Islamic Studies Habib Bourguiba
Jacob Abadi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0239


Habib Bourguiba is unique among all Arab leaders of his time not only for his role as a freedom fighter who laid the foundations of modern Tunisia but also for the vast reforms that he later introduced. However, despite the remarkable progress that the country achieved under his presidency, the autocratic system that he established had a stifling effect on its progress. Bourguiba was born in Monastir, Tunisia, on August 3, 1903, to a middle-class family of Libyan origin. He imbibed Western values in the educational institutions that he attended, in both Tunisia and France. After completing his elementary and secondary education, he traveled to France where he enrolled at the College of Sorbonne and obtained a law degree. He married a French woman and sired a son whom he named Habib Bourguiba, Jr. Bourguiba’s political activities began on his return to Tunisia in 1927. The first major task with which he became involved was the need to end the French Protectorate and declare independence. The inevitable collision with the French authorities resulted in long periods of hiding and arrest in exile for him. Unable to stay in the country, Bourguiba sought refuge in Cairo where he recruited supporters for the Tunisian cause. On returning to Tunisia, he began to lay the foundations for the Neo-Destour party in Ksar Hellal on March 2, 1934. Following the party’s formation, Bourguiba declared Tunisia independent and assumed the title of president, thereby bringing the monarchy to an end. Although Tunisia had a constitution and representative political institutions, Bourguiba was the ultimate authority, and these institutions merely rubber-stamped his decisions. The following years saw the introduction of sweeping reforms in many areas. Bourguiba’s main challenges emerged after 1956, when the country became independent and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser promoted pan-Arab unity. Bourguiba’s peaceful approach put him on a collision course with his Egyptian rival. At the same time, Bourguiba promoted cooperation with the countries of the Maghreb and with the Great Powers, the United States in particular. Despite the faltering economy, the threat posed by the Islamists, and other difficulties, Bourguiba’s presidency was robust. However, the 1980s witnessed numerous problems that the old and ailing president was too weak to handle. It was this state of affairs that eventually brought the collapse of his presidency in November 1987, when Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali took over.

Books Dealing Entirely with Bourguiba (His Early Presidency)

A specific work by Moore 1965 discusses the way in which Bourguiba used the Neo-Destour party to rule effectively, and Duwaji 1967 is a detailed analysis of the country’s economic performance. Bourguiba’s efforts to bring peace to the Arab-Israeli conflict are explained thoroughly in Merlin 1968. Micaud, et al. 1964 analyzes his early attempts at modernization in detail, and Saïd 1970 provides a good analysis of his cultural policy.

  • Duwaji, Ghazi. Economic Development in Tunisia: The Impact and Course of Government Planning. New York: Praeger, 1967.

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    Duwaji provides an analysis of Bourguiba’s efforts to promote economic growth. He assesses the impact of Bourguiba’s measures by providing details regarding the state of the economy during the Protectorate. He also assesses the effectiveness of the measures introduced by the government, such as the creation of a banking system, the confiscation of land held by colonists, the Ten-Year Plan (1962–1971), and so on.

  • Merlin, Samuel. The Search for Peace in the Middle East: The Story of President Bourguiba’s Campaign for a Negotiated Peace between Israel and the Arab States. Cranbury, NJ: Thomas Yoseloff, 1968.

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    Merlin provides a detailed analysis of Bourguiba’s campaign for peace in the Middle East. He provides a sound analysis of Bourguibism and assesses the impact of the Six-Day War of 1967 on Bourguiba’s peace initiative. He also gives an insight into Bourguiba’s relations with his political rivals, the Great Powers, and the Jews of Tunisia.

  • Micaud, Charles A., Leon Brown, and Clement Henry Moore. Tunisia: The Politics of Modernization. New York: Praeger, 1964.

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    In this study, the authors assess the effectiveness of Bourguiba’s modernization program. They argue that the program succeeded because of Bourguiba’s charisma, the survival of the efficient colonial administration, the effectiveness of the Neo-Destour party, and the determination of the intellectual elite.

  • Moore, Clement Henry. Tunisia since Independence: The Dynamics of One-Party Government. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

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    Moore explores Bourguiba’s achievements from a viewpoint of a political scientist, arguing that the changes were made possible largely due to the robust structure of the Neo-Destour mass party, which implemented his reforms. The author contends that Bourguiba had considerable success in maintaining the party separate from the government bureaucracy, thus neutralizing both and allowing him the freedom of action necessary to implement his reforms.

  • Saïd, Rafik. Cultural Policy in Tunisia. Paris: UNESCO, 1970.

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    This concise monograph analyzes the nature of the various agencies that dealt with the dissemination of Arab and Western culture in Tunisia under Bourguiba, and it assesses the government’s efforts to formulate a long-term cultural policy.

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