2006-08-03

President Habib Bourguiba 1903-2000

I still recall that text in the primary school describing the triumphant return of the Supreme Leader (المجاهد الأكبر) after the negociations with the French. The photo in the text was showing him riding on a military Jeep with a soldier sitting on the hood and plenty of people cheering him around.

That was Habib Bourguiba (الحبيب بورقيبة), the first president and founder of modern Tunisia. My grandmother used to break in tears remembering Bourguiba. "Si Lahbib", as some Tunisians like to call him, has been educated in the legendary Sadiki School (المدرسة الصادقية), then followed some higher education in law and political sciences in University of Paris, France. I don't know the curriculum by heart, but let's just retain that Bouguiba was a lawyer and a journalist. After graduation Bourguiba has quickly turned into political activism and managed to found a new party that headed to fight for independence from France. This costed him years in French jails, he was also too close to the firing squad at times.

What Tunisians find special about Bouguiba is his magical and charismatic way of addressing them: very open and improvised speeches in plain Tunisian dialect. In الحبيب بورقيبة - سيرة زعيم or Les Trois Decennies Bourguiba for the version in French, Tahar Belkhadja (الطاهر بلخوجة) descibes his experience and his relationship with the President in some very revealing ways. The book sums up quite nicely the personnality of Si Lahbib. Tahar Belkhodja gave an interview and appeared on another program on the Al-Jazeera channel some time back about his career in the government where he revealed yet more details about the President.

Habib Bourguiba was obviously not a perfect leader, he was still regarded as a dictator who didn't believe in sharing power. He almost publicly admitted his reponsibility for the assassination, in Germany, of Salah Ben Youssef who led the communist opposition. By the way, Tunisia has gone through a painful communism experience which turned to be catastrophic and the gaovernment had to pull back with a historic public apology from Bourguiba in the 60's. The last 10 years of Bouguiba's rule had plunged the country into a true mess and a dangerous political chaos.

The World still remembers Bourguiba for some pioneering initiatives like the Civil Status Code (مجلة الأحوال الشخصية) granting revolutionary rights to women: women gained their right to vote in Tunisia before Switzerland. Bourguiba was so proud of this achievement that the only mention on his grave is: "محرر المرأة" or "Liberator of the Woman". He also had a wiser approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict: despite acknowledging that the creation of Israel was a historic unjustice, he called Arabs to accept UN resolution 181 to secure the part proposed and keep fighting afterwards to free the occupied parts. Unfortunately, the answer to this offer was thrown tomatoes and burning of the Tunisian embassy in Cairo, Egypt. Regardless, Bourguiba always stressed on the integrity of the Tunisian people: Jews and Muslims. In 1982, after the Beirut siege by Israel, the Bourguiba government (actually, his wife Wassila Bin Ammar) brought a resolution to the deadlock by offering to host the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and implement the agreement sponsored by the UN. The Bourguiba "government" maintained the Education allocation at around 30% of the budget, compared to 1.5% for Defense.

Another significant event in the career of Bourguiba is his his opposition to the German in WW2. Bourguiba was emprisoned by the French at the time and the Germans, after occupying Tunisia, offered to release him and push him to power in return of his support; amazingly, the Supreme Leader turned down the offer. He once said "I wouldn't have fought France so fiercly hadn't I loved France so much". In May 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy says about him:
Like President Washington, President Bourguiba is a revolutionary, and like President Washington he also, when the revolution was won, had the sense of judgment, self-discipline and strength to attempt to bring good will and peace among his people and to the people of the former occupiers of his country and his surrounding neighbours.

The relationship with Moammar Al-Gaddafi, leader of Libya, was flaky at times and one of the best remembered speeches was almost an impromptu interruption of the Colonel in the Palmarium, now a shopping centre in Tunis. Listening to this talk today makes me think that the person was a serious politician.

Based on a medical report declaring Habib Bouguiba senile to govern, he was dismissed on 7 November 1987 and spent the remaining 13 years of his life in a government-owned house. Just like the Godfather, like him or hate hime, Habib Bourguiba has marked modern Tunisian history for ever.

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ahmEd_H يقول...

بورقيبة الله يرحمه كان من خير الرجال انا فاعرف انه لما جه هربان على مصر ظابط الحدود افتكروه بيهرج لما قالوا انا بورقيبة و قبض عليه و رحلوه على القاهرةحتى تاكدو انه بورقيبة