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.