Bourguiba : Revisiting History

Translated by Asma Moalla

Since 2001, Bourguiba has been incessantly recalled to our memories, partly in order to obliterate the long years of inertia that followed his revocation. During thirteen years, from 7th of November, 1987, to 6th of April, 2000, he had lived surrounded by complete silence, except for his appearances on television, orchestrated once every year, to nurture the illusion that his successor venerated him. They thought that they could stop History or direct it at will.

He was a product and an actor of History

During that period, visits to Bourguiba from his nearest relatives and friends were kept to a minimum, those of foreign personalities, conditional upon official authorization, were gradually phased lout. The few Tunisian voices raised in protest against the isolation imposed upon him were lost within the surrounding apathy that was the mark of the time. His death could have provided an opportunity to bid him a national farewell -an awakening  that would have redeemed the forsaking of the old leader. The Tunisian people, startled by the news of that death, awaited  funerals that would have been a form of expiation. But their expectations were thwarted by the powers that be, ever fearing excessive marks of affection or uncontrolled outbursts. A ceremony was staged, devoid of any spontaneity or grandeur, reduced to a minimum of images and in pre-recorded broadcast, as for any TV news bulletin. Cameras were entrusted with the task of providing evidence  that due homage had been paid to the leader, photographing the small group of emissaries sent from all regions of the world and revealing just the right amount of emotion among the attending crowd. Bourguiba’s re-emergence after 2011 is a result of the setting free of our former inhibitions, sweeping today across the country  like a beachcomber. It is characterised by the same emotional excesses and provides food for verbal sparring and divisions. His vocabulary has come back into usage, his most famous sayings are quoted and references are made to the values he upheld, including by his most open adversaries. Bourguiba’s reappearance on the Tunisian media and political scene reinforces the myth surrounding him, with its two sides, the bright and the dark one. If Bourguiba is still a source for comparisons with present situations, this should be attributed to the fact that, being fully a part of the history of twentieth century Tunisia, he was able to imprint his mark on the generations that followed. Policies implemented under his mandate in the fields of teaching, health, birth regulation and judicial organisation have impregnated the social fabric of Tunisia, transformed mentalities and influenced behaviours. They were the outcome and the engine of a historical process where he stands both as a witness and an actor. The time has come for us to examine once again Bourguiba’s role, both as a product of the contemporary history of Tunisia and as an actor in that history, in order to go beyond what we learnt about him in his lifetime, and to which little has been added since his death.

“Writing about Bourguiba without Bourguiba”?

Major questions about his actions and choices as a political leader still remain to be answered, not to mention his private life still little known, in spite of the anecdotes and recollections recounted by those who were near to him. The increasing number of memoirs published since 1987 and, at a more accelerated rhythm, since 2011, by members of the political establishment of the time provide some thrilling details. A series of interviews conducted with Wassila Bourguiba between November 1972 and 1973 (Jeanne Gaspar, Tunis, Editions Demeter, 2012) and another with his son between 2002 and 2006 (Habib Bourguiba Jr., Notre histoire, Entretiens avec Mohammed Kerrou, Tunis, Cérès Editions, 2013), recently published, shed some light on his family life. They tell us, among other things, of    his problems as a son and brother, his weaknesses as a husband and father –thus humanizing “the monster,” or, alternatively, putting a dimmer touch on the dazzling image of the “zaïm,” and stimulating the desire to know more about the various layers of his life and the way he lived it. The SkanesMuseum, inaugurated on 6 April 2013, perpetuates his memory without swerving from the familiar clichés, whereas we would have liked  to know more about the darker aspects of his biography. And the flow of his interviews, speeches and photos, ever swelling thanks to the Internet, does not make us understand him better, whether in his public or his private life. His son has warned us : “You cannot write about Bourguiba without Bourguiba.” During thirty one years (1956-1987), the official narrative of his life, conveyed by books and media, has had time to penetrate the minds of the people. It is still prevailing through its terminology, images (“the builder of modern Tunisia”) and chronological sequence. And yet things have evolved since then. Many studies have been published, providing evidence about the persecutions to which Bourguiba’s opponents were subjected (Ibn Yusuf’s followers, leftists, Islamists, military men…), his stormy relations with the UGTT (Tunisia’s Central Workers’ Union), his all but complete erasing of the Zaytuna (as an education system centered around the Zaytuna mosque), his handling of the Bizerte crisis, the repression of all forms of contestation and the way in which he got rid of candidates to his succession as well as of those who wanted to open the Neo-Destourian Party (renamed the Destourian Socialist Party) to less hegemonistic practises. And yet, until today, sympathizers and detractors alike still use the same stereotypes about Bourguiba : a theatrical amateur, a man hostile to the Ramadan fasting, an heir to Khayreddine and Haddad, an emulator of Atatürk, the “author” of the Code on Personal Statute code, a leader opposed to the military, francophile,  pro-American… All these descriptions, however, should be linked to their historical context, to the heritage he has bequeathed us, to the logics of evolving situations and to his entourage.

Re-reading History

Venerating his aura or striving to debaptize the main avenue named after him will avail us nothing. It is, however, possible to reach a deeper knowledge of him, by using what we already know of him and going beyond it. Setting aside all feelings of love or loathing, we should proceed to a new reading of the history surrounding the man in order to make it more intelligible. Rather than exalting or condemning his moves, we should try to understand the circumstances that prompted them –and this will allow us to evaluate their true impact in their epoch. To the conventional images of Bourguiba as  “builder of the modern State”, “women’s emancipator,” or “religion’s enemy,” we should oppose a vast field of interrogations based on the existing stock of knowledge abut him. Starting from his passion for History, his relationship with Abdelaziz Thalbi, his political friendships, his conception of diplomacy (relations with the Algerian FLN, his policy on Africa, his  view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…), the shady aspects   of his rivalry with Jamel Abdelnasser, up to the different, though eminently political, roles  played by his two wives (Mathilde Lorrain, 189261976 and Wassila Ben Ammar, 1912-1999), a wide range of research tracks is available to us, in order to reach a more nuanced view of the man and his epoch. The formative process of the Tunisian state to which he is associated deserves a more thorough study taking into consideration long-term social evolution, economic parameters, the physical and material environment, and the regional and international contexts. The processes of  colonization and subsequently of  de-colonization, which moulded his psychology, his experience and his political action, also shaped the social, cultural and economic landscape that sustained his policies. Bourguiba, who was the product of various interactions, has indeed been an active force, but he is not the only yield of the material conditions and mental combinations shaping the history of Tunisia. Widening the focus around him would allow us to see better who he was and to apprehend the complexity of situations inside which he moved. Beyond nostalgia and the right of assessment, the history of Bourguiba should be read again, in its outer manifestations as well as in its deeper content, in order to define more precisely the contours of the history(ies) of Tunisia which are still being written, after him and without him, by men and women who send us back his reflection –although they may not always be quite aware of how, or by what means, this creature of the Tunisian twentieth century is weighing upon their public and private lives, their behaviours and opinions, their denials and aspirations, their contradictions. Hammam-Lif, 4 april 2014

This article was published

-in French, in the review REALITES, n° 1476, Tunis, 10-16 April 2014, p. 8-9, and in LE QUOTIDIEN D’ORAN, 10 April 2014, p. 16.

-in Arabic, in AS-SABAH, 17 april 2014, p. 10


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