Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly.
Perkins, Kenneth. A History of Modern Tunisia. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
The variance in outcomes of 2011-2013 Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has invited and generated a large body of scholarship intended to explain their dramatically different results. Specifically, the fact that Tunisia emerged as the only liberal democracy from the upheavals naturally led to a debate on the phenomenon of Tunisian exceptionalism. Safwan M. Masri s Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly is the most important recent work on the topic and represents a needed but also predictably one-sided perspective on the debate. The author presents Tunisia as unique and unlike all other Arab countries, which, according to him, lack the cultural and structural preconditions for democracy. In contrast, according to Masri, Tunisia has developed a political culture (a term that he does not use but clearly implies) rooted in Tunisia's "Mediterranean" (not Arab) identity, a long tradition of liberal reformism, and a flourishing civil society Significantly, for him Tunisian post-independence patterns of development emphasized rationalist education, gender equality, and secularism. Besides these factors, Masri also lists and acknowledges structural factors that helped Tunisia's eventual democratization: a fairly small and homogenous population and favorable geopolitical conditions that obviated a need for a strong military and its nefarious influence on politics. However, Masri clearly emphasizes that cultural and developmental factors, not broad structural conditions, are central for explaining Tunisia's democratic success.
It is important to acknowledge, as the author himself admits, that he is not an expert in political science. Indeed, Masri's background is in systems engineering and education/educational administration and his current position is executive vice president for global centers and global development at Columbia University, and a senior research scholar at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. He admits in his preface that "this is my narrative of Tunisia.... It is also a commentary on the Arab world through the lens of Tunisia" (p. xx). In other words, the reader should not expect the book to be a systematic, quantitative, or theoretically informed perspective on Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world. There is no systematic comparison here, just a selective and subjective narrative of Tunisian history with occasional asides to the rest of the Arab world intended to prove that Tunisia is unique and different from other Arab countries and that in many ways it has always been so.
Given the author's and the book's non-expert nature, the volume is gracefully free of jargon and the narrative flows freely and is well structured. The book shines in its easy storytelling fluency and therefore in its appeal to nonspecialists. For teachers of undergraduate students who want to make Tunisia a vantage point from which to understand the rest of the MENA region, the volume can easily become a textbook in their courses. Masri provides a detailed story of the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution and democratic transition in Part I of the book, which is entitled Tunisian Spring. Crucially, he focuses (in chapters four and five) on Tunisia's transition to democracy, culminating in the 2014 elections that marked the first fully democratic transfer of power in Tunisian history--an event perhaps unprecedented in the entire Arab world. The narrative is rich in detail, witty, skeptical, and vivid. Besides written sources, the author based this part of the book on a series of personal interviews with important players in the Tunisian revolution and transition, who reveal key historical moments of the story. This is easily the best part of the book; it can be read (or used in a college course) independently of other parts of the book. Still, Masri predictably pursues a line of narrative intended to prove the existence of a uniquely democratic, civic, secular, and tolerant features of Tunisian political, cultural, and social makeup that allowed the transition to proceed the way it did.
In Part II of the book, entitled "Roots of Tunisian Identity," Masri tells the story of Tunisia from its ancient Carthaginian origins to independence in 1956. In his narrative the emphasis is always on unique and proto-liberal elements of Tunisian culture and identity: the persistence of Carthaginian (Punic) culture in the ancient world, the liberal and gender-egalitarian nature of Tunisian Islam, Tunisian ties to the Mediterranean/European world in the early modern and modern period, and the liberal and reformist nature of Tunisia's modern thought, especially during the struggle for independence. In most chapters, Masri stresses how different Tunisia was from the rest of the Arab world: for instance, how, by avoiding Mongol invasions, Tunisia avoided the relapse into rigid Islamic orthodoxy that marked Arab responses to the invasions in the Levant (p. 107).
Finally, in Part III of the book, entitled "L'Ecole, la Femme, et Lai'cite," Masri unveils a detailed story of Tunisia's postindependence development, with a focus on Habib Bourguiba's emphasis on rationalist, secular, and bilingual education ("lecole"), gender equality ("la femme") and secularism in general ("lai'cite"). Throughout the chapters, Masri frequently refers back to the rest of the Arab world to show how it missed precisely what Tunisia's postindependence development emphasized: for instance, how while achieving mass education the rest of the Arab world created intolerant, irrational, badly educated, antidemocratic people inclined toward narrow religious orthodoxies or nationalisms and "conspiracy theories" (p. 267).
It is difficult to avoid the impression that rationalist education, secularism, and gender equality are the three key variables in Masri's story and that rationalist secularism is the actual crux of the matter. Thinly veiled in this empirical narrative is a criticism of a presumably hegemonic Arab-Islamist mindset in a world untouched by western rationalism. In this respect, Masri resembles thinkers such as Kanan Makiya, who see the Arab world as mired in a narrow-minded sense of victimhood and nationalism/religious fundamentalism and therefore largely incapable of rationalism, democracy, or liberal decency.
By comparing Masri s work to Kenneth Perkins's A History of Modern Tunisia (2nd edition), a work by a professional historian (whom Masri cites approvingly), one can see the same basic story as the one in Masri s book but from a very different perspective. Perkins is not interested in a narrative with preconceived conclusions; he simply reports the modern history of Tunisia, starting with modernizing reforms of the nineteenth century precolonial Husaynid dynasty and moving through the colonial and postcolonial periods to the Jasmine Revolution and its immediate aftermath.
As a historical work, Perkins's narrative is richer in nuance and detail than Masri s narrative. Perkins shows that Tunisia's development was a work of historical contingencies and countervailing forces, neither of which was predestined to prevail. For instance, the moment of Tunisian independence was marked by rivalry between pan-Arab nationalists Ben Youssef and Bourguiba, and one can easily see how the victory of one or the other could have swayed the subsequent pattern of Tunisia's development in a different direction. Even more importantly, Perkins's description of Bourguiba's (1956-1987) and Ben Ali's (1987-2011) authoritarian regimes and their resilience showcases that more or less enlightened centralist authoritarianism regimes (albeit rationalist, secular, and gender-egalitarian ones) seem to be persistent themes of Tunisian political culture. Perkins also showcases that Islamism and Arab nationalism are very strong elements of Tunisian political history and life, elements that Masri marginalizes.
Masri and Perkins provide insightful studies of Tunisia that help the reader understand Tunisia's past and present.
Georgia Southern University
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|Title Annotation:||MIDDLE EAST; A History of Modern Tunisia, 2d ed.|
|Publication:||Journal of Global South Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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