Building A Democracy in Tunisia

The Legacy of Habib Bourguiba


On Dec. 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street fruit vendor, lit himself on fire in protest in Tunisia. His desperate act of protest sparked immediate popular resistance and mobilizations across the Middle East and North Africa. On Jan. 14 of 2011, after massive protests and violence, then-Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, stepped down after 23 years in power. Protests followed: Egypt on Jan. 25; Yemen on Jan. 27; Bahrain on Feb. 14; Libya on Feb. 15; and Syria on Mar. 15. That same year, regimes fell: Egypt’s Mubarak handed power to the military on Feb. 11; Libya’s Gaddafi was killed on Oct. 20; Yemen’s Saleh signed a power-transfer agreement on Nov. 23.[1] Yet, only Tunisia with its stable multiparty Parliament appear on course towards pluralist democracy. Libya and Yemen’s protests toppled their regimes, but created a power vacuum that drew in an interminable civil war. While both Egypt and Tunisia toppled their regimes through non-violent protest, Egypt’s process appears to be sinking back into military dictatorship.[2]

This begs the questions: Why did some protests and uprisings topple their government and others not? Of those that did topple their governments, why is Tunisia the only country on course towards a pluralist democracy? Answering these questions involves first understanding Arab particularities: the dynamic between regimes on the one hand and oil wealth and the coercive apparatus (e.g., military, police) on the other. And to understand why Tunisia stands as the lone democratic country, we have to go back to its modernization and the role of a key leader, Habib Bourguiba. Thus, we will first explore the factors that determine the success of regime change. Then, we will explore the factors that are leading to Tunisia’s path towards pluralist democracy.

To Topple or Not

Brownlee, et al. investigate the success or failure of an uprising to overthrow a regime by focusing on that regime’s strength[3] based on: the country’s oil wealth (i.e., ability to buy-off or repress the population); and the unity between the autocrat and the repressive apparatus (as measured by completed dynastic successions).

Regimes with great oil wealth can either buy-off their population, or use their well-funded sophisticated surveillance and coercive government apparatus to repress them. It doesn’t take much to uncover oil wealth buying support. After the Tunisian uprising ousted Ben Ali, the Kuwait government announced $3,500 for every man, woman, and child and free staples. The Saudi government followed suit and announced an $80 billion spending package in public sector wage hikes, unemployment payments, college stipends, and low-income housing. Qatar followed by announcing public-sector salary and pension increases of 60%. Despite their equally autocratic governments, none of these experienced any serious uprising. In addition to Brownlee et al.’s points, clientelism also helps control the population. Guaranteed profits from oil discourages riskier (decentralized and productive) enterprises.[4] Thus, the population’s economic interests are inevitably woven into that of the state (albeit at the margins).

Furthermore, oil wealth allows governments to fund a sophisticated military and the secret police and intelligence agency mukhabarat to control public opinion. Between 2006 and 2009, Saudi Arabia spent close to $30 billion on arms imports. During the same period, Bahrain spent $14 billion; Algeria, nearly $7 billion. Saudi Arabia ranks among the top ten arms importers in the world.[5] Egypt and Jordan, meanwhile, have deployed various mechanisms to limit free elections and dismantle opponent parties.[6] This isn’t to say their democracy is completely obliterated. It is simply made impotent: expanded and contracted to sap the claims of the opposition and fake pluralist democracy.

Secondly, weapons don’t mean much without the full loyalty of those wielding them.[7] In order to come up with an objective measure of the military’s regime loyalty, Brownlee, et al. use the success or failure of hereditary succession. Countries with hereditary succession point towards great unity between the head of state and the military. A completed hereditary succession is a strong indicator of the military’s regime loyalty: succession is inherently a perilous process where palace intrigue can turn former allies against one another. Thus, a completed hereditary succession indicates that a ruling family has fully consolidated power. It is thus an indication of the unshakability of those at the upper echelons of power.

Brownlee, et al. explain the outcome of the Arab Spring through these two factors.[8] Excepting Libya, the oil-wealthy countries (defined by membership in OPEC) prevented regime change. Libya’s exception can be explained by its regime being overcome not by internal force but through foreign intervention (i.e., NATO aerial bombardment). Of the minor or non-oil exporters with hereditary succession, only Syria’s protests continued albeit into a bloody full-fledged civil war. Yet, it is the military’s loyalty to Assad that makes this such a fierce war to overcome. Observing Jordan and Morocco (also on this subgroup) through this lens, Brownlee, et al. predict a dim view of their regime change: if it were to happen, it would not only have to overcome the regime but also the military loyal to it, as in Syria. We are left with our final subgroup: minor, non-oil exporting countries without a hereditary regime: Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. All three not only had protests, but they also toppled their regimes. Unfortunately, Yemen is mired in a civil war between its Houthi minority and the government. Only Egypt and Tunisia have peacefully toppled their governments, imbuing them with the greatest hope for democracy in the Arab world. However, Egypt’s inability to overcome the military’s hold on power and establish a multi-party government with the Islamists has prevented it from consolidating a pluralist democracy. Meanwhile, Tunisia is peacefully ruling with Islamist and secularist parties. To understand their difference, we must first explore what is holding Egypt back and what is allowing Tunisia to move forward.

