Students as a Political Barometer of Tunisian Society

What drove a Tunisian university student to join a radical leftist opposition group in the 1960s? What drove another to join an Islamist movement in the 1980s? And why did some stay committed to their organizations, despite paying very high prices, while others gradually disengaged from militancy?

Michael Ayari, a researcher with International Crisis Group, an independent organization headquartered in Brussels that works to prevent conflict, proposes some answers to these questions in his just-released book, “The Price of Political Engagement in Authoritarian Tunisia—Leftists and Islamists under Bourguiba and Ben Ali (1957 – 2011)” (published in French by IRMC-Karthala, 2017).

Ayari based his work on interviews and biographies of 250 leftist and Islamist activists in Tunisia, from the 1960s through the 2000s. He puts Tunisian activists in their historical and political context and also takes a close look at their social and regional origins.

This is one aspect of his work that is original. As he attempted to define activists’ social origins, Ayari told Al-Fanar Media, he found that in order to really situate people he needed to take note of their extended family and the region from which they hailed (rather than just, say, their father’s profession, a standard criterion in such sociological research).

In Tunisia, to speak of families, tribes, and regional affiliations is discouraged — it is seen as an Orientalist approach, and a denial of the nation’s modernity. Yet Ayari says his research “pushed me to break the taboo. Society works this way, let’s say so. It seemed relevant.”

Ayari found, for example, that many of the cadres of the new post-colonial government and ruling party of Habib Bourguiba (the country’s leader from independence in 1956 to 1987) came from a new elite, from the country’s coastal cities, which had taken advantage of bilingual schools and commercial opportunities under the colonial authorities. Historic families from Tunis’ medina were over-represented in leftist opposition parties that agitated against Bourguiba in the 1960s and 70s. And the Islamist movement that took off in the 70s drew more than others from more modest families and regions in the country’s interior.

The book argues that activism in Tunisia followed two great cycles—a radical leftist one, from 1963 to 1981; and then an Islamist cycle,  from 1971 to 1992. In both cases the opposition movements were eventually crushed by the state, which used mass trials, arrests, torture and exile to silence dissidents. Since 2005, says Ayari, Tunisia has entered a new cycle in which jihadism is the form of radical activism that most attracts young people.

Ayari found examples of families in which siblings of different ages became activists, one in leftist and another in Islamist movements, adopting the opposition ideology that was most ascendant at the moment.

Ayari’s book emphasizes the importance that education played in forming political activist and political elites. It is during the last few years of high school and at universities that all his interviewees became politically engaged. Schools (as well as mosques) were one of the only spaces in which people could be “socialized to dissident/revolutionary politics”—spaces of “semi-liberty” in which students could stage protests and critique the current regime. University students—whose strikes, clashes with police, and mass trials punctuated the years—were “the veritable barometer of society,” writes Ayari.

Ayari finds leftist militants most often studied social sciences and law; Islamists tend to pursue engineering, commerce and theology degrees. He notes that the lack of opportunities for political participation and for professional advancement after finishing their studies was one of the factors that led militants to remain committed to their causes.

Besides their familial, regional and educational backgrounds, the book contains an analysis of other factors that drive young people to join activist groups, and to either remain committed or abandon their militancy (repression, if it doesn’t discourage activism, can actually strengthen conviction and tighten bonds).  The book contains detailed biographies of particular activists. A number of the activists mentioned in the book went on to become ministers after the uprising that toppled President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

Scholars such as Dina El Khawaga, now director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut, and Agnès Favier in Lebanon have also studied the biographies of political activists.  What is new about Ayari’s approach, he says, is that he uses both individual biographies and statistical analysis to make generalizations. He also studies both leftists and Islamists, whereas often the focus is on one group or the other.

Ayari concludes that in Tunisia today, the gaps that shaped previous political generations remain largely in place: “Social, geographic and identitarian divides, regionalism and clannishness are pronounced.” He also evokes “a Tunisia where the people have always been estranged from their political elites.”

Tunisian reformists and modernizers thought they had a mission to change the citizenry, yet they didn’t trust “the people” and often viewed them with contempt, argues Ayari.  And authoritarian regimes never let activists connect with a wider public or organize mass movements. Today the question remains, Ayari says: “How to enter into contact with the people?”


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