Why Bourguiba is always present, always current

Friday 08/04/2016
Statue of first Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba in La Goulette

Former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba is back in the news. Two proposals have reignited the passions and polemics sur­rounding this major 20th-cen­tury figure.
One proposal is to return an equestrian statue of Bourguiba to its former location at one end of the avenue that bears his name. The second would direct schools to devote one hour of class time to his memory each April 6th, the anniversary of his death.
The disappearance of Bourguiba from power left a political vacuum that, in truth, had begun to form during his lifetime due to a governing style that grew uncompromising towards any form of opposition.
The Declaration of the Republic in 1957 suddenly and brutally wiped out the country’s Husainid monarchy (1704- 1957). It was a unilateral act by Bourguiba and his partisans who had decided to dismiss all challenges and opposition for the purpose of laying the foundations of a modern state.
When Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali took power in 1987, he filled the vacuum by transforming Destourian partisans and Bourguiba loyalists into a dormant network or by turning them into members of his Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD). Many of the latter “repented” and are back on the political scene.
The unexpected departure of Ben Ali stirred those regrets and the frustration of not having given Bourguiba the merit he deserves. These confused feelings emerged during a period when no clear leadership rose to the surface and nourished Bourguiba’s symbolic appeal since 2011.
Meanwhile, after 60 years of independence, a perfusion of the principles of organisation of the Tunisian state and society had time to make its mark.
Despite Bourguiba’s authoritarian abuses and despite manipulations by the Ben Ali regime to co-opt Bourguiba’s legacy, various Tunisian social classes have evolved to accept, and even take for granted, free access to public education and public health and the recognition of women’s rights and their role as political actors.
The country has undergone profound changes induced by public policies derived from Bourguiba’s vision and choices. To various extents, modes of thinking and ways of living in the spheres of family life, education and labour (but not politics) have changed for the better.
Nostalgic “Bourguibists”, political entrepreneurs reviving Bourguiba’s image and legacy to use as a stepping stone, and Islamists who acknowledge in their speeches Bourguiba’s contributions to modern-day Tunisia, share almost similar discourse characterised by the absence of their own political vision.
It is thus significant to note that Tunisia’s constitution of January 2014 kept the same version of the first article in the 1959 constitution: “Tunisia is a free, independent, sovereign state; its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic …,” with the same syntactic ambiguity, namely is the possessive pronoun its referring to Tunisia or the noun state?
The various political tendencies in the National Constituent Assembly ended up agreeing to preserve the status quo at least with respect to this particularly divisive issue.
The sudden appearance of religious extremism in Tunisia brought the question of women’s rights to the forefront of ideological and political confrontation and turned it into a compass.
Once more, political speeches, public debate and social media return to Bourguiba as a reference and a symbol. In this respect, Bourguiba was not the sole artisan in the “modernisation” of Tunisian society. The groundwork for this process was laid out long ago in the writings of Tunisian intellectuals, Tahar Haddad being the most famous among them.
What Bourguiba did was introduce the principles of equality between the sexes. The concept took strong root in the country.
Despite Bourguiba’s legacy and his symbolic importance within the context of women’s rights in Tunisia, it would be wrong to consider him a demiurge responsible for thrusting Tunisia into a brave new era.
Recent tensions in public debates demonstrate that values incarnated by Bourguiba can be contested in the name of competing political projects. Without resorting to either mystifying or vilifying his legacy, it is best to pursue it. Rising above political cleavages, we should renew and reinvent his legacy in actions and laws so we build a society in which women fully occupy the space that Bourguiba had begun to clear for them.