In Egypt, after the military sided with the surging masses and forcefully retired Mubarak on Feb. 11, the Islamic (Freedom and Justice Party[9]) candidate Mohamed Morsi won the June 2012 election. However, a year later, his attempt to pass a highly Islamized constitution triggered millions to take the streets on June 30th. Amidst this swelling of protest, the military stepped in to remove Morsi in July. The military government then repressed and disbanded the Muslim Brotherhood. On Oct. 6, 2012, the government repressed Islamic protests against the military takeover, leaving more than 50 dead at the end of the day.[10] Thus, the secularist government of the Islamic party was not able to reach a compromise and share power. On the other hand, despite the tumultuous terrain, Tunisian Islamists and secularists are walking the path of compromise. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that sought to pass an Islamic constitution, Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda, agreed to “sit down with the secular opposition to draft the country’s constitution.”[11] Given its progress down the path of democracy, it’s no surprise that Tunisia is (the only Arab Muslim nation) recognized as fully democratic by the US-based Freedom House[12] and the 2018 Economist democracy index.[13] Tunisia’s ability to reach common ground between the Islamists and the secularists must be attributed to its modernization under its founding father Habib Bourguiba.

Tunisia and Bourguiba

Before beginning, an understanding of Tunisia is important. Located between Algeria and Libya, Tunisia’s population is 99% Sunni Muslim.[14] After breaking apart from the Ottoman empire, like many of its Arab peers, it became a French protectorate until its founding father, Habib Bourguiba, led the resistance movement and acquired independence. The nation is still greatly impacted by French colonialism, with most of its inhabitants fluent in French. Lacking oil wealth, Tunisia ranks 14th place GDP in the Arab League.[15] Less than 100 miles from Sicily, Tunisia has traditionally been an entry point of many people to North Africa. Key in its modernization and secularization was its founding father (often compared to George Washington by Tunisians) Habib Bourguiba. To understand Habib Bourguiba’s complex legacy including public support during his rule, we must introduce him and his place in Tunisian politics.

Habib Bourguiba was an independence fighter and Tunisia’s first president from 1957 to 1987. Having studied law in France, Bourguiba returned to Tunisia in order to start a political campaign to liberate his country from colonization. With his charismatic oratory skills, Bourguiba gained popularity and support among people and rose as the leader for the Tunisian nationalist movement. Always a pragmatist, Bourguiba supported a gradual compromise with the French rather than forceful measures: first, improve Tunisia’s economy, then acquire independence. In explaining his vision for the Tunisian nationalist movement, Bourguiba argued, “We believe that we are a country too weak militarily and too strong strategically to dispense with the help of a great power, which we would want to be France.”[16] His attempt to continue cooperation with the French, nevertheless, was ceaselessly contested by pan-Arab nationalist leaders who opposed all compromise. Despite his pragmatism, Bourguiba’s desire for independence was authentic. After realizing peaceful compromise would no longer work, he called for an armed independence movement and international support for Tunisian liberation: Bourguiba expanded his diplomatic effort, meeting India’s Nehru, Indonesia’s Soekarno, and Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella to ask for political support and introduce the Tunisian issue before the United Nations.[17] His strategic political and diplomatic maneuvers eventually induced the Afro-Asian countries to introduce Tunisia to the United Nations Security Council.[18] As Bourguiba’s influence increasingly threatened the French, he was imprisoned in La Galite Island. During his imprisonment (and even after his pardon), the Tunisian-French relationship deteriorated further. Militants armed against French colonialism joined the Algerian rebels to stir violent unrest.[19] The French presented an ultimatum to the Tunisian government and ceased all negotiations for Tunisia’s internal autonomy.[20] To overcome the impasse, Bourguiba led his Neo Destour party to put down the violent unrest and limited his demand to Tunisian internal autonomy. Disappointed by Bourguiba’s failure to demand immediate independence, his closest allies parted with him, among them one who would become his greatest rival, Salah ben Youssef.

Despite Tunisia’s partial independence, driven by vision of pan-Arab nationalism, Salah ben Youssef and his supporters incited armed struggle and fellaghas[21] to fight for complete liberation of Maghreb (Northwest Africa)[22] and appointed Youssef as the Neo-Destour party’s leader.[23] The party fractured into two, and Bourguiba and Youssef’s political rivalry gave birth to a bloody civil war: the fellaghas abducted villagers while the government tortured political opponents in private prisons.[24] Aghast by the spreading violence, the French hastened their efforts to grant Tunisia independence. Nonetheless, as the Youssefists continued their struggle, the Tunisian government eventually charged Salah ben Youssef with sedition.[25] Youssef escaped to Libya and Bourguiba became the first Prime Minister after Tunisia attained complete independence from France and became a constitutional monarchy. After abolishing the monarchy, the office of Prime Minister was dissolved and Bourguiba became Tunisia’s first President.

