Tunisians rally around Bourguiba, 17 years after his death

An enduring legacy. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi reviewing the honour guard in Monastir, on April 6th, with the picture of the late leader Habib Bourguiba in the background. (AFP)


2017/04/09 Issue: 101 Page: 12


The Arab Weekly
Lamine Ghanmi



Monastir - Tunisians, angered by at­tacks on late president Habib Bourguiba’s legacy, staged a display of sup­port for the founder of modern Tunisia 17 years from the day of his death and challenged his critics to match his achievements.

The streets of Bourguiba’s home­town were decked with flags and pictures of him during the height of his leadership, a time in which he undertook an independence strug­gle to become president of a coun­try he is credited with having lifted from poverty, social backwardness and widespread illiteracy.

“We remembered Bourguiba each year since his death but this year is different because our hearts are bleeding after the attempts of some bitter opponents to denigrate him,” said Sadok Essid, a fisherman who was among thousands gathered on April 6th in Monastir to remember Bourguiba.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Es­sebsi led dozens of government of­ficials, intellectuals and parliament members in recognising the man Tunisians used to call Mujahid al Akbar — Supreme Combatant — for his efforts to develop the country.

“Bourguiba was a patriot. He served the country with honesty, self-denial and love,” Caid Essebsi said before observing a prayer in remembrance of Bourguiba at a shrine overlooking the Mediterra­nean.

“Those who have attempted to besmirch the history of Bourguiba will find themselves in the dustbin of history,” he had earlier told a lo­cal radio interviewer.

Bourguiba’s legacy among liberals and leftist intellectuals is complex. They acknowledge that he left his mark on Tunisia after emerging as a nationalist leader during colonial rule, until being removed in 1987 by his then-prime minister Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali, who invoked medi­cal reasons. They also argue that the liberator became an “oppressive” ruler after being named president-for-life in the 1970s.

Islamists accuse Bourguiba of launching severe crackdowns against them, resulting in human rights violations.

Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Com­mission (TDC), investigating hu­man rights abuses since Tunisia’s independence in 1956, had public hearings in March about human rights violations alleged to have taken place on Bourguiba’s watch. Live broadcasts of the hearings were criticised by Bourguiba’s sym­pathisers as an attempt to rewrite Tunisia’s history at the expense of their icon.

“It is Bourguiba who ingrained in the minds and spirits of the Tu­nisian people how to defend and preserve their dignity. The word dignity was one of the key words in his speeches and discourses,” Bour­guiba’s daughter, Hajer, said at the remembrance rally.

“My father is always alive. He is present everywhere in Tunisia. Each Tunisian has a story to tell about their links to Bourguiba, whether a school or hospital built in their town or village during Bour­guiba’s time or other things.”

Asked if she feared Islamists would undermine Bourguiba’s re­cord, Hajer said: “No. I don’t be­cause Bourguiba is living in us. We are here, men and women, to stand for his defence, which is the de­fence of our present and that of the future of our children.”

Noura Ouerghi, a high school mathematics teacher, said: “I’m from the El Kef region in northern Tunisia. It comes to me as a false­hood that Bourguiba could have fostered improving the economic and social situation in Monastir and other areas in the Sahel coastal re­gions while leaving behind other regions.”

“Education and health care have been available everywhere in Tu­nisia. My parents and grandparents told me about the hardships they were in and the change of life they experienced thanks to Bourguiba,” she added.

Khadija Ammar said she fondly remembers the day when Bour­guiba kissed her during a visit to her primary school in Sousse in the early 1960s. “I and my colleague Ai­cha did not wash our kissed cheeks for days to keep his touch intact,” she said.

“Bourguiba was a very simple man. We could see him and touch him, not like the leaders who came after him. They are shielded by a forest of guards and policemen.”

“With Bourguiba we felt secure and we were not afraid of neigh­bours and strange people in the streets. We slept at home with the doors open. At his time, Sousse had one police station and we felt safe. Now we have 33 stations and we are afraid,” she added.

Mustapha Rached, 87, an engi­neer who worked as senior gov­ernment official under Bourguiba, dismissed critics who argued that Bourguiba failed to encourage mul­tiparty democracy while aiming to become a dictator.

“At independence, Tunisia had a 2.8 million population, 99% of whom were illiterate. We had only 12 physicians and 26 lawyers,” he said. “Tunisians walked kilometres to find someone to read a letter or an official document for them.”

“Talking about democracy at that time is nonsense,” Rached said.

“The most important goal of Bourguiba was to help Tunisians build a state. The French had been repeatedly telling us: ‘You will fail within ten years and come begging us to rule you again’. Bourguiba was under pressure to succeed and belie their predictions,” he added.

Mazen Cherif, a university teach­er and head of the Tunisian Centre of Global Security Studies, ques­tioned revisionist readings of Bour­guiba’s leadership at a time when the country needs unity in the fight against jihadism.

“We are in a merciless war against terrorism as part of the global fight against this scourge. We need to have respect for our national sym­bols to reinforce unity and help win that war. Assailing Bourguiba’s re­cord is hardly useful. It only helps the terrorists’ camp,” he said.


Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.


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