To look east or west – Tunisia struggles with new identity

After their victory in October’s polls, one of Enanhdha figurehead Rached Ghannouchi’s first statements was about the need to cleanse Arabic of the pollution of French language words.  The divide over language has become a proxy for the cultural divide in post-Ben Ali Tunsia.

On one side are an educated elite, who found that their success in business or in government came largely from their French education. On the other side are two groups, the popular masses (particularly the young) who largely do not understand or care about modern French and the exiled elite. Islamist leaders such as Ghannouchi and his son-in-law the Foreign Minister, Rafik Abdessalem spent years in England and the Gulf, respectively. According to news sources, both refuse to converse in the language of Moliere, taking interviews in English or Arabic only.

Journalist Bourzou Daragahi recently wrote in the Financial Times that:

…many Tunisians have grown frustrated with the muddled Franco-Arabic mishmash that has become the language of daily life. Turn on the radio and you will hear Tunisians speak sentences in which Arabic nouns follow French adjectives followed by Arabic verbs and French adverbs.

To understand the debate, one needs to have some background on the Tunisian language as well as the history of Arabization in North Africa. Without going into too much detail, the Tunisian spoken language is vastly different from classical or modern standard Arabic (see for example this English-Tunisian lexicon from the U.S. Peace Corps), the former learned in Quranic schools, the latter in public schools, as well as the language of administration and media). While Tunisians generally understand modern Arabic (due to the schooling system as well as popular culture imported from the Middle East), Arabic speakers generally cannot understand Tunisian dialect. To give an idea of the divide, Ben Ali’s first speech in Tunisian dialect was on the eve of his departure – up to that point, he had spoken exclusively in MSA in official speeches.

Arabization, or the process of cleansing dialects of foreign words, has been underway in Tunisia since independence from France in 1956 (see this illuminating article from Mohamed Douad of UCLA from 1991). At that time, the new government saw Arabic as a political tool that would unify the country. These efforts had mixed results, particularly because the educational system had ensured that members of the educated elite, who would lead the country over the next 50 years, were in many cases unable to function professionally in Arabic. Furthermore, ties with France, although frayed at time, remained close. Massive French investment in Tunisia ensured that the business elite valued French speaking employees. Meanwhile the explosion of European tourism in Tunisia made speaking French essential for the large number of tourist industry workers.

Nonetheless, efforts continued to Arabize the country. Under Ben Ali French was discontinued as an official state language (although ministries are often bilingual. Nonetheless, ties with France proved difficult to cut. The educational system remained tied to France. Those looking to pursue advanced degrees benefited from their ability to move directly into the French university system. Nonetheless, French continued to decline in use among ordinary Tunisians.

There is reason to believe, however, that Tunisian leaders may finally have the right combination of factors to make progress on a promise of Arabizing (or at least de-frenchifying) the country. Ennahdha’s victory in October marked a turning point in Franco-Tunisian relations. Since the elections, Rached Ghannouchi has visited Washington, even speaking to the Israel lobby linked Washington Institute on Near East Policy, and given countless interviews to English speaking journalists. He has shunned, however, the French press – viewing them as innately hostile to Ennahdha.

Meanwhile, Ennahdha has courted countries from the Persian Gulf, notably Qatar, which has recently promised a $500 million loan to aid Tunisia’s transition. Meanwhile, the crisis in Europe has left French companies here vulnerable and many have left the country since the revolution. Meanwhile, the government has promised to encourage ever greater investment from the Gulf, including an emphasis on replacing European tourists with Arab tourists.

Nonetheless, ties with France, to the consternation of Ennahdha’s leaders, will be tough to cut. Over 3,000 French companies operate in Tunisia and 700,000 Tunisians live in France. While Gulf countries may offer more work opportunities to Tunisian professionals, unskilled Tunisian workers will continue to head north, rather than west (a low salary in France still beats competing with Pakistani workers in Doha or Dubai).

Ennahdha leaders will also be under heavy pressure to work with business leaders, many who are in control of key media outlets. While support for Arabization is popular, Tunisians do not want to shut themselves off from the world. What is likely is that in the short term, Ennahdha’s efforts will lead to a re-balancing of relationships – and a re-emphasis on the country’s Arabic roots.


Photo Gallery – Tunisia Year 1 – Bourguiba Avenue Januar 14, 2012

Some photos from yesterday’s happenings on Avenue Bourguiba in downtown Tunis in commemoration of the one year anniversary since Ben Ali’s departure. Reports say that up to 20,000 people took to downtown Tunis, many to celebrate, many to demonstrate that the revolution is not yet over. Ennahdha supporters were well numbered, as were Salafi groups, waiving their typical black and white flags, as well as communists and union members. I heard protesters chanting for all sorts of causes – for the return of the caliphate, for human rights, and for Bashar Assad’s degagement. 

Tunisia year 1: Five ways Tunisia has changed for the better

One year ago tomorrow Tunisia will celebrate the first anniversary of the flight of Ben Ali and his reviled wife to Saudi Arabia. And yet, to talk to Tunisians, nothing has changed. This chorus of negativity has been a common theme since the revolution, leading to protests that later fell the first interim government, and now are a thorn in the side of Tunisian industries and the newly elected government itself.

Since the new year, a wave of self-immolations across Tunisia has shocked Tunisians. The BBC reports that in the 6 months since Mohammed Bouazizi’s death, 107 Tunisians attempted to light themselves on fire. Meanwhile, following a wave of protests in the phosphate mining industry, Tunisian petrol workers began striking this week. On the same day, protests erupted in front of the Ministry of the Interior over the perceived lack of concrete changes to the security apparatus.