One Party, One Leader

During his presidency, Bourguiba employed autocratic practices to maintain national stability and modernize Tunisia. Ben Youssef’s supporters continued their attempts to assassinate Bourguiba. To consolidate his power and suppress political opponents, Bourguiba restructured the Neo-Destour party into the Socialist Destour Party. The country’s Political Bureau was empowered to draw electoral rules and lists, thus controlling and preventing local politicians from running as independent political figures.[26] While elections took place, they were mostly for show as the Political Bureau listed weak and ineffective communists unable to be a true opposition.

Bourguiba also controlled his own political partners. When Tunisia’s Minister of the Interior tried to seize control of the party,[27] Bourguiba immediately suspended him, explaining, “It is more than clear that, while I am still of this world, I will be maintained at the head of State.”[28] On Sep. 12, 1974, Bourguiba made the National Assembly amend the constitution and declare him president for life. Thirty years after taking power, Bourguiba was deposed in a soft coup by his Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali: the octogenarian was forcefully retired under the pretext of health reasons.

During those thirty years, given the lack of oil wealth, post-colonial Tunisia carried out various efforts to modernize and improve the lives of the formerly oppressed. While history clearly proves Habib a despot (even a brutal one[29]), he was more a state developmentalist autocrat[30] (in the likes of South Korea’s President Park Chung-hee) than a sultan like many of his peers in the Islamic Arab world. As such, he had a strong modernizing influence not just on Tunisia’s economy and society but on Tunisia’s Islam itself, a legacy that today advantages it in its path towards a stable pluralist democracy.

Fostering Republican Minds Through Religious Education

Bourguiba’s emphasis on national unity and modernization can be seen in his investment in education. To create republican citizens, he reformed ideological and religious education at the elementary level. First, he raised the budget from 18% (1959) to 34.5% (1971).[31] In a 1959 document, Nouvelle conception de l’enseignement en Tunisie, Bourguiba wrote, “Tunisia must impose upon itself, among the first tasks of the liberation, a task of ultimate liberation on the human plane: that of creating a system of teaching and education, conforming at once to its genius, to its cultural tradition and to the ideals of the present times.”[32] His educational policy again was to guide his people to national unity and modernity. In Nouvelle conception, Bourguiba stressed the importance of unifying and nationalizing education that, under the French protectorate, had been unjustly divided into six curriculums in primary schools and three in secondary schools, all differing in its educational contents and methods. He identified the four goals of his educational reform as re-nationalization, adaptation, unification, and horizontal and vertical expansion.[33] In accordance with Bourguiba’s education vision, in 1958, Tunisia devised a new law that created a new type of secondary education called intermediate education.[34] In addition to expanding education, the law set four essential goals: the first permitted children of any sex, religion, and race to enroll in education to develop their personality and aptitudes, and the third promoted the development of national culture.[35]

Bourguiba replaced French with Arabic and added new educational content including Islamic ideologies. Most importantly, he paired religious education with civic education to nurture citizens compatible with republican ideals. His educational philosophy is well delivered in the following excerpt from Nouvelle conception:

“From the first years, the child will be placed in a spiritual climate that will tend toward making him fully aware of the role and value of his religion … Religion has profound sources in history; its teaching should be alive like that of history which, often, will serve it as illustration. Everyday examples will make apparent to the child the moral values that an individual, like a Nation, can draw from attachment to Quranic precepts … Civic instruction will explain to him the institutions of his country and his future responsibilities as a citizen. On this plane, too, practical examples will make apparent to him the ideas and principles that direct the organization of the State: Freedom, Work, Right, Democracy, etc.”[36]

Bourguiba’s ideological reformation began from a primary level of “Moral and Social Education” where students served five years of elementary education to learn the Quran, morals, religious observances, history, along with civic education.[37] The purpose for educating the Quran was both to ensure that students undertake religious duties of prayers and use those moral precepts and examples to amend one’s moral behavior and become sound citizens for the Tunisian republic. The educational guidance, then mentioned, “[Pupils] must also understand that prayer must be conducted as God wills, and that the goal of conducting it that way is training the spirit and body together to submit to the duty imposed and educating [them] to respect rules and laws (qawaaniin) and thus is a way to the goal of reforming the individual in society.”[38] Qawaaniin, opposed to the religious law, sharia, refers to secular and administrative laws. The guidance uniquely stated that religious education must aim to help students fulfill religious duties, but all the more importantly to adhere to the modern republic laws or the Qawaaniin, newly set under Bourguiba’s regime. In this way, Bourguiba quietly put Islamic values at the service of building a republic.

The educational guidance on social and national duties explicitly mentioned that students ought to help the poor, value solidarity and cooperation, love the republic, and last but not least, defend freedom and peace.[39] Islam, in other words, was mobilized as Bourguiba’s tool to discipline students with moral behavior and civic mindsets, that would later play an important role in setting up the country’s democracy. The Tunisian educational policy that continued even after Bourguiba, can be best summed up by the words of Mohamed Charfi, the country’s minister of education under Ben Ali.

