Habib Bourguiba

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Habib Bourguiba
الحبيب بورقيبة
Bourguiba photo officielle.jpg
1st President of the Republic of Tunisia
In office
25 July 1957 – 7 November 1987
Preceded by Office created
(Muhammad VIII as King of Tunisia)
Succeeded by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
Prime Minister of Kingdom of Tunisia
In office
15 April 1956 – 25 July 1957
Monarch Muhammad VIII
Preceded by Tahar Ben Ammar
Succeeded by Bahi Ladgham
Minister of Foreign Affairs
In office
20 March 1956 – 25 July 1957
Monarch Muhammad VIII
Prime Minister Tahar Ben Ammar
Preceded by Office created
Succeeded by Sadok Mokadem
President of the National Constituent Assembly
In office
9 April 1956 – 15 April 1956
Monarch Muhammad VIII
Prime Minister Tahar Ben Ammar
Preceded by Office created
Succeeded by Jallouli Fares
Personal details
Born (1903-08-03)3 August 1903
Monastir, French Tunisia
Died 6 April 2000(2000-04-06) (aged 96)
Monastir, Tunisia
Nationality Tunisian
Political party Neo Destour (1934-1964)
Socialist (1968-1987)
Spouse(s) Mathilde Lorrain
Wassila Ben Ammar
Children Habib Bourguiba, Jr.
Hajer Bourguiba (adopted)
Alma mater University of Paris
Religion Sunni Islam
Website www.bourguiba.com

Habib Bourguiba (Arabic: الحبيب بورقيبةḤabīb Būrqībah; full name: Habib Ben Ali Bourguiba; 3 August 1903 – 6 April 2000) was a Tunisian statesman who became the country's first President of the Republic of Tunisia from 1957 to 1987.

Having worked as a lawyer in France in the 1920s, he returned to Tunisia and started being more active in the country's nationalist movement. In 1934, when he was 31 years old, he co-founded the Neo Destour that spearheaded the Tunisian movement for independence. After being arrested and exiled several times by the occupying French protectorate, he decided to both negotiate and put pressure on the Fourth Republic to put forward his nationalist agenda. Following the country's independence on 20 March 1956, Bourguiba put an end to the monarchy, declared the republic of which he served as first president on 25 July 1957 and then focused on building a modern Tunisian state.

His main priorities upon taking over power included the improvement of the country's educational system, fighting gender inequality, developing the economy and maintaining a neutral foreign policy, which made him an exception among other Arab leaders. This, however, did not prevent a cult of personality to develop around him as he held the title of "Supreme Combatant" and established a twenty-year single-party state. The end of his rule was marked by his declining health, the rise of clientelism and Islamism, which was concluded by his removal from power by his then prime minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 7 November 1987. He was later kept under house arrest in a residence in Monastir, where he remained until his death in 6 April 2000, and was buried in a mausoleum he had previously built there.

Early life and education[edit]

Bourguiba was the youngest of his siblings and was officially born on 3 August 1903, in Monastir,[a] though he claimed he was born a year or two earlier. He was the son of Ali Bourguiba and Fatouma Khefacha, who was 40 at the time. Bourguiba later said that his mother felt ashamed of bearing a child at such an age while his father asked himself if he would have been able to raise his son with his advanced age.[1]

Despite his financial difficulties, Ali Bourguiba dedicated a great deal of attention to his children's education. This was criticized by his brother Mohamed who reproached him for giving too much consideration to their instruction. Bourguiba attended school in Tunis at Collège Sadiki and then at the Lycée Carnot. He obtained his Baccalaureate in 1924 and went to the University of Paris to study law and political science. While in Paris, the adult Bourguiba met Mathilde Lorrain, his landlady at that time, whom he married in 1927. The couple had their only son, Habib Bourguiba, Jr. on 9 April 1927.[citation needed]

Early political career[edit]

The same year Bourguiba graduated with a degree in Law and Political Science, and returned with his newly formed family to Tunisia where he got immediately involved in political life by joining two newspapers in 1928: l’Étendard Tunisien (The Tunisian Standard) and Sawt At-Tunisi (The Tunisian Voice). In 1931, the French colonial authorities prosecuted him for his alleged "Incitement to racial hatred". Subsequent to this, Bourguiba launched a militant newspaper L’Action Tunisienne, laying the ground for strong action against the colonial power.


As a member of the Executive Committee of the Destour Party, Bourguiba found himself less in tune with the mainstream party vision, which culminated in the Monastir incident of 8 August 1933 relative to the burial of a naturalized Tunisian citizen. Bourguiba was pushed to resign from the committee, which led to the creation of the Neo Destour Party in Ksar Hellal on 2 March 1934 with Bourguiba as the Secretary General of the Political Bureau. From that moment, Bourguiba set out to crisscross the country to try to enroll the majority of Tunisians from the countryside; and thus create a more popular base for his newly formed party so that he managed in a couple of years to set up more than 400 branches (cells) of the Neo Destour.