Euronews reports today that “resignation replaces revolution in Tunisia.” They quote a young man saying what I have heard over and over:

A year after the revolution nothing’s changed. At least before things were safe on the streets, you could go out when you liked. Unemployment’s gone up to at least 800,000 today. Nothing’s changed in Tunisia.

While distress is natural for a people that have undergone the biggest cultural change since their independence from France in 1956, can one really say that nothing has changed? Change in Tunisia, imperceptible to many, far too slow to others, has indeed come to Tunisia. Here are five concrete ways Tunisia has changed, for the better.

1) Freedom to Criticize: This came almost instantaneously after Ben Ali’s departure – and is perhaps the freedom most exercised by Tunisians – criticizing their government. I noted that only one day after Ben Ali’s departure, the cafes were louder. What before had to be said behind closed doors and in the company of only the most trusted confidants, Tunisians loudly and proudly shouted on the streets. Magazines proliferated. Everyone under 30 seemed to be practicing citizen journalism.

While the Stasi-like police state has been dismantled, Tunisians’ ability to protest has not come without problems. The well reported stories in the west about the attack on a Tunisian cinema (for airing a film about an atheist in Tunisia) overshadowed more sinister stories, such as the stories of Nabil Hajlaoui and Samir Feriani. Both men were held in Tunisian jails for openly criticizing the military and the interior ministry, respectively. Other cases, such as restrictions on internet freedoms or the continued government control of key media outlets are also cause for concern.

While concerns remain, Tunisians do not appear on the verge of easily giving up their long-repressed rights to criticize their government. And there are signs that the government itself is taking this into account. Following journalist protests, the government has promised to review its nominees for key press positions.

2) Protests: Protests have been complicated in post-Ben Ali Tunisia. Seen as a hard won right by those who risked their lives against the regime, they have also frustrated Tunisians who think that protests have held back the country from getting its economy back on track. Stories such as that of the Japanese company Yazaki, which has threatened to pull out of the country because of ongoing worker sit-ins, are frequently reported.

Strikes in Tunisia are further complicated, like so many things, because of the corrupt policies of the previous regime. Worker unions had been co-opted by the previous regime; they were unable to protect the interests of Tunisian workers. This allowed the government to suppress wages and attract foreign investment. The foreign investors who profited from this arrangement have undoubtedly been nervous about the waves of protests since the uprising.

Despite government calls for moratoriums on sit-ins (both under the interim regime and the current, elected government), Tunisians continue to exercise their right to free assembly and organization. Worker protests are bolstered by the ongoing support of civil society activists who have called on the government to protect their rights and prosecute corruption under the previous regime. Immediately following the investiture of the constituent assembly, various groups from around Tunisia staged daily protests to urge legislators to uphold their campaign promises.

3) Police: Feared under Ben Ali, and for good reason. Police in Tunisia were well-known not only for their undercover surveillance, but also their brutality. You don’t have to go far to meet Tunisians who were themselves, or had close family members, tortured in one of the interior ministry torture chambers under Bourguiba Avenue.

Police reform remains an absolutely vital issue in Tunisia, witnessed by this week’s protest at the Interior Ministry. However, most Tunisians would admit that the threat of arbitrary arrest has significantly decreased, to the benefit of religious fundamentalists and civil libertarians alike.

4) Corruption: One of the key criticisms of the post-Ben Ali era has been that the vast majority of officials have stayed exactly where they were before the uprising. There have been no major changes to key ministries and many of those close to Ben Ali remain at the helm of Tunisia’s largest businesses. One element that has changed, however, has been the decrease, if not elimination of coercive corruption. As I noted last month:

Entrepreneurs were increasingly punished under Ben Ali. If you ran a successful business, the family would demand ownership. If you were a taxi cab driver, your permit would be renewed only if you bought a car from a Trabelsi dealership. If you were a civil servant, you were obligated to take out loans from one of the Trabelsi owned banks. While the government touted economic growth figures, the average Tunisian increasingly felt marginalized.

While corruption will continue to be a part of Tunisian life, and is a continued risk no matter which party is in power, the kind of coercive economic corruption practiced under Ben Ali has all but disappeared.

5) Mentality: Perhaps most importantly as Tunisia begins to build and rebuild its institutions that will guarantee its liberties, Tunisians more than ever before have a mentality that is premised on basic freedoms – and they know that their voices count. The wall of fear built by Ben Ali has been destroyed. Rather than being the subjects of history, Tunisians today know that they have the power to affect change.

I cannot pretend that all is well in Tunisia. Millions still suffer from poverty and lack of opportunities. The political risks remain enormous, and according to history – the odds are against Tunisia’s success.

At the same time, I look at Tunisia today and see that I have more freedom today than I did one year ago.  I look at Tunisia today and see that I have more rights today than I did one year ago. That’s progress.

Top posts in 2011 – Pornography trumps all

What can I say about this, if you want page hits, use pornography in the title of your post. In 2011 I published 50 articles on my blog, which went live in mid-June. Besides the anomaly of porno (an article about the ongoing internet censorship debates in Tunisia), my readership has increased steadily over the last six months, though especially at the time of the historic elections in October 2011. Three out of my top five articles were published the week of the elections. Rounding out the list is my article from last month on the anniversary of Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation.

Voila the top 5:


Give me my porno!

What’s the real story about the Tunisian elections? Hint, it’s not all about Ennahdha

Gallery: Election day arrives in Tunisia

Ben Ali’s Propaganda from Bouazizi to January 14

5 best Tunisian elections videos