Set in Stone: Tunisia's Monument Controversy
January 24, 2018
Statues commemorating Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, are reappearing in several cities and fueling controversy.
In the struggle for Tunisia’s postrevolution future, the past is getting a controversial new lease on life. Statues commemorating Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, are reappearing in several cities and fueling controversy.
After Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali led a bloodless coup against Bourguiba in 1987, he removed monuments of his charismatic predecessor from public spaces. Ben Ali himself fell in 2011, and Bourguiba’s hometown of Monastir became the first to reinstall a Bourguiba statue in early 2016. Soon after, a statue of a hearty Bourguiba hailing the crowd from atop a stallion returned to Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis following a 29-year exile in the suburbs, and other monuments have reappeared along Tunisia’s coastal spine. They have been greeted with protests and praise as Tunisians wrangle afresh with a legacy that casts a long shadow in ongoing political debates.
Many still remember Bourguiba as the “supreme combatant” in the country’s anti-colonial struggle. Yet, others argue that the 2011 revolution was a rejection of all strongmen in Tunisia’s politics, including Bourguiba. As Tunisia struggles with the place of Islam in public life, Bourguiba’s vision of aggressively secular modernization—including the repression of Islamists—goes to the heart of some of Tunisia’s deepest social fissures.
Some argue further that a fixation on Tunisia’s great men is a distraction from the deeper aims—and frustrations—of a popular revolution. In Sidi Bouzid, where a produce peddler’s self-immolation sparked the revolution, a statue of his cart was erected in 2011. In a suburb of Bizerte, a port city on the northern coast, a set of statues installed in 2017 honors the city’s garbage collectors.
This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East. It appeared originally in the CSIS Middle East Program newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment.