Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly with Safwan M. Masri

Dec 14, 2017

Did you know that Tunisia started championing women's rights in the eighth century, and is still far ahead of most Arab and Muslim-majority countries? Indeed Tunisia's trajectory on many fronts has been radically more progressive than that of other Arab nations. So while it it may serve as an inspiration, its unique history probably makes its success impossible to duplicate, says Safwan Masri.

JOANNE MYERS: Good evening, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you all for joining us.

I am delighted to welcome Safwan Masri to this Public Affairs program. Dr. Masri is currently the executive vice president for global centers and global development at Columbia University. For more about our dynamic speaker, I hope you will take a moment to read his bio, which you all should have received when you checked in this evening.

His discussion today will center on his book Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly and it will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program today. In it, he provides an analysis that is not only comprehensive, but it is instructive in that it will help us to understand why Tunisia's Arab Spring succeeded when other countries in the region failed to reach their objectives.

Watching the news these days, it is too easy to dismiss the hope that democracy will ever take root in the Middle East or in North Africa. But it would be wrong to abandon all faith, as there is a sense that something positive is taking place, and it is where? In a small country that lies on the coast of North Africa where the transition to democracy has begun.

That beacon of light, as many of you know, is Tunisia. It is the country that sparked the Arab Spring. Nearly seven years ago, following the self-immolation of a young food vendor outside the Tunisian capital, a vast wave of protest movements rocked the Middle East. From Egypt to Libya, from Bahrain to Yemen and Syria, these uprisings overthrew long-ruling dictators and transformed the region's politics almost beyond recognition.

Yet, it was only in Tunisia that significant progress toward a functioning democracy has ensued. The question is, why? Why did this democratic movement succeed while others failed? Are the factors that contributed to Tunisia's experience really so different from the rest of the region? What makes Tunisia an Arab anomaly?

For the answer to the mysteries of the Arab Spring, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today, Safwan Masri.

Thank you so much for joining us.

SAFWAN MASRI: Thank you very much, Joanne, for that wonderful introduction, and thank you all for being here this evening.

The topic that we are discussing is, of course, democracy and the Arab world in general, and what comes out of the Arab world, is a cause for interest, if not concern, by many of us around the world. In Tunisia, as Joanne mentioned, I found inspiration, I found some hope, but I also found a little bit of despair because, as you will see, many of the ingredients that I argue have facilitated democratic transition in Tunisia are absent in the rest of the Arab world. That is also not to say that Tunisia is home safe. It is under stress, it is a fragile democracy, it is a nascent democracy, but I think there is a lot to be hopeful about.

What I thought I would do—and I rarely do this—is I will read from one page of the book to get this conversation started, and I really look forward to the conversation part of it.

"Kairouan [which is a town in Tunisia] became famous for producing a legal code that was centuries ahead of its time in terms of granting women rights in matters of marriage and divorce—rights that are still absent in almost all Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Though rooted in the lessons of the Qur'an, the code was influenced by social custom and demand, underscoring that Shari'a is a human product, far from being absolute or static. Especially in the Maghreb, customary law played a critical role in modeling accepted legal and judicial practice."

"Polygamy had been common in pre-Islamic societies and was, as it continues to be, conditionally permitted in Islam. A man can marry up to four women, provided that he can treat them equally. But marriage contracts in the city of Kairouan were an exception and included clauses whereby a husband pledged fidelity to his wife. If the husband breached these clauses, such as by taking a second wife or bedding a concubine, the wife had full right to divorce and would be supported by the Islamic judiciary. So widespread was this 'voluntary' practice that the expression 'Kairouanese wedding' came to imply a monogamous marriage.

"Two stories, both set in the eighth century, are said to have been the genesis of the famous Contracts of Kairouan. According to one, the future second Abassid caliph Abu Ja'far al-Mansur had evaded pursuit by the Umayyads by taking refuge in Kairouan. There, he married Arwa, the daughter of a nobleman, who stipulated in their marriage contract that he could not take another wife or a concubine.

"In another account, the governor of Ifriqiya [which was the name given to Tunisia by the Muslims and the Province of Africa had been the name that was given to them by the Romans] Yazid Ibn Hatim al-Muhallabi married a noblewoman from the Hejaz in the Arabian Peninsula who had settled in Kairouan. Their marriage contract included a similar clause to Arwa's, stipulating monogamy. After many years of marriage, Yazid took a concubine, and his wife took him to court demanding a divorce. The judge, 'well known for his righteousness,' ruled in the wife's favor, and the governor was forced to choose between his wife and the concubine."

This was from eighth-century Tunisia. There were stipulations against polygamy in eighth-century Tunisia. Polygamy became outlawed in 1956, the same year that Tunisia was granted its independence from the colonial French powers. Today there is no other Arab country where polygamy is outlawed, it is legal everywhere.

I wanted to start with this example, one thing that highlights in my mind sort of the anomaly and the anomalous nature of Tunisia within the Arab world. And I want to stick with history for a little bit because I think to understand Tunisia today and to understand the Arab world today, it is very important to understand the trends that were taking place leading to the colonial period that described the entire Arab world in the late 19th and early 20th century and then the trends in post-colonial, independent Arab nations.