“Religious matters, programs and textbooks emphasize the thinking of the scholars influenced by the best of our late-medieval thinkers, like Averroes and Avicenna. Such writers have developed new readings of the Quran and given Islam a content that allows for discussion of sexual equality, human rights, and the development of democracy.”[40]

Ultimately, Bourguiba emphasized the importance of securing one’s traditional Tunisian identity as a Muslim, as he did when he led the independence movement, and transitioning from a faithful Muslim to a dutiful republican citizen through completing a state directed religious-civic education. Such education focuses not on the pure religious doctrines of Islam but on the practical ways that such doctrines can be applied to develop an effective republic. As such he differed from Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser’s, another great modernizer in the Arab world, approach of separating state and religion and relegating the latter to the private sphere.[41] Bourguiba sought to modernize Islam itself to fit Tunisia’s particular needs.

Religion and Culture: Incorporating Islam into Modernity

By placing religious law and its interpretation by religious leaders/technical bureaucrats over people’s sovereignty, religious fundamentalism prevents liberal democracy. While in Western democracy “the government undertakes to fulfill the will of the people,” in Islamic democracy “the government and the people who form it have all to fulfill the purpose of God” as written in the Quran and interpreted by religious leaders.[42] Bourguiba’s vision of an “authentic Islam” was in a “supple and modernist fashion to help toward political and economic development.[43] By focusing on the essence or soul of Islam rather than its codes and religious laws, Bourguiba created a more flexible Islam that could be reinterpreted to fit modern times. Thus, he rejected “orthodoxy and traditional conceptions” and adopted “a moderate and authentic version of Islam”[44] to keep Islam’s spirit true and relevant to the modern time.

Despite his notoriety for sacrilege during Ramadan and oppressing religious devotees, Bourguiba’s perspective on religion was two-sided (perhaps another product of his effective pragmatism): both welcoming and critical.

When Bourguiba was leading the country’s independence movement, he was an ardent supporter of Islamic identity. From a young age when he was sent to the Lycée Carnot for his secondary education, while learning French and Western studies, he consolidated his education in Islamic and Arabic studies as well.[45] Although the Tunisian culture was forcefully assimilated into that of the French during the colonial period, the Islamic faith shared among Tunisians played a crucial role in securing their identity from the French. Bourguiba, accordingly, thought that religious unity can be a great opportunity to lead the independence movement to success. As the independence leader, he even encouraged Tunisian women to frequently wear hijabs to resist French secularism and promote Tunisian nationalism.[46]

Bourguiba’s views on Islam changed after Tunisia gained independence.[47] Before independence, Bourguiba needed to unite the public into a single unit willing to outmaneuver and even make sacrifices in the fight against the French. Thus, Islamic cultural identity could unite the people against French attempts at assimilating Tunisia into Western culture. After Tunisia gained independence and Bourguiba was elected prime minister, Islam was still important in uniting people into one. Yet, shortly after his appointment, and in conjunction with the need to modernize his country, Bourguiba stated, “We cannot forget that we are Arabs, that we are rooted in the Islamic civilization, as much as we cannot neglect the fact of living in the second part of the 20th century. We want to take part in the march of civilization and take a place deep into our time.”[48]

Bourguiba, long educated in France and having learned to value a rational pursuit of human dignity and unity, wanted to push Tunisia towards a state resembling France rather than the pre-colonial kingdom. In this new phase, religion could be used to shape republican citizens and efficiently carry out his vision of state-led revolutionary agendas. But to advance towards modernity, religion’s superstitions and disruptive practices, such as fasting during Ramadan, would have to be shed. In his classic pragmatism, religious limitation was transformed into opportunity. Unlike Egypt’s Nasser, Bourguiba acknowledged Muslim tradition where there was no separation between the church and the state. Rather than distance himself from Islam, Bourguiba would embrace its spirit and transform it into modern form.

Bourguiba viewed Islam as “rational and reformist.” He emphasized that “research and reflection in the spiritual and temporal domains” was necessary “to give our life a constant impetus towards progress and prosperity and to preserve our religion from stagnation.” After all wasn’t Islam “made for every time and every place?”[49] Much of the religious supported his interpretation. Within this modernization of Islam, Bourguiba promulgated the 1956 Code of Personal Statute greatly expanded women’s rights. This progressive law abolished polygamy, turned marriage into a voluntary contract between two people, set a minimum age for marriage, outlawed men paying large sums for a bride, and made illegal a husband’s right to arbitrarily divorce his wife.[50] Despite presenting an enormous threat to conservative beliefs, Bourguiba invoked the shura of the Quran to argue that the holy book indicates monogamy[51] and adopted words of pro-modernist scholars such as Abdelaziz Thaalbi to argue that removing veils and promoting female education were compatible with Islam.[52]

To weaken the power of mosques, on May, 1956, Bourguiba dissolved public endowments and in September, limited private endowments as well.[53] He then assigned legal roles from religious courts to civil courts so as to prevent religion from intervening in jurisprudence. Despite his actions curtailing Islam, Bourguiba’s secularism didn’t originate from antipathy towards Islam: indeed, the Tunisian constitution preamble declares that the people must “commit to the teachings of Islam” and Article 1 designates Islam as the state religion.[54] Bourguiba, as the constitution writes, recognized how in the center of Tunisian unity, patriotism, and nationalism were the Islam religion and Arabism, albeit one more compatible and embracing of modernization.

