Habib Bourguiba

(1903–2000) Tunisian leader

Habib Bourguiba, known as the Supreme Warrior,
was born in Monastir, Tunisia, in 1903 and died in April 2000 while under house arrest in his hometown. Bourguiba attended Sadiqi College in Tunis, where he graduated in 1924. He then went to France to study law and political science at the University of Paris. Upon graduation in 1927 Bourguiba returned to Tunisia; a year later he was writing for multiple political newspapers on issues involving Tunisian nationalism. Bourguiba was a member of the Executive Committee of the Destour Party, but his disagreements with the party’s political approach led to his resignation. He formed the breakaway Neo-Destour Party in 1934.

The French colonial authorities reacted to Bourguiba’s growing power by exiling him for two years. This would prove to be the first of many times Bourguiba would be imprisoned and released by the French during the struggle for Tunisian independence.

In April 1938 pro-nationalist demonstrations broke out in Tunisia and the French authorities opened fire on the crowds. Shortly thereafter, Bourguiba was imprisoned by the French on charges of sedition. In 1945 as the war ended, Bourguiba embarked on a series of tours through Arab nations, the United States, and parts of Europe to publicize the Tunisian cause. When Bourguiba returned to Tunisia, he reorganized and resumed control of the Neo-Destour Party. In January 1952 armed resistance broke out in parts of Tunisia and Bourguiba was again arrested and imprisoned in France. Beleaguered by the ongoing war in Algeria, the French released Bourguiba in 1955 and granted independence to Tunisia in 1956. Bourguiba became Tunisia’s first president. He promptly embarked on a program of reform and development. Tunisia’s constitution called for a secular state. Women were granted equality, and ambitious educational and health care programs were instituted; however, early attempts to collectivize agriculture failed and economic difficulties beset the nation.

Bourguiba was sympathetic to independence movements in developing countries, but his calls for negotiations with Israel in the mid-1960s led to riots in Jordan and Lebanon. In 1975 Bourguiba was named president for life. He was seen by many as a passionate orator with a charismatic personality but he also had a reputation as a shrewd politician who outmaneuvered his political opponents.

The economy continued to decline during the 1980s as Islamist political groups gained support. As his health failed, Bourguiba seemed increasingly unable to deal with the mounting political, economic, and social problems of the nation. In November 1987 a bloodless coup led by Zine el Abidine Ben Ali took over the government and ousted Bourguiba. Ben Ali proclaimed that Bourguiba, at the age of 84, was too old and senile to serve as president. Bourguiba lived under house arrest for 13 years until his death in 2000. Although Ben Ali promised a return to democracy and held elections, he too became increasingly authoritarian and continued to rule Tunisia into the 21st century.

See also Algerian revolution.

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