The founder and first president of the Republic of Tunisia — July 25, 1957 to November 7, 1987 — Habib Bourguiba received guests at the Carthage Palace where four busts dominated the Council Chamber.

Figurines of Jugurtha (a son of Mastanabal who played an important role during the Second Punic War in 218-202), Hannibal (a Carthaginian military commander and brilliant tactician), St Augustine (the Catholic theologian and saint who is also claimed by Algeria because his birthplace is in modern Anaba, a city that used to be part of Tunisia) and Ibn Khaldun, the great historian who marked Arab civilisation.

For Bourguiba, these four men were the most important Tunisians who ever lived and they stood as heroic role models. Bourguiba aspired to join his idols in the service of his people.

Although French occupiers repeatedly imprisoned Bourguiba during the struggle for independence, he seldom wavered from his francophilia, because he professed a deep understanding, perhaps even a responsibility, to act as a bridge between Western and Islamic civilisations long before modern-day carpetbaggers absconded the idea.

In fact, while Bourguiba was deposed from office, he was not a classic dictator but a leader who submitted to the rule of law, certainly a defining attribute.

Sadly, his political pessimism defeated whatever democratic instincts he possessed, as depression and self-imposed isolation took their toll.

Yet it would be gravely unjust to classify him as a megalomaniac interested in self-preservation, since many of his policies intended to serve a majority of Tunisians.

Political awareness and early steps

A year after graduating from the Sorbonne, Bourguiba returned to his occupied homeland, where he joined L'Étendard Tunisien and Sawt Al Tunisi, as he started writing think pieces about independence and freedom.

French colonial authorities were not amused and, in 1931, charged him with “incitement to racial hatred''.

Typical of similar persecutions in colonial empires, a revolutionary was created in Tunis, as Bourguiba opted for action.

While a student at Sadiki, Bourguiba read La Tunisie Martyre, which greatly affected him.

The tract's author, Shaykh ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Tha ‘albi, was also the founder of the Dustour Party, then the only semi-independent institution that professed independence. It was natural, therefore, that Bourguiba would be part of this early effort though his aspirations surpassed narrow preferences.

He launched an overtly militant newspaper, L'Action Tunisienne, which called for mobilisation against the occupiers.

Dissatisfied with party proceedings, Bourguiba set out a distinct early political objective, namely to lead rather than accept compromise.

Bourguiba established the Neo-Dustour Party on March 2, 1934 and stood as the secretary-general of its political bureau.

Unlike old party cronies, he adopted an entirely different approach, eager to press the flesh by crisscrossing the country, meeting Tunisians from all walks of life and listening to their problems as well as aspirations.

In what was a novel methodology for the times, it may be said that Bourguiba touched the very soul of his fellow Tunisians and drew succour from their dreams for independence.

His popularity increased dramatically and, to the horror of French colonial authorities, Neo-Dustour branches sprouted throughout the countryside.

By September 1934, and even if Bourguiba was advocating orderly self-government before independence, Bernard Marcel Peyrouton, then colonial representative in Tunis, confined the future head of state along with several of his associates to the Burj-Leboeuf outpost in the Sahara desert.

For almost two years, Bourguiba honed his analytical skills, carefully plotting his next move.

To say that his incarceration strengthened his determination would be an understatement, even as he realised that dialogue with France was critical and concluded that the best way to gain freedom was by gradually exploiting the ossified protectorate's weaknesses.

Political sophistication

Incarcerated on numerous occasions after 1939, ostensibly for endangering state security and plotting to incite the population to civil war, Bourguiba was transferred from one prison to another, first in Tunisia, then in Vichy, France.

Remarkably, and with an anticipated conflagration, he never contemplated joining Axis powers, even if German troops released him and took him to Chalons-sur-Saône.

In an initiative as endearing as it was classic, the Mussolini regime received him with full honours in January 1943, eager to obtain a favourable statement in Rome.

