Ahmed Mestiri: The greatest president Tunisia never had

The democracy pioneer understood well that the enlightened despotism of Bourguiba would not keep pace for long with an increasingly restive population.

Wednesday 26/05/2021
Former minister Ahmed Mestiri died May 23, 2021 at the age of 96. (AFP)
Former minister Ahmed Mestiri died May 23, 2021 at the age of 96. (AFP)

In November 1981, Tunisia held its first multiparty elections since independence in 1956.

For the first 25 year after it shook off the French colonial yoke, Tunisia was ruled by the Socialist Destourian Party ( known by its French acronym PSD) and a charismatic but authoritarian president, Habib Bourguiba whose very title el Moudjahid Al Akbar painted a larger-than-life picture of his undisputed leadership of the fight for liberation and the affairs of post-independence Tunisia.

The campaign leading up to the vote was lively, at times undemocratic, as the PSD was not shy of using brutal methods of intimidation to disrupt the meetings of the opposition Social Democratic Movement (MDS) founded by one of Bourguiba’s most brilliant former ministers, Ahmed Mestiri.

On the night of the poll, on November 1 , I personally witnessed the stuffing of ballot boxes at the Bab Jedid  polling station in central Tunis. I described my experience on the BBC World Service at 6:00am the following morning which earned me a rebuke from the minister of information of the time, Tahar Belkhoja.

The governor of El Kef, a farming province on the Algerian border, Fadhel Khelil, rang the minister of the interior, Driss Guiga to tell him that the MDS candidate had won, which earned him a dressing down.

“I have transmitted the correct verdict of the polls, you cook them as you wish,” said the governor, one of the few of his rank not to belong to the PSD, in his candid reply to his boss.

The votes were eventually falsified in a number of districts, not least central Tunis where Beji Caid Essebsi, later to become Tunisia’s fourth head of state in 2014, was elected on the PDS list. In his memoirs, thirty years later, he acknowledged that had the results not been tampered with, Ahmed Mestiri would have been elected as the MP for Tunis Centre, not him.

Born to a wealthy family belonging to the grande bourgeoisie of Tunis in 1925, Ahmed Mestiri studied law at the university of Algiers and Paris, and went on to graduate at Sciences Po Paris. He joined the nationalist Neo Destour Party at the age of 17 and by 1952 was a member of the clandestine leadership of the party. He escaped assassination by the right-wing French colonial death squad “La Main Rouge” which succeeded in murdering the founder of the Tunisian main trade union UGTT, Farhat Hached, in 1952.

Mestiri was one of those who helped Mongi Slim negotiate Tunisia’s  independence. He went on to represent Tunisia in France and the United Nations and helped set up the new national currency, the Dinar. As first Tunisian ambassador to Egypt and Algeria, he assisted in crafting the new country’s foreign policy and geared the course of its nascent diplomatic corps. He was appointed minister of defence in 1968 and went on to run the interior ministry but was sacked in September 1971 after his refusal to approve the appointment of hard-line acolytes of Bourguiba who gained the upper hand in the security services.

During the more inspired years of Bourguiba’s rule, women were emancipated and gained rights that no other women enjoyed in the Arab world, literacy and standards of living improved and universal health and education established.

But Ahmed Mestiri understood well that the enlightened despotism of Bourguiba would not keep pace for long with changes in an increasingly restive population. The failed “socialist experience” led by Ahmed Ben Salah in the 1960s ruined many farmers and further increased discontent beyond rural areas. In 1978, Ahmed Mestiri and companions who had set up the Tunisia Human Rights League decided to found a new party. The Social Democratic Movement (MDS) was legalised three years later when the reform-minded and Arabisation advocate Prime Minister Mohamed M’Zali allowed opposition parties to field candidates’ lists in general elections on November 1. He also announced the government would recognise parties if they won more than 5% of the vote.

The MDS won more than 5% of the vote in a handful of constituencies, most symbolically in the capital. The fury of the ageing Habib Bourguiba knew no bounds and he ordered his compliant minister of the interior to rig the results. The MDS was credited with only 3.2% of the vote, behind the 94.6% of the ruling PSD. It took thirty six hours to cook the figures. This was  followed by a tense press conference  at the ministry of the interior where Tunisian and foreign journalists publicly ridiculed the results. The king was naked and all Tunisia knew it to be so. Six years later, growing Islamist opposition in the streets led to a “medical coup” staged by the prime minister, General Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, pre-empting what many Tunisians believed later was an impending coup by Islamists, amid escalating social political tensions and street violence.

It is interesting to reflect how the course of Tunisian history might have been changed if, in 1981, Habib Bourguiba had allowed the emergence of a “loyal opposition” led by a man of integrity and a liberal reformer who himself hailed from the ranks of the ruling party but who was convinced that the rule of law was a universal principle, as valid for Arabs or Muslims as for any westerner.

Had Tunisians had the option of a serious lay opposition, resentment at the regime’s growing ineptitude and worsening internal crisis might not have been channelled solely through Islamist forces.  Tunisia had a nascent “lay” opposition that was killed in the bud. In Mestiri, it had a skilled diplomat, a man who understood the ways of the world better than many of the Bourguiba sycophants and an inveterate moderate, well-attuned to his country’s characteristics of modernism and moderation.

Ahmed Mestiri never questioned Habib Bourguiba’s alliance with the West nor the support he gave to the Palestinians. He was a shrewd statesman, firm but fair, a man of personal integrity. His misfortune was that Bourguiba could not bear to have ministers who challenged his authority, competent or honest though they might be. Having cleared the deck of such characters, one only has to think of men like Azouz Lasram, Mansour Moalla and others in the 1980s, Bourguiba precipitated the dangerous deterioration of his country’s politics and economy during his twilight years and jockeying for power and palace intrigues heightened with the ailing president’s growing health problems and political disconnect from reality.

Tunisia today is paying a heavy price for Bourguiba’s arbitrary rule, especially in his last decade in power. The country would have been far safer had Ahmed Mestiri succeeded Bourguiba during his lifetime and ushered in a democratic transition for which Tunisia was probably ready.  The country would have been spared a lot of unneeded upheaval as obsolete authoritarianism continued to carry the day in the years to come.

Conversing with Ahmed Mestiri on Tunisian history or international affairs taught the young journalist I then was many lessons. It was akin to a fast game of tennis. Mestiri is probably the greatest president Tunisia never had.