You are here

‘The power of education’

Oct 22,2017 - Last updated at Oct 22,2017

Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly

Safwan M. Masri

New York: Columbia University Press, 2017

Pp. 378

In this book, Safwan Masri of Columbia University’s Global Centres addresses a question that many have puzzled over, namely, why the popular uprising in Tunisia, and it alone of all the Arab uprisings, resulted in a peaceful transition to a functioning democracy. “Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly” is compelling reading because the author takes one along on his literal and figurative journey into Tunisia’s past and present to find out what makes it exceptional. 

Though presented as the product of a personal quest rather than an academic treatise, the book is well-documented and enriched with insights gleaned in “hundreds of hours of interviews with dozens of experts, leaders, activists, and ordinary citizens—framing things analytically, and at times counterintuitively, to help connect dots and make sense of an emergent peaceful and largely liberal democracy in a sea of turmoil”. (p. 20)

Masri suggests a number of factors to explain why the Tunisian experience differs from the discouraging, if not catastrophic, situation prevailing in most Arab countries today. Tunisia has a small, relatively homogeneous population, and lacks sectarian tensions. It is a historical entity with borders that predate colonialism. Its minor geopolitical importance has made it less subject to foreign interference and thus less in need of a large military. Moreover, Tunisia cannot be viewed exclusively as an Arab country due to its strong Mediterranean and European orientation.

An even more influential factor is Tunisia’s robust civil society dating back to the strong labour movement that coalesced during the French colonisation. While the problem of other Arab uprisings was the lack of a leadership capable of filling the power vacuum that arose after the fall of the regime, the Tunisian Quartet, the four civic organisations honoured with the 2015 Nobel Prize, especially the UGTT labour federation, was able to assume this role and navigate the country through several ensuing crises. 

“Yet, perhaps no ingredient has been as decisive as Tunisia’s remarkable culture of reform, which dates back to the 19th century and is rooted in a progressive and adaptive brand of Islam”. (p. 27) 

Though Masri thinks other Arab countries can learn much from the Tunisian experience, he does not think they can replicate it in the absence of continuous, deep-rooted reform and the mindset this engenders. To demonstrate his point, Masri undertakes a review of Tunisian history covering many topics from ancient Carthage to the independence struggle, the causes of the 2011 uprising, political Islam and today’s unresolved problems. The chapters covering the intellectual and political debates of each stage make for fascinating reading. While Ibn Khaldun is perhaps the most famous of Tunisian thinkers, Masri introduces us to many others.

However, the main focus is on education and especially the secular reforms of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, and their decisive impact on Tunisia’s trajectory, as well as their historical antecedents. Here, Masri’s comparison with Turkey is instructive: “while Ataturk rejected Islam altogether and fought against religion, Bourguiba maintained a delicate balance—arguing from within Islam for moderation”. (p. 236)

Beginning almost immediately after the country’s independence in 1956, steps were taken to make modern, secular education, once the domain of the elite, into the norm. In addition to teaching sciences, public education emphasised the humanities and liberal arts, including philosophy — “a subject that was, and is, absent from the curriculum elsewhere in the Arab world” (p. 255).

This promoted critical and analytical thinking, and tolerance of difference which accumulated over the years, preparing Tunisians to engage in the democratic process. Rather than investing hugely in the military, Tunisia invested in education, which sometimes received as much as one-third of the state budget. Masri concludes that “it is the power of education that has defined Tunisia”. (p. 293)

There is a tendency to explain Tunisia’s progressive policies by French influence, and certainly that had an influence, especially in education, but Masri’s historical survey also points to indigenous roots. Carthage had a constitution in the 5th century BC, while, ironically, Tunisia’s 1861 constitution was suspended at the behest of the French colonial authorities. Tunisia’s laws concerning women’s rights, known as the most progressive in the Arab world, also have a long history: By the 8th century, Kairouan had “a legal code that was centuries ahead of its time in terms of granting women rights in matters of marriage and divorce”. (p. 114) 

While written in a personal manner, Masri generally maintains a balance between passion for his subject and objectivity. His arguments for Tunisia’s exceptionalism are convincing except for his tendency to downplay its Arab identity, although much of his historical narrative actually demonstrates its many commonalities with other Arab countries. This might be connected to Masri’s unconcealed distain for Arab nationalism. While regimes have committed many abuses in its name, it seems rather ahistorical to write off Arab nationalism as only a story of military dictatorship and stagnation.



Sally Bland

124 users have voted.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
1 + 0 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.


Get top stories and blog posts emailed to you each day.