The Arab Spring was, arguably, the most important revolutionary moment in the Middle East’s modern history. It began in Tunisia with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in protest of dire economic conditions in the country. His act brought thousands to the streets in protest, and the movement, which came to be known as the Jasmine Revolution, spurred a domino effect in other nations. The Arab Spring carried with it the hope and promise of change; yet despite dictators being toppled, democratic governments did not emerge victorious in most Arab countries that experienced revolution. This led many to declare the Arab Spring a failure that was, arguably, far from over. Within the political, social, and economic chaos of the region, Tunisia emerged as a unique example of peaceful transition to democracy.
Tunisia’s relative success reignited a dim flame of hope regarding democracy in the Arab world. Questions on whether Tunisia’s “model” could be replicated elsewhere became common discussion points in political and academic spheres. A work that stands out in this sea of voices is Dr. Safwan Masri's recent book, Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly. Masri, who is professor and Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University, grapples with questions of Tunisia’s success, looking at whether its successful transition to democracy can act as a model for other nations. The short answer, according to Masri, is “no”. That said, he addresses the various factors that make Tunisia unique, with particular emphasis on the country’s history with reform.
The book, published by Columbia University Press in September of this year, is divided into three parts. Masri begins by offering a timeline of Tunisia’s revolution, detailing the prelude to the Jasmine Revolution and the transition that occurred following the ousting of Ben Ali in 2011. He then explains the uniqueness of Tunisia, revealing the roots of Tunisian identity that place it within and without the Arab world. In the third part of the book, Masri focuses on education and secularism, and the role they played in the country’s history and the Jasmine Revolution.
He speaks to Raseef22 about the book, focusing on the role of religion, reform, education, and identity in making Tunisian an exception.
Islam Versus Democracy?
Islam is often pitted against democracy as an archaic, religious system that is inherently opposed to liberal values. Perhaps one of the most interesting things that Tunisia demonstrated is the religion’s compatibility with democracy, albeit a particular understanding of Islam and of democracy.
Speaking to Raseef22, Masri notes, “Political Islam is something that the region is, in fact, contending with. Experiences with political Islam tend to be quite different from one place to another. If we were to look at the history of political Islam in Tunisia, one can say that, in the case of Ennahda (the Muslim democratic party founded in 1981), the party was forced to democratize.” He notes that this forced democratization was not merely an external imposition on the party. Its founder, Rached Ghannoushi, contributed to a more tolerant Islam, showing that “you can have a secular state with an Islamist party at its head."
According to Masri, Tunisia’s ability to reconcile Islam with democracy is also linked to the country’s overall experience with religion. Masri expressed, “Islam in Tunisia had to reconcile with existing traditions -- it had to be adapted to what was already there.” He explains that when Qayrawan was established as a center for Sunni Islamic scholarship in the 7th century, it also became a space for multi-faith learning. HE says, “Qayrawan became the place from which Islam spread to the rest of Africa. It produced the kind of scholarship that was inclusive and relatively progressive.”
The city’s -- and more generally, country’s -- history of inclusivity and debate facilitated a critical thinking approach to religion, instilling a culture of tolerance and adaptability that Masri argues was key for Tunisia’s experience with Islam and democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Reform in the 19th century
Two recent testaments to Tunisia’s democratic transition are a proposal for inheritance equality, which advocates for equal inheritance between Tunisian men and women, and a law that allows Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. Both these proposed laws, endorsed by current President Essebsi, are attempts to separate between religion and the state and achieve equality based on citizenship. For Masri, these changes are welcome and a continuation of a tradition that began when the country gained independence in 1956, when women also earned more advanced rights in terms of divorce and custody. That said, Masri does not take these changes at face value, noting an important caveat: “This law and proposal came at a time when an amnesty law -- that ensures those accused of corruption under Ben Ali are not tried -- was passed by parliament”.
Nevertheless, Masri notes in his book that the tradition of reformism in the country, which began in the nineteenth century, was critical to the nation’s democratic evolution. These reforms reflect Tunisia’s experience with colonialism, which left a more “positive” effect on the country than other nations in the Maghreb and elsewhere. As Masri explains, “When colonialism arrived in Tunisia, it arrived into an environment that already had a rich history and identity and one which had a tradition of engagement with the West. At the dawn of the 19th century, you already had almost three millennia of civilization that shaped Tunisia."
