Because of its history, Tunisia is an atypical Arab country

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von Hans Dembowski

What the Jasmine revolution means for the MENA region

The Arab spring has mostly turned into a nightmare – with the exception of Tunisia, where the protests first erupted seven years ago. Within a few weeks, the popular uprising toppled autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. His downfall triggered protests in many other countries. In Egypt, Libya and Yemen strongmen lost power soon, and Bahrain’s monarchy only survived thanks to a Saudi intervention. In Syria, the devastating civil war began.

Of all countries affected by the Arab spring, only Tunisia is a democracy today. The others are again run by the ancien régime or have become failed states in which various militias and armed forces clash. Tunisia is thus a beacon of hope in a deeply troubled region. It is important to understand what sets it apart. 

In his recently published book “Tunisia – an Arab anomaly”, Safwan M. Masri of Columbia University delves deeply into the matter. The Jordanian scholar argues that Tunisia cannot serve as a model for other Arab countries because of its idiosyncrasies. For several reasons, Tunisia has a distinct sense of nationhood and a vibrant civil society. According to Masri, the following aspects matter in particular:

  • Tunisia has a long history of organised statehood. The capital city, Tunis, is located near Carthage, which was founded before Rome and was Rome’s main competitor more than two millennia ago.  After being conquered by Rome, it became an important province of the Roman Empire. Tunisia’s borders today are basically those of that province. Tunisia was always a hub of pan-Mediterranean traffic. One consequence of this long history is that tribal affiliations are less important in Tunisia than in most other Arab countries.
  • After the Arab conquest in the late seventh century, the town of Kairouan became an important centre of Muslim scholarship. Tunisia thus always had intellectual centres of excellence, and it  developed its own brand of Sunni Islam, which fit in with pre-existing cultures. Tunisia was so far away from the centres of Muslim empires that it was not much influenced by them, even though it was formally part of the Ottoman empire. It was not affected seriously by the Sunni/Shia conflict, but links to the Christian shores of the Mediterranean always existed.
  • In the 19th century, Tunisian intellectuals took an interest in modernising society. They were in touch with thinkers from other Muslim regions and influenced by Europe. They started new educational institutions, some of which were not linked to the faith. Secular and religious institutions were engaged in exchange discourse, and religious minorities like Jews and Christians were involved too. Tunisia ended slavery before the USA did, and intellectual leaders promoted women’s rights early on.
  • Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s autocratic independence leader, was aware of the specifics of Tunisia’s history and built on them. He resisted pan-Arabism, which basically blamed all problems on the imperial powers, but did little to develop societies. Bourguiba invested massively in the bilingual education system, which relied on Arabic and French, emphasised sciences and humanities, but did not grant religion a leading role. Moreover, the trade unions were given scope for independent deliberation, and family law was modernised in a way that supported gender equality. Bourguiba did not want the Armed Forces to become a centre of power, so he did not spend much on the military.

Masri does an excellent job of showing that the success of Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution has deep roots in history. Indigenous traditions of reformism, progressive education and modernisation started in the 19th century and were based on comparatively favourable conditions. Age-old traditions of indigenous intellectual excellence were reinforced after independence by a regime that, even though it was despotic, was developmental in the sense of promoting progress especially in the field of education.

Tunisia’s democracy is still young. Long-term success is certainly possible, but by no means guaranteed. Masri finds it promising that Tunisia’s major political forces have joined in a coalition government, and that the Islamist Ennahda party has changed its stance and now calls itself party of Muslim democrats. Unfortunately, Masri hardly discusses the economic challenges the young democracy faces. The topic is important, given that the Arab spring was a response to widespread misery. Young people’s lack of prospects remain worrisome

Masri acknowledges that Tunisia has been hit by terror attacks and that religious fundamentalists are eager to see its democracy fail. In an important way, their aggressive stance proves Masri wrong in another respect. Apparently, the extremists do believe that Tunisia could be a model for other Arab countries. That belief makes sense if one considers how fast the Arab spring spread throughout the Arab region.

Development studies show that societies can learn from other societies, even if the histories and social settings are different. What matters is how people relate to what is happening elsewhere, not whether the scenario is the same. For this reason, even an atypical Arab country is relevant for the entire region. What happens in Tunisia, resonates elsewhere.

Masri heads Columbia University’s Global Center in Amman. Of course he knows his world region better than I do, and I will happily admit that the Tunisian experience cannot serve as a blueprint for other Arab countries. Nonetheless, I hope Tunisia is more of a beacon for democracy as Masri argues.

Reference
Masri, Safwan M., 2017: Tunisia – An Arab anomaly. New York: Columbia University Press

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