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Habib Bourguiba

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!" Born in 1903 at Monastir in the Sahil region, Habib Bourguiba - often referred to as the Supreme Combatant - was a Third World nationalist leader who guided his country to independence in the post-World War II era. His strength derived from his great popularity as the founder and ideological mentor of the Destourian movement. After independence he used his prestige to institutionalize presidential dominance of the governmental system and to secure for the party supremacy over most aspects of national life. Bourguiba and the vanguard of the nationalist movement were all of Sahilian origin. The Sahil is the coastal plateau region heavily influenced by its continued exposure to foreigners. In marked contrast to the more arabized remainder of the country, the Sahilian community was intensely industrious, flexible in accepting new methods, independent and rather secular in spirit, and highly cooperative.

After independence, rather than fashion a nation based on pride and extremism, these men sought to accustom the people to a realistic assessment of the new republic's position in the world and to a pragmatic, flexible approach to the problems of national development. Many observers believed Tunisia not only would attain its goal but also would do so through a democratic governmental system and a free society. Certainly it enjoyed a combination of advantages rarely matched in other emerging sovereign states.

From the outset Bourguiba's leadership was a major advantage. Popularly hailed as the Supreme Combatant for his role in the struggle for national independence, he had no competitors in gaining public recognition as "father of his country." Widely regarded as capable, incorruptible, progressive, and committed to a compassionate, humanistic philosophy regarding the Tunisian people, the national leader was respected-even revered-by a citizenry eager to follow his lead.

Internal political opposition generally was kept in bounds by adroit personnel management. The president shuffles government and party officials frequently to discourage the development of factions and eliminates those regarded as threats to the status quo. Bourguiba's perception of his role as the primary molder of national solidarity is perennial, and, ever conscious of his place in Tunisia's history, he loses no opportunity to remind his fellow citizens of their debt to him. "There is not a Tunisian," he is fond of stating, "who does not owe being a free citizen in an independent country to me."

Bourguiba suffered from various ailments for years. In November 1969 Bourguiba was elected to a third term as president. Before leaving for prolonged medical treatment abroad, he appointed Bahi Ladgham to the newly created post of prime minister and head of government. Ladgham, as general coordinator of state affairs, had presided over the executive office during the frequent periods when Bourguiba was indisposed by illness. The onset of Bourguiba's health problems in 1967 had sparked a great of deal of speculation about the succession. Bourguiba's health began failing in the 1970s.

With the approach in 1986 of the thirtieth anniversary of their national independence, Tunisians could look back with satisfaction over their success in keeping peace with their neighbors and attaining a notable record of economic growth and social reform. Much credit for these achievements was due to President Habib Bourguiba, often called the Supreme Combatant, the country's incorruptible and inspirational leader who had remained at the forefront of Tunisian politics for more than half a century.

The goals and ideals imparted by Bourguiba in his messages to the Tunisian people and in his policies had for long set the country apart in the Arab world. Through his programs for health, higher education, cultural advancement, women's rights, and secularization of the state, the president labored to recast Tunisia as a modern nation. Impatient at first with the pace of development, he experimented for a time with socialism but swung back to a mixed economy when it became obvious that the socialist initiatives were producing resistance and disorder.

Staying clear of international conflicts, Bourguiba had for long felt secure enough to forgo a large military establishment, saving resources and averting military involvement in politics. His own political movement, the Destourian Socialist Party, with its monopoly over political activity, served as an instrument for mobilizing Tunisians on behalf of his policies.

By 1986, as the Bourguiba era drew nearer to its close, it seemed uncertain whether the solid political edifice identified with him would endure after he was no longer in command. Many of the doctrines of Bourguiba's program that had brought major advances during the first decades were being challenged. The program's secularist features and its emphasis on the Western aspects of Tunisia's cultural heritage were under attack from many Tunisians demanding a reassertion of traditional Islamic religious values. The inability of the economy to create jobs for the young - particularly the increasing numbers turned out by the universities - and the failure of wages to keep up with price increases had led to violent outbursts in 1978 and 1984 that the government was barely able to bring under control. Economic development had largely bypassed the poorer southern and western regions of the country.

Bourguiba had endowed the Tunisian people with broad social and educational reforms, a compassionate and humanistic conception of the government's role, many years of stable growth, and a responsible course in its foreign affairs. But it was feared that, in perpetuating his paternalistic and authoritarian style of rule, Bourguiba had failed to establish a firm base for future progress. Tunisia at the time was authoritarian with Bourguiba still running things pretty much out of his hat. Many of the ministers and senior civil servants were competent professionals, but the government was generally not very competent and was focused on domestic control and Algerian political issues.

Despite his continued active participation in the affairs of state, the Tunisian leader in early 1986 was no longer the vigorous activist he had been in an earlier era. His age officially given as 83, Bourguiba had a long history of health problems for which he has sought repeated medical attention both at home and abroad. Still recovering from a heart attack suffered in late 1984, he has reduced his official schedule accordingly. Much of the burden of executive responsibility has been assumed by Mohamed Mzali, the PSD protege Bourguiba chose for his prime minister in 1980. Having been declared president for life by the national legislature in 1975, the aging Supreme Combatant presided over a nation that is in the process of cultural, social, economic, and political transition.

In July 1986 Bourguiba dismissed Prime Minister Mohamed Mzali, the person he frequently had identified as his chosen successor. In addition, Bourguiba divorced his wife, Wassila, who for a long period had exercised considerable influence and who was believed to favor a gradual loosening of political controls. During the next fifteen months, Bourguiba continued to make abrupt personnel changes. Many observers concluded that a niece of Bourguiba, Saida Sassi, and others were encouraging Bourguiba in his reluctance to delegate decisionmaking power and expand the political process.

On October 2, 1987, Bourguiba suddenly replaced the incumbent prime minister with Minister of Interior Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, a 51-year-old former army general. Ben Ali argued that Bourguiba was medically unfit to continue as president, while denouncing Bourguiba's de facto presidency for life. Ben All ousted Bourguiba through constitutional means on November 7, 1987. The constitutional provisions which Ben Ali used to remove Bourguiba made the Prime Minister responsible for determining the president's incapacity based on from seven doctors' certifications that the president was no longer competent to carry out the functions of his office.

Habib BOURGUIBA, established a strict one-party state. He dominated the country for 31 years, repressing Islamic fundamentalism and establishing rights for women unmatched by any other Arab nation. Habib Ben Ali Bourguiba, born August 3 1903; died April 6 2000.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:03:01 ZULU