Colonial oppression[edit]

In September 1934, the colonial representative (Resident General) Mr Peyrouton ordered that Bourguiba be confined to Borj-Leboeuf, a remote place on the border of the Sahara desert, until April 1936 when he was released with most of his companions. After the popular uprising of 9 April 1938, where colonial troops opened fire on demonstrators killing and injuring hundreds of civilians, Bourguiba was once again imprisoned on 10 June 1939 along with a group of militants on charges of plotting against the state security and incitement to civil war.

World War II[edit]

At the outbreak of World War II, Bourguiba was transferred to the Teboursouk prison and then in May 1940, to the Haut Fort Saint Nicholas near Marseilles until 18 November 1942 where he was taken to Montluc Prison in Lyon. After which he ended up in Fort Vancia in Ain until the Germans released him and took him to Chalon-sur-Saône. In a manoeuvre by the Germans and Italian Fascist regime to gain Bourguiba's alliance, he was received with full honours in Rome, in January 1943, but to no avail; the Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry tried to obtain a statement in their favour; on the eve of his return home, he accepted to deliver a message to the Tunisian people by "Radio Bari", cautioning them against "all the appetites". In his return to Tunis, on 7 April 1943 he made sure that the message he had sent from his prison in August 1942 reached the general population as well as the militants, that Germany was bound to lose the war and that Tunisia's independence would only come after the victory of the Allies. He emphasized his position by putting it as a question of life or death for Tunisia.

Fighting for independence[edit]

Bourguiba giving a speech in Bizerte, 1952

After the end of World War II, Bourguiba, after many sterile efforts to open a dialogue with the French authorities, came to the conclusion that the Tunisian cause had to be brought to the attention of the world opinion. In March 1945, he left Sfax secretly, on a small fisherman's boat, heading to Libya, and from there, on foot and on camel's back, he managed to reach Cairo, which he used as a base for his international activity. He took part in the setting up of the Greater Maghreb Office. He travelled continuously to the different Arab countries, members of the newly born Arab League, Europe, (Switzerland, Belgium), to Asia, (Pakistan, India, Indonesia) and USA to promote the Tunisian aspiration for independence and met with high and influential personalities to help the Tunisian cause. On 8 September 1949, Bourguiba returned to Tunis to reorganise the Party and resume his direct contact policy with the population by visiting small towns and villages throughout the country.

In April 1950, he laid out a seven-point program aiming at ending the system of direct administration in Tunisia and restoring full Tunisian sovereignty as a final step to independent statehood. In 1951, he embarked on a second round of trips to promote his program at the international level. In light of the French Government refusal to concede to national claims, Bourguiba toughened his stance and called for unlimited resistance and general insurrection. This tactic led to his arrest on 18 January 1952 and his confinement in Tabarka, then Remada then in La Galite and finally Groix Island at the Ferte Castle.

Pierre Mendès-France became French Prime Minister in 1954; his positions on France's colonial policies opened the door to Tunisian home-rule. 1 June 1955 saw the return of Bourguiba. The "Internal Autonomy Agreement" was a big step to total independence. After several arduous negotiations, independence was proclaimed on 20 March 1956, with Habib Bourguiba as President of the National Constituent Assembly, and Head of the Government. At the same time, he acted as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tunisia.


Habib Bourguiba
Habib Bourguiba

On 25 July 1957, a republic was proclaimed abolishing the monarchy and vesting Bourguiba with powers of President of the Republic. Bourguiba's long and powerful presidency was formative for the creation of the Tunisian state and nation. On the debit side, however, his rule was authoritarian. Political democracy in the Western sense was more or less nonexistent. The constitution vested Bourguiba with sweeping—almost dictatorial—powers. Civil liberties were subject to "the limits prescribed by law," per the constitution. The media were expected to practice self-censorship, and opponents were frequently imprisoned. Bourguiba became the focus of a modest personality cult in which he was extolled as the "Supreme Warrior" of the nation.

After a failed experiment with socialist economic policies, Bourguiba embarked from the early 1970s on an economically liberal model of development spearheaded by his Prime Minister, Hédi Nouira for a ten-year period. This led to flourishing of private businesses and consolidation of the private sector.

On the international front, Bourguiba took a pro-Western position in the Cold War, but with a fiercely defended independent foreign policy that challenged the leadership of the Arab League by Egyptian President Nasser. In March 1965, he delivered the historical Jericho Speech advocating a fair and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis based on the UN 1947 Resolution that proposed two states.

