The return of Habib Bourguiba
Thirteen years after his death, Habib Bourguiba has returned to the avenue that bears the late president’s name in downtown Tunis. The statue depicting Bourguiba on horseback was reinstalled on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in a June 1st ceremony attended by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.
A few objected to the symbolic gesture but overall there was no significant opposition to returning Bourguiba’s statue to its original location in central Tunis. It had been removed about three decades ago.
More than anything else, Bourguiba is remembered as the embodiment of Tunisia’s fight for independence and its sense of national pride. Last March he was named by 77% of Tunisian respondents in a nationwide poll as the leading figure of the struggle for independence, ahead of trade unionist leader Farhat Hached (42%) and Bourguiba’s nemesis Salah ben Youssef (15%).
Bourguiba also is credited with a host of iconic legacies. In the same poll, Tunisians listed the main achievements of the country since independence as: the army (92%), free education (83%), the republican regime (74%), general access to public health (66%), birth control (66%) and women’s liberation (64%).
All of these achievements were elements of Bourguiba’s modernist nation-building vision. A vision based on civilian not military rule. A vision that pinned hope on civil not religious institutions.
Bourguiba knew what and whom he did not like. On the top of the list of his most disliked figures were ideologues whom he saw as opposed to progress. He is probably turning in his tomb over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent remarks about birth control: “People talk about birth control, about family planning. No Muslim family can understand and accept that!” Bourguiba both understood and accepted it and firmly believed in family planning the same way he believed in other rights for women.
The return of Bourguiba’s statue to its former setting came at a time many Tunisians, especially the country’s young, yearn for a clear sense of identity. That need was strongly felt by secularist-leaning Tunisians in particular when Islamists and Salafists burst onto the political and cultural scene after 2011. During the last five years, Tunisia’s “culture wars” have been felt as existential challenges over the country’s “ways of life”.
It is no mere coincidence that a few weeks ago, Tunisia’s presidency feted Hannibal in a cultural event that honoured the great Carthaginian general who died around 183BC in modern-day Turkey. Hannibal is celebrated in Tunisia as a pre- Islamic symbol of Tunisia’s past glory and as evidence of the country’s deep and rich history.
As in all exercises of nostalgia, there is much glossing over of Bourguiba’s shortcomings. Tunisia’s first president was a man with a vision but with no attention to the details of socio-economic management. A larger-than-life figure, he had an inflated ego that did not allow him to see his political contemporaries as legitimate rivals. He saw to his own crowning as president-for-life and objected to the attempts of liberal activists, including Caid Essebsi, to make democratisation one of the country’s priorities.
His most serious shortcoming was, however, his inability to step down when his health was clearly failing him. When he visited Washington in June 1985, Bourguiba illustrated De Gaulle’s wry comment that “old age is a shipwreck”. He tried to impress his American hosts while he could barely stand. He apparently could not imagine Tunisia without him at the helm.
Even in his twilight years, though, Bourguiba would not compromise on Tunisia’s sovereignty. He was deeply angered when the White House seemed to condone an October 1985 Israeli air raid on Palestine Liberation Organisation headquarters in Tunisia that killed 61 Palestinians and 12 Tunisians.
In an official statement, Bourguiba “underlined with force and insistence the need for the United States to reconsider its negative and unexpected position”. He was only appeased when the United States refrained from using its veto power against a UN resolution denouncing the Israeli action. A first in the annals of US votes on Israeli actions.
A couple of weeks later, then-US President Ronald Reagan described Tunisia’s leader as “a gifted statesman” and reminded Americans during his weekly radio address that Bourguiba “was one of the very first to urge a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict”.
Pragmatism in peacemaking is another legacy of Bourguiba. When the demagogues of armed liberation carried the day, Bourguiba called on Arabs to opt for a gradualist approach in their search for an equitable solution to the Palestinian problem. It did not make him popular among the region’s more radical leaders but ultimately it is the course the Arab world has adopted.
In an age when regional and international powers dictate the Arab agenda, when jihadist extremists try to lure confused youths into murderous missions and when future prospects appear increasingly dim, people in the Arab world are looking for heroes. Habib Bourguiba is, despite all, one such a hero.