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Habib Bourguiba

the first President of Tunisia

Habib Bourguiba

Habib ibn Ali Bourguiba was born in Monastir, Tunisia, on August 3, 1903, the seventh child of a former lieutenant in the army of the Bey of Tunisia. He received his primary and secondary education in Tunis, studied law and political science at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, and began practicing law in Tunisia in 1927. While in Paris he met Mathilde Lorain, whom he married in 1927. The couple's only child, Habib Bourguiba, Jr., was born on April 9, 1927.

In addition to practicing law, Bourguiba also became involved in the political struggle for Tunisian independence, notably through the foundation in 1932 of the nationalist newspaper L'Action Tunisienne and membership in the Destour (Constitution) Party. He soon decided that the Destour was too conservative and timid in its approach, however, and in 1934 he and some of his associates established the New Destour Party, which encouraged Tunisians to confront their colonial rulers. That encouragement led to Bourguiba's arrest and exile, from which he was released in 1936.

Bourguiba and several others were again imprisoned in 1939 on charges of lotting against the state security and incitement to civil war. Originally held in Tunisia, he was transferred to France at the outbreak of World War II, and was held in a succession of prisons there until being released by the Germans in 1943. The Germans had hoped that their liberation of Bourguiba would result in support from Tunisia, which by then was occupied by Germany, but Bourguiba did not believe Germany would prevail in the war and instead encouraged support for the Allies.

After the war ended Bourguiba began a series of travels in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, the FarEast, and the United States designed to win supporters to the cause of Tunisian independence. By 1950 the Destour Party was represented in the Tunisian government and talks with France were under way. Bouguiba was excluded from both the government and the talks, however, until increasing violent unrest in Tunisia forced France to negotiate with Bourgouiba. Internal autonomy was granted in 1955 and a new government, which included the New Destour Party, was formed with the express purpose of bringing an end to French rule. A treaty of independence was signed by Tunisia and France on March 20, 1956. In 1957 an agreement was reached, in principle, for the evacuation of French forces from the country (with the exception of a base at Bizerte). On July 25, 1957, the Tunisian Constituent Assembly abolished the monarchy and established a republic, with Bourguiba as its first President.

As President, Bourguiba oversaw establishment of a government that granted women rights not normally enjoyed by women in a predominantly Moslem country, including the ability to initiate divorce and the right to be educated. Education was extended throughout the country, and the curriculum was modernized to reduce religious influence. The military was firmly subordinated to civilian government, and Tunisians gradually replaced French workers throughout the government. Bouruiba was far less successful with his economic programs, however, and in 1986 the country was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for help. In foreign relations, Bourguiba looked to the West for economic and military assistance, and to non-Western countries for export markets and bilateral trade. He also managed to keep a good relationship between Tunisia and France, despite Tunisian support for Algeria's struggle for independence.

Bourguiba's Neo-Destour (renamed Destourian Socialist) Party held a monopoly over domestic policies through the 1960's and 1970's, but Bourghiba's tendency toward authoritarianism caused rifts. Promises of political liberalization failed to materialize. By the 1980's he was convinced that an Islamist revival threatened the country, and, following a series of bomb attacks on his hometown of Monastir, he ordered a ferocious assault on the leadership and ranks of the Islamic Tendency Movement. A trial subsequently exposed abuses by Tunisian security forces. With the country on the brink of political and economic crisis, Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with the backing of the rest of the government, removed Bourguiba from office on November 7, 1987.

After his peaceful removal from office, Bourguiba was confined to his home in Monastir and permitted only infrequent visitors. His death on April 6, 2000, after a prolonged illness, was marked by a subdued but respectful period of national mourning.


Encyclopędia Britannica
President Habib Bourguiba, Official Website

See Also

World War II
International Monetary Fund

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The Robinson Library >> Tunisia

This page was last updated on February 10, 2019.