Bourguiba signed an agreement with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to merge nations in 1974.[2] The pact came as a surprise because Bourguiba had rebuked similar offers for over two years previously.[3] Weeks after the agreement, he postponed a referendum on the issue, effectively ending it weeks later. The idea of merging states was highly unpopular in Tunisia, and cost Bourguiba much of his people's respect. The agreement was said to allow Bourguiba the presidency while Gaddafi would be defense minister.

In March 1975, the Tunisian National Assembly voted Bourguiba president for life, as an exceptional measure. In the 1980s Bourguiba made efforts to combat both poverty and a rising Islamist opposition, spearheaded by the Nahda party.

In 1979 Tunis became the headquarters of the Arab League after the Camp David Accords and in 1982, it welcomed the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) leadership in Tunis, after it had been ousted from Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.

On 1 October 1985, Israel launched an attack against the PLO headquarters near Tunis. The Tunisian Armed Forces were unable to prevent the total destruction of the base. Although most of the dead were PLO members, there were casualties among Tunisian civilian bystanders. As a result, Bourguiba significantly downscaled relations with the United States.

Bourguiba had been in ill health from the 1970s onward. As the 1980s wore on, his behavior grew more erratic. He fired the general manager of a major newspaper only 24 hours after appointing him. He also fired the head of the country's United Nations delegation only a few days after appointing him, and forgot about a decree he'd signed to appoint new ministers. Matters came to a head in November 1987, when he ordered new trials for 15 Islamists and demanded that 12 of them be hanged by the next weekend. This latest order convinced several opponents and supporters of Bourguiba that he was no longer acting or thinking rationally; one human rights activist said that if the orders had been carried out, it would have meant civil war. After several doctors attending to Bourguiba issued a report declaring that Bourguiba was mentally incapable of carrying out his duties, Prime Minister Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been appointed to the post only a month earlier, removed Bourguiba from office and assumed the presidency himself.[4]

Social reform[edit]

The Bourguiba government's reforms include female emancipation, public education, family planning, a modern, state-run healthcare system, a campaign to improve literacy, administrative, financial and economic organization, suppression of religious property endowments, known as Waqf, and building the country's infrastructure.[citation needed].

During the time Bourguiba was president, education was a high priority. Bourguiba also promoted women's rights. Though these set important legal precedents by prohibiting polygamy, expanding women's access to divorce, and raising the age at which girls could marry to 17 years old. The new Personal Status Code passed in August 1956 expanded women's rights.

Bourguiba was very critical of the veil, on various occasions referring to is as "that odious rag".[5]


Bourguiba's mausoleum in Monastir
Tomb of Bourguiba in Monastir

Bourguiba remained as President of Tunisia until 7 November 1987, when his newly appointed Prime Minister and constitutional successor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali impeached him. Ben Ali claimed that Bourguiba's old age and health were certified by his own doctors made him unfit to govern. Ben Ali himself was overthrown in 2011 in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Bourguiba lived in Monastir under government protection in the Governor's Mansion for the last 13 years of his life.

Personal life[edit]

In 1925, Habib Bourguiba met his future wife, Mathilde Lorrain, in Paris while he was studying law at the Sorbonne. She converted to Islam and chose the name Moufida Bourguiba. She bore him one son: Habib Bourguiba, Jr. in April 1927. In a second wedding, he married Wassila Ben Ammar and adopted a daughter, Hajer Bourguiba.

Bourguiba died on 6 April 2000 at the age of 96. He was buried with national honors on 8 April 2000 in a mausoleum in Monastir.


  1. ^ (French) A strong debate exists over this date, which might have been falsified by some historians to make him younger as certain families were careful not to declare a boy's early birth date in order to avoid conscription according to Samya El Mechat, La Tunisie et les chemins vers l’indépendance. 1945-1956, éd. L'Harmattan, Paris, 1992. He might have been in fact born in 1901 or even in 1898. Bourguiba himself said in 1955: "I was born in 1901. But when I applied to law school in Paris in 1924, the secretary made a mistake and marked 1903. Since I was not a very young student, I was satisfied with this date and I kept it". One of his minister, Mahmoud El Materi, confirmed this hypothesis in his memoirs.


  1. ^ Bessis & Belhassen 2012, pp. 26
  2. ^ The Palm Beach Post - Google News Archive Search
  3. ^ The Sydney Morning Herald - Google News Archive Search
  4. ^ Delaney, Paul (1987-11-09). "Senile Bourguiba Described in Tunis". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 December 2010. 
  5. ^ Clement Henry Moore. Tunisia Since Independence: The Dynamics of One-party Government. p. 55. 


In French[edit]

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Post created
President of Tunisia
Succeeded by
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali