Reopening of 1961 assassination case ignites Tunisian political divisions

The revisiting of the case by Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) angered Bourguiba loyalists who said the move is part of a “game of revenge” by Islamists.
Thursday 23/05/2019
Assailed legacy? The statue of modern Tunisia’s founder Habib Bourguiba in Tunis. (AFP)
Assailed legacy? The statue of modern Tunisia’s founder Habib Bourguiba in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - A Tunisian court has begun trial proceedings regarding the 1961 assassination of nationalist leader Salah Ben Youssef, reviving old political divisions ahead of elections this year.

Ben Youssef, a key figure in Tunisia’s independence struggle, was exiled after falling out with modern Tunisia’s founder, Habib Bourguiba. He was assassinated in Frankfurt, Germany, in August 1961 by two men suspected of acting on Bourguiba’s behalf.

The revisiting of the case by Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD), tasked with investigating state crimes following independence, angered Bourguiba loyalists who said the move is part of a “game of revenge” by Islamists.

Bourguiba, who led from 1957-87, is widely credited for developing Tunisia and promoting women’s rights, education and health care. He was a long-time ally of Ben Youssef before the latter, aided by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, advanced a rival political movement.

Fifty-eight years after Ben Youssef’s assassination, many Tunisians say reopening the case will cause unnecessary discord and do unjustified harm to Bourguiba’s reputation.

"I swear to God that we followers of Bourguiba's thinking... did not sleep the night after the hearing," said Slaheddine Ferchiou, head of the Bourguiba Thought Association. "It is a shameful operation against us and against Tunisia."

"Bourguiba can defend his towering memory through his own deeds. He is bigger than this act but Tunisia and we are hurt by such a masquerade," he added.

The case, which adjourned after its first hearing May 16, identified Bourguiba and four others as suspects in Ben Youssef’s assassination.

Scholars said Ben Youssef had plotted to assassinate Bourguiba and stage a coup before he was killed. Scholars have Bourguiba as saying "Tunisia got rid of a blue viper” after Ben Youssef’s death.

Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who succeeded Bourguiba in 1987, received Ben Youssef's widow and children, presenting them with a posthumous award honour and recognising Ben Youssef’s role in fighting colonialism.

Ben Ali, a former interior minister and top intelligence official, gave Ben Youssef's widow "all the documents related to the assassination" as part of moral and spiritual healing.

Some historians argue there is no purpose in the judicial examination of the dispute between Bourguiba and Ben Youssef nearly six decades after the killing.

"The assassination was a manifestation of the antagonism between Tunisian nationalism as advocated by Bourguiba and Nasser-led Arab nationalism embraced by Ben Youssef,” said political writer Rachid Barnat. “Bourguiba and Ben Youssef are two great nationalist leaders whose visions about freeing Tunisia from colonial rule diverged.

"Bourguiba was determined to count only on the force and intelligence of the Tunisians to win independence. Ben Youssef eyed Arab armies, which meant foreign forces, to fight for Tunisia's independence," he added. "It is hard to imagine what Tunisia would have become if Ben Youssef had succeeded in killing Bourguiba.”

Tunisian Islamists, who were repressed by Bourguiba and Ben Ali, were accused of pushing for reopening the Ben Youssef case.

"The Muslim Brothers are behind the case to take revenge against Bourguiba after they failed to confront him alive," said Abir Moussi, president of the Bourguiba-inspired Free Destourian Party, referring to the Islamist Ennahda Movement party.

"This case of indicting Bourguiba is illegal," said Moussi, who is a lawyer, adding that the IVD was dismantled months before the hearing began.

Moussi and other politicians argued the country’s justice system should focus on more recent political assassinations and crimes, including the killings of leftist leaders Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid in 2013.

"Ennahda is motivated by revenge, not by the fairness of justice," said Communist Party of Tunisian Workers spokesman Ammar Amroussia.

Other political figures say the court case is subverting the purpose of the IVD for political ends.

Former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, who leads the centrist al Badil party, said: “The (IVD) was launched with the aim of reconciling Tunisians with their past. This is not the case.

"The (IVD) strayed off its path. At this moment, a trial of the symbols of the state has opened."

Selim Azzabi, secretary-general of Tahya Tounes, which backs Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, whose government includes Ennahda ministers, warned Tunisians against " the gravity of the case against Bourguiba, which aims to derail the process of a comprehensive national reconciliation."

Analysts said the antagonism between Islamists and secularists about the case would fuel polarisation between the two camps in elections in November.

"Political activists opened with this case this struggle about the identity to try to gain in the upcoming elections," said political writer Hassan Ayadi. "The Islamists and their allies are defending the memory of Ben Youssef as a nationalist fighter against Bourguiba, a pro-Western leader."