But let's stay around the eighth century for a little bit. Kairouan had been established by the invading Arab Muslims in the seventh century. When they arrived in Kairouan, when they arrived in Tunisia, in Ifriqiya or the Province of Africa, they found Berbers, people who were ethnically Berber, who had been ruled before by the Byzantines and before that the Romans and before that the Carthaginians, who had established the city of Carthage in the year 834 BCE and were competitors of the Romans.

When the Arab Muslims arrived in Tunisia, as they did elsewhere in the Maghreb, they found that they had to adapt Islam to commonly practiced traditions at the time, African as well as Berber in Tunisia, in particular because of a strong Christian influence that had ruled for hundreds of years. For example, the reverence of saints became something that was allowed in the practice of Islam in a place like Tunisia, which had not been the case perhaps in other parts of the Muslim world.

The brand of Islam that grew in Tunisia, I argue, in the city of Kairouan, which became a great place of Islamist scholarship, was more progressive and more modern and adopted the Maliki method or school within Islam, and was very adaptive, as I said, to the local customs and traditions. Sufism became very popular in Tunisia, and there came a time when not a single village in Tunisia did not have a major Sufi temple. Kairouan produced knowledge in the areas of medicine, the sciences, and including the Maliki method and Islamic scholarship. There was much interaction between Muslim scholars and Jewish scholars, much interaction with Al-Andalus across the Mediterranean.

What happened afterward, of course, is that further east great centers of Islamic knowledge—in Baghdad, in Damascus, and elsewhere—were destroyed by the Moguls. Tunisia, the Maghreb, anything west of Egypt, was of course spared that fate.

Enter the Ottoman Empire in the middle of the 16th century. Tunisia becomes a province of the Ottoman Empire in 1574. But then, in 1711, a local ruler, a local Ottoman bey, al-Husayn Ibn Ali bey, argues for, fights for, and is ultimately granted for Tunisia a semi-autonomous status. The Husaynids, Husayn and his descendents, rule as Ottoman rulers of Tunisia from 1711 until right after independence in 1957.

Now, why is this important? Because that kind of independence, or semi-independence, that Tunisia had during those centuries we will see had a major role in giving it the kind of openness that it had in the 19th century.

In the 19th century, of course, developments were taking place in Europe—very familiar to an audience like this—the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815; in 1818 the Congress of Aix-le-Chapelle to address common problems facing Europe following the Napoleonic Wars forced North African countries to put an end to piracy, which had been widely practiced in the Mediterranean. Developments in Europe, the unification in Italy and other developments that were taking place there, opened up Europe. This was the beginning of a major chapter in Europe's modern history, which opened it up across the Mediterranean to the Barbary Coast. The coast of North Africa, which included of course Tunisia, and trade of ideas, trade of merchandise, became something that was growing quite exponentially during that first half of the 19th century.

During that time, in Tunisia you also had Husaynid rulers enjoying the semi-autonomous status that they had with the Ottoman Empire, who were reformers and who were deeply influenced by the openness to Europe. So you had British, French, and Italian, primarily, interests in Tunisia. As I said, most of those interests were trade-related, economically driven. You had economic migrants who were moving into Tunisia. You already had a significant Jewish population in Tunisia, and of course there were Jewish as well as Christian traders and immigrants and so on coming into Tunisia in the 20th century.

The impact of all of that was an openness in terms of ideas to Europe that would have a very significant impact. That, I argue, as you will see in the rest of this presentation, really made a difference when it came to the events of the past few years and, specifically, the Arab Spring that started there in 2010.

For example, in 1846, under the rule of Ahmad Bey, the local ruler, Tunisia abolishes slavery. This was as a result of being leaned on by the British consul at the time in Tunis, who was primarily interested in taking abolitionism from England to its provinces and then having the kind of influence that they ended up having in a place like Tunisia, and partially also influenced by the fact that you had a lot of Europeans living there. So there is a very interesting story that led to the three decrees that culminated in abolitionism that took place in 1846.

What was interesting to me in doing the research for this book was the correspondence between Amos Perry, the American consul in Tunis in 1863, who writes the then-leader Sadok Bey and communicates with his secretary Husayn Pasha, asking him about the benefits of abolitionism, asking for advice given Tunisia's experience with abolitionism: Why did it abolish slavery? What were the economic benefits? What might have been some of the economic and social costs associated with abolitionism?

Husayn Pasha responds to him in a way that shows an incredible level of sophistication. Rather than using the arguments that had been used within Islam to bring the religious authorities behind abolitionism, he talked to him in a language that as a Westerner, as an American, he would understand, and he focused it much on labor and labor economics and the values that would be derived from that. So one way to look at it is that Tunisians actually advised Abraham Lincoln and contributed to abolitionism that took place here in 1865.