However, unlike other Arabic religious leaders, Bourguiba utilized religion to construct a homogenous republic while getting rid of radical factions that might threaten his regime. To attain those goals, Bourguiba worked to nationalize and reform the country’s deep-rooted Sunni Islam into a more nuanced and practical one while preserving its fundamental principles. Back then, his effort to do so were remarkably shocking and unprecedented. In February 1961, Bourguiba invited Tunisians to not fast during Ramadan and instead to work together to construct a new modern country.[55] In a 1964 speech, Bourguiba drank a glass of orange juice breaking fast during Ramadan live on television.[56] Under Bourguiba, Tunisia grew increasingly secular, with Bourguiba not only reforming Islam but also extending government protection even for Jews.[57]

Bourguiba wanted to secure Islam as a national, republican religion that could promote national unity and lead the country into modernity. Although he was a Muslim, Bourguiba did not want religious doctrines to be incorporated into politics such as enforcing shari’a (Islamic law) or practicing shura (religious consultation on major decisions). Nevertheless, Bourguiba made sure that his policies would not anger moderate Muslims and never harm national solidarity while getting rid of religious fundamentalists.

Battling Religious Fanaticism and Fundamentalism

Bourguiba’s suppression of religious fanaticism and terrorism provided a stronger basis for democracy post-Jasmine Revolution. Tunisia is a predominant Muslim nation but was never an Islamic state, and the empirical fact that most of its people are Muslims has not yet justified a public role of a particular religion. Tunisia, under Bourguiba, avoided strict theocracy and strict secularism, promoting a culture of religious diversity and openness. This tradition was strengthened by his successor Ben Ali, who while allowing prayers on state-run radio and television, rejected all kinds of religious exclusion and fanaticism and prevented religion from smearing political, social spheres.

Political Islam was originally used to combat Europeanists and Western ideology. This would later evolve into a movement to fight back secular governments and appoint religious leaders as political figures. In 1979, a religious coalition called the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI), an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, emerged to call for an end to Bourguiba’s one-party politics, render the economy more equitable, and recourse to the fundamental rules of Islam.[58] Another religious group called the Islamic Liberation Party [Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami] was gaining significant attention as well when Tunisia’s military leaders started joining it.[59] As both movements grew larger, Bourguiba started incarcerating their leaders and accused them of being related with the Khomeini revolution in Iran.[60] The tension further increased as the student unrest organized by the MTI vandalized university facilities, attacked professors, and held the dean as a hostage. The radicalism grew larger after a group of Islamists raided a Club Mediterranean Resort where the Israeli anthem was being sung.[61] The conflict reached its apex when a group of extremists tried to replace the state-appointed imam.[62] As Bourguiba trampled over the rights of political Islamists including MTI members, an anti-democratic right wing grew impatient and turned more militant and violent, forsaking compromise with Bourguiba. It is important to note that there were also progressive Islamists who renounced the theocratic ambition of MTI and revolted against the movement’s fundamentalist aspects.

In the 1980s, when Tunisians rioted against Bourguiba’s failing economic policies, the MTI joined their fight for a stable economy, freedom of expression and religion, social justice, and democracy. The movement’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, explicitly affirmed the MTI’s democratic goals, after being granted amnesty. Yet the militant hardliners had already outgrown the movement leadership and the 1984 MTI meeting established a clandestine organization to support Islamist movements targeting Bourguiba’s regime. This group endorsed violent strategies including violent strikes at universities and a bombing in Monastir in 1986.[63] Such developments further incited Bourguiba to clamp down on religious extremists and political Islamists.

The Islamic Party Ennahda: “Bourguiba’s Illegitimate Child”?

The MTI evolved into the well-known Islamist Ennahda party that with 37% of the vote won the largest share of votes in the country’s first parliamentary elections[64] in 2011 in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.[65] While the Ennahda party had been severely scrutinized and suppressed, a bulk of its leaders penalized or executed, and its co-founder Rached Ghannouchi exiled for more than 20 years in the United Kingdom, Ennahda’s strong organization made it a powerful force during the elections.[66] Yet, despite their electoral victory, the Ennahda feared that pushing too strong an Islamist agenda would close this democratic opening as had happened following the 1987 coup against Bourguiba and as had recently occurred in Egypt by the 2013 Military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi.[67]

