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Rediscovering Bourguiba - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The date is December 1972; the place, Tunisia; the scene, a comedic video recording on YouTube that reflects a conflict between two different generations and mentalities. This scene depicts the great struggle between the old man, [Tunisian leader] Habib Bourguiba, who was classified by revolutionary regimes as a “conservative”, and the self-confident “young revolutionary” Muammar Gaddafi, who had taken power in Libya approximately one year earlier via military coup, and who was extremely disdainful of others. Indeed Gaddafi can be seen in this scene laughing at Bourguiba’s speech, during which the Tunisian leader implicitly attacked Gaddafi, who was sharing the same stage with him.

Bourguiba, according to the story, came to the rally where Gaddafi was issuing fiery rhetoric inflaming the feelings of the audience with his call for Arab unity and combatting imperialism. Bourguiba took the podium [following the Libyan leader’s speech] and immediately began to refute Gaddafi’s statements, saying that while he did not disagree with him on the final objective, everything must be done progressively and based upon stable foundations. Bourguiba stressed that the most important thing is to change people’s mentalities, build and develop societies, achieve scientific development, and expand the concept of citizenship. Bourguiba said that while independence had granted [national] sovereignty, a nation’s livelihood, needs, and scientific achievements were still not in its own hands. As evidence of this, he put forward the example of the heating at the presidential palace which required assistance from abroad to be fixed. The Tunisian leader also inquired: what benefit would 5 million Tunisians gain from a union with 1.5 million Libyans, asking rhetorically, “Are we [the Tunisians] the weak party?” He also stressed that “if we wanted to build something we must build it based upon strong foundation that will last, not like the previous unions which were nothing more than signatures on paper” in a reference to the Egyptian – Syrian union [United Arab Republic], which soon collapsed, as it was not built upon solid foundations.

What is certain is that Bourguiba’s message, which he enthusiastically put forward during this rally, was an attempt to defend and safeguard the Tunisian [political] model that he had established, and which Gaddafi was attempting to hijack. Bourguiba was not as emotional or enthusiastic, in his rhetoric, as the young revolutionary who came from Libya, and this is because popular rhetoric is more emotional and emotive.

Bourguiba was not popular during the era of the Arab nationalist expansion. In the city of Jericho in 1967 – which at the time was under control of Jordan – it was Bourguiba who stood up and put forward the idea of recognizing the UN resolution of 1948 which calls for the division of Palestine, and negotiations with Israel on the basis of establishing a Palestinian state. This resulted in a media campaign being initiated against Bourguiba by those parties who viewed this as straying from the Arab line.

This article is not mean to praise or condemn any particular party; rather it is an alternative reading of history. It seems that history can be read several times, each time with a different frame of mind. The most important thing is for one to learn the lessons of history, and keep these fresh in one’s mind, in order to build a better future. For what is not acceptable today may be acceptable tomorrow, and this is the case with regards to the peace negotiations.

The talk about Bourguiba has been revived with Beji Caid el-Sebsi – one of Bourguiba’s companions during the struggle for Tunisia’s independence – assuming the position of Tunisian Prime Minister during the transitional period which eventually produced the Constituent Assembly, following what was – probably – the first free elections since Tunisian independence. Newly appointed Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki, in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat published last week, said that there is a common denominator between himself and Bourguiba, namely their concern with education, and women’ rights, and their love for Tunisia. However there is one important difference, Bourguiba was an autocrat, whilst Marzouki is a democrat, and this is a difference of profound significance.

Bourguiba benefited Tunisian society with his concern for education and women’s rights, however he failed – as the founder of the Republic of Tunisia – to lay the foundation for of a regime that could progress and reform itself following his rule. The evidence of this is that the [Tunisian] republic reached a dead-end with the revolution, which is now forming a second republic [of Tunisia]. It is important that all the Arab republics that have entered this second stage [following revolutions], benefit from rereading history with a new frame of mind in order to establish something sustainable, capable of surviving, and changing and transforming in a peaceful manner.

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim is Asharq Al-Awsat's deputy editor-in-chief. He is based in London.

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