Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2003, pages 56-57

Tunisia: The Light of Our Sight

A School on Top of Every Hill

By Delinda C. Hanley

Virtually everyone the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, spoke with in Tunisia—government ministers, a high school principal, college professor, women’s affairs specialists, and Solidarity Fund bankers—voiced a common goal: every Tunisian agency must provide educational opportunities, a promising future, and an open society for each citizen. By providing hope, Tunisians say, they fight both religious fundamentalism and terrorism.

As University of Tunis Professor Mhamed Hassine Fantar pointed out, “When people feel marginalized or excluded they turn to radical behavior. Ignorance nourishes and fuels intolerance.”

Dr. Fantar described his country’s efforts to create a knowledge-based society. Coordinator of the [Tunisian President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali Dialogue Between Civilizations and Religions, Fantar described education as the foundation of Tunisian society. “We have nearly reached our goal of 100 percent of Tunisia’s children receiving education,“ he said.

Then he added something amazing: “At the top of every hill there must be a school, a research facility or a technology center.

“It is knowledge that destroys partitions between people and nations,” he explained. “Our strategy has always been to remain unique in ourselves while accepting of others.”

Tunisians have made Roman arches and mosaics their own, Fantar noted. Tunisian minarets take a different shape, as do their graves and tombs.

“Democracy is a tree,” the philosopher declared. “Roots just can’t grow in an untended field. It’s important to prepare the soil, fertilize it. In Tunisia we are preparing the soil for democracy, but focusing on economic, social and educational development for our people.

“Tunisia is a Muslim country. We teach our children both to be proud of being Muslim and to accept Jews and Christians. All religions are trying to reach a holy state, and all ways to reach that state are good,” Fantar said. “Religion is a language in which worshippers express themselves. The sermon, emotions, politics, and liturgy may change from mosque to church to synagogue, but the goal of each is the same.

“Religion is the best product of humans or the most dangerous. It’s like electricity,” Fantar cautioned. “It can kill if it isn’t used properly.”

Tunisia, he told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, appoints its religious leaders. “We made the separation of religion and state an electoral law. No one can form a political party on the basis of religion.”

As for charges leveled against Tunisia’s human rights record, Fantar replied, “Every human has the right to social, educational and economic achievements, health care, housing, electricity and roads. Our government works to provide those human rights for its people. At the same time we guard against tribalism, extremism and intolerance.”

Some, he added, would like to see women’s rights disappear and fundamentalist ideas re-emerge. “The Tunisian majority will not ever let that happen,” he stated.

Tunisians, Fantar concluded, are a “melted pot.” The indigenous Berbers welcomed all invaders, he said, and treated each new arrival as a business opportunity. “We are all Tunisians. The theme of Tunisia is a country that works. At the end of the day its people are happy.”

Ahmed Naïja, president and director general of the Tunisian Bank of Solidarity (BTS), underscored the success of Tunisia’s efforts to supply basic rights to all citizens. BTS provides low-interest loans to help individuals start small businesses. Solidarity Fund projects in the “shadow lands,” the banker noted, keep people working in provincial villages and prevent a rural exodus.

Along with Omar Ben Mahmoud, coordinator general of National Solidarity Fund programs, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, revisited the housing project in Sidi Achour, described in the magazine’s April/May 1999 issue. The whitewashed structures have become homes, filled with pictures and furniture and surrounded by trees, vegetables and flowers. One woman showed us the rabbits she raises for extra income, and picked pears from her own tree to give us. Another said that because the Solidarity Fund had given them their home, she and her husband were able to buy a truck to start a hauling business

Tunisian women have moved way beyond tokenism, and are a vital part of the economy, according to Saloua Ayachi Labbène, secretary of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. She described the advances Tunisian women have made since 1956, when the Personal Status Code became law. Family planning programs, begun in 1965, liberated women from constant childbearing and helped them enter the labor market. Today, women comprise 54 percent of university students. There are still plenty of hurdles, however, Labbène cautioned, saying that “men and women need to work hand in hand to develop Tunisia.”

Boutheina Gribaa, director general of the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs, and who runs CREDIF, the Center for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women, analyzes statistical data related to gender and helps decision-makers plan development programs.

The center also tracks the growing number of Tunisian women filmmakers, writers, artists, musicians, athletes and business leaders. Women from around the world visit the center, which the Canadian Development Agency helped Tunisia start in 1990.

Minister of Culture Abdelbaki Hermassi discussed plans to build a cultural complex in Tunis, complete with art galleries, concert halls, and exhibit centers. He described famous Tunisian artists like Sadika, who has brought the art of glass blowing back to Tunisia; painter Khaled Ben Slimane, who blends Tunisian traditional designs with Japanese; Ali Bellagha and Aly Ben Salem; as well as French and Italian artists who painted in Tunisia, such as Jeannine Varesme. Hermassi promotes the work of Tunisian artists at home and abroad.

Rafik Chaouch, principal ofCollege Sadiki, the oldest high school in Tunis, showed off his classrooms, computer and science labs, dynamic staff and eager young students. He and Ministry of Education public relations expert Heykel Bouzouita both pointed out that Tunisia’s highly educated youth, with their gifts for languages and computer training, are the country’s future.

Lacking oil, gas and other natural resources, Tunisia must use its greatest asset—its educated populace. Tourists, attracted by the sun, beaches, archaeological remains and exotic sights, may come and go. Businesses, however, will come and stay because of the country’s educated, linguistically gifted work force. Clearly, Tunisia will continue to be the “Country That Works”—as well as the “Light of Our Sight.” 

Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East Affairs.

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