Yes, these terror gangs tightened the blockade round people of all walks of life. They went on the rampage persecuting innocent citizens in different parts of Tunisia, moreover, the French army and gendarmes joined in to help the Bourguibist gangs liquidate the supporters of Ben Yousef Nationalist Movement, which did not accept to negotiate with the colonial forces and would be satisfied only by full independence for our country.
    These acts of repression, arrests and humiliation had continued openly in cafes, alley ways, markets in the city of Tunis and in different towns and villages of the country only because “The Greatest Warrior”, as he had charged everyone to call him. The man was self-cantered and power hungry as he gained power at the expense of some of his best comrades in arms such the late Farhat Hached whose assassination by the French “Red Hand” remains an unsolved mystery to all of us. Whereas the “Greatest Warrior” had the late salah ben Yousef gunned down on Friday, August 11, 1961 in Frankfurt, Germany. This political crime has never been sorted out until now whilst so many Bourguiba sycophants are still misleading our fellow countrymen into hero worship without any scruples. It’s a bloody page in the history of our country that ought to be clarified and in history books well documented so that young generations may know who were the real freedom fighters that had liberated our Tunisia from beside the much publicized great dictator President for life Bourguiba. The 55 year old Bourguiba-Ben Ali regime which prides itself in alienating, liquidating some of its finest opponents only because the “one-and only combatant” and his pupil dictator turned out to be autocratic leaders that coveted absolute power and therefore wanted to become the everlasting President of the country. It’s unbelievable that some well educated Tunisians refuse to understand that the old regime of Bourguiba and his right hand Ben Ali was politically corrupt, economically disastrous , socially divisive, culturally schizophrenic, and morally unacceptable. It is imperative that Tunisian historians must review their writings of contemporary history of Tunisia in order to correct their lapses with regards to the great contributions of many more genuine activists and politicians(not only H. Bourguiba!) that laid down the basis for the First Republic of Tunisia after a bitter struggle against the dark forces of oppression for a better life for all citizens of beloved Tunisia. This is another side of the late President for life or the greatest dictator of the first Republic of our beloved Tunisia.

    • I think that a quick look at other Arab countries is enough to realize that authoritarianism and harsh methods of dealing with political opponents was not some Bourguiba’s special trait or invention, but a logical development. Authoritarianism has deep roots in Arab societies, including Tunisia. Do you think that the beys were democrats? Or that there would have been a democracy and prosperity in Tunisia after the independence, if not for Bourguiba? Sorry, but that’s an extremely naive point of view. Tunisians should be happy that they had a pragmatic ruler whose priorities were education, social development and neutrality on international scene and not somebody like Gaddafi, the Assad clan, Gamal Abdelnasser etc. Also from economical point of view, the rule of Bourguiba or Ben Ali was hardly “disastrous” and I challenge you to show that without them it would be better. As for corruption and nepotism, again, it exists in all Arab countries, it has nothing to do with Bourguiba’s personality. And culturally “schisophrenic” is just a codeword for “secularist” and “francophile”.

  3. I understand this is an op-ed that reflects the personal opinion of the author, but come on!!! One has to be a bit less biased. This article could have been a piece written during Bourguiba’s ruling period as a propaganda tool or a PR campaign.

    “Bourguiba, who became the focus of a modest personality cult”…Really! a modest personality cult?

    Us who lived some years while Bourguiba was president remember the folk poets he use to invite to flatter him live on TV and radio…a silly spectacle of medieval royal courts.

    Bourguiba had a made himself a giant personality cult, and it wasn’t his fault totally. There is a breed among Tunisians that specialize in kissing-ass and flattering…

    more than a decade after Bourguiba’s death, that breed is still around!

  4. Thanks Ali for reminding everyone that Bourguiba was a true visionary who was responsible for the first Personal Status Code in the Arab/Muslim world that gave nearly equal rights to women; free & compulsory education for boys & girls until age 16; the creation of the first Office of the Family & Population that has played an incredibly important roles helping Tunisians plan their families & thus keep population growth controlled; affordable, or even free, health care for all citizens & to recognizing that the Palestinians should negotiate peace with Israel – an act that might have resulted in a viable 2 state solution with a much larger & stronger Palestine than may ultimately be possible 50 years later. I am indeed very proud to have been a “child” of both Bourguiba & John F. Kennedy, even though both did indeed also have serious personal flaws. Peace Corps Volunteer in Haffouz, Bizerte & Gabes 1962-64

    • I remember what people were saying during the 80s. They were fed up with the old man, wishing he would die, hoping for a coup and lamenting a class of party members that were in the business of ass kissing.

      On November 7th 1987, and on hearing the morning news, people had tears in their eyes, they were reinvigorated and hopeful, they thanked God and went to work doubling their effort.

      During the 80s, part of my youth, was marked by strikes, state of siege, hundreds of dead on the hands of the military.

      This is a guy who died penniless because he thought he owned Tunisia, that he didn’t need to have a saving account because he owned the central bank. His nephews and nieces enriched themselves and they enjoy his past cronyism to this day (the Ben Ammar clan).

      What he accomplished is not better than what other Arab countries accomplished in education, science, infrastructure etc. He paternalized Tunisians and dictated rules than no Tunisian discussed.

      He eliminated most of his opponents. He asked the military to kill Tunisians. And finally He created Ben Ali.

      What I have just sited are not just personal flaws, these are crimes that weighed on us, here , in Tunisia, for 6 generations even after his death.

      On another level, and since you sited Kennedy, a president with a cult like following among US democrats, and since you are born in the early 40s, you must have done some Nam time I guess? Unless you dodged it. But in any case, Kennedy is the one that “quagmired” a generation of Americans producing half a million of injured and 55 thousands of dead. Countless of homeless and an economic downturn. Surely he seemed charismatic, was handsome, his wife was beautiful and he had few cute sentences here and there….

      but his acts speak for him.

      If you were born around the beginning of the 40s..I’d pick up FDR as a role model.

      To end on a good note, thanks for the time you spent (part of the P.C.) in Tunisia. I am sure it helped some. I guess Kennedy’s impact was better on Tunisians :).

      • What Bourguiba achieved was not better than what other Arab regimes did? Well, and his pro-women politics are nothing? I suppose that they are if you were an Islamist and everything should be according to the Sharia for you. Why you simply don’t make an honest comparison with other Arab countries to see the difference? Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia … Given that authoritarianism, disrespect for human rights, patriarchy, nepotism and blurred distinction between religion and politics are characteristic for Arab countries, you should be thankful for having had Bourguiba. I guess that you are an Islamist with a deep rooted hatred for secularism.

  5. Bourguiba was the real father of the Tunisian revolution making the most modern country in the area with envy of the Saudis nad Quataris who never advanced, and trying to make us go backward. I did not recognize some of the Tunisians with beards and dressed up like saudis they look like in a “HOlloween costumes” WAKE up young Tunisians… and let us go forward not backward, “itha ouribat khouribat” do not forget what Bourguiba said.

  6. btw:

    “…Anwar Sadat, who finally agreed to shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin …”

    It is not Rabin…Menahim Begin actually.

  7. Bourguiba said after the independance you have to wait for real democracy, when the population is more educated, otherwise it will be chaos. uneducated people like the Saudis and Qataris do not know how to handle democracy, actually Israel is a the only democratic country in the middle east.