Tunisians honour first post-independence leader


Thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to remember former leader Habib Bourguiba, commemorating the anniversary of his death freely for the first time since a popular revolt ended autocratic rule.

Bourguiba, the architect of modern Tunisia who ruled the North African country for more than three decades, died in 2000 but under ousted leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the anniversary was not commemorated publicly in a major way.

Ben Ali, who was Bourguiba’s prime minister, succeeded him in 1987 after doctors declared the president unfit to rule, Reuters reports.

For years, the anniversary was limited to a small ceremony in Bourguiba’s native city of Monastir, attended mainly by Ben Ali government officials. Police would heavily guard Monastir on the day and residents would only carry pictures of Ben Ali.

But on Wednesday, men, women and children flocked into Monastir’s streets holding pictures of the former leader and chanting “Bourguiba you are in our hearts”.
“This really is a historic moment, we can celebrate this occasion without saying ‘Vive Ben Ali’,” a woman called Fatma said, wiping away tears.

About 100 young men gathered in front of a statue of Bourguiba in the city centre in the morning, chanting “We love you, our president.”
“I do not know him but my parents tell me he is the symbol of patriotism in our country,” 12 year-old Ahmed said.

Ben Ali was toppled by mass protests on January 14 after 23 years in power and fled to Saudi Arabia. Seeking to assert their authority and gain legitimacy in the eyes of protesters who forced Ben Ali to flee, the caretaker authorities are attacking the vestiges of his 23-year rule.

Interim President Fouad Mebazza and Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi attended a ceremony at the mausoleum where Bourguiba is buried. After the ceremony crowds came in to lay flowers.
“He is our president forever,” one elderly man said. “For years we could not commemorate this occasion, we could only carry pictures of Ben Ali. Now we are free.”

Shortly after independence from France in 1956, Bourguiba gave Tunisian women the right to vote, abolished polygamy, forbade marriage under the age of 17 and allowed woman equal rights to divorce. He spent his last years at home in Monastir, which lies just under 200 kms south of the capital Tunis.
“For years, there was a strong desire to marginalise Bourguiba but an intellectual, liberal and modern man like him cannot be forgotten and the proof of that can be seen today,” Social Affairs Minister Mohamed Ennaceur said.

Tunisians across the country commemorated the anniversary and media dedicated special coverage to Bourguiba. Many Tunisians travelled to Monastir especially for the occasion.

Bourguiba’s daughter Hajer said she was touched by the presence of so many. “I have message for Tunisians: we need to be united and secure the path towards democracy,” she said.