The trial of a university dean has raised concerns about the future of higher education in Tunisia and the longer-term plans of the dominant Ennahda (or Renaissance) Party.
It was in Tunisia that street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself on 17 December 2010 in protest against his treatment by local police - and thereby sparked the region-wide wave of demonstrations that became known as the Arab Spring.
And it was Tunisia that witnessed the first change of regime, on 14 January 2011, when President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ended his 23-year dictatorship and went into exile in Saudi Arabia.
The elections of 23 October 2011 brought to power the”troika” government led by President Moncef Marzouki, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and Mustapha Ben Jafar as leader of the Constituent Assembly, although with Mr Ben Ali’s former prime minister Mohamed al-Ghannushi as a major power behind the scenes.
Rob Prince, a lecturer at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, lived in Tunisia as a Peace Corps volunteer almost 50 years ago and has often used the contrast between oil-rich Algeria and oil-less Tunisia as a case history in his courses on development. He decided to return to the country for a month not long after last year’s elections.
“I went with a very positive sense of what was going on,” he recalls. “The election itself seemed fair and open. A coalition of Islamicists and more secularist elements seemed realistic.
“I didn’t take seriously the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism and Salafism in a country that had always been hesitant about embracing more extreme forms of Islam.
“Although worried about the economy, I expected to see certain tensions and problems but basically a very healthy political process.”
What Mr Prince discovered, however, was that while “politics on a formal level was based on a coalition between more secular and Islamist forces, the real coalition was between the [moderate Islamicist] Ennahda Party and the [strict, traditional] Salafists”.
“Whatever Ennahda were saying [in public], they were using the Salafists as shock troops, not defending every act but not criticising illegal physical intimidation and more or less agreeing with [the Salafists’] goals.”
One of the clear signs of this was “challenges to the university system” from those who wanted to “reshape [higher education] in Tunisia along Islamic lines”, said Mr Prince.
Although there was something of a coordinated national campaign for more Islamic education, it was the demonstrations at Manouba University that were “at the front line and in the public eye”. The university was most likely targeted because the faculty board had just banned female students from wearing the niqab in class or during exams.
Mr Prince had heard reports of trespass, vandalism and intimidation at the campus, and when he went to see what was happening, he found “the Salafists were very aggressive, in people’s faces, blocking entrances. The problem was not so much their demands but that they seemed to have been given a green light.
“They were very emboldened and not worried about being disciplined in any way. People were being roughed up, so there was a real issue of what the police and government were doing.
“Habib Kazdaghli [the dean of Manouba University’s Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities] was left to defend himself, with no support from the state to challenge what was going on,” Mr Prince said.
Professor Kazdaghli appeared to be a particular target for fundamentalists. He had often written about Tunisia’s Jewish community and “represented the democratic aspirations of a majority of Tunisians, including Muslims”, said Mr Prince. Thus, Professor Kazdaghli (whom Mr Prince referred to as “Mr Tolerance”) was anathema to the extremist (and often openly anti-Semitic) groups.
The events witnessed by Mr Prince were just the start. On 6 March this year, two veiled students entered Professor Kazdaghli’s office and allegedly started destroying some papers. According to the professor, when he reported the incident to the police, one of the young women called an ambulance and accused him of assaulting her.
Professor Kazdaghli was subsequently arrested and charged. Then, during the initial hearing on 5 July - at which the student alleging the assault failed to appear - the charge was altered to “violence perpetrated by a civil servant in the course of his duties”, thereby increasing the possible prison sentence from 15 days to five years.
On 24 October, the day before Professor Kazdaghli’s trial was set to begin, the Paris-based magazine Jeune Afrique published an outspoken interview with him in which he claimed that his “trial was an attempt to bring into line the Tunisian university system…Manouba is a symbol of modernity, while the attacks on it were targeting knowledge and a Tunisian tradition of progress and openness”.
The Salafists and their allies, on the other hand, he said, were putting forward an “Afghan” social policy that had been rejected by the country since the 19th century.
Asked about the wider threat to higher education, the dean replied that universities were “a bastion of progress”, and that “the profession is weakened by a covert plan to introduce a social programme that is alien to Tunisia. If you destroy the university system, you destroy part of what makes the country.”
Although Professor Kazdaghli said the ministry had failed in its statutory duty to provide him with representation in court, he had received “invaluable support” from civil society, the Tunisian League of Human Rights and legal volunteers.
His case has also been taken up by foreign universities and international organisations such as the Scholars at Risk Network in New York.
In an open letter to Tunisia’s ministers of justice and of higher education and scientific research, Scholars at Risk pointed out that “the students’ allegations of assault [against Professor Kazdaghli] were only made after the initial complaint against them had been filed” and argued that “there is a strong suggestion that the prosecution lacks merit”.
The legal proceedings, the letter went on, represented “a serious threat to the autonomy and safety of higher education institutions and personnel in Tunisia”.
Without such autonomy, “which Dean Kazdaghli had been defending over several months”, “higher education cannot flourish and cannot fulfil its functions of contributing to the development and prosperity of the nation”.
What was needed was “an unambiguous, public message that the Tunisian state will protect its higher education institutions and personnel, and in so doing the space for free inquiry and expression, teaching, research and publication, against threats from any source”.
The trial began on 25 October but was delayed until 15 November at the request of Professor Kazdaghli’s lawyers. It was postponed again until 22 November and then to 3 January 2013.
To take the defence of Tunisian higher education further, Scholars at Risk is joining forces with the New York University Center for Dialogues to put on a conference in Tunis next March, titled The University and the Nation: Safeguarding Higher Education in Tunisia and Beyond.
This, said a Scholars at Risk spokesperson, is intended to “recognise Tunisia’s place at the forefront of the transformations in the region” and to “bring significant attention to the higher education sector at a time when the political leadership and general citizenry in Tunisia are debating the foundational principles which will guide their society for many years”. In the same issue of Jeune Afrique that carried the interview with Professor Kazdaghli, the 91-year-old historian Mohamed Talbi, former rector of the University of Tunis, spelled out what he saw as the threats to Tunisia’s future.
Dismissing the troika as “a diabolic trinity”, he warned of plans for a “theocratic dictatorship” and, although a committed Muslim, regretted that “no party had taken a firm stance in favour of laïcité [separation of mosque and state]”.
The national identity, he noted, included Carthagian, Christian and Roman as well as Islamic strands, yet the Salafists seemed to want to “sweep away the whole country, apart from their mosques”.
The stakes could hardly be higher, and higher education is one of the main terrains where the initial battles are being fought.