But before that, in 1857, Tunisia under Muhammad Bey, the ruler at that time, implements a Security Covenant that gave rights to non-Tunisian residents of Tunisia, that basically guaranteed that Christian and Jewish Europeans living in Tunisia were protected by law and that they had access to the judiciary and the legal system that is outside of Shari'a law and that gave them also the right to purchase lands in Tunisia. The purchase of lands, of course, became a very contested issue under colonial times.

This was triggered by the case of a Jewish tram driver who had accidentally caused a death and then an altercation with police and was accused afterward of having been blasphemous toward Islam. He was tried in a Shari'a court and he was executed. That led then to a series of events that led to the Security Covenant that granted security to everybody living in Tunisia.

In 1861, because of British influence also, a constitution is adopted in Tunisia, the first in any Arab or Muslim country. That constitution was then the subject of much debate between the French and the British, and was eventually abandoned, but the fact that it had been adopted was a huge undertaking and a huge accomplishment.

What I am trying to paint for you over here is that you look at the 19th century, you look at Tunisia, you had great leaders, political leaders who were reformers, who actually predated in their reforms the Tanzimat that came out of Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire's attempts to reform the Ottoman Empire.

Those Tanzimat, or reforms, came in two waves, and they were in many respects a reaction to unhappiness by minorities who were living in Ottoman provinces, but some of those were more successful than others. There was a lot of interaction between the Tanzimat that came out of Istanbul and the reforms that were implemented in Tunisia, but Tunisia in many respects predated some of those Tanzimat that came out of there. But it was not only the political leaders who were really very influential. Many of their ministers were incredibly influential, and many of their ministers then contributed intellectually to advancements in Tunisia that we will talk about in just a second.

Under the Ahmad Bey, followed by Muhammad Bey, followed by Sadok Bey, you had people like Mustafa Khaznadar, you had Khyar al-Din al-Tunisi, you had Ahmad Ibn Abi Diyaf, important personalities who had originally been mamluks. The Ottoman Empire often brought in mamluks, young boys typically from lands that they had invaded in the Balkans and elsewhere, gave them the best training, the best education, and then many of those proved to be incredibly capable and competent and were freed, and many of them married actually the daughters of the sultan and his top ministers.

Ahmad Ibn Abi Diyaf wrote the Security Covenant. The constitution was the work of Khyar al-Din al-Tunisi. Khyar al-Din al-Tunisi then goes on to write a very important treatise in 1871 that speaks of constitutionalism, that speaks of secularism, that speaks of separation of mosque and state, and that speaks of what we would now look at, even though he did not use the words exactly, as "democratization" and holding the ruler accountable.

In many parts of the West, these kinds of developments were unheard of, and certainly in the rest of the Arab world—just to paint a very quick picture: in Egypt you had of course the economic influences of Britain and France and you had an attempt at a revolution in 1881 which was then brutally crushed; Algeria did not have a being to speak of when it was invaded in 1830 and annexed by France, an occupation that continued for 132 years.

Many of the factors that existed in Tunisia contrasted very sharply with what one would call either an incredibly dogmatic and oppressive presence of colonial powers elsewhere in the region, or barren lands where nothing really of significance was going on and where countries that we know of today did not exist. By contrast, what I argue is that in Tunisia you had a nation back in the middle of the 1860s that was waiting to become a state.

How come it was able to get to that point? I think in its history, the multiple civilizations that had come in from the Phoenicians, to the Romans, to the Byzantines, and then to the Muslim Arabs, the way that Islam developed within the country, the fact that its borders had not shifted for centuries, for millennia even. Since Roman times, Tunisia's borders had not really changed very much. The only other Arab country that one can say that about is Egypt, with the exception that in the 19th century it for a while included Sudan and its border stretched south and for other periods it did not. Most other Arab countries are really a product of the end of the First World War and are a new phenomenon.

So you had all of these reforms going on. But you also had reforms in the area of education. In Tunis, just like in Kairouan—in Kairouan you had a very important mosque that was established in 670—in 698, the Zaitouna Mosque was established in Tunis, 200 years before Al-Azhar Mosque. All of you are familiar with the Al-Azhar Mosque, of course, which is considered to be the great place of Islamic scholarship that dictates how Islam is practiced and how it evolves. Largely because of Al-Azhar's influence, it had not really evolved that much during that period.

Zaitouna, as is typical in Islamic history—a mosque had become a place of great scholarship. It became a school. It became where all the Jewish and Muslim scientists and scholars of Kairouan collaborated around, the Uqba Ibn Navi Mosque of Kairouan.

Zaitouna Mosque had taken over in terms of its importance in Tunisian life. What is interesting is that in the 19th century other reforms that started taking place, for example, in the field of education, came out of Zaitouna Mosque. But before that started happening very late in the 19th century, a parallel track to education was developed by the likes of Khyar al-Din al-Tunisi, who established in 1875 the first secular learning institution in the entire Arab world, perhaps with the slight exception of al-Madrasah al-wataniyyah, which Bustani had established around the same time in Mount Lebanon.

