Bourguiba’s statue symbolically reinstalled in Tunis
TUNIS - The statue of Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba was restored to its original pedestal on June 1st, the 61st anniversary of his return from exile in France.
Bourguiba loyalists cried as they witnessed the twist of destiny nearly 30 years after the statue had been moved from the centre of Tunis to a suburb. Others, however, saw the transfer of the statue as a bid by Tunisia’s leaders to promote unity as the country faces high unemployment, jihadist threats and regional upheaval.
“Bourguiba is the father who gave me the freedom to go to school, to live free and divorce the man I do not like. God bless his soul,” shouted a young woman with tears in her eyes.
Asked her name, she said: “A Tunisian daughter of Bourguiba”.
Mohamed Bejaoui, 32, however, said he was disgusted with the ceremony. “The authorities wasted Tunisia’s money for a nonsensical move,” he said. “The money spent on this statue would have been better gone on job creation or equipment for hospitals in remote areas.”
When asked about those tearfully admiring the statue, Bejaoui said: “I do not understand that. I cannot feel their strong emotions.”
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who often says he is a disciple of Bourguiba, unveiled a marble plaque on the statue that said: “The statue of Habib Bourguiba was returned to its place on June 1, 2016.”
Bourguiba returned from France in 1955 after talks on Tunisia’s independence and was welcomed by huge crowds in central Tunis to declare Tunisia a free country. June 1st is now celebrated as Victory Day in Tunisia.
“I was a small schoolboy when he came back. A sea of Tunisians welcomed him. People joined hands and moved him across this street where his statue is erected now. It gave me some confidence and trust in the future to see his statue back here,” said Mohamed Jouini, a trader at the Kasbah, the old city of Tunis.
“After they moved away his statue, I felt its absence like a black hole on my mind. All this must teach all of us a lesson: Nothing remains except what is essential to improve human situations,” he said.
Bourguiba was replaced by his prime minister, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, on November 7th, 1987, after doctors declared him, at 82 years of age, incapacitated. His statue was removed from Habib Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis to the port city of La Goulette, 10km from Tunis.
The statue was returned to the street where thousands of people gathered on January 14th, 2011, to chant “Game over” hours before Ben Ali left the country for exile in Saudi Arabia.
“Habib Bourguiba came to power a humble man and was gone without any money. He owned eight olive trees at the beginning of his presidency in 1956. He had no penny beside that when he died in 2000,” said Makthri Salah, 78, a retired military officer.
“He is not like the leaders of Tunisia now. Bourguiba was a man of strong values. If our current leaders own one-tenth of his values, the country would be more stable and prosperous.”
Not everybody among the crowd surrounding the statue agreed. “If Bourguiba did not hoard money, it is just because as a dictator he believed he owned the whole country,” said Slim Agrebi, 34-year-old accountant, as he joined the impromptu debate about the former president.