Despite Ennahda’s victory in the 2011 Tunisian Constituent Assembly Election, the party started losing support for its mediocre economic performance and diplomatic relationship. But what infuriated Tunisians most was the party’s tacit approval of radical extremists that ransacked the American embassy in 2012 and assassinated two leftist politicians, Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid.[68] Eventually, Rached Ghannouchi had to surrender his party leadership to the will of the secularists and reach a compromise with Beji Caid Essebsi to step down from power and draft a new constitution in 2014.[69] The constitution shared the attitude that Bourguiba had on Islam: Article 1 officially declared Tunisia a republican state (albeit an Islamic one), Article 6 outlawed religious oppression by declaring that “It [the state] undertakes equally to prohibit and fight against calls for Takfir[70] and the incitement of violence and hatred,” and Article 78 granted the president the right to appoint the General Mufti.[71] More importantly, Ghannouchi and Ennahda’s leaders supported the government’s crackdown on jihadi promulgation and religious terrorism.[72] The constitution also guaranteed human rights, did not mention Islamic law (shari’a), and most importantly granted the right to “freedom of conscience and belief.”[73] This last concession was revolutionary. It went beyond “freedom of worship” for groups and granted freedom of belief to individuals. It effectively eroded the material basis for the power of Islamist groups by allowing Muslims to turn away from Islam, something highly forbidden by Islamist ideologues and traditional authorities.[74] Tunisia’s culture of tolerant secularism had allowed the country to incorporate moderate religious elements into its democratic pluralism while excluding extremist elements from its political sphere.

Ennahda Parliamentary Member Sayida Ounissi identified Ennahda as more “Bourguiba’s illegitimate child” than a Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood.[75] While such self-identification may be political maneuver for greater public acceptance, it is nonetheless indicative of Tunisia’s secularization and Habib Bourguiba’s legacy in Tunisia and Islam. Maybe as a testament to Bourguiba’s successful Islamic strategy as well as an indication towards their differing objective conditions, many decades ago, (despite their bitter rivalry) Nasser acknowledged,

“I would like to do what Bourguiba has done. But do not forget that the obstacles which he had to overcome in Tunisia were less solid than those which I have to confront here, in the heart of Islam, at the very gate of Al-Azhar.”[76]

While Tunisia’s geography and societal structure allowed it the political space to topple its despot, ironically, it was the modernization of Islam under its first despot Habib Bourguiba that established a secular socio-political base to progress towards Western-style liberal democracy.

In 2014, Beji Caid Essebsi became Tunisia’s first freely elected president. He is a former Neo-Destour member who had served under Habib Bourguiba’s administration and been a staunch supporter of the latter’s modernization. In 2017, Essebsi adopted legislation allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men[77] as well as criminalizing violence against women. Thus, Tunisia is on course not only towards fully consolidating pluralist democracy but also in progressing towards liberal values.


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Marks, Monica and Sayida Qunissi. “Ennahda from within: Islamists or “Muslim Democrats”? A Conversation.” March 23, 2016. Accessed November 2, 2018.

Murphy, Emma C. Economic and Political Change in Tunisia. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillian Press in Association with University of Durham, 1999.

Netterstrøm, Kasper Ly. “After the Arab Spring: The Islamists’ Compromise in Tunisia.” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 4 (2015): 110-124. DOI:10.1353 / jod. 2015.0055.

Ryan, Yasmine. “This Tunisian Wants His Nation to Know Its Torturers.” July 31, 2015. Accessed September 15, 2018.

Secretariat d’Etat à l’Education nationale. Programmes Officiels de l’Enseignement Primaire – Education Morale et Sociale, 1958. Tunis: Office Pedagogique, 1964.

The Economist Intelligence Unit. “Democracy Index 2018.” Accessed August 9, 2018.

Time. “TUNISIA: Rise of the Fellagha.” July 5, 1954. Accessed August 17, 2018.,9171,858487,00.html.

Trager, Eric. “Where Did They Go Wrong?” August 12, 2016. Accessed July 16, 2018.

UNDP and International IDEA. “The Constitution of the Tunisian Republic.” Accessed October 23, 2018.

U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Tunisia 2014 International Religious Freedom Report, 1, Accessed July 28, 2018. organization/238692.pdf.

Vandewalle, Dirk. “Bourguiba, Charismatic Leadership and the Tunisian One Party System.” Middle East Journal 34, no. 2 (1980): 149-159.

Walt, Vivienne. “After Another High-Profile Assassination, Tunisia Lurches Toward Crisis.” July 25, 2013. Accessed December 17, 2018.

Waltz, Susan. “Islamist Appeal in Tunisia.” Middle East Journal 40, no. 4 (1986): 651-670.

Webb, Edward. “The Church of Bourguiba: Nationalizing Islam in Tunisia.” Sociology of Islam 1, no. 1-2 (January 01, 2013): 17-40. DOI: 10.1163/22131418-00101002.

Weber, Peter. “How Tunisia Beat Egypt in the Democracy Game.” January 15, 2014. Accessed July 21, 2018.

Weinberger, Caspar W., Charles B. Saunders, Jr., and John Ottina. The Educational System of Tunisia. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education (DHEW), 1975.