So here you have for the entire region the only semblance of education that was provided was through Kuttab schools, Qur'anic schools or madrassas. The elites, the very elite, studied abroad, went to Europe, studied in France, studied in Italy, but for the masses, and really for only a small segment of the masses, you had the privilege of learning how to write and read and learn the Qur'an through madrassas.

Khyar al-Din al-Tunisi in 1875, frustrated at his inability to reform Zaitouna Mosque's teaching faculty quickly enough, established Sadiqi College as a secular institution that would draw on Tunisians from throughout the country and provide all of them, regardless of social or economic status, full tuition, room, and board. In fact, after independence, the majority of ministers who played roles in the country's first government were graduates of Sadiqi College. Sadiqi College is still up and running in Tunis. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of that institution later on in the development of education and secularism in Tunisia.

In 1881 Tunisia becomes a protectorate of France. Britain became the colonial power in 1882 in Egypt, drawing Tunisia into debt, and Tunisia then becomes a protectorate. That was a peaceful sort of process. That reform movement that was working on secularizing education, bringing reform to Zaitouna, brought in constitutionalism, brought in the Security Covenant, gave birth to the Young Tunisians (Les Jeunes Tunisiens), who were the precursors basically to the nationalist movement for independence of Tunisia.

Out of that tradition came great Muslim scholars who worked at Zaitouna, who worked on reform within Zaitouna. So for a period of 20-30 years you had lots of tensions that resulted in great reforms that came out of Zaitouna Mosque, including many treatises that argued for and pushed for the emancipation of women.

The most consequential of those was one published in 1930 by Tahar Haddad, a Muslim scholar from Zaitouna, called Imra'tuna fi'l-shari'a wa'l-mujtama (Our Women in the Shari'a and Society), in which he advocated from within Islam for the emancipation of women, for the end of polygamy, for greater rights for women in issues of marriage and divorce. He even argued for abortion under certain circumstances.

Again, for brevity of time, I am just highlighting a few important incidents or examples, but this was a period, between 1881 and independence in 1956, that was rife with reforms, with openness, with getting the best out of the openness to French ideas, the French colonial power. Unlike, understandably, elsewhere, in the case of Tunisia, those leaders, the intellectual leaders, the reformers, many of whom became the nationalist leaders—Abdelaziz Thaalbi is one good example of that—wanted to adopt the best of what the French had to offer, particularly when it came to social values and when it came to education.

So you look at Habib Bourguiba, who then becomes the first president of Tunisia and rules from 1956 until 1987. He is very much a product of the indigenous reform movement, having studied also at Sadiqi College, established in 1875, but also a product of the French colonial powers, having studied and earned his law degree at the Sorbonne. He was not alone in this, many of his contemporaries and people who came before him and after him did the same thing.

During that period, also you have the birth of the labor union movement. In the 1920s, Muhammad Ali al-Hammi and Tahar Haddad, the same guy who argued for the emancipation of women, established the first confederation for labor rights. The funny thing is that the first labor union that was established in Tunisia was established by the Italians and the French to protect their rights as laborers. Modeled after that, the Tunisians established their first confederation.

But the most significant labor union movement was established in 1946, Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), which is, I can argue, the most important, at least one of the very most important, institutions in Tunisia today and one of the most critical factors that has ensured the success of the Arab Spring. It was founded by Farhat Hached. To give you a sense of what it was like at the conference, standing right next to him is Mohamed Fadhel Ben Achour, the most important, the best respected religious authority in Tunisia at the time of the Zaitouna Mosque. So the Zaitouna Mosque becomes a partner in the establishment of the labor union movement. This was also a very smart move to ensure that the labor union movement was not associated with Marxism and communism, that it is Islamic to have the labor union movement in place.

Farhat Hached becomes inseparable from the nationalist leader Habib Bourguiba in terms of their significance to the independence that was coming. They traveled together to the United Nations, they come together to New York to make the case for Tunisia's independence.

Farhat Hached is then assassinated by La Main Rouge, a terrorist group affiliated with the French government at the time, in 1952. His assassination becomes a watershed moment in the independence movement. In many ways, it sealed the importance to Tunisian society of UGTT and the value of UGTT in the nationalist struggle for independence.

At the same time, there is a big rift between Salah Ben Youssef, a former friend of Habib Bourguiba who had worked alongside him in the nationalist movement, and Habib Bourguiba. At that time, Habib Bourguiba, who was a nationalist leader par excellence, also became a very popular leader because of his time in exile and time in and out of French prisons, but throughout all of that he maintained a strong relationship with the French and during the Second World War insisted on alignment with the French, including of course during the German invasion of Tunisia.

The older, more conservative members of the nationalist movement, the precursors to his party Neo-Destour, the original Destour, side with the Germans, even though there are great stories about some wonderful Tunisians who played a role in protecting the lives of Tunisian Jews during the brief German occupation of Tunisia.

Salah Bin Youssef emerges out of the Second World War aligned with Arab and Muslim thinking, frequent trips to Egypt before and after Egypt's Free Officers coup of 1952. The two of them battle it out in the field—not violently necessarily, but battle it out ideologically. The end result, of course, is Habib Bourguiba wins the day and Salah Bin Youssef ultimately is assassinated in Frankfurt in 1961.

