Habib Bourguiba, who led the people of Tunisia to independence and served as the North African state’s first president until being ousted in a bloodless coup more than 12 years ago, died quietly Thursday in his hometown of Monastir after a brief illness. He was 96.
The man who ousted him in 1987, President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, proclaimed seven days of mourning for the onetime “supreme combatant” and father of modern Tunisia.
As president, Bourguiba encouraged a shameless cult of personality while forcing Tunisia to become a highly Westernized, secular Arab country. The course he set is still followed by the country of 9 million people sandwiched between Libya and Algeria, now a playground for winter visitors from Europe.
According to news service reports from Tunis, Bourguiba was hospitalized last month with respiratory problems but was well enough to return home March 13. Since being deposed, Bourguiba had led a quiet existence in Monastir, seldom in the news except when his successor occasionally paid a visit.
French President Jacques Chirac on Thursday eulogized the leader of Tunisia’s long rebellion against French rule as a “man of courage and vision who symbolized the struggle for independence, the dignity of his people and the values of his country.”
When he turned Bourguiba out of office in 1987, then-Prime Minister Ben Ali cited incompetence, explaining to the nation that the president had become too old and senile to rule. That view was sanctioned at the time by a panel of seven physicians. There was no apparent opposition to the coup, and Ben Ali had taken the precaution of winning the consent first of senior military officers.
Until his health began to fail, Bourguiba as president had made it a practice to leave his palace on the outskirts of Tunis most afternoons and walk across the street to a corner cafe for a cup of mint tea. Waving away his bodyguards, he would sit there for an hour or more, chatting with waiters, peasants and passersby.
Bourguiba always enjoyed these encounters, seeing himself as the personal manager of his country. He never doubted for a minute his ability to mesmerize the people, who held him in almost the same esteem that would be due a saint.
“There is not a Tunisian who does not owe his being as a free citizen to me,” Bourguiba once said. He was probably right, and this enduring leader left a considerable legacy.
Using persuasion instead of coercion, and relying on his charm and confidence, he managed to bring about major social reforms while maintaining political stability, an unusual accomplishment in the Third World. Tunisia was widely regarded as a model for the transformation from backward nation to modern society.
Tunisia now enjoys a literate population, a nonbelligerent foreign policy, an apolitical army and a growing economy. Polygamy has been prohibited since 1957, and birth control is advocated as part of government policy. Women have the same rights as men.
During Bourguiba’s rule, Tunisia created one of the first official human rights organization in Africa. The country’s defense expenditures accounted for only about 2% of the national budget, probably the smallest portion in the Arab world. Meanwhile, a remarkably high 49% of the budget was allotted to education and social services.
Bourguiba even tried to place religion in a different perspective. In the mid-1960s, he shocked his Muslim countrymen by appearing on television sipping tea during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. His message was clear: Anyone who abstains from food and drink between sunrise and sunset for four weeks is not going to have the strength to be productive, and this religious custom is a luxury no one can afford.
Most Tunisians went right on fasting, but his gesture was a daring one in a conservative region where leaders can be overthrown for challenging the wisdom of Islamic tradition.
Bourguiba was born Aug. 3, 1903, in Monastir, a coastal town about 100 miles southeast of Tunis. He studied at French schools in the capital and earned a law degree in Paris, where he was influenced by the intellectual left. In 1934, he formed the Neo-Destour (New Constitution) Party and began the long march toward independence, a journey interrupted by time spent in French prisons and in exile.
His party’s cadres were highly disciplined and organized in underground cells. Faced with opposition from moderates within his movement, Bourguiba became more radical, promoting labor unrest, work stoppages and demonstrations. On April 9, 1938, a day commemorated in Tunisia as Martyr’s Day, 122 Tunisians were killed by French troops in nationalist-inspired rioting.
World War II checked the development of the nationalist movement as Tunisia fell under the rule of Vichy France. In 1942-43, Tunisia became the last battlefield between Allied and Axis forces in the struggle for North Africa.
After the war, Bourguiba resumed his movement’s campaign of civil disobedience. France, unable to restore order, agreed to give Tunisia its independence on March 20, 1956.
The early years of Bourguiba’s presidency were marked by turbulent relations with France, including bloody clashes over the French naval base at Bizerte, and by the pursuit of Marxist economic policies, including an attempt at collective farming.
Production tumbled. By the early 1970s, when modest reserves of oil were first exploited, Bourguiba made a dramatic about-face. He encouraged a free-market economy, developed tourism into a major industry and established close relations with the United States and Western Europe, particularly France. His social and economic policies became known as Bourguibism.
Publicly, Bourguiba uttered the slogans of the Arab cause. But Tunisia was moderate in its foreign policy. Bourguiba quietly distanced himself from many Arab and African issues. In 1965, he drew the wrath of his peers by becoming the first Arab president to advocate discussions with Israel.
In his final years as president, Bourguiba’s internal problems grew. Government troops and union workers clashed during a general strike in 1978, leaving more than 100 dead. In 1981, Libyan-backed Tunisian rebels attacked the mining town of Gafsa and the resultant trial and execution of 13 commandos triggered demonstrations.
In January 1984, Bourguiba used troops and tanks to put down riots that followed his decision to raise food prices. He rescinded the order and crowds poured into the streets to chant, “Long live Bourguiba!”
As president, Bourguiba was a larger-than-life figure. But after he was ousted, streets and institutions named for him were gradually renamed. One enduring monument remained, however: a twin-towered, golden-domed mausoleum that he had built for himself and his family in Monastir, of elegant buff stone, blue ceramics and gray marble, a building so lovely that it has become a tourist attraction.
His enduring legacy is a stable, pro-Western country that has enjoyed relative prosperity for its area of North Africa, and that largely avoided the fundamentalism and political turbulence that has torn its neighbors in Algeria and Libya.
Lamb was formerly The Times’ bureau chief in Cairo. Daniszewski reported from Cairo.