Islamist-secular cleavage divides universities

Five years after the overthrow of the authoritarian Ben Ali regime in January 2011, Tunisia is still caught up in an identity struggle between secular and Islamist forces. In the democratic era, the demands of Islamists for stronger piety have entered politics and the public discourse, and challenge the traditional secular image of the nation.

The cleavage between Islamists and secularists also runs strongly through the universities, which after decades of religious suppression and depoliticisation, have been transformed into places of political dissent and activism.

Islamists dominate university councils

High public investments in the higher education system since the 1970s and a strong degree of international linkages – through French as the teaching and working language, and through participation in the European Bologna Process since 2006 – have contributed to the outstanding reputation of Tunisian universities within the Arab region.

Furthermore, the fall of authoritarianism introduced an array of democratic reforms in Tunisian institutions of higher learning.

University police, who until then had been omnipresent, were removed from campuses and major juridical changes of the higher education law were quickly initiated by the interim government. New features are the democratic academic senates that every three years elect deans and directors as well as the democratic university councils that elect the university presidents.

Tunisian universities are in the vanguard in many respects – however, since democratisation they have become sites of conflicts between Islamist and secular forces, especially within the student milieu.

Tunisian students are broadly divided between the rather leftist student organisation Union Générale des Étudiants de Tunisie, or UGET, and its opponent Union Générale Tunisienne des Étudiants, or UGTE, an Islamist student organisation loosely affiliated with the Islamist Ennahda party.

Both UGTE and Ennahda were banned before democratisation, but currently they have become powerful political actors and are now in a position to shape future university life.

For the first time ever, UGTE defeated UGET in the annual elections for the university councils in November 2015. The Islamists occupy 224 (42%) of the 528 seats, whereas UGET, which used to dominate the councils, fell back to 110 seats – 114 seats remain vacant.

Each university council is composed of the university president, department heads and student representatives and manages the university´s internal affairs, such as study programmes, human resource planning and external cooperation.

It remains to be seen how dominant the presence of Islamist student representatives will be on the campuses, leading to changes in the curricula, the introduction of stricter rules regarding gender separation and proper attire or stronger cooperation with more conservative international providers of higher education like the Gulf States.

As the distribution of power in the university councils is believed to mirror wider society´s political orientations, UGTE´s victory is discussed in the media as an indicator for renewed support for the Ennahda party in parliament. Ennahda led the national interim government from 2011 to 2014, but following the parliamentary election of 2014 it became the second strongest force after the secular Nidaa Tounes party.

In the current cabinet formed in February 2015, Ennahda plays a rather weak role and only controls the Ministry of Employment and Vocational Training. However, since November 2015, Ennahda again has the majority of seats in parliament after 31 members of Nidaa Tounes left parliament following internal conflicts in the party.

This concurrent coincidence of the weakness of the ruling secular party and the victory of the Islamists in the university councils could trigger a rise and stabilisation of Islamist power in politics and academia in the years to come.

Salafist violence on campus

While UGTE´s and Ennahda´s plans for Islamising the universities currently remain unclear, the cleavage between secularists and violent Islamists groups – especially the Salafist organisation, Ansar al-Sharia – has a more radical and noticeable impact on campuses.

The most prominent case where Salafists provoked violent outbreaks is the so-called 'Manouba Affair' at the traditionally leftist Manouba University. A ban of the wearing of the face veil on campus caused violent Salafist protests throughout 2011–12.

During the outbreaks, Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the faculty of humanities, was attacked and temporarily taken hostage. Kazdaghli became the focus of Salafist dissatisfaction because of his academic interest and expertise in the long and rich history of Tunisian Jewry.

To this day, Kazdaghli is under police protection. Furthermore, Salafist activists exchanged the Tunisian flag at the University of Manouba with a black flag depicting the Islamic creed – a symbol of Salafist presence.

When student Khaoula Rachidi climbed up the flagstaff and took off the black flag, she was beaten up. The Tunisian State honoured the young woman´s courage with a reception at the office of the then president Moncef Marzouki.

However, during the whole course of the conflict at the University of Manouba, it was striking how the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, then led by Ennahda, reacted. The then minister of higher education and scientific research, Moncef ben Salem, publicly played down the conflict and declared in September 2012 that wearing the face veil at universities was legal.

Also, it is rumoured that members of UGTE and Ennahda were involved at the beginning of the protests against the ban of the face veil.

Between terrorism and reform

The introduction of a democratic political system in Tunisia has turned the country into an ideological enemy and recurrent target of terrorist attacks by Islamic State or IS. Tunisian university life is affected by these attacks through the state of emergency and curfews that are imposed for security reasons by the government: evening classes are temporarily cancelled and students cannot fulfil course requirements.

Even though Tunisian students are generally well educated, the national job market cannot absorb all university graduates. The ongoing economic crisis and high unemployment are seen as the causes for why IS, according to current data, is recruiting more members in Tunisia than from any other country.

Protests and hunger strikes on campuses – especially by leftist students affiliated with UGET – against the poor prospects of university graduates, are prevalent phenomena since the introduction of democracy.

Still, the governments in power since democratisation put high hopes on the role of higher education for the political, social, and economic development of the country, as laid down in the Strategic Plan for the Reform of Higher Education and Science 2015–2025. This strategic plan aims at a better connection between universities and the job market and regards autonomous universities as central players for the democratisation of their local communities.

Amanda tho Seeth is a PhD student, Institute of Political Science, University of Marburg, Germany. Email: amanda.tho.seeth@gmx. de. This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.