Wilson Center. “Ghannouchi: Tunisia’s New Political Order.” February 26. 2014. Accessed October 26, 2018.

“World Economic Outlook Database,” International Monetary Fund, April 17, 2018, Accessed July 28, 2018. /01/weodata/index.aspx.

Worth, Robert Forsyth. A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.

Zayzafoon, Lamia Ben Youssef. The Production of the Muslim Woman: Negotiating Text, History, and Ideology. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2005.

Biographical Information

Sungho Park wrote this essay for Ms. Myungju Shin at Hankuk Academy of Foreign Studies High School in Yongin-si, Gyeonggi-do, Republic of Korea, during his Junior year.


[1] “Arab Spring,” HISTORY, Last updated August 21, 2018, accessed September 28, 2018,

[2] Eric Trager, “Where Did They Go Wrong?” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 12, 2016, accessed July 16, 2018, Mohamed Morsi, the first Egyptian president to be elected democratically, was ousted by a militia coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and was sentenced to lengthy prison terms for charges of murder and espionage. Morsi’s removal from power has incited violent collisions between his supporters and his adversaries.

3 Jason Brownlee, T. Masoud, and A. Reynolds, “Why the modest harvest?” Journal of Democracy 24, no. 4 (2013): 29-44.

4 Larry Diamond, “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?” Journal of Democracy 21, no. 1 (2010): 98.

5 Brownlee, et al.

6 Diamond, 99-100.

7 Brownlee, et al.

8 Ibid.

9 Osama Al Sharif, “Egypt and Tunisia: A Tale of Two Uprisings,” Gulf News, October 10, 2013, accessed July 16, 2018,

https://gulfnews. com/opinion/op-eds/egypt-and-tunisia-a-tale-of-two-uprisings-1.1241739. The Freedom and Justice Party is the political arm of the International Muslim Brotherhood.

10 Patrick Kingsley, “Egypt: dozens of protesters killed as rival factions tear Cairo apart,” The Guardian, October 7, 2013, accessed July 16, 2018,

11 Peter Weber, “How Tunisia Beat Egypt in the Democracy Game,” The Week, January 15, 2014, accessed July 21, 2018,

12 “Freedom in the World 2018: Tunisia,” Freedom House, February 16, 2018, accessed July 21, 2018,

13 “Democracy Index 2018,” The Economist Intelligence Unit, accessed August 9, 2018,

14 U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Tunisia 2014 International Religious Freedom Report, 1, accessed July 28, 2019,

15 “World Economic Outlook Database,” International Monetary Fund, April 17, 2018, accessed July 28, 2018,

[16] Sophie Bessis and Belhassen Souhayr, Bourguiba (Tunis: Elyzad, 2012), 170.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “TUNISIA: Rise of the Fellagha,” Time, July 5, 1954, accessed August 17, 2018,,9171,858487,00.html.

[20] Charles André Julien, Et La Tunisie Devint Indépendante…(1951–1957) (Paris: Jeune Afrique, 1985).

[21] Fellaghas refers to a group of armed militants affiliated with anti-colonial movements in French North Africa.

[22] Maghreb refers to Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia.

[23] Bessis and Souhayr, 170.

[24] Omar Khlifi, L’assassinat de Salah Ben Youssef (Tunis: MC-Editions, 2005).

[25] Some scholars argue that Bourguiba’s victory against Salah Youssef and his supporters marked the beginning of post-colonial state crimes against Bourguiba’s political opponents including leftists and, later, Islamists who would surface. See Laryssa Chomiak, TUNISA – The Colonial Legacy and Transitional Justice, eds. Anna Moyo and Maxine Rubin (Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2007).

[26] Dirk Vandewalle, “Bourguiba, Charismatic Leadership and the Tunisian One Party System,” Middle East Journal 34, no. 2 (1980): 153-154.

[27] Tahar Belkhodja, Les Trois Décennies Bourguiba: Temoignage (Paris: Publisud, 1999). In 1971, before Bourguiba left to America for medical treatment, he delegated his authority to Hedi Nouira, the country’s Prime Minister. After completing his treatment, Bourguiba appointed Nouira as his successor, thus infuriating Ahmed Mestiri, the Minister of Interior who attempted to seize Destourian control.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Yasmine Ryan, “This Tunisian Wants His Nation to Know Its Torturers,” Foreign Policy, July 31, 2015, accessed September 15, 2018,

[30] The interconnection between state development and dictatorship is explained by Samuel P. Huntington as the need for stability during the turbulent process of modernization. Given the great changes and turmoil involved in the modernization process, the political party could be the main vehicle of institution and nation building. Huntington acknowledges the “cruel choices involved in the process” since it “entails restricting some groups from participating in the political process.” See Najoua Kefi Handal, “Islam and Political Development: The Tunisian Experience,” (PhD diss., Louisiana State University, 1989), 18, accessed September 15, 2018,

[31] Marie Thourson Jones, “Education of Girls in Tunisia: Policy Implications of the Drive for Universal Enrollment,” Comparative Education Review 24, no. 2 (1980): S106-123.

