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Habib Bourguiba picture, image, poster
Habib Bourguiba

Date of birth : 1903-08-03
Date of death : 2000-04-06
Birthplace : Monastir, French Tunisia
Nationality : Tunisian
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2011-05-28

Habib Bourguiba was president of the Tunisian Republic and played a primordial role in leading his country's nationalist struggle for independence.

Habib Bourguiba was born on Aug. 3, 1903, at Monastir into a modest family. He completed secondary school in Tunis, adhering to the Destour, or liberal constitutional, party. In 1924 he won a scholarship to study political science and law in Paris. Upon returning to Tunis, he joined the bar and in 1930 launched his political career as a Destourian militant. He founded the newspaper Tunisian Action, in which he defined his political goal as the development of a modernist, revolutionary, and laic nationalism.

In 1934 Bourguiba founded the more radical Neo-Destour party. His dynamism so disturbed the French resident general that Bourguiba was deported to the south, where he remained for two years. He was liberated when the Popular Front government in France attempted to liberalize the colonial regime and initiated negotiations with nationalists in 1936. Talks failed to produce results, despite Bourguiba's moderation and his willingness to help reform the colonial system. His noteworthy achievement of the prewar years was the detachment of Tunisian workers from the Communist-dominated CGT and the creation of an autonomous labor union, the UGTT.

In April 1938 Bourguiba was again arrested and remained a prisoner in France until March 1943. The Axis forces liberated him and carried him off to Italy, where they tried to recruit him for their cause. However, Bourguiba declined. On the contrary, when returning to Tunisia in April 1943, he convinced Neo-Destour militants to support the Allies, hoping to win benefits from them after the war ended.

But in 1945 France returned to Tunisia as its colonial master. Bourguiba then sought external support among the Arab states and in the United States. Until 1950 he continued to hope that France would adopt a conciliatory position and accept his seven-point program designed to lead Tunisia toward internal autonomy. Instead, the French authorities in Tunis oriented reforms toward cosovereignty. For Bourguiba this was the signal for revolt.

Bourguiba carried the Tunisian case to the United Nations and simultaneously launched appeals for combat in Tunisia against French intransigence. In January 1952 he was arrested for a third time and remained incarcerated until July 1954. In Tunisia armed terrorists organized urban guerrilla attacks against Frenchmen, while the Tunisian elite refused to form a rubber-stamp government.

In 1955 the president of the French Council, Pierre Mendès-France, pressed by the Algerian War, recognized Tunisia's right to internal autonomy. In the difficult negotiations which followed, intransigent Tunisian nationalists and French colons attacked all compromises, but Bourguiba forced his followers into line.

Conventions were signed in May 1955, and Bourguiba returned to Tunisia as a hero. In March 1956 Bourguiba profited from the sudden independence of Morocco to reopen negotiations which led on March 20, 1956, to Tunisia's independence. In April he was elected president of the Constituent Assembly and chief of the government. The Assembly proclaimed Tunisia a republic in July 1957, and in 1959 it ratified the constitution, which established a presidential regime. Bourguiba was then elected president of the republic by universal suffrage.

Twenty-five years of political activity and nine years of prison permitted Bourguiba to realize his goal of independence by steps. Bourguibism was the name given to his tactics and his doctrine. Tactically, he willingly employed negotiations and persuasion first, but he used force when necessary to achieve his ends. His doctrine, more pragmatic than ideological, can be reduced to four essential points: decolonization by stages, laicization, pro-West foreign policy, and measured economic planning.

Bourguiba was very attached to the Occident and interested in continuity and order. Thus, he approached the problem of decolonization with caution and diplomacy. But inevitable tensions erupted over the Algerian War and the pro-Egyptian activities of Salah Ben Youssef, the secretary general of the Neo-Destour. The crisis of Bizerte in 1961, when French soldiers killed more than a thousand Tunisians, gravely compromised relations between Paris and Tunis, as did Bourguiba's unilateral decision to nationalize lands belonging to Frenchmen in 1964. Normalization of relations between the two countries in 1969 resulted from Bourguiba's constant desire to pass from confrontation to friendship.

A Moslem, but at the same time a reformist, Bourguiba gave Tunisia a laic constitution and even encouraged the nonobservance of major religious rituals, such as the fast of Ramadan. Despite fierce resistance to these innovations, Tunisia went further than its neighbors in desacralizing politics and social life. More in tune with Western liberalism than with Arab nationalism, Bourguiba turned Tunisia toward the West. As a crusading anti-Communist, he opposed Soviet and Chinese penetration into Africa and supported the United States in Vietnam. In return, the United States offered Tunisia significant economic aid. As for planning, 1962 marked a decisive turning point in Tunisia's economy and in Bourguiba's doctrine of liberalism. Under the direction of Ahmed Ben Salah, Tunisia formed agrarian and industrial cooperatives and state-run factories. But mismanagement and internal opposition to forced collectivization of land led Bourguiba in the fall of 1969 to dismiss Ben Salah and slow down Tunisia's conversion to socialism.

In November 1969 he was reelected to a new 5-year term as president, though he turned many of his presidential duties over to his prime minister because of an onslaught of medical problems. Bourguiba sought medical treatment and rest outside of Tunisia for most of 1970 and 1971. Although he faced political challenges when he returned, Bourguiba maintained governmental control.

His health improved during 1973, and Bourguiba became a peacemaker in an Arab-Israeli conflict, a role that seemed to be short-lived when Bourguiba and Libya's Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi discussed creating a federation between their countries in early 1974. The talks of unification lasted only a week. Later that year he was named President for Life. He ruled rather unremarkably during the remainder of the decade, surviving political and medical problems. Bourguiba remained in office almost another decade.

Bourguiba celebrated his 25th year of power in 1983 amid civil and religious unrest. A decline in the economy and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism led to the problems in Tunisia. The following year was marked by rioting and killing in the streets over an 80 percent increase on food prices. These food riots, combined with a 25 percent unemployment rate and increasing tensions with other African nations, marked the beginning of decline for Bourguiba.

In 1986, Bourguiba separated from his wife, his son, and his prime minister. Bourguiba also appointed all members to the Central Committee and Politburo (those positions were usually elected). In 1987 General Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was appointed prime minister (the third man to hold that office in 22 months). Ben Ali staged a coup and deposed of the President for Life, maintaining that Bourguiba was mentally unfit.


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