I do not want to paint it as if Tunisia had always been moving in one direction. There have always been tensions of course. There are tensions between the coast and the interior of the country, tensions between the Youssfists who wanted a stronger Muslim Arab identity and those who saw themselves more aligned and identifying more with the West and the Mediterranean. All of this is to say that over a period of more than a hundred years, on the foundation of an incredibly strong geographic and ethnic national identity, there have developed reforms in the spheres of religion, education, women's rights, and civil society that once Tunisia became independent in 1956 set it, I think because also of the vision of Habib Bourguiba, on the right track.

When I ventured into this project, I had given a lot of credit, as most people have, to Habib Bourguiba. It turns out Habib Bourguiba deserves a lot of credit for the visionary that he was, but he really rode on the shoulders of great, mostly men, who came before him and facilitated the way for him.

So remember 1935, Haddad and his treatise Our Women in the Shari'a and Society? One of Habib Bourguiba's first acts in power is he takes that treatise and codifies it into law. So in 1956 the Code du statut personnel, the family status code, gives women as much equality as could have been expected at that time, in that it puts into law the abolishment of polygamy and gives women far more advanced rights. Family planning is part of that reform movement. In 1961 Tunisian women have access to birth control, in 1965 they have access to abortion under certain circumstances, in 1973, the same year as Roe v. Wade, abortion becomes totally legal in Tunisia.

Another factor is that over the past few decades since independence, where you had a quadrupling of Arab populations elsewhere and where the vast majority of Arabs today are under the age of 30—more than 70 percent are under the age of 30—you had much more moderate growth in terms of population in Tunisia. But of course, with the emancipation of women, half of the country's energy was released into politics, the economy, culture, and so on.

In 1958 he puts into effect an education reform movement that, unlike elsewhere in the Arab world where there was a rejection of everything colonial, included the Arabization of curricula, which meant that you did not have local teachers to deliver the classes. In Tunisia you had the reform movement that insisted from the beginning on bilingualism, insisted on the presence and the retention of French teachers while Tunisian teachers were taught, insists on universal education in the long run—so we do not jump right into it, we do it gradually—and limits the scope of religion in educational systems.

So, unlike in other places where religion becomes the predominant feature in curricula, Arabization opens the door for it because everything then becomes taught through the Qur'an, starting with Arabic as a language, but then everything else, too, to prop regimes that derived legitimacy from their relationship with Islam, as in the case of Morocco, whose king claims descendance from the Prophet, or where education is politicized through religion. So Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt wants to fight the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, gives rein over the curricula to the very conservative Al-Azhar Mosque. In the 1970s, Anwar Sadat, to combat Nasserist ideologies and communist ideologies that were on the rise, gives free rein to the Muslim Brotherhood, and so on and so forth.

Tunisia avoided all of this and, as opposed to Turkey and Ataturk, who abolished religion from the educational systems altogether, Bourguiba did a couple of things: (1) he maintained some room for it, so up to one to two hours of religious education in the class; (2) he did not come across as an anti-religionist, on the contrary, he came across convincingly as a scholar of Islam, he held his own with Muslim scholars, he brought to his side great religious authorities when he launched the Code du statut personnel.

The one thing that he was not able to win was to provide women with the same inheritance rights as men because women, according to Shari'a, are entitled to only half a man's inheritance. But he found loopholes around it, and he granted women descendants of a deceased, for example, a much greater share of an inheritance than agnate relatives. The issue of inheritance is now back on the table because the current President Essebsi has commissioned a committee to look into the issue of granting equal inheritance. So Bourguiba was very, very smart, in that he negotiated from within Islam and brought Islamic scholars to his side when introducing all of these reforms.

He was also oppressive, he was a dictator, he abused human rights, he stayed in his office for too long. All of these things need to be acknowledged. But he was a state-builder, like very few nation-state-builders have been.

So my argument—and I will finish at this point—is that Tunisia has evolved over a long period of time in a manner that has prepared its people for a democratic transition, the successful examples of which we have seen since 2010. Not only did they oust Ben Ali, they had constituent assembly elections that ran successfully in October 2011. Three parties, one of which had a plurality but not the majority, share power and you have a troika coalition.

In 2013, on the heels of two political assassinations, things looked like they were going to crumble. Four civil society organizations, one of them led by a woman, came together, led by UGTT, the labor union movement, and literally saved the day and convinced the then-Islamist party Ennahda to withdraw from government, the first in an Arab Muslim country. Then, of course, two years later, the quartet, this assembly of four civil society organizations, gets the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2014 we see the adoption of a constitution that is civil and that is secular. It echoes the post-independence constitution of 1959 but with a couple of twists, including a freedom-of-conscience article. Article VI of the Tunisian constitution protects a person's free will and conscience. What this translates into is that Tunisia becomes the only Arab country where atheism is not illegal. In 1959 the French version of the constitution guaranteed that, but the Arabic version only spoke about freedom of religion.

Political Islam, and of course how Ennahda has grown, is very much part of that Tunisian scenario, and perhaps this is something that we can address in the Q&A.

