Bourguiba: always present, always current.

Former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba (1903-2000) is back in the news. This time, two proposals have re-ignited the passions and polemics surrounding this major twentieth century figure in Tunisia. The first proposal was to put back an equestrian statue of Bourguiba in its former location namely, at one end of the major avenue carrying his name. The second proposal was to direct all schools to devote one hour of class time to his memory on April 6, the anniversary date of his passing away.

The disappearance of Bourguiba from power left a political vacuum which in truth had begun to form during his lifetime resulting from a governing style which grew more and more uncompromising towards all forms of opposition. The Declaration of the Republic in 1957 suddenly and brutally wiped out the country’s Huseini Monarchy (1704-1957). It was a unilateral act by Bourguiba and his partisans who had decided to dismiss all challenges and opposition for the purpose of laying the foundations for a modern state.  When Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took power, he filled the vacuum by transforming Destourian partisans and Bourguiba loyalists into a dormant network or by turning them into loyal members of his party, the RCD. Many of the latter have “repented” and are now back to the political scene. Ben Ali’s decision to play down Bourguiba’s national and public funeral on April 8, 2000, in the face of a widely popular anticipation, had left a bitter taste among many citizens. Furthermore, almost nobody dared contest the house arrest under which Bourguiba had lived for 13 years (from November 7, 1987 to April 6, 2000).  His detention and isolation were never relaxed. People still resent not having been allowed to properly and publicly mourn his death, as if their frustration with not being able to pay homage to their departed president was the price they had to pay for their sudden realization that they had abandoned him.

The unexpected departure of Ben Ali has stirred these regrets and the frustration of not having given Bourguiba the merit he deserves. These confused feelings emerged during a period when no clear leadership rose to the surface and thus nourished Bourguiba’s symbolic appeal since 2011.

Meanwhile, after sixty years of independence, a slow perfusion of the principles of organization of the Tunisian State and society had time to make its effect. Despite Bourguiba’s past authoritarian abuses and despite manipulations by Ben Ali (who, everyone agrees, desperately lacks Bourguiba’s charisma and culture) and his regime to co-opt Bourguiba’s legacy, the various social classes in Tunisia have evolved to accept, and even take for granted, free access to public education and public health, and the recognition of women’s rights (prohibition of polygamy, the right to divorce, and the right to vote) and their role as political actors. The entire country has undergone a series of profound changes induced by public policies deriving from Bourguiba’s visions and choices. To various extents, modes of thinking and ways of living in the spheres of family life, education and labor (but not politics) have changed for the better. Still, these changes did not go as far as completely eliminating violence and discrimination against women nor limiting the disastrous effects of political and economic choices dictated by globalization constraints.

Today, nostalgic “Bourguibists”, these new political entrepreneurs busy reviving Bourguiba’s image and legacy to use as a stepping ladder, and the Islamists who have started to acknowledge in their speeches Bourguiba’s contributions to modern-day Tunisia, share almost similar discourse characterized by the absence of their own political vision. It is thus significant to note that Tunisia’s new constitution of January 2014 has kept the same version of the first article in the 1959 Constitution, “Tunisia is a free, independent, sovereign State; its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic …,” with the same syntactic ambiguity namely, is the possessive pronoun its referring to Tunisia or the noun State? The various political tendencies existing inside the National Constituent Assembly ended up agreeing to preserve the status quo at least with respect to this particularly divisive issue.

The sudden appearance of religious extremism in Tunisia has brought the question of women’s rights to the forefront of ideological and political confrontation and turned it into a compass. Once more, political speeches, public debates, and social media return to Bourguiba as a reference and a symbol. In this respect, Bourguiba was not the sole artisan in the “modernization” of Tunisian society. The groundwork for this process was laid out a long time ago by the writings of several Tunisian intellectuals, Tahar Haddad being the most famous among them. What Bourguiba had done was introduce into the laws and other republican institutions the principles of equality between the sexes. The concept took strong roots in the country. In 2012 and during the writing of the new Constitution, there were attempts to replace the term equality by the term complementarity, but they failed.

Despite Bourguiba’s legacy and his symbolic importance within the context of women’s rights in Tunisia, it would still be wrong to consider him as a demiurge responsible for thrusting Tunisia into a brave new era. The recent tensions in public debates demonstrate that those values often incarnated by Bourguiba can be contested in the name of competing political project. Without resorting to either mystifying or vilifying his legacy, it is best to pursue it. Rising above political cleavages, we should renew and reinvent his legacy in actions and in laws so that we build a society where women fully occupy the space that Bourguiba had begun to clear out for them.

Published by The Arab Weekly, 8 avril 2016, P. 15

The french version has been plublished in Le Quotidien d’Oran, 7 avril 2016, p. 15

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