[32] Government of Tunisia. Nouvelle conception de l’enseignement en Tunisie, une récente réalisation du gouvernement Bourguiba, 1958-1959, (Tunis: République Tunisienne Secretariat d’État à l’Éducation Nationale, 1959). Quoted and translated in Edward Webb, “The Church of Bourguiba: Nationalizing Islam in Tunisia,” Sociology of Islam 1, no. 1-2 (January 01, 2013): 17-40, DOI:10.1163/ 22131418-00101002.

[33] Webb, 25.

[34] Caspar W. Weinberger, Charles B. Saunders, Jr., and John Ottina, The Educational System of Tunisia (Washington, D.C.: Office of Education (DHEW), 1975), 3.

[35] Webb, 27.

[36] Government of Tunisia, 23. Quoted and translated in Webb, 26.

[37] Webb, 27.

[38] Secretariat d’Etat à l’Education nationale. Programmes Officiels de l’Enseignement Primaire – Education Morale et Sociale, 1958 (Tunis: Office Pedagogique, 1964), 25. Quoted and translated in Webb, 30.

[39] Webb, 29.

[40] Marshall J. Breger, “How Arabs Fight Islamism: A Letter from Tunis,” The National Interest, September 1, 2003, accessed October 8, 2018,

[41] Handal, 167-168.

[42] Ibid., 43.

[43] Ibid., 168.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Habib Bourguiba,” accessed August 21, 2018,

[46] Simon Hawkins, “Who Wears Hijab with the President: Constructing a Modern Islam in Tunisia.” Journal of Religion in Africa 41, no. 1 (2011): 39.

[47] Derek Hopwood and Sue Mi Terry, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia: The Tragedy of Longevity (New York: St. Martins Press, 1992). After independence, Bourguiba frequently argued that religious remnants within Tunisia retard the introduction of modernization.

[48] Belkhodja, 15.

[49] Handal, 178.

[50] Ibid., 177-178.

[51] Lamia Ben Youssef Zayzafoon, The Production of the Muslim Woman: Negotiating Text, History, and Ideology (Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2005), 103.

[52] Rayed Khedher, “Tracing the Development of the Tunisian 1956 Code of Personal Status,” Journal of International Women’s Studies 18, no. 4 (August 2017): 30-31, accessed October 3, 2018,

[53] Keith Callard, “The Republic of Bourguiba,” International Journal 16, no. 1 (1960): 17-36, DOI:10.2307/ 40198515.

[54] “The Constitution of the Tunisian Republic,” UNDP and International IDEA, accessed October 23, 2018, Although I have cited the newly adopted 2014 constitution, the previous version of the constitution under Bourguiba’s administration declared Islam as the state religion of Tunisia as well.

[55] Abderrahim Lamchichi, Islam et contestation au Maghreb (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1990), 191.

[56] Thomas F. Brady, “Bourguiba Toasts Modernism With Fruit Juice at Time of Fast; Deplores Traditional Rite of Ramadan-Says Tanisians Tolerate Non-Observance,” The New York Times, March 6, 1962, accessed October 23, 2018,

[57] Callard, 32-33.

[58] Marion Boulby, “The Islamic Challenge: Tunisia since Independence,” Third World Quarterly 10, no. 2 (April 1988): 590-614.

[59] Suha Taji-Farouki, A Fundamental Quest: Hizb Al-Tahrir and the Search for the Islamic Caliphate (London: Grey Seal, 1996), 165.

[60] Susan Waltz, “Islamist Appeal in Tunisia,” Middle East Journal 40, no. 4 (1986): 653.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Emma C. Murphy, Economic and Political Change in Tunisia (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillian Press in Association with University of Durham, 1999), 75.

[64] Kasper Ly Netterstrøm, “After the Arab Spring: The Islamists’ Compromise in Tunisia,” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 4 (2015): 110-124, DOI:10.1353 / jod. 2015.0055.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Vivienne Walt, “After Another High-Profile Assassination, Tunisia Lurches Toward Crisis,” Time, July 25, 2013, accessed December 17, 2018,

[69] “Ghannouchi: Tunisia’s New Political Order,” Wilson Center, February 26. 2014, accessed October 26, 2018,

[70] Takfir refers to an act of excommunicating and declaring a Muslim as a non-believer.

[71] UNDP and International IDEA, 4, 17.

[72] After Ghannouchi openly supported the crackdown on violent Islamic extremists, he was considered an infidel by several Islamists and his name was often placed on the wanted lists of radical jihadists. Robert Forsyth Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).

[73] UNDP and International IDEA, 4. For further information, see Article 6.

[74] Netterstrøm.

[75] Monica Marks and Sayida Qunissi, “Ennahda from within: Islamists or “Muslim Democrats”? A Conversation,” Brookings, March 23, 2016, accessed November 2, 2018,

[76] Handal, 43.

[77] “Tunisian women free to marry non-Muslims,” BBC News, September 15, 2017, accessed November 2, 2018,






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