But basically, I conclude with trying to answer the question, can Tunisia serve as a model for the rest of the Arab world? I argue it can be a beacon of hope, it can be a source of inspiration. There are many, many lessons that can be learned from the Tunisian example, but if we were to try to take the Tunisian example and implement it elsewhere, that would be an impossible task because (1) some ingredients are very specific and structural to Tunisia, and (2) other factors have been many, many generations in the making. It would take very strong political will and a very long time for them to start bearing fruit.


QUESTION: Susan Gitelson, a proud alumna of the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.

SAFWAN MASRI: Wonderful.

QUESTIONER [Ms. Gitelson]: This is the perfect opening for a commercial because you have enlightened us about the incredible development of Tunisia. Besides being a scholar and having many other wonderful characteristics, you are also in charge of the Columbia Global Centers, which include Tunis and Amman. How are you building on your understanding of Tunisia to enhance the program and the contacts between these enlightened North Africans and what we hope are enlightened Americans at Columbia and elsewhere?

SAFWAN MASRI: Thank you. That is a great question. Thank you, Susan.

Let me start maybe by talking a little bit about Arab reactions to the experiment in Tunisia. Arab masses have been, I find, incredibly positive, excited about what has been happening in Tunisia. Tunisia set the stage for what was to come at Tahrir Square in Cairo and elsewhere in the region.

What I find among Arab youth is a jealousy for Tunisia to be protected and a jealousy of Tunisia because they want some of the same freedoms that Tunisians have had bestowed upon them. But they are very frustrated also because they know that many of these aims are far.

Where I have tried to make a difference through the Global Centers and through our Tunis-Amman connection and through my own work is really working on education in Jordan. When I went back to Jordan to establish the Global Center in Amman, I was shocked at what I had seen in society and in the education system. You cannot, of course, separate the two, because what we train our students to think and how they think, of course, carries over into that society and becomes self-enforcing.

What I saw as the difference between the 1970s and late 1960s, when I was in school in Jordan and what I came back to, in terms of the exclusionary rhetoric, in terms of the intolerance, in terms of the sympathy with jihadist type of ideologies, was just incredibly scary. And you see also the overtaking of the public space by religion. The Amman I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s was a very secular, modern Amman—and when I say Amman, I mean Cairo, I mean Beirut, I mean many of the capitals of that part of the world—that had a lot of promise and potential.

So what I try to do, and what we are interested in, is when we talk about democracy and the democratic experience, it is not only electoral democracy. What is more important is democracy in terms of democracy of thought, democracy of freedoms, and democracy of rights. Those are the things that we are trying to work on with local non-governmental organizations but also with government.

I delivered a very similar talk to an audience in Amman where the minister of education was there, and we ended up having a conversation about this, with me underscoring the historic role that he plays as a progressive minister of education being brought in to do this.

I guess in sum, I think the most important thing to be looking at as we compare experiences and we want to draw some lessons is the area of education.

I will finish with just one anecdote which I actually mentioned over here. In Tunisia, part of the education reform that started in 1958 is that every Tunisian student has to complete two years of philosophy. That was the case in 1958, that is the case today. Philosophy is not taught as part of the curriculum anywhere in the Arab world. So when I was sitting with a friend and colleague a few months before I finished the book and he was complaining to me about the deterioration of the quality of education in Tunisia—and it has deteriorated under Ben Ali, and I speak about that in detail over here—I said, "Yes, but you are far better than the rest of the Arab world."

And he reminds me, as Tunisians always do, "Our benchmark is not the Arab world. Our benchmark is Europe."

When Steve Coll, the dean of Columbia's School of Journalism, was in Tunis during the casbah protests of early 2011 and he asked Tunisians who were protesting, "What model of democracy do you want to copy?" he expected Malaysia, Indonesia, another Muslim country. The answer was not those countries, it was the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and so on.

But to back to my conversation with Yusef about education, I said, "Well, give me an example of how it has deteriorated."

He said, "You know, I didn't realize until I went to college that to learn Descartes the right way was not what we were taught."

I laughed, and I said, "Tens of millions of Arabs graduate from school not even having heard of René Descartes."

When you do not have philosophy as part of your curriculum, when Darwinism is not taught, when you do not have the opportunity to form your own opinions—you got me going now, Susan. [Laughter] I will stop at this.

There are three terms that have defined the Arab mind since independence. Again, in situations like this you oversimplify because you are trying to reduce it. You have three things that converge and conspire: hypernationalism in countries that came out of nowhere, where regimes had to assert themselves and assert their rightful claim to the throne, throne being not necessarily a monarchical throne, hyper-nationalism; religion, which also is about absolute truths; and the question of Israel-Palestine, where there is no nuance, there is no gray area.

With those three factors you had generations of Arabs growing up with a very strict interpretation—not even an interpretation, a very strict regurgitation—of what is right and what is wrong.

When you have students in Tunisia, many of them told me that even before the revolt they would not only debate, they would protest within their schools. When you had UGTT, labor union movement, you had procedural democracy at work for a century. You have practice with those things that was going on.

