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DESTOUR. At the beginning of the twentieth century an organization known as the Young Tunisians cradled a new sense of Tunisian nationalism. Drawn primarily from the Turkish Mamluk aristocracy that ruled Tunisia prior to the French protectorate, the French educated Young Tunisians aspired simply to make Tunisia modern. Anti-colonial sentiments grew after World War I, and in 1920 many of those who had belonged to the elite Young Tunisians joined with urban merchants and notables to form a more expressly political organization. As its name suggests, the Destour (Dustur, or Constitution) party sought a voice in the colonial government through a constitution and duly elected parliament; it did not, however, call for political independence.

Modern secularists of the next generation-including the young lawyer Habib Bourguiba-were initially attracted to the Destour but soon found their energies frustrated by its underlying conservatism. In 1934 they founded the Neo-Destour and rapidly captured the support of a rising middle class and the rural masses, whose hardships during two decades of economic depression had been ignored by both the French and earlier nationalist groups. The Neo-Destour led the drive to independence, and the new government was shaped under its direction in 1957.

Political opposition was not outlawed until 1962, but from the outset the government of independent Tunisia was dominated by a single party. In 1958 the Neo-Destour was restructured to parallel the administrative units at every level of government, and the distinction between state and party became progressively blurred. Through the Neo-Destour and the national organizations it controlled, the government disseminated its message and enacted its programs; in return for their loyalty, the party faithful could expect access to state patronage.

As president and “Supreme Combatant,” Bourguiba capitalized on his popularity within the party to promote a program of modernity and progress. With the tacit support of party leadership, he brought the religious establishment under the state’s control and introduced broad social reforms. On the economic front, a 1962 commitment to state-led development planning inspired the party to rename itself the Parti Socialiste Destourien (PSD, Destourien Socialist Party). Strong popular resistance, however, forced the program of agricultural cooperatives it had endorsed to be abandoned in 1969.

By this juncture it was apparent that the PSD’s hold on society had slipped. From the late 1970s an Islamist movement first known as the Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique (Ar., Harakat al-Ittijah al-Islami; Islamic Tendency Movement; later renamed Hizb al-Nahdah or Renaissance Party) gained popular appeal, and the PSD’s efforts to revive its own flagging support were unsuccessful. Its pool of patronage had shrunk, and it had few satisfying answers for those who criticized its pro-Western secularism.

Prime Minister Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (b. 1936) toppled the government of the aging Bourguiba in November 1987, and as a sign of new commitment to republican rule and intent to rejuvenate the party, he rechristened it the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique (RCD, Democratic Constitutional Rally). When the 1989 legislative elections were opened to opposition parties, however, only Islamists running as independents made an effective showing against the RCD. Ben Ali’s government has refused to authorize an Islamist party, and Tunisia continues to operate as a single party state without benefit of the popular mandate it once could claim.

[See also Hizb al-Nahdah;Tunisia.]


Anderson, Lisa. The State and Social Transformation inTunisiaandLibya, 1830-1980.Princeton, 1986.

Moore, Clement Henry.TunisiasinceIndependence: The Dynamics of One-Party Government.Berkeley, 1965.

Rudebeck, Lars. Party and People: A Study of Political Change inTunisia.Stockholm, 1967.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/destour/

  • writerPosted On: November 6, 2012
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