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Universities Caught in Tunisia’s Political Crisis

TUNIS —As students prepare to return to Tunisian universities, academic leaders are fearful that a summer of sharp political conflict may continue on campuses this fall.

More broadly, presidents and deans of Tunisian universities have issued a formal statement calling on Tunisians to renounce violence and to urgently find a solution to the country’s crisis.

The political divisions in the country have widened since the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, an opposition leader, on July 25, the second assassination of a secular leader this year. That incident deepened the split between the opposition and Ennahda, the ruling party. On Saturday, opposition protesters formed a 3-kilometer long human chain calling for the government to resign and complaining that it had failed to control Salafists and fix the failing economy.

Broad portions of Tunisian society have some of the most secular and progressive views on such issues as women’s rights as any place in the Arab world. But, post-uprising, those views have clashed with conservative Salafists, who have stormed an art gallery for exhibiting what they felt was blasphemous art and pressured the University of Manouba to allow female students wear veils. (See previous article.)

Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly has failed to adopt a new constitution nearly two years after it was elected.

The academics’ statement, announced on August 7, rejects violence and terrorism by all parties, and makes a plea to stop the sharp political polarization and speed up the procedures of establishing a full civil state. Ten Tunisian university presidents out of 13 signed the statement.

“We have to resolve this political crisis as soon as possible,” said Shukri Mabkhout, the president of the University of Manouba. He said solving the problem quickly “will help in relieving tension inside the universities and keep classes far away from the turmoil.”

Mabkhout said the universities are experiencing sharp conflicts between leftist supporters and Islamists. “The continuing tension and division could cause problems that cannot be controlled later,” Mabkhout said.

Meanwhile, the dean of the faculty of law and political sciences at the University of Tunis, Al Fadel Moses, emphasized the importance of keeping universities relatively apolitical. “This is a matter of principle, the academic space must be neutral,” he said. Moses–who is also a National Constituent Assembly member—says being neutral doesn’t mean a lack of interest in public affairs. “The partisan work should be outside of the campus gates,” he said, “but we cannot prevent students from expressing their opinions and discussing their ideas freely within the university.”

Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the faculty of letters, arts, and humanities at the University of Manouba, who also signed the statement, warns of the repercussions of the Tunisian crisis on higher education. “What is happening now has a direct impact on academic life as most of the protesters and participants in the political demonstrations are students,” he said. “The deterioration of the political and security situation might encourage violence within universities.”

Two-and-a-half years after the Tunisian revolution and the overthrowing of a dictator there has been little economic change. Joblessness, especially among graduates, remains a major concern. An August 6 report in the Tunis Times titled “Economy: How Unemployment Led to Violence” notes that 60,000 new graduates are created each year in Tunisia, but only half get jobs.

In February, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Tunisia tried to keep Tunisian universities free from the negative effects of emotional partisan debates by encouraging reasoned discussion. The ministry asked universities to give time in each class to discuss the danger of political assassinations on the future of the country and the need to preserve universities as places of peaceful intellectual coexistence.

But some students think the effort to make universities free from political tensions will never be successful. “Tunisian students have already become politicized,” said Yamina Zayani, a law student in the political science faculty of the University of Tunis. Zayani does not think that universities can really be far away from what is going on in her country. “Since the sixties, the Tunisian universities were an arena for practicing politics,” she says. “Universities are a miniature scene for all what is happening in the public political arena and cannot be neutral in the conflict today.”

She believes the tension from assassinations is still building up in Tunisian society. “I think universities are going to witness big protests this year which could disrupt lessons,” she says. But she hopes that the year will pass without violence on university campuses.


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