Bourguiba, Habib (Tunisia)
Habib Ben Ali Bourguiba was the first president of post-independence Tunisia. Nicknamed the ‘supreme Warrior’. he served from 1957–87 and is widely recognized as having been the driving force behind the country’s liberation from French colonial rule.
Bourguiba was born in Monastir on 3 Aug. 1903. In 1927 he graduated in law and political science from the University of Paris in France, and in 1932 set up a nationalist newspaper, L’Action Tunisienne. Two years later he founded the pro-independence Neo-Destour Party, serving as its secretary-general. As a result of his activism, Bourguiba was jailed and censured on numerous occasions by the French authorities. Shortly after Tunisia gained independence in 1956, he was elected prime minister and the following year he abolished the monarchy and became the president of a one-party state.
Bourguiba’s main policy priorities as president were women’s rights and education. He outlawed polygamy, legalized abortion, set up a free public education system and prohibited child labour. In the early years of his presidency per capita income and the literacy rate soared.
In foreign policy he maintained economic and trade connections with the West and sought closer ties with the USA. In 1962 he successfully negotiated the withdrawal of French troops from the country. He spent much of his presidential tenure fighting Islamic fundamentalism and supported recognition of Israel in defiance of broader Arab opinion. Despite boycotting the Arab League, he did offer Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization sanctuary in Tunisia when they were exiled from Lebanon in 1982.
In 1975 Bourguiba was elected president for life, but by the end of the decade and into the 1980s he was struggling both economically, against mass unemployment, and politically, with radical Islamist groups who violently opposed his style and direction of governance. In Nov. 1987 doctors declared him mentally unfit for office and and he was impeached by the then prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who subsequently held the presidency until 2011.
Bourguiba was kept under house arrest in Monastir for the last 13 years of his life and died on 6 April 2000. He was nevertheless buried with national honours in a mausoleum engraved with the words ‘Liberator of women, builder of modern Tunisia’.