Former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba, once known as president-for-life and credited with founding modern-day Tunisia, died April 6. He was 96.
Mr. Bourguiba, deposed in a 1987 bloodless palace coup, had been hospitalized March 5 in critical condition at the military hospital in Tunis. On March 13, he returned to his home town of Monastir, 110 miles south of Tunis. There was no immediate information on the exact cause of his death. A seven-day period of national mourning was decreed.
For more than 30 years, Mr. Bourguiba overshadowed the political life of his nation. But since November 1987, after being toppled by then-Prime Minister Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, he had lived in the shadows in Monastir, an all-but-forgotten man, frail and solitary.
Ben Ali, who has served as president since the coup, visited the hospitalized Mr. Bourguiba on March 9.
Tunisia has stayed the course Mr. Bourguiba set after this small North African nation gained independence from France in 1956. Moderation, modernization and its pro-Western paths remain hallmarks of Tunisia, still ruled with an iron fist.
On Nov. 7, 1987, Ben Ali, a former interior minister who had been newly appointed prime minister, removed Mr. Bourguiba from office for "incompetence," saying he had become too old, senile and sick to rule a Muslim nation of 7.5 million.
The trappings of a personality cult that Mr. Bourguiba cultivated were slowly dismantled across the country. Statues of him discreetly came down, including the colossal equestrian sculpture that stood at the top of this capital city's main thoroughfare, Avenue Habib Bourguiba.
Until the dramatic decline in his health and intellect, Mr. Bourguiba was among the world's most respected elder statesmen.
As a flamboyant provincial lawyer, he founded the Neo-Destour nationalist movement in the 1930s, dedicated to ending French colonial rule. He spent more than 11 years in French prisons on sedition charges before finally achieving total independence for his country in 1956.
Despite his anti-colonialist record and his authoritarian rule, he was one of the most consistently pro-Western leaders in Africa and the Arab world and deliberately turned Tunisia into the most Westernized Muslim nation.
He fought against what he regarded as outdated Islamic traditions and infuriated fundamentalists by granting equal rights to women and discouraging the monthlong holy fast of Ramadan. "A modern nation cannot afford to stop for a month every year," he once said, drinking orange juice on television during Ramadan.
In 1971, he was the first Arab leader to publicly advocate mutual recognition with Israel. Standing firm despite widespread abuse from Arab militants, he lived to see his idea become the official policy of the Arab League more than a decade later.
But he joined the rest of the Arab world in condemning Egypt's Camp David peace agreements with Israel as one-sided. As a reward to Mr. Bourguiba, the Arab League chose Tunis as its headquarters when it had to leave Cairo after expelling Egypt from membership. The Arab League has since relocated to Cairo.
In his last years as president, Mr. Bourguiba fell under the domination of an ambitious entourage headed by his niece, Saida Sassi.
Sassi developed such an ascendancy over the president that not even the prime minister -- designated by the constitution as Mr. Bourguiba's successor -- could approach him outside her presence.
She had been banished years earlier from the presidential palace in Carthage by Mr. Bourguiba's domineering wife, Wassila, who liked to play a major political role of her own. The two women had developed a bitter and public hatred for each other. When Mr. Bourguiba invited his niece back to live in the palace in 1985, it became clear that Wassila's tenure was doomed.
A few months later, the president, then 82, announced he had divorced Wassila because she sought to "undermine" his authority. Thereafter, Sassi, then age 60, reigned supreme over Bourguiba and -- some said -- over Tunisia, despite her lack of political training or experience.
Mr. Bourguiba was born in the port of Monastir on Aug. 3, 1903, the son of an officer in the symbolic army the French allowed the Bey, Tunisia's hereditary but powerless ruler.
One of Bourguiba's first acts in power was to abolish the French-backed Tunisian monarchy that had employed his father, replacing it with a republic with himself as president.
He allowed the Algerian nationalists to set up sanctuaries in newly independent Tunisia for their own struggle against France.
In 1961, he took personal command of thousands of Tunisian civilians who staged a "spontaneous" attack on the naval base of Bizerte, the last French military stronghold on Tunisian soil. Several of the attackers were killed in one of Tunisia's rare outbreaks of anti-French violence. The French ultimately had to abandon the base, and Mr. Bourguiba earned his title as "Supreme Combatant."
While studying in Paris in the 1920s, Mr. Bourguiba had fallen in love with Mathilde Lefras, a French widow 14 years his senior. She became his first wife, and their son, Habib Jr., was to serve as his father's foreign minister and main political adviser.
In 1962, Mr. Bourguiba ignored his son's advice and divorced Mathilde to marry Wassila. The son soon became reconciled with his father, but when Sassi entered the household in 1985, he was finally banished from the Carthage Palace.