TUNIS—After months of political and religious upheaval at Manouba University on the outskirts of Tunis, a protester lowered a Tunisian flag from its perch above the campus gates and replaced it with a black one that is viewed as a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism.
But he was interrupted.
On that day in early March two years ago, a university student confronted the hardline Islamist to protect the Tunisian flag.
“The students who go to the university are the ones defending it,” said Habib Mallakh, a retired French professor and secretary general of the Tunisian Association for the Defense of University Values.
Tunisia’s revolution three years ago that ousted the longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, brought an end to years of police presence on university campuses that curbed political freedom. Since then, university administrators have grappled with the challenges of a subsequent security gap with police mostly staying off campuses.
Although risks posed by security incidents sometimes overwhelm universities, members of higher-education institutions across the capital said they have largely relied on networks of students and staff to monitor and address campus security concerns, prompting students like Khaoula Rashidi to act in defense of the Tunisian flag.
“It’s a family working together in harmony trying to protect the campus,” said Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities at the university.
Under the rule of Ben Ali, who governed Tunisia for more than two decades, students like Chokri Kassaoui faced interrogation and arrest. As an undergraduate five years ago in the coastal town of Bir El-Bey, he was followed one afternoon after attending a student union meeting.
“I took the train home and the police followed me,” said Kassaoui, who is now a master’s degree student at Manouba University. “At one station, they grabbed me by the arm and pulled me off the train. They started searching my bag and took me to the police station.”
There, he was held for over three hours and interrogated.
“It scared me in the beginning,” Kassaoui said. “But after that, when I started hearing people’s stories and hearing how people are getting attacked in their houses and getting their homes inspected, I got used to it and realized it was normal and routine.”
That changed when Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011 and a new government cleansed universities of police and stopped them from entering campuses without a court order.
“Everyone [inside the universities] was made responsible for protecting himself and protecting the property as well as—of course—faculty and students,” said Slim Choura, director general of international cooperation at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. “This is the high level of maturity that we achieved and we reached three years after the revolution.”
Some of the fiercest unrest has taken place at Manouba’s Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities, including the most-publicized incident, beginning in late 2011. But many of the descriptions of the incident do not extract its potential lessons for other universities.
The conflict began after a university governing board banned women from wearing the conservative face veil known as the niqab in class. According to students and reports, students started a protest movement that administrators said attracted outside demonstrators including Abou Iyadh, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia, designated by the Tunisian government and the United States as a terrorist group. Hardline Islamists protested the niqab ban in front of an administration building. Clashes broke out between the Islamists and secular students, which has happened several times since 2011.
“In case of a conflict what we usually do is make a human chain to prevent the groups from getting physical and conflicting,” said Mallakh, of the Tunisian Association for the Defense of University Values.
But during the dispute over the niqab policy, altercations between protesters, students and administrators couldn’t be stopped. On December 6, radical Islamist demonstrators blocked the door of the administration building, witnesses said.
“I tried to run fast and go between them and open the door but they blocked me between the two doors and pushed them closed so I was asphyxiated,” said Mallakh, who was eventually released and taken to the hospital.
It was then that Dean Kazdaghli—with support from teachers and students—halted classes as the sit-in continued. The classes were stopped not only due to security concerns but also to pressure the government to issue a national policy regarding the face veil, said Amel Jaidi, head of the English department and a member of the university’s scientific council, a governing board.
“We were divided over inviting police inside the campus because we have a history of police violations,” Jaidi said. “We also feared the reaction of the students.”
Secular students and faculty also claimed the police lacked political will to intervene since they supported hardline Islamists in their ideological battle. That accusation, like the broader conflict over the niqab ban, reflects the political fight between liberals and Islamists that has flared in Tunisia since Ben Ali was ousted. Indeed, many on campuses say that religious dogma is the biggest threat to academic freedom.
But in early January, after the sit-in continued for several weeks, the administration called police to breakup the sit-in. They arrived overnight and no one was hurt in the dispersal, administrators said.
Two years later, some students and professors said the biggest threat to security on campus is that outsiders—like those who protested at Manouba—can still easily enter the university. “The problem is that even a small fight can turn into a big fight where everyone brings his friends onto campus,” said Wassim Oueslate, 20, a first-year student at Manouba University.
“The problem is that the guards aren’t even checking IDs,” he said. “It bothers me a lot because it influences the life of the students. We feel insecure.”
Yet Oueslate, like many other academics and students of varying political and ideological stripes, doesn’t want police on campus. Even some police disapprove of a state security return.
“We don’t support university security interfering in affairs,” said Houcine Saidi, head of a police union. “Student syndicates such as UGET [General Union of Tunisian Students] and UGTE [General Tunisian Union of Students] have to deal with themselves and deal with their own affairs,” he said, referring to opposing student unions.
There are, however, specific procedures in place to call police on campus if they are needed, Choura at the higher education ministry said. If there is a threat at an institution, the director should call the president of the university who would then call the minister of higher education, Choura said. If the minister decides to act, authorities within the education ministry or governing officials on the local level would contact the court so police can be permitted to enter campus. In the event of immediate threats, a local governor will call for security to act rapidly and inform the court of this decision, Choura said.
“In general this does not really happen,” he said. “But in a few cases it was true that the police interfered, with permission from the court.”
To improve campus security, some seek private, independent security forces that would answer solely to deans or other top university officials.
“Their job would not be to repress university values but to defend university values,” Mallakh said. “Security should exist to… allow the existence of freedom and that happens in all democratic universities where security is there to give people the right to express themselves and be free.”
While a few guards sit at the entrance of Manouba, they are largely incompetent, administrators said, and do little else but watch events on campus.
“We need people who are trained and physically able and have the competencies to protect the campus,” said Kazdaghli, who has an interior ministry-assigned guard with him 24 hours a day because he has gotten death threats, presumably from fundamentalists who see him as a symbol of liberal values.
Yehya bin Abdallah, who belongs to an Islamist-dominated student union at Tunis El Manar University, agrees that real security guards would be helpful. He said university employees sometimes work as mediators when student disputes erupt into more physical conflict. Official security would be more effective, he said, but only if administrators ensure protective measures don’t become repressive.
Houcine Boujarra, a professor at the University of April 9 in Tunis and general secretary of the General Federation of Higher Education and Scientific Research, a union, said the former Minister of Higher Education promised a year and a half ago that he would assign 500 independent guards to Tunisian universities. But that has never occurred.
Regardless, not all university members support such an approach and instead prefer to rely on the existing campus networks of professors and students.
“There is solidarity among students so in case of an outside attack or assault happening on students by criminals surrounding the university, we have witnessed solidarity between all of the student body,” said Othmen Amor, a leader of a liberal and leftist-leaning student union at Tunis El Manar University.
That strategy of looking inward to handle security concerns recently proved effective at Manouba University when students reported a campus policy violation: Hanging posters without permission.
“This morning, some people from Ennahda [a moderate Islamist party] came here to stick posters on the walls,” said Manouba’s Kazdaghli, referring to the nation’s leading Islamist party.
It was a student who informed him of the incident, through a call.
“And the people hanging the posters were two outsiders,” Kazdaghli said. “They were not from the university.”