Bourguiba agreed to deliver a message to the Tunisian people on “Radio Bari'', on whose airwaves he cautioned his countrymen to remain wary of everyone with an insatiable “appetite''.

This was a rare act of courage, as the future president understood that his country's destiny was linked to France.

Moreover, he was persuaded that Germany was bound to lose the war, which meant that Tunisia's independence necessitated an allied victory.

This steadfast position earned him impeccable legitimacy, which was enhanced by his charm and considerable oratory skills.

Inevitably, and as Bourguiba's stature grew, French authorities sharpened their displeasure.

Inspired by similar movements in Algeria and Egypt, and to forestall arrest in March 1945, Bourguiba fled Sfax to Cairo.

For the next four years, he managed to internationalise the Tunisian cause before the nascent League of Arab States (LAS), whose petty squabbles disappointed him.

Indeed, while Bourguiba supported the Palestinian cause, he was first and foremost concerned with Tunisia's fate and wished that the LAS paid peripheral Arab societies more than lip service.

What he rejected was Arab provincialism to avoid perpetual dissension.

Freedom struggle

After extensive travels, Bourguiba returned to Tunis on September 8, 1949 to reorganise his party. But efforts to take the Tunisian quest for independence to the United Nations came to naught.

When French extremists assassinated Farhat Hached, the secretary-general of the established workers' union as well as a leader of the Neo-Dustour, Bourguiba resumed his contacts with Tunisians. It was critical to regain popular trust.

Likewise, it was necessary to have an unambiguous programme.

Towards that end, in April 1950, Bourguiba issued a plan whose ultimate goal was to restore full Tunisian sovereignty before statehood.

Because Paris did not take him seriously, Bourguiba toughened his stance and called for a general insurrection.

Naturally, he was arrested (January 18, 1952) and embarked on a “jail-tour''.

By 1955, Bourguiba was so familiar with French prisons that he developed an inevitable pity towards folks whose culture he genuinely admired. Indeed, one of his fondest activities after he became president was to show his framed prison folder, perhaps to remind himself of the terrible price he paid for his country.

In the event, and because of a change of government in Paris, prime minister Pierre Mendes-France altered France's colonial policies, contemplating home-rule whenever possible.

Bourguiba returned on June 1, 1955 with an “Internal Autonomy Agreement'', which essentially meant freedom.

The fellaghas (partisans) laid down their arms and on March 20, 1956 Tunisia became independent.

Bourguiba acceded to the presidency of the “National Constituent Assembly'' and was designated prime minister.

On July 25, 1957, the Tunisian monarchy was abolished after Mohammad Lamine Bey was removed from his post.

Bourguiba invested himself with the powers of a republic.
He consolidated his power and embarked on an aggressive post-colonial agenda.

He could not forgive easily and ordered the assassination of his chief opponent, Salah Ben Youssef, even though the latter had led the partisans against French colonialists.

Active president

Despite his mercurial steps, Bourguiba was an active president. His first official act was to promulgate a Code of Personal Status, which abolished polygamy, curtailed Islamic divorce proceedings and enfranchised women as citizens equal to men.

It must be emphasised that Bourguiba was probably guilty of excessive benevolence, believing in his abilities to always make the right choices for the country.

Indeed, between 1956 and 1964, he certainly pushed for innovative legislation that transformed Tunisia into a modernising nation-state.

Few would deny that without his deliberate actions the country's human and physical changes could have ever occurred so fast.

His choices were many and bold: provide free universal education and modern healthcare; introduce family planning and encourage a literacy campaign; build necessary infrastructure; and adopt administrative, financial and economic organisations to run an efficient bureaucracy to “serve'' the population. All that necessitated premeditated decisions.

After a five-year effort (1965-1970) to introduce cooperative agriculture, and as Bourguiba's health began to fail, the president opted for a liberal development model.

Spearheaded by prime minister Hédi Nouira over a ten-year period, private enterprises flourished.

