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April 7, 2000

Habib Bourguiba, Led Tunisia to Independence From France


Habib Bourguiba, who was president of Tunisia from 1957 to 1987 after leading the country to independence from France, died Thursday. He was 96 years old and lived in Monastir, in eastern Tunisia.

Bourguiba was a spectacularly durable Arab leader. He was also relatively moderate and pro-Western and did much to enhance women's rights in Tunisia.

Often called the Supreme Combatant, he long dominated his North African nation as wholly as Nehru did India or Nasser did Egypt.

In the early 1960s, after he consolidated power as president, he was asked about Tunisia's political system. "The system? What system?" he exclaimed cheerfully. "I am the system!"

Bourguiba acquired the title "president for life" in 1975, and he was the only president that independent Tunisia had ever had when, in November 1987, at the age of 84, he was deposed in a bloodless coup. He was ousted by his new prime minister, Zine el-Abidine ben Ali, who declared that the president was too senile and ill to govern Tunisia's 7.5 million people. Bourguiba had suffered from various ailments for years.

Tunisia evolved into one of the most politically tolerant Arab countries during the Bourguiba era and for years was a showcase for development. Per capita income and literacy soared.

But in the later years of Bourguiba's rule, appreciation of his past accomplishments dimmed with disillusionment over high prices, low wages and high unemployment.

At the same time, demands from opposing ends of the political spectrum shook confidence in his stewardship, which had often been marred by rigged elections.

In his final years in power, Bourguiba took sweeping measures against militant Islamists, and he was deposed after he had ordered retrials and capital punishment for several of them. Ben Ali and others were afraid that if the order were carried out it would provoke civil war.

But for decades Bourguiba was the fountainhead of Tunisian political life, first as the leader of the movement for independence and then, after independence in 1956, as chief of state, modernizer, women's rights pioneer and advocate of Arab moderation on the issue of Israel.

In his prime he was also a shrewd politician who often preferred to outmaneuver French officials, Islamic conservatives and other adversaries rather than confront them.

His tactics, dubbed "Bourguibism" by the Paris press, helped him remain as Tunisia's leader after the rulers of other Islamic nations -- the shah of Iran, the king of Libya, and strongmen in Syria and Iraq -- were overthrown.

Bourguiba's relatively restrained attitude did not come naturally in Tunisia, a nation the size of Louisiana on the Mediterranean coast between Algeria and Libya. The Vandals were there in the 5th century and pirates in the 16th. In the early 1950s, Bourguiba's aides unleashed another wave of terror and violence to wrest their homeland from the grip of France.

But as president he advocated relative restraint toward Israel, even after the Israeli victory in the 1967 War, when other Arab leaders demanded revenge.

In 1968, taking an approach resembling one later adopted by U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, Bourguiba advocated a phased solution to the Middle East conflict. But his proposals were ignored in Arab capitals.

Some months before the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, he called for a "just and lasting peace," citing Israel's right "not to be exterminated and thrown into the sea." But in 1973, as in 1967, he sent a token military force to show support for the Arabs.

And when the guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization left West Beirut in 1982 after an Israeli invasion, Tunisia -- despite misgivings -- was among the Arab countries that took them in. About 1,100 PLO members arrived by sea at Bizerte to a tumultuous welcome. The chief greeter was Bourguiba, waving from the dock.

The Bourguiba government also let the PLO set up headquarters in Tunis, which was already the headquarters of the Arab League.

A quarter century earlier, soon after Tunisia became independent, Bourguiba used his power to push through a "code of personal status" that ran counter to traditional Muslim jurisprudence and custom in enhancing women's rights, a step the French had cautiously refrained from taking.

Polygamy was outlawed. Marriage was redefined as a voluntary contract that conferred rights upon the wife as well as the husband. A minimum age for marriage was set, and the consent of the bride was made mandatory. These stipulations in effect outlawed the traditional practice of selling young girls. They also underscored the modern concept of marriage as a bond between two individuals rather than an alliance between two families.

Bourguiba also sought to improve life for his country's seminomadic tribesmen. In a speech to a tribal audience in 1960, he evoked a theme beloved of Arab historians, the contrast between desert and city life, in urging the audience to "follow the directions of your government so that your children and grandchildren may accede to city life -- or else you can remain attached to a primitive type of life, which condemns you to vegetate on the margins of society."

Bourguiba married Wassila ben Ammar, a Tunisian from a prominent family, in 1961, the year he divorced his first wife, Mathilde Lorrain. Ben Ammar was seen as a power within the presidency, and she sought a more open and democratic society and an orderly aftermath to Bourguiba's presidency. But he divorced her in 1986 after banishing her. She died in 1999.

Bourguiba is survived by a son, Habib Bourguiba Jr.


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