The Tunisian revolution: a second decolonization?

The urban, educated, upper middle class were fed up with the Ben Ali clique which they viewed as corrupt. Thus, in contrast to Syria, this section of society chose to support the 2011 revolution which started in the midst of the poor Tunisian interior, and their support was pivotal.

Sami Bensassi
25 May 2012

The fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Algerian War gives us the opportunity to analyse the link between the first successful modern Arab uprisings during the 1950s and 1960s against their rulers and the current ones. In particular, is it possible to consider the 2011 Tunisian revolution as a second round of decolonization following independence from the French in 1956?i

One of the striking facts of the post revolution period is that, for the first time, a large number of the new Tunisian government have not been educated in the French higher education system. On the contrary, their educational networks have grown outside Tunisia, in London and in the Arabic peninsula: the beginning of a shift towards new set of connections no longer centred on a Paris-Tunis axis but on a Qatar - Tunis - Washington triangle.

This might be a temporary shift. After all, many in the Tunisian government still have close connections with French political leaders. But here the distinction between the short and long-term trend is essential. Already during the Ben Ali era the use of the French words in state TV programmes was considered inappropriate. Now, even in the French educated elite, the fashion is to send children to schools proposing early language classes in English. State sponsored high education institutions like the Tunis Business School offer academic tutelage only in English. Generally the Tunisian elite (conservative or liberal) seem to have acknowledged that better perspectives are offered to an English/Arabic educated labour force (particularly when the difficulty of emigrating to France is contrasted with the attractiveness of the Gulf States and North America).

From decolonization to the end of the 1980s, Arab states were showing multiple signs of the adoption of western modernity (westernized clothes, leisure, technologies, and education system or government formal organization) with two exceptions: westernized freedom of press and westernized democracy. At the start of the 1990s, the creation of Al Jazeera transformed the first element: by challenging most (but not all) incumbent governments through the Arab World it has laid the fist foundation stone of Arab modernity, adopting the code and the objective of a free press but with a distinctive Arab content and tone. Towards the end of 1990s came the second step towards the elaboration of an Arab modernity, namely the acceptation of democracy by the Turkish and Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP) as a legitimate way to organize political life, and its victory through the electoral process. In this way the Turkish example has taken centre stage in Tunisia and Egypt. However, unlike Turkey, Arab countries still have to make a choice: is it religious or elected legislators who will have the last word in shaping their political systems?

Finally some remarks about the social and economic context of the Tunisian revolution. The urban, educated, upper middle class were fed up with the Ben Ali clique which they viewed as corrupt. Thus, in contrast to Syria, this section of society chose to support the 2011 revolution which started in the midst of the poor Tunisian interior, and their support was pivotal. Equally, the demand for more jobs and opportunities from the majority of the population has not yet been fulfilled. Despite the migration of young Tunisians to Libya, and the promises of investment from the US, Qatar and the EU, the economic prospects stay bleak. In addition to this demand, increasing inflation has put in doubt the capacity of the new government to manage the economy. Here the economic situation in Europe - the main trade partner of Tunisia – will play an important role in the stability of Tunisia and its neighbours. Economic difficulties and injustices triggered the Tunisian revolution, but this unrest may return if the elected government fails to deliver a better economic future.

So, to conclude, should we talk about a second decolonization? Tunisia is surely becoming more Arab and Muslim, looking more eastward and less across the Mediterranean. At the same time it may succeed in creating its own model of development, integrating and adapting westernized values to its own historical and cultural background. By doing so Tunisia will definitively step out of the age of colonization.


This article is part of the Algeria and the Arab Revolutions: Pasts, Presents and Futures partnership, funded by the Universities of Portsmouth and Sussex. Read more about openDemocracy's editorial partnerships programme.

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