Rather than placing the change in one historical moment, Masri traces the various economic, social, and cultural changes that, in his opinion, contributed to Tunisia’s successful Arab Spring experience. The 1857 ‘Ahd al-Aman, which gave rights to non-Tunisian residents; the abolishment of slavery; and the 1861 constitution drafted under Ottoman rule were all key moments that reflected and solidified the country’s experience with reform, according to Masri; he also argues that they gave impetus to indigenous reform.
In Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly, Masri argues that reform occurred on several fronts. Not only did the 19th century present itself as a key historical moment, but reform continued throughout the 20th century in various fields. Following Tunisia’s independence from the French in 1956, then-president Habib Bourguiba used an existing, relatively secular, sociopolitical infrastructure to advance women’s rights and education reform built on Western models.
In 1958, Bourguiba introduced changes that attempted to establish a unified educational system in line with French standards. Along with his minister of national education, Mahmoud Messaadi, Bourguiba fashioned policies that were largely secular. “Tunisia did not reject everything French and insisted on a bilingual education system that helped expose Tunisian students to Western ideas,” explains Masri to Raseef22. “There was no quick Arabization of curricula, and religion was brought down to one hour a week in primary schools."
Despite Masri’s belief in the positive power of secular education, there emerges an interesting paradox in Tunisia’s case. The secular system that was key in making the country a successful democratic example also produced a high number of extremists. Tunisia is often singled out as the country that exported the largest number of fighters to ISIS. How, then, can these two contradicting ideas emerge? “Bourguiba was able to build a country that was largely secular using his credentials and overall charisma. Ben Ali did not have either of those things in the same capacity, so for him to sustain what Bourguiba left behind, he practiced a form of forced secularization,” explains Masri to Raseef22.
With forced secularization in schools, many turned to satellite TV to learn more about Islam. In 2011, explains Masri, many prisoners who were inclined to Islamist thought were released into society. Their preaching, coupled with the overall social and economic grievances, created a space for individuals who felt disenfranchised within Tunisia. “Many found in ISIS a nation they could not find in Tunisia,” notes Masri. “The youth in particular were targets for recruitment by the likes of ISIS, even though they formed a small minority. They came from parts of the country where the economy was doing the worst”.
For Masri, those who joined ISIS were only one portion of the youth. There were others who led and participated in the revolution, who felt marginalized by the establishment and political structures. “The Tunisian establishment needs to listen to the youth and include them more seriously,” Masri says to Raseef22. “I think it’s important for international organizations that are active on the ground in Tunisia to provide proper support and training to allow youth to organize around political parties."
Tunisian Identity VS Arab Identity?
The youth’s political presence is an expression of a broader process to negotiate identity. In his book, Masri argues against a monolithic Arab identity, arguing instead for a specific Tunisian identity. “It is an amalgamation of identities and civilizations that define what it is today,” he notes. Tunisia, for Masri, is a nation that is both within and without the Arab world. He states that it is a nation closer to Europe in some respects, particularly with regards to its geographic location as a coastal city privy to a long history of trade relations with Europe.
Moreover, Masri argues that Tunisia’s relative social homogeneity a.k.a its overwhelming Sunni Muslim majority, was a main factor in its democratic transition following the Arab Spring. “The pull of sectarianism is not present in Tunisia,” he begins. “Lebanon is the only other country in the Arab world that is democratic, even though democracy is not always practiced, and yet, it was torn apart by sectarianism.”
That said, it remains difficult to pinpoint a coherent Tunisian identity. As Masri argues in the book, said identity lies somewhere between the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, and it looks different across various areas in the country. The interior regions, he notes, are disenfranchised vis-a-vis the coast that has benefited from tourism and foreign direct investment. This cleavage is historical, and expresses itself along economic, social, and cultural lines insofar that the tensions it creates could threaten the consolidation and continuation of a democratic state.