Tunisians rally around Bourguiba, 17 years after his death
Monastir - Tunisians, angered by attacks on late president Habib Bourguiba’s legacy, staged a display of support for the founder of modern Tunisia 17 years from the day of his death and challenged his critics to match his achievements.
The streets of Bourguiba’s hometown were decked with flags and pictures of him during the height of his leadership, a time in which he undertook an independence struggle to become president of a country he is credited with having lifted from poverty, social backwardness and widespread illiteracy.
“We remembered Bourguiba each year since his death but this year is different because our hearts are bleeding after the attempts of some bitter opponents to denigrate him,” said Sadok Essid, a fisherman who was among thousands gathered on April 6th in Monastir to remember Bourguiba.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi led dozens of government officials, intellectuals and parliament members in recognising the man Tunisians used to call Mujahid al Akbar — Supreme Combatant — for his efforts to develop the country.
“Bourguiba was a patriot. He served the country with honesty, self-denial and love,” Caid Essebsi said before observing a prayer in remembrance of Bourguiba at a shrine overlooking the Mediterranean.
“Those who have attempted to besmirch the history of Bourguiba will find themselves in the dustbin of history,” he had earlier told a local radio interviewer.
Bourguiba’s legacy among liberals and leftist intellectuals is complex. They acknowledge that he left his mark on Tunisia after emerging as a nationalist leader during colonial rule, until being removed in 1987 by his then-prime minister Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali, who invoked medical reasons. They also argue that the liberator became an “oppressive” ruler after being named president-for-life in the 1970s.
Islamists accuse Bourguiba of launching severe crackdowns against them, resulting in human rights violations.
Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), investigating human rights abuses since Tunisia’s independence in 1956, had public hearings in March about human rights violations alleged to have taken place on Bourguiba’s watch. Live broadcasts of the hearings were criticised by Bourguiba’s sympathisers as an attempt to rewrite Tunisia’s history at the expense of their icon.
“It is Bourguiba who ingrained in the minds and spirits of the Tunisian people how to defend and preserve their dignity. The word dignity was one of the key words in his speeches and discourses,” Bourguiba’s daughter, Hajer, said at the remembrance rally.
“My father is always alive. He is present everywhere in Tunisia. Each Tunisian has a story to tell about their links to Bourguiba, whether a school or hospital built in their town or village during Bourguiba’s time or other things.”
Asked if she feared Islamists would undermine Bourguiba’s record, Hajer said: “No. I don’t because Bourguiba is living in us. We are here, men and women, to stand for his defence, which is the defence of our present and that of the future of our children.”
Noura Ouerghi, a high school mathematics teacher, said: “I’m from the El Kef region in northern Tunisia. It comes to me as a falsehood that Bourguiba could have fostered improving the economic and social situation in Monastir and other areas in the Sahel coastal regions while leaving behind other regions.”
“Education and health care have been available everywhere in Tunisia. My parents and grandparents told me about the hardships they were in and the change of life they experienced thanks to Bourguiba,” she added.
Khadija Ammar said she fondly remembers the day when Bourguiba kissed her during a visit to her primary school in Sousse in the early 1960s. “I and my colleague Aicha did not wash our kissed cheeks for days to keep his touch intact,” she said.
“Bourguiba was a very simple man. We could see him and touch him, not like the leaders who came after him. They are shielded by a forest of guards and policemen.”
“With Bourguiba we felt secure and we were not afraid of neighbours and strange people in the streets. We slept at home with the doors open. At his time, Sousse had one police station and we felt safe. Now we have 33 stations and we are afraid,” she added.
Mustapha Rached, 87, an engineer who worked as senior government official under Bourguiba, dismissed critics who argued that Bourguiba failed to encourage multiparty democracy while aiming to become a dictator.
“At independence, Tunisia had a 2.8 million population, 99% of whom were illiterate. We had only 12 physicians and 26 lawyers,” he said. “Tunisians walked kilometres to find someone to read a letter or an official document for them.”
“Talking about democracy at that time is nonsense,” Rached said.
“The most important goal of Bourguiba was to help Tunisians build a state. The French had been repeatedly telling us: ‘You will fail within ten years and come begging us to rule you again’. Bourguiba was under pressure to succeed and belie their predictions,” he added.
Mazen Cherif, a university teacher and head of the Tunisian Centre of Global Security Studies, questioned revisionist readings of Bourguiba’s leadership at a time when the country needs unity in the fight against jihadism.
“We are in a merciless war against terrorism as part of the global fight against this scourge. We need to have respect for our national symbols to reinforce unity and help win that war. Assailing Bourguiba’s record is hardly useful. It only helps the terrorists’ camp,” he said.