An increasingly educated elite expected little else as Tunisia witnessed the creation of a healthy and prosperous middle class.

By 1970, Bourguiba was no longer running the country on a day-to-day basis, delegating most of his authority to his ministers.

Not surprisingly, clans emerged around leading figures and the sicker Bourguiba became, the more bizarre he acted.

In March 1974, Bourguiba manipulated the National Assembly to vote him president for life, which was peculiar to say the least.

This political manoeuvre achieved a contradictory decision so dear to impatient great men. Bourguiba's posturing set the stage for an eventual coup against the pseudo-monarch.

Debilitated by a heart attack in 1984, the president disappeared from public view. This led to a concerted succession crisis.

Tunis resembled Medici Florence as intrigues developed into personality clashes. Unfortunately, the country's public image suffered and Islamist movements emerged as potential challengers.

Bourguiba despised Islamists and apparently told Mohammad Masmoudi, the architect of the 1974 proposal to unite Tunisia with Libya, that “if God existed He was happy with Bourguiba, but that if He did not then Bourguiba was happy with himself''.

Though quixotic, the conclusion was ill-informed, as political Tunis was confronted with a new reality. Bourguiba launched a final push against the Islamists, allegedly for collaborating with Iran to overthrow the Tunisian State, and spread his wrath on court officers who found no such fault.

His final rage led prime minister Zine El Abidine Ben ‘Ali to declare, on November 7, 1987, president Habib Bourguiba mentally incapacitated under Article 57 of the Constitution.

Charles de Gaulle opined that Bourguiba's greatness was bigger than his small country but post-independence Tunisia owes much to the man from Monastir.


Although Bourguiba believed in his own intuitive genius, his most enduring legacy was in developing the institutions that allowed for a sophisticated society — dramatically bilingual and bicultural — that, with the exception of some Lebanese, makes Tunisians unrivalled in the Arab world.

Likewise, his support for female emancipation and respect for civil rights and obligations were also exceptional.

Sadly, his successor has had huge difficulties in maintaining these gains, as standards diminished or withered on the proverbial vine.

Bourguiba concluded that the absence of Arab democracy was due to the fact that religion could not be separated from consumerism.

Impact on Tunisia and the Arab world

Unabashedly pro-Western, Bourguiba took very courageous positions, advocating international legality to solve conflicts.

In March 1965, he called for fair and lasting peace between Palestine and Israel, based on the 1947 United Nations resolution that created two states.

By 1982, however, Tunis welcomed the Palestine Liberation Organisation's leadership after the latter was ousted from Beirut.

Earlier, Bourguiba hosted the headquarters of the LAS after the Baghdad Summit expelled Egypt for signing the Camp David Accord with Israel.

Both these events, in a strange way, illustrated Bourguiba's perspectives. He was from two different worlds that had forgotten how to speak with each other.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently of Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 2008.

This article is the fourth in a series, which will appear on the second Friday of each month, on Arab leaders who greatly influenced political affairs in the Middle East.


Habib Bourguiba was born on August 3, 1903 in Monastir, then a small hamlet 100 miles south of Tunis.

The youngest of eight brothers and sisters, Bourguiba attended the College Sadiki in Tunis before going to the Lycée Carnot, then the city's leading high school. In 1924, he earned his baccalaureate and immediately enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris to study law and political science.

Like many rising stars from the developing world in the French capital, Bourguiba fell in love with France as well as a young French woman — Mathilde Lorain — who converted to Islam and chose the name Moufida.

They married in 1927, had a son, Habib Bourguiba Jr, although the couple ostensibly divorced for political reasons.

In a second marriage, Bourguiba wedded the influential Wassilah Bin ‘Ammar and, together, they adopted a daughter, Hajir Bourguiba.

Bourguiba remained the president of Tunisia until November 7, 1987 when his newly appointed prime minister impeached him, claiming old age and health reasons.

He died on April 6, 2000 in his Monastir home, where he was under house arrest for 13 years.