Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly
Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly
DATE: Wednesday, December 13, 2017
SUBJECT: Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution | Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Relations
● The Tunisian Revolution succeeded where other similar attempts by states in the region did not. This success was facilitated by the progressive history of the country. The strong geographic and national identity that subsequently developed prepared Tunisia for a peaceful democratic transition.
● Tunisia’s revolutionary success cannot serve as a model for other Arab states because many of the circumstances of the transition were specific to Tunisia and the revolution was proved to be many generations in the making.
Date: Monday, December 11, 2017
Time: 6:00pm - 7:30pm
Location: Carnegie Council: Merrill House - 170 East 64th Street, New York, NY 10003
● Safwan M. Masri, Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development, Columbia University
The speaker, Safwan M. Masri, presented his argument on why the Tunisian Revolution succeeded where other similar attempts by states in the region did not. He argued that in order to understand the success of the Tunisian Revolution, it is imperative to understand the trends of the country before and after its colonial period. He started with the earlier history of Tunisia, describing when the Arab Muslims arrived in the country and had to adapt Islam to suit the existing populations- the Berbers and the Christians. This set up the faith as more progressive and inclusive. He claimed that the country was always open to Europe and its ideas, with all the British and French trade interests coming to the region. This migration of Europeans to Tunisia also built up a significant Jewish population in the country, adding to the existing diverse religious population.
Masri went on to describe the progressiveness of 19th century Tunisia, citing multiple examples. In 1846, the country abolished slavery, later advising Americans on abolitionism. Rights were also given to non-Tunisian residents, including protection and the right to purchase lands. In 1861, they adopted a constitution, the first of any Arab country to do so.
He explained that 19th century Tunisia was full of great leaders who were reformers. He said that there were many progressive changes related to the separation of mosque and state and democratization. Masri claimed these factors contrasted sharply with the dogmatic pressures of colonial powers in other states in the region.
Masri also emphasized on the reforms to education in the country. He described the Al-Zaytuna Mosque becoming a great and renowned school. Tunisia also had the first secular learning institution in the Arab world- Sadiki College. The 1920s saw the birth of a labor union movement, including UGTT, which eventually became one of the most key players in Tunisia’s revolutionary movement.
Masri also credits Habib Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia, for building up the state while in power, leading to many progressive successes. He claimed that Tunisia had a strong civil society under Bourguiba, with women’s rights and other progressive movements coming to a forefront. In 1956, women were given more advanced rights and polygamy was outlawed. In 1961, women even had access to birth control.
In 1958, Bourguiba also started an education reform movement, where he limited the scope of religion in the education system, a trait very unlike other Arab states. The education reform also required bilingualism and two years of philosophy for students, teaching them to be open to other cultures and to think for themselves.
With all its progressive movements generations in the making, Masri argued that Tunisia was prepared for a democratic transition, which was eventually achieved through a successful and peaceful revolution.
When faced with the question of Tunisia being used as a model for other states in the region, Masri said it could not, since so many of the circumstances of the situation were specific to Tunisia and the revolution was many generations in the making.
Q: How are you building on your understanding of Tunisia to enhance the programs at Columbia’s global centers?
A: Masri stated that he found it important to understand the Arab reactions to Tunisia, which ranged from positive and excited to jealous. He claimed that problems in the other Arab states included hyper-nationalism, religion, and the question of Israel-Palestine, all of which led to generations of Arabs growing up with very strict view of what is right and what is wrong. Masri stated he is focusing on working on education at Columbia’s global centers, and more specifically democracy in terms of thought, freedom, and rights.
Q: After Bourguiba, education has deteriorated in Tunisia. How is the government trying to reverse that backslide?
A: Masri somewhat disagreed with the claim of the question, stating that the legacy Bourguiba set for education is still lasting. He did admit that under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, there has been a deterioration in quality standards and an increased enrollment in universities, leading to a mismatched supply and demand in the workforce and students not prepared for their field of work. Masri did claim that the content of the education did not change and there are continual efforts to bring back the higher quality of education in Tunisia.
Q: Could we have anticipated Tunisia being so successful in its revolution?
A: Masri simply responded, “I don’t know.” He said that the success of the revolution took the world completely by surprise, which is what inspired his interest in the topic.
Q: How would we use Tunisia as a benchmark for success?
A: Masri stated, “Something was released in 2011… you cannot put the genie back in the bottle.” He claimed that the Arab youth in other states need to focus on reform. He criticized the reform in Saudi Arabia as overrated, saying that while women can drive, it is only to a certain extent and they still cannot leave the country of their own accord. And while the movie theatres have opened, movies in the country are still heavily censored. While there is vast support for Mohammad bin Salman by the Arab youth, there is no room for debate or improvement.