Tunisia: the Bourguiba Paradox

by Hatem M’Rad*.

It is a fact. Babib Bourguiba left his mark on Tunisia and Tunisians, beginning in the 1930’s and then in the struggle against colonization, until his humiliating deposition by General Ben Ali on November 7, 1987. It might seem like a paradox, but Bourguiba has remained an oppressive liberator. He liberated the people and the nation, but subjected Tunisians to his desires and caprices. He became president for life, but in a modern, secular Republic.

The regime he imposed on Tunisia was authoritarian, based on a single party system and a personality cult. As he was obsessed with himself, democracy bothered him because it was competition. He considered democracy to be for developed and stable countries. So he put it on the sidelines, until the vestiges of tradition were gotten rid of.

In his mind, he alone stood for Tunisia. It was he who brought together a people who, as he liked to put it, had been a handful of individuals. He gave them their dignity through the struggle for independence. He brought them solid, modern institutions, and fought against the Bedouin factor, tribalism and traditional society. And, unique in the Arab-Muslim world, he liberated women from the weight of sharia, and he founded a secular education system that was free. It contributed heavily to the training and forming of a modern elite class and also internet enthusiasts who ushered in the revolution and the transition period. Perhaps this was the posthumous revenge of Bourguiba.

Today, Tunisians have brought about a revolution and are very proud of it. They owe it only to themselves, not to Bourguiba, nor to the opposition parties or any organizations. It was a revolution by all branches of society. But the revolution went astray with the victory by Ennahdha in the Constituent Assembly in 2011. And in addition to the humiliating confiscation of the revolution by the Islamists, Tunisians lived through three years of hell: violence, assassinations, attempts to return to tradition in the form of the sharia, a caliphate, and a secondary role for women. The identity, moderness and secular face of Tunisia suffered terribly. And this brought all the talk about the successes of the revolution, the heritage of Bourguiba, the single-party system, authoritarianism and personality cult be damned. The focus was on all the major liberal and secular reforms by Bourguiba, a very selective heritage, wiped clean of its abuses and crowned by democracy and the successes of the Revolution.

It is worth asking if Tunisians have short memories, or perhaps in a paradoxical way, a strong sense of exaggeration. Are Tunisians not going too far with Bourguiba? Is there a link with Freud, who said that the child must know how to kill the father in order to be able to live his own life?

In any case, whether an exaggeration or not, the “Bourguiba comeback” is an irrefutable fact in the arena of public opinion. One only has to look at the articles devoted to him in newspapers and magazines over the past several months, the number of books and memoires published about him by former colleagues, as well as the videos of his speeches on television. And then there is the increasing amount of space devoted to him on Facebook, the plays in the theatre, such as « Bourguiba, the last prison » by Raja Farhat, and the debates on radio and television talk shows about his personality, his politics and his accomplishments. And, of course, there is Nidaa Tounes, a political party that embodies Bourguiba in the ideological sense, headed by an elite Bourguiba descendant and Destour party representative in the purest sense of the word, Béji Caïd Essebsi. It must be noted that this leader of Nidaa Tounes contributed a great deal himself to reviving “Bourguibism” after he took over the transition government and directed the first democratic elections in 2011. Then his party won the legislative contest, and he himself took the presidential elections in 2014, a process he already knew something about.

But those indirectly responsible for the resurrection of Bourguibism were no doubt the Islamists. If Bourguiba has indeed made such a strong comeback in Tunisia, it is thanks to the Islamists and the current stable of politicians. The Islamists acted like amateur politicians ruling the country from 2011, hitting Tunisian identity hard, striking out at hard-won modern social features. Tunisians got organized and rallied once again around the Bourguiba aura. Suddenly, the Destour party of Bourguiba was back in business.

Never had Tunisians been as divided as when the Islamists took over the government, though the Revolution had more than ever united them. In power for only several months, the Islamists introduced a new Fitna al Kobra, a major break amongst the people, worse than in the earliest days of Islam between Sunnis and Shiites. This time, the clash was between so-called authentic and false Muslims, between those who practiced and non-believers (kuffars), easy-going and often secular. These distinctions had mostly disappeared from Tunisian life, where Malikite Islam was known to be softer than other branches. It was a moderate Islam, preserved by a line of sheiks from Tunis, Islamic scholars, who spearheaded the University of Zeitouna.

In the often hysterical recent transition phase, Bourguiba united Tunisians in moral, philosophical and political terms more than any other political figurehead…. against the threat of radical Islam. Civil society, political parties, unions (UGTT), the media and even young people who were discovering him for the first time…they were all very attached to the modern aspects of Tunisia that a ruling “cult-party”, representing a third of voters, had assaulted after winning the democratic elections of 2011.

Nowadays, Bourguiba has even more support than in the past, in terms of political groups backing what he represents. Today, aside from former Destour party members, there are free-market supporters, nationalists, former Communists and revolutionaries, socialists, centrists, and even supporters of nationalist activist Saleh Ben Youssef, assassinated in 1961, behind his heritage. Former political prisoners during his regime wholeheartedly defend him.

Bourguiba has become the registered trademark of Tunisian identity. In this troubled post-revolutionary period, the need for a « zaim », a charismatic leader, is greater than ever. His shadow floats over Tunisia, weighing on political transition figures. Many Tunisians define themselves as secular, but they live in a culturally Muslim society. Many never lived under Bourguiba and are not Bourguibists today, but they live in a society crafted by Bourguibism from top to bottom. The current Tunisian identity appears to be based on the political personality of Bourguiba, more than ever.

Tunisians appear to have pardoned Bourguiba, given the current circumstances. They have pardoned him for being undemocratic, for establishing the single-party system and for persecuting the secular opposition, the Ben Youssef supporters and the Islamists. They have also pardoned his narcissism and « self-promotion », so eloquently termed by French journalist Francoise Giroud. He said that Tunisia was too small for him, but Tunisians like to keep what they obtained with him, the values and major reforms, the modern social and education features, family planning, the liberal mentality and social attitude. They want to maintain the basic liberal advances that brought an end to their backwards past.

Yes, it is clear that Bourguiba was by nature a paradox. He represented many aspects of modern freedom in his life and political struggle. He was a lawyer and journalist; he was secular, modern, an intellectual and freedom fighter for his country. He defended the rights of women, and was familiar with the humanist thinkers of ancient times, all of which is on the side of freedom of speech, of the self and of action. So why did he not act in favor of the political freedom of his people?

Tunisians appear to be hanging on to his heritage, in spite of the paradox. They praise the exceptional reforms he introduced that were exceptions in the context of the Arab and Muslim world. These include the emancipation of women in the heart of a very traditional region, secular structures within a context of Islamic religious practices, and a civilian government in an Arab-Muslim world that even today can offer few exceptions to religious or military regimes. His immortality is based on having shepherded the emergence of a modern State, it must be remembered, from the under-developed remains of an often untenable colonial entity.


* Hatem M’rad is a full professor of political science at the Faculty of Law and Political and Social Sciences at the University of Carthage, Tunis. He is the President and founder of the Tunisian Association of Political Studies (ATEP), and an elected member of the executive committee of the International Political Science Association (IPSA-AISP). He heads the political science masters program and is director of the doctorate school. He is the author of Procedure in Conference Diplomacy (CPU – 2001), World Public Opinion (CPU – 2006), Free-Market Policy and Adversity (CPU – 2008), Free-Market Policy and Freedom in the Arab-Muslim World (Les Cygnes, Paris 2011, Nirvana, Tunis 2012), Tunisia, from revolution to constitution (Nirvana – 2014), The Democratic Deficit of Post-Independence (Nirvana – 2014).

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