QUESTION: Don Simmons.

Apart from Gibraltar, the place where Africa comes closest to Europe is Tunisia. It is a short boat ride from the north coast to Sicily.

SAFWAN MASRI: That is correct.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Simmons]: What has the Tunisian government done to dissuade great numbers of migrants, refugees, and smugglers from streaming into their country in an effort to get to Europe by the shortest route?

SAFWAN MASRI: Thank you. That is a very relevant question.

It is difficult. There are more than 1 million refugees, closer to 2 million refugees, in Tunisia today. The proximity, as you said—it is into the Mediterranean, the northern tip of Tunisia is closer to Europe than the southern tip of Sicily—and you have open borders, at least historically, after the revolution, porous borders, especially with Libya.

So you have a lot of sub-Saharan migrants. You have migrants from North Africa also infiltrating those borders, which has caused not only a problem in terms of dealing with those migrants who want to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, but also in terms of terrorism, unrelated to the migration or refugee issue, of course.

Over the past three years, I think, the Tunisian government has tightened up its borders to the extent that they can be tightened up, but that continues to be a struggle.

Because of the openness of Tunisia to the presence of human rights organizations—the first Arab human rights council was actually established in Tunisia in 1978. You have human rights organizations, international organizations, operating more freely in Tunisia than they do elsewhere. After the Sisi government came into power in Egypt, for example, and many of those organizations were closed down, they all chose to move all of their operations to Tunis.

That gives Tunisians and the international community an opportunity to work on these problems perhaps in a more conducive environment in Tunisia than they might be able to elsewhere.

QUESTION: My name is Ron Randall, and I am speaking to you as the husband of a wife born in Tunisia, who grew up in Paris, and who has taught me how important Habib Bourguiba had been in creating the open society and so forth.

I do not know how to ask a question, but my concern is backsliding. After the Bourguiba era, Ann has told me that his wife and Ben Ali allowed the educational system to deteriorate, that Tunisia, which had the highest literacy and the highest education, the highest per capita gross domestic product (GDP) has slid backward. I wonder how you can describe today the way the government is trying to reverse the backsliding that occurred after Habib Bourguiba.

SAFWAN MASRI: First of all, Habib Bourguiba's education legacy lasted beyond his 31 years in power. Second, it did not come out of a vacuum. That is part of my argument. Had Habib Bourguiba just been a visionary, competent leader, the effects of what he put in place could be reversed after a while. But given that it was on a hundred-year foundation gives it more lasting importance.

Two, you are absolutely right. Under Ben Ali the education system deteriorated, and we, the international community, played a role. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank imposed structural reforms, sought metrics that could be easily manipulated.

Under Bourguiba, only 50 percent of graduates from middle school would be admitted into the lycée, the high school, based on a matriculation exam. The other half would go to vocational schools. So vocational training was part of the cultural zeitgeist at the time. It was not something that was resisted, because when you tell a 13-year-old "you couldn't get into a lycée, but you are going to a vocational school"—and they were very good vocational schools—people learned those vocations.

Ben Ali, for example, eliminated the matriculation exam into lycée, so of course everybody wanted to go on to high school. They did not want to go on to vocational school. Then, if you tried to get them after high school to go to vocational school at 18, 19 years of age, they are not going to go and learn a vocation when all of their friends are now going to university.

University was much more selective before then. You had the baccalaureate exam, which basically determined whether you get admitted into university or not. One of his ministers introduced something called the "25 percent rule," meaning that 25 percent of your baccalaureate grade was based on your performance on three exams that came during the year earlier and were much easier. Legend has it that it was the only way for him to guarantee that his daughter would actually graduate from high school and enter college.

So you had a deterioration in terms of the quality standards. The university enrollment grew sevenfold, Raina, I think, during that period—Raina Davis is my research assistant without whom I would not have been able to write this book. In the 1990s and 2000s, the enrollment in universities went up sevenfold. As a result, what you have is a lot of young people who are graduating from college thinking that they are educated when they really are not educated, and wanting to get jobs and not being able to get jobs. There is a mismatch now between the supply and the demand, for example, in terms of vocational schools.

However, the one thing that did not change, or did not change much, is the content that is taught through the educational systems. Under Ben Ali, you had one of the most influential ministers of education, Mohamed Charfi, who was minister from the late 1980s until the middle 1990s. This is the man who was the first president of the human rights council that was established, and he was a founder of Perspective, which was the student communist organization that emerged in the 1960s. So you had a former communist human rights advocate who became the minister of education. He actually reversed some negative trends that happened during the last few years of Bourguiba's reign, when Islamists had more control over the educational system and did away with a lot of Western thought. He brought it back in.

Ben Ali became so preoccupied with his kleptocracy and so on that it is a mystery to me how he was not aware how much his students in his schools learned about democratic values, learned about political participation. But that is, combined with the economic problems of Tunisia today, the single biggest threat on Tunisia's continued success.

