Tunisia- Forty Years on from Independence

By Farley, Jonathan G. | Contemporary Review, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Tunisia- Forty Years on from Independence


Farley, Jonathan G., Contemporary Review


Tunisia has now been an independent state for just over forty years. It had been under French role for seventy five years. It achieved independence in March 1956 under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba. Thereafter, Bourguiba ruled the country for thirty years before being deposed by the present ruler, Ben Ali in 1987. This article will examine how the country has evolved both politically and economically since independence and evaluate its present and future role in international relations.

Firstly, the political dimension; until his deposition, Bourguiba dominated Tunisia's politics. As a young, French-trained lawyer in the 1920s and early 1930s, he was a member of the Destour Party which, though nationalist, was conservative and pacific by nature and believed in negotiating with the French Protectorate authorities, the extension of civil rights for Tunisians. Bourguiba became dissatisfied with the unfruitfulness of this approach and so in 1934 broke away to form the Neo-Destour, a party more militant and more socialist in its outlook. It caused the French protectorate authorities headaches with its strikes, demonstrations and boycotts, methods which the Destour had eschewed. It appealed to the Tunisian masses, whereas the Destour appealed only to a relatively small, educated elite. Bourguiba and his confederates questioned the whole ethos of French protectorate rule, in particular the primacy given to Christianity over Islam and the denial of positions of responsibility to educated Tunisians in government or administration. For their pains, they spent years in French prisons during the late 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s, but the fact of that detention served only to make them political martyrs in the eyes of ordinary people. After 1945, European imperialist ideas came under increasing pressure; by 1954, French colonial authority had crumbled in Indo-China and, in the two succeeding years, came under increasing challenge in Algeria. By 1956 France, though determined to retain the latter as a colony, was prepared to retreat from its two protectorates, Morocco and Tunisia, realising that it could no longer hold the ring in all three countries. Algeria had been under French colonial role since 1830. It had been heavily settled by France in a way which Morocco and Tunisia had not. On 20 March 1956, Tunisia became independent with Bourguiba as head of government.

For some thirty years, thereafter, Bourguiba personified the state which he had himself largely created. During the first two decades of this period, his rule, if perhaps somewhat paternalistic, was in the main progressive and benign. There was considerable development of primary education sectors of co-operative agriculture, of birth control and of women's rights generally. The country was small enough for Bourguiba to take something of a personal interest in the administration of the districts and municipalities and he would tour the country extensively, inspecting local developments and making speeches of praise or admonition. He was determined that Tunisia should develop into a modern state and had little time for slavish adherence to Islam. 'Take your choice', he was heard to say on more than one occasion 'eat or fast - provided production does not suffer'. On foreign policy, he tended to take a pragmatic view of the Palestine problem, even hinting at the good sense of Arab recognition of the Jewish state as early as the mid-1960s. Neither his outlook on Islam nor Israel, however, endeared him to the more radical states of the Arab world.

Sadly, this wisdom and benevolence did not survive with the passage of his years. During the 1980s, he became ever more autocratic in his outlook and insensitive to the view of those around him as the state of his health became ever more parlous. The rise of fundamentalist Islam after 1979 caused him particular anger and alarm and he became increasingly repressive of dissentient political views, especially any which he believed had their roots in religion. …

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