The founder of modern independent Tunisia, prime minister from 1956 then president from 1957 to 1987, when his own prime minister removed him on the grounds of senility. He was on the whole a socially liberal and non-aligned ruler, and a restraining influence on Islam. He was known to his people as the Supreme Fighter.

Born on 3 August 1903 (officially, but possibly earlier) in Monastir, seventh child of a lieutenant in the Bey's army, he was educated at the Sorbonne in 1924-27, studying law and political science. Returning to Tunis to practise as a lawyer, and newly married to a Frenchwoman called Mathilde, he became increasingly involved in nationalist politics. He founded a newspaper L'Action Tunisienne in 1932, and in 1934 led a secession from the Destour Party to form a group called the Néo-Destour Party, which thereafter was a dominating forcing in Tunisian politics. He founded branches all over the country and kept filling the ranks with new members as old ones were put in French jails for their agitation. He himself was in detention in 1934-36, 1938-42, and 1952-55, and exiled at other times.

His insistent demand during the Second World War was for Tunisian independence, and he refused to cooperate with the Vichy régime or Mussolini when they wooed him. Increasing violence in 1952-54 finally led to serious discussions with France on autonomy, which was granted in 1955. Full independence was gained on 20 March 1956, initially under the nominal rule of the last Bey (originally a prince vassal of the Ottoman Empire), Muhammad VIII al-Amin, but Bourguiba removed him on 25 July 1957 and declared a republic, with himself as president.

Also in 1957 the last of the French occupying forces were withdrawn from the country, except for the fort at Bizerte. Clashes here in 1961-63 led to their removal, and in 1964 Bourguiba nationalized all remaining French property in Tunisia. He also supported the much more violent independence war in neighbouring Algeria.

The 1959 constitution made Tunisia a secular state based to some extent on Islamic values but with modernization, such as the abolition of polygamy, and rights for women. While being one of the first Arab leaders to call for dialogue and compromise between Palestine and Israel, he later allowed the PLO to set up their headquarters in Tunis when they had been forcibly expelled from Beirut.

There was no effective opposition to his rule, though people were killed in riots and Islamist opponents were maltreated, and economic conditions deteriorated: in 1974 he was named President for Life. A constitutional amendment named the prime minister his successor in case of his death or incapacity: the first ones who might benefit from this did not do so, but when he appointed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali prime minister in October 1987 he made a mistake. Ben Ali deposed him on 7 November on the grounds of mental incapacity and confined him to his palace at Monastir. In later years the aged ex-president was trotted out as a symbol of national pride, and was much mourned when he died on 6 April 2000 at the age of (at least) 96.

< Muhammad VIII al-Amin - Tunisia - Zine El Abidine Ben Ali >

Encyclopaedia Britannica
BBC obituary at (in French)

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.