April 7, 2000
Habib Bourguiba, Led Tunisia to Independence From France
By ERIC PACE
abib Bourguiba, who was president of Tunisia from 1957 to 1987
after leading the country to independence from France, died
Thursday. He was 96 years old and lived in Monastir, in eastern
Bourguiba was a spectacularly durable Arab leader. He was also
relatively moderate and pro-Western and did much to enhance women's
rights in Tunisia.
Often called the Supreme Combatant, he long dominated his North
African nation as wholly as Nehru did India or Nasser did Egypt.
In the early 1960s, after he consolidated power as president, he
was asked about Tunisia's political system. "The system? What
system?" he exclaimed cheerfully. "I am the system!"
Bourguiba acquired the title "president for life" in 1975, and
he was the only president that independent Tunisia had ever had
when, in November 1987, at the age of 84, he was deposed in a
bloodless coup. He was ousted by his new prime minister, Zine
el-Abidine ben Ali, who declared that the president was too senile
and ill to govern Tunisia's 7.5 million people. Bourguiba had
suffered from various ailments for years.
Tunisia evolved into one of the most politically tolerant Arab
countries during the Bourguiba era and for years was a showcase for
development. Per capita income and literacy soared.
But in the later years of Bourguiba's rule, appreciation of his
past accomplishments dimmed with disillusionment over high prices,
low wages and high unemployment.
At the same time, demands from opposing ends of the political
spectrum shook confidence in his stewardship, which had often been
marred by rigged elections.
In his final years in power, Bourguiba took sweeping measures
against militant Islamists, and he was deposed after he had ordered
retrials and capital punishment for several of them. Ben Ali and
others were afraid that if the order were carried out it would
provoke civil war.
But for decades Bourguiba was the fountainhead of Tunisian
political life, first as the leader of the movement for
independence and then, after independence in 1956, as chief of
state, modernizer, women's rights pioneer and advocate of Arab
moderation on the issue of Israel.
In his prime he was also a shrewd politician who often preferred
to outmaneuver French officials, Islamic conservatives and other
adversaries rather than confront them.
His tactics, dubbed "Bourguibism" by the Paris press, helped
him remain as Tunisia's leader after the rulers of other Islamic
nations -- the shah of Iran, the king of Libya, and strongmen in
Syria and Iraq -- were overthrown.
Bourguiba's relatively restrained attitude did not come
naturally in Tunisia, a nation the size of Louisiana on the
Mediterranean coast between Algeria and Libya. The Vandals were
there in the 5th century and pirates in the 16th. In the early
1950s, Bourguiba's aides unleashed another wave of terror and
violence to wrest their homeland from the grip of France.
But as president he advocated relative restraint toward Israel,
even after the Israeli victory in the 1967 War, when other Arab
leaders demanded revenge.
In 1968, taking an approach resembling one later adopted by U.S.
Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, Bourguiba advocated a phased
solution to the Middle East conflict. But his proposals were
ignored in Arab capitals.
Some months before the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, he called for a
"just and lasting peace," citing Israel's right "not to be
exterminated and thrown into the sea." But in 1973, as in 1967, he
sent a token military force to show support for the Arabs.
And when the guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization
left West Beirut in 1982 after an Israeli invasion, Tunisia --
despite misgivings -- was among the Arab countries that took them
in. About 1,100 PLO members arrived by sea at Bizerte to a
tumultuous welcome. The chief greeter was Bourguiba, waving from
The Bourguiba government also let the PLO set up headquarters in
Tunis, which was already the headquarters of the Arab League.
A quarter century earlier, soon after Tunisia became
independent, Bourguiba used his power to push through a "code of
personal status" that ran counter to traditional Muslim
jurisprudence and custom in enhancing women's rights, a step the
French had cautiously refrained from taking.
Polygamy was outlawed. Marriage was redefined as a voluntary
contract that conferred rights upon the wife as well as the
husband. A minimum age for marriage was set, and the consent of the
bride was made mandatory. These stipulations in effect outlawed the
traditional practice of selling young girls. They also underscored
the modern concept of marriage as a bond between two individuals
rather than an alliance between two families.
Bourguiba also sought to improve life for his country's
seminomadic tribesmen. In a speech to a tribal audience in 1960, he
evoked a theme beloved of Arab historians, the contrast between
desert and city life, in urging the audience to "follow the
directions of your government so that your children and
grandchildren may accede to city life -- or else you can remain
attached to a primitive type of life, which condemns you to
vegetate on the margins of society."
Bourguiba married Wassila ben Ammar, a Tunisian from a prominent
family, in 1961, the year he divorced his first wife, Mathilde
Lorrain. Ben Ammar was seen as a power within the presidency, and
she sought a more open and democratic society and an orderly
aftermath to Bourguiba's presidency. But he divorced her in 1986
after banishing her. She died in 1999.
Bourguiba is survived by a son, Habib Bourguiba Jr.