Habib Bourguiba

Habib Bourguiba in Bizerte
Habib Bourguiba in Bizerte
(1952)

Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, was born in the small fishing village of Monastir in 1903, the son of a former army lieutenant. He received a good education in Tunis, not only in Arabic and Islam but also in French and in Western thought. He then went to Paris, where he studied law and political science at the Sorbonne from 1924 to 1927.

After his return to Tunis he practised law for seven years and in 1932 founded a nationalist newspaper. With the establishment of the Neo-Destour Party, Bourguiba became the key figure in the Tunisian struggle for independence. He took a practical, gradual approach, organising in rural villages as well as cities, and ensured that others could keep the cause alive during periods of arrest and exile. He himself was imprisoned in Tunisia and France for a total of 10 years: in 1934-36, 1938-42 and 1952-55. He supported the Allies during World War II, and afterwards lobbied for Tunisian independence around the world.

Finally, in 1955, Bourguiba negotiated a treaty with the French and in 1956 became prime minister of the newly autonomous country. A year later, the monarchy was abolished and Bourguiba was elected president.

Bourguiba’s policies made Tunisia one of the most moderate nations in the Arab world. He drafted a constitution that kept Islam as the state religion but reduced the power of Islamic law. He abolished polygamy and gave women equal rights in divorce. Both to economise and to reduce the threat of coups, he kept the military small. Health, education and agriculture received the lion’s share of the budget. On the international scene, he took an independent stand in Arab affairs. While some saw him as a benign despot, keeping firm control over the country and his opponents, he did manage to prevent the civil unrest that has plagued other North African nations.

In 1975, Bourguiba was made president for life by the Tunisian National Assembly. By then, however, his health had begun to fail. In November 1987 his newly appointed prime minister, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had him declared senile and removed from office. He died in his home on 6 April 2000.