Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Bourguiba legacy

The legacy of historic Tunisian leader Habib Bourguiba is alive and well in the country today, writes Walid M. Abdelnasser 

More than three decades have passed since the coup d’état that took place against the late Tunisian president and historic leader Habib Bourguiba led by the subsequent president, and at the time newly appointed prime minister, Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali. More than 17 years have also passed since the death of Bourguiba himself. However, the Bourguiba legacy is still alive in Tunisia, perhaps even more so today than in some previous periods of the recent history of the country. 

Much of that legacy remains alive in both memory and reality regarding developments that have taken place in the modern and contemporary history of the Middle East and the Muslim world and the Arab world in particular.

 In Tunisian society and beyond, particularly but not exclusively at the socio-cultural level, the Bourguiba legacy is perhaps best represented by the status of women in Tunisia and the rights they acquired and consolidated under Bourguiba’s rule. The degree of gender equality and women’s empowerment achieved in Tunisia under Bourguiba, president from 1957 to 1987, was unparalleled at the time in any other Arab society and in most of the rest of the Muslim world. 

The depth of the commitment of Tunisian women to safeguard and protect rights obtained during the Bourguiba era became clear to many observers in the years following the Arab Spring revolutions that started in Tunisia in December 2010 and culminated in regime change in that country in January 2011. Since then, the status of Tunisian women has faced a number of challenges, but these have been in almost all cases successfully overcome. 

A number of observers have related the recent reformist measures taken by current Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in favour of Tunisian women to his being a disciple of Bourguiba, as Essebsi himself stated in a recent book about Bourguiba and his memories of him. Essebsi also served as a minister under the late president Bourguiba.

The second continuing legacy of Bourguiba in Tunisian society has been the fight against corruption and the integrity that characterised him as both a leader and a symbol of the national liberation struggle against France. This integrity was reflected in a number of attributes including his purity and clean-handedness, as well as his ability to ensure that there was no abuse of his position as president by any member of his family or his entourage. 

There are a lot of stories that Tunisians still recall to prove the integrity of their late leader. Even youngsters who were born after Bourguiba was ousted from power or even after his death tirelessly repeat these stories. One of the most famous among them relates to Bourguiba’s only son, Habib Junior, and how he once applied for a bank loan in order to buy a house at a time when his father was president. When Bourguiba learned that the bank had approved the provision of the loan to his son, he ordered his son to return it and questioned the management of the bank regarding the basis on which it had agreed to give the loan to his son since he did not have the necessary guarantees. 

Many Tunisians also recall that Bourguiba died in April 2000 owning nothing except his own house in his home city of Monastir in eastern Tunisia.

The third feature of Bourguiba’s legacy is what Tunisians describe as the wisdom and moderation of his policies, particularly towards non-Arab and non-Muslim cultures and civilisations. Although he was one of the leaders of the national independence movement against the French occupation of his country, he did not move after achieving independence towards a boycott of France, the former colonial power, or the West in general. On the contrary, he maintained strong relations with these three spheres and used them in the interests of his country. 

At the cultural level, Bouguiba managed to maintain a delicate balance between the Arab identity of Tunisia and its Islamic heritage, particularly symbolised by the Al-Zeitouna Mosque and Al-Qairawan University in Tunis, and projecting Tunisia’s image as a cultural and civilisational bridge between Europe and the West, on the one hand, and the Arab world, Africa and the Muslim world, on the other. In this respect, he also employed the Phoenician heritage of Tunisia as evidence of the country’s historic interactions with Europe. 

Bourguiba is remembered today by many Tunisians as a leader who worked hard to maintain the independence of his country amidst regional and international storms. His open-minded approach towards other experiences can also be seen in his introduction in the 1970s of an open door economic policy to Tunisia and a limited, to some extent controlled, pluralistic political system. This was similar, though not identical, to the systems adopted by Egypt and Morocco during the same period. 

These things meant that Tunisia was able to develop into a free-market economy and then into a more thorough-going democracy after the Tunisian revolution of 2011. The balance between different historical backgrounds and socio-cultural identities remains central in the collective mind of the Tunisian people.

These three features of Tunisia today do not constitute an exhaustive list of Bourguiba’s legacy, but they do indicate its richness and diversity and the way in which it is still alive in the memories and lived experiences of Tunisians today, as well as in the memories of many Arabs born outside the country’s borders.


The writer is a political analyst.

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