Fear of Islamism behind nostalgia for Bourguiba

Friday 08/04/2016

Habib Bourguiba is a central figure in Tunisia’s modern history. He was one of those larger-than-life people who shaped the fate of his country through a mix of cha­risma, eloquence and vision. He died at age 96 on April 6th, 2000, while under virtual house arrest.
Bourguiba spent much of his adult life fighting French colonial rule. Following Tunisia’s independence on March 20th, 1956, he became head of Tunisia’s first national government. Ever since, he has occupied a central place in the country’s history and in the collective memory of the Arab world.
Sixteen years after his death, Bourguiba remains an emblematic figure who was no stranger to controversy.
Bourguiba was known by many nicknames: “the Supreme Combatant”, “the Leader” (Ezzaieem in Arabic), “the Chief” (al-Qaed in Arabic), “the Liberator of Women”, “the Builder of Modern Tunisia” among them. The post-World War II, post-independence decades produced a host of remarkable and charismatic leaders: John F. Kennedy, Che Guevara, Houari Boumediene, Josip Broz Tito, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jomo Kenyatta, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Habib Bourguiba belongs in this impressive group and his name and image are forever entwined with the history of his country.
As soon as the independence protocols were signed, Bourguiba was hard at work implementing his vision for a new Tunisia. One of his fundamental achievements was the establishment in July 1957 of a republican system of government. He introduced major legal reforms, including the enactment in August 1956 of the Code of Personal Status, known as the family code. His government replaced judges of the old school with younger jurists educated and trained in the West.
Despite the state’s limited financial resources, Bourguiba made a priority of eradicating illiteracy and improving public health, investing 40% of the state’s annual budget in education.
Bourguiba also chose to keep the military out of the country’s political affairs. As a result, and unlike in many Arab states, the army’s role was restricted to protecting the country’s territorial integrity, not meddling in political choices. The ministry of defence was always and continues to be headed by a civilian. The army’s attention and efforts focused on helping the state to fight under-development.
A victim of his own megalomania, Habib Bourguiba had a sad exit. Ousted from power by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on November 7, 1987, Bourguiba spent the rest of his life confined to his family home in Monastir.
His death was long preceded by political death in 1974 when he was elected as president for life. From that date until 1987 political life in Tunisia was in a hibernation mode. The ruling party-state reigned over the country but did not govern. The confusion of the political party with the government was a major hurdle preventing Tunisians from acceding to true participatory democracy.
Adopting a paternalistic approach to government, Bourguiba genuinely thought of himself as the father of the nation. Because of the excesses that naturally went along with this role and because of the influence of his entourage at the time, he failed to place the country on the right path for democracy.
It is ironic that those who boast of adherence to Bourguiba’s legacy are exactly those who had abandoned him before the revolution.
Considering that today’s politicians are hardly able to communicate with the public or defend the interests of the state, it is no surprise that there is nostalgia for Bourguiba, a skilled orator and a natural-born leader.
Many identify with Bourguiba’s social and political values such as championing women’s rights, civil education, an apolitical military and investment in human assets. These values do not represent an ideology but rather a current societal project.
The return of Bourguiba and his legacy to centre stage is due to fear of the rapid political ascension of Islamists. People have been spooked by the likely emergence of a conservative project that might jeopardise the country’s progressive achievements.
It is time to closely examine and reflect on Bourguiba’s history, which is in many regards the country’s history. Few people leave an imprint on their country the way he did. Those who manage to do so will always be remembered despite the polemics surrounding them. It is exactly such polemics that make Bourguiba a figure to be revisited and reassessed.