I think dealing with unemployment, which averages around 15 percent—the unofficial numbers are much higher—the dichotomy between the coast, which has historically over hundreds of years benefited more from interaction with Europe than the interior of the country, coupled with that is the deterioration in the quality of education again, not the content as much as it is the inflation that has come with college degrees.

Now, some things have been done. The 25 percent rule has been eliminated. The exam to matriculate into lycées has been reintroduced. So there are efforts to gradually bring back the quality of education that was under Bourguiba.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Randall]: Can the reversal proceed without there being a "great man" leader like Bourguiba?

SAFWAN MASRI: I think so, because you have the great history and because Bourguiba's legacy, which is now re-celebrated—Ben Ali tried to erase the nationalist legacy of Bourguiba.

QUESTION: Thank you for that historical account. My name is Tarik Fathallah. I am a student.

I take your point seriously about philosophy. I graduated high school in Morocco. Not until I arrived on this side of the Atlantic Ocean did I learn about Democritus, Lucretius, Thomas Paine, and all the greats. So I take that very seriously.

My question is in two parts, the first one being somewhat experimental: Knowing all the historical facts that you have shared with us today, in early 2011 would we by any level of accuracy have anticipated the outcome of Tunisia being the Arab anomaly?

The second one, for those of us who have interventionist predispositions, if we were to use Tunisia as a benchmark—or maybe a better term would be a "base rate"—for success on implementing democracies in the Arab world, how to use that to maybe use a regression toward the mean of the rate of success?

SAFWAN MASRI: Fantastic questions. Thank you.

I do not know if you could have predicted it. I do not know if you could have predicted anything. I think we totally blew it. I mean, did we predict that Trump was going to be president?

My point is, to go back to that time, when you look at the role of the international community and how much we kept giving a pass card to Ben Ali, we really bought his story, his narrative.

When you look at the economic performance of Tunisia in the 2000s, until the 2008 global recession it averaged 5 percent growth per year. It peaked at around 8 percent at one point in the late 1990s and 2000s. It had, of course, discrepancies within the country. Many of the benefits of that GDP growth were siphoned by Ben Ali and his people; 21 percent of private-sector profits, the beneficiary was Ben Ali.

If the international community not only could not have predicted that there would be an Arab Spring to begin with in Tunisia, could they have predicted that Tunisia would come out as the only success story? I do not think that we could have as observers, but more importantly, as policymakers and political leaders around the world, we failed to see any of this coming. Egypt took us by surprise in the United States.

Now, in that respect, of course, things look very different. What drove me into this project really was the fact that Tunisia kept taking us by surprise, the fact that it had not been predicted, the fact that what happened elsewhere in the region could not have been predicted at the time—or maybe could but was not—drove me to try to answer this question of "Why Tunisia?" and what can we learn about Tunisia and its experience in this respect.

Which gets me to your second question. I think that there is great hope in youth around the Arab world because something was unleashed in 2011 and you cannot put the genie back in the bottle. That is not going to happen.

Arabs have been betrayed by their leadership, frankly, for decades. You see that now in terms of the reactions to the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—you saw Arab masses in Casablanca yesterday, the protests everywhere—and you see sort of a yearning for things that is not met with an honest leadership in much of the region—not meaning Morocco, I mean it just more broadly. Saudi Arabia is a perfect example, where you have King Salman making some statements and his son.

I think the most important thing for Arab youth to focus on is the need for reform in their societies, genuine reform. What worries me is Saudi Arabia. We have swallowed the pill in the West, and Saudi youth have. We now think that Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince, is the greatest reformer of the Arab world because Saudi women can now drive, because movie theaters are now going to be open—never mind the great censorship and there are only certain movies that they will be able to see, and never mind that women and men will not be able to mingle over there, never mind that the woman may have the right to drive, but drive where? Drive to the airport, where she cannot leave the country without her male guardian's written permission, or drive to the electoral polls?

What worries me, but I understand it, is the vast support among Saudi youth for Mohammad bin Salman and his reforms. Why do I say understandable? Understandable because they are so hungry for change that somebody speaks in the name of change, somebody is offering something that is different from what they have been accustomed to for decades, they are going to welcome it.

What frustrates me is that there is no room for debate. There is no argument. The moment you disagree with Mohammad bin Salman, you are stigmatized as a traitor. You know, it is a betrayal.

So I am not sure if I am answering your question exactly, but I think, as an interventionist or somebody who has that predisposition, the most important tool is reform and the most important venue or constituents that you work with are the youth of the region at the grassroots level.

In response to this question, that is what I was trying to say. I see Amir here. His father, Marwan al-Muasher, was deputy prime minister in Jordan, a foreign minister, and is now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of a book not long ago called The Second Arab Awakening. He and I and others like us are frustrated by what we see. [Editor's note: For more on Muasher, check out his 2014 Carnegie talk on The Second Arab Awakening.]

So, for example, what we did in Jordan is we set up a grassroots group to put pressure on the government to reform the education system, and this is something that has to be done consistently and has to be done with sustainability.

JOANNE MYERS: I must thank you for just a wonderful discussion. Thank you all for coming.

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