The 14th anniversary of the death of Tunisian leader Habib Bourguiba earlier this month was, for many Tunisians, an occasion to recall the “Bourguiba experience.” In other words, this was an opportunity to apply a polarity of assessment—from blind glorification to harsh denunciation—on Bourguiba himself, his project and his experience in power.
Perhaps the first noteworthy point is the different way that Tunisians of varying ideological affiliations today are seeking to deal with Bourguibism, whether we are talking about it in terms of ideology and modernization, or in terms of Bourguiba the political figure. This is embodied in the fact that the conditions for an objective and in-depth reading of Bourguibism remain absent to this day, despite his exit from power in November 1987 and his death in 2000.
It will be difficult to bring about the conditions for such an objective reading so long as the Tunisian elite continues to deal with Bourguibism ideologically, and so long as they use it as a political stick to beat their opponents, most notably the political Islamists.
In order to ensure an objective reading and understanding of Bourguiba, we need to deal with him openly and view the Bourguiba experience without ideological blinkers. We must look at it away from dogma, and avoid exploiting it politically to achieve personal or transitory agendas.
Since January 14, 2011, Bourguiba has been increasingly evoked by the Tunisian elite, after the pre-revolutionary regime purposely suppressed his importance. And so, the recent calls for Bourguibism can perhaps be explained as a post-revolutionary psychological compensation, rectifying the longstanding neglect of a major Tunisian symbol. The powerful return of political Islam to Tunisia after the revolution is also a strong reason for this, especially after the Ennahda movement secured a majority in the Constituent Assembly, not to mention the Islamist movement securing a share of government, and the general conviction today that Ennahda will continue to be a major political player whether it is in government or not.
In this context, we can perhaps understand the Islamist movements’ fears regarding social change inspired by Bourguiba’s modernization project. But we must also not forget that it was this very same modernization that was one of the major factors behind the emergence of Islamist movements in Tunisia in the first place.
A quick look at the literature being promoted by Islamist movements—including the Islamic Tendency Movement which gave birth to the Ennahda movement—shows how Westernized they consider Bourguiba to have been, believing that he cut off Tunisia from its historic Islamic environs and affiliations. They criticize Bourguiba for passing the progressive Personal Status Code and say that he took an aggressive approach against laws based on Islam and the Qur’an. It was on this basis that in the 1970s and 1980s, the Tunisian Islamist elite radically rejected Bourguiba’s modernization project.
The Tunisian elites’ fear of the return of political Islam to power today is based on these historical facts. But must we approach Bourguibism from either of these two axes—modernization or political Islam, either narrow-minded glorifying of Bourguibism or radical criticism of it?
I believe that it is not anybody’s interest in Tunisia today to manipulate the issue of Bourguibism or view it based on ideological blinkers. It is crucial to liberate the Tunisian reading of Bourguibism from this ideological interpretation so that we can benefit and take lessons from it, as well as its shortcomings. We must use this as a basic springboard, effecting what changes need to be made, converting any criticism into a Bourguiba-style action plan that is vital and modern.
Bourguiba succeeded in modernizing Tunisian society through social democracy and rebuilding the Tunisian mindset away from traditional authority and a literal jurisprudential interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith. This is something that produced a particular perspective for Tunisia and Tunisians.
However, in another way, Bourguiba failed to establish comprehensive modernization and he erred by applying his policies in phases, particularly regarding democratization. We must understand the truth that democratization, development and modernization must take place hand-in-hand in a parallel and interactive way.
It seems to me that the continuation of the Bourguiba project needs to start where it left off. Bourguiba succeeded in developing and influencing the Tunisian character, and even his opponents submitted and were influenced by him. Not even the Islamists were safe from the effects of Bourguibism. The important question today is, how do we complete the incomplete Bourguibia project?