Displacing Indigenous Knowledge: the Tunisian Student Movement

The Tunisian student movement played an important part in the country’s liberation struggles and has continued to play a vital role in the decades that followed political independence. However, Moutaa Amin Elwaer argues that the student movement often defends an elitist conception of society, which silences indigenous knowledge accumulated over the centuries, with a perspective not radically different from the national consensus.

By Moutaa Amin Elwaer

In my presentation to the Political Economy, Knowledge, Solidarity, Liberation: From Asia to Africa workshop in Tunis, I assessed some central elements of the contradiction between anti-imperialist and anti-colonial practices and conceptions within the Tunisian student movement. To begin within, I presented an overview of the history of the Tunisian student movement.

The first student mobilisations in Tunisia began in the early twentieth century, and specifically in 1910, when students of the Zaytuna mosque-university protested in defence of their pedagogical and material rights. Tunisian student activism witnessed numerous organisational improvements up to  and including 1952 [1], when some students took the initiative to establish the General Union of Tunisia’s Students (GUTS), [2] the organisation that would be at the centre of student struggles for decades (see Corinna Mullin’s blogpost).

Despite the presence of Communist and independent students since its establishment, and the membership of nationalist students since the mid-1950s, GUTS suffered in the first years of its existence from the domination of students of the Constitutional Liberal Party (commonly known as the Destour party). In addition to the students’ union, the Destour dominated all national organisations and controlled the last stages of the struggle against French colonialism and the process of establishing the nascent state after the declaration of independence on 20 March 1956. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, GUTS witnessed the emergence of a trade union opposition demanding the independence of the union from the Destour party and the authorities.

In parallel, Tunisian student political organisations were created in France, before gradually moving to establish themselves in Tunisia. Opposition between students defending the union’s affiliation with the ruling party and supporters of the organisation’s independence (with clear leftist tendencies) continued until the beginning of the 1970s. At the 18th congress of GUTS supporters, a majority of students backed the organisation’s independence, which led the authorities to outlaw it, a status that remained unchanged until 1988. In 1985 the students of the Islamic tendency and those close to them founded a second union called the Tunisian General Union of Students (TGUS). Both unions were officially recognized in 1988, a year after the coup led by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali against Habib Bourguiba promising Tunisian democracy.[3]

Political repression intensified in 1991, targeting mainly Islamists who turned into a serious political competitor with the ruling party and, also, the left. Independent student organisations paid a heavy price during that wave of repression. TGUS was dissolved and all of its leadership were put on trial. Authorities were also preparing to dissolve the General Union of Tunisia’s Students, but instead placed severe constraints on its ability to organise. Trials and administrative sanctions of its activists were frequent and continued until January 2011.

Student movements can be considered an ideal unit of analysis for the study of the dominant intellectual frameworks in their respective countries. In the Global South, student movements played an important role in the national and liberation struggles and have continued to play an important role throughout social and political protest movements in the decades that followed political independence. It is a role that the Tunisian student movement has played since the beginning of the twentieth century and has maintained during all the major milestones that Tunisia has known. For this blogpost, I will limit myself to the left-wing part of this movement.[4]

One of the most important features of this movement is the difficulty of determining its position vis-à-vis the colonial intellectual heritage, the subject of my presentation at the workshop in Tunis. On the one hand, it has been an unequivocal anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movement. The movement has been vocal at the main milestones of the anti-imperialist struggle (supporting independence movements in southern countries, Lumumba’s assassination, the Vietnam War, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Palestinian uprisings, opposing American aggression and occupation of Iraq etc) are sufficient to attest to this reality. Additionally, the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial stance has been expressed unambiguously since the General Union of Tunisian Students’ Charter of 1957, and this clarity continues today without confusion or interruption. Moreover, the movement has spared no effort in denouncing French cultural hegemony and upholding the flag of the Arabic language, whether it is in education or in their own political and union communication.

On the other hand, this movement has adopted an ideologically essentialist and a politically hostile standpoint regarding local cultures and frameworks. For example, it consistently denigrates Islam as a culture and a religion and Islamists as political actors, reproducing the frameworks of the mainstream French left analysis. In addition, an evolutionary vision of history dominates the leftist student movement. It is a view that the movement inherited from the leftist and pan-Arabist trends that constitute it. According to this perspective, capitalist civilisations are at a more advanced historical stage than those of Global South, in states like Tunisia. To reach this ‘advanced’ position, the majority of the movement adheres to a production-oriented, developmentalist model, which they consider the only way to assure the country’s future abundance as a condition of sovereignty and prosperity.

The tensions between what I have identified as an anti-colonial political position versus a capitalist-modern epistemic stance can be linked to the hegemonic knowledge production shared by the student movement (leftist or otherwise) with the rest of the Tunisian cultural and political elite. According to the dominant view, the university maintains a monopoly on the legitimate production of knowledge and excludes from this process all extra-university spaces. This social division excludes the knowledge accumulated by the various local communities, and whose production is not subject to academic standards. For example, it ignores knowledge accumulated over the centuries by Tunisian peasantry and its substitution with imported techniques with the production of technicians uprooted from their social environment. This is despite a growing body of research that demonstrates the harm of these forms of knowledge on Tunisian food sovereignty.

This representation is based on an authoritarian Jacobinism and an evolutionary understanding of the state’s relationship with society. It also hides the common understanding, of what is and what should be the relationship of the ‘elite’ and society, shared by all components of the political scene since ‘independence’ and inherited from the colonial state. In this conception, the state exercises a kind of colonial policy towards the rest of society by voluntarily shaping it. State power is embodied in this conception by a minority (a political elite) that has proclaimed itself as the thinking mind instead of all society. One can easily recognize what may be considered a ‘coloniality of knowledge’ in this relationship. However, perhaps the greatest issue posed by this perception is how it functions to obscure a class-based analysis of the state. The post-colonial state claims, through its public institutions, the first of which are educational institutions, to preserve the social gains of independence against the imperialist neoliberal attack. In actuality, education functions like other institutions to reproduce inequality between class social structures as well as the disparity between regions.

The student movement was not in isolation from this dominant perception inherited from colonialism by defending the necessity of breaking all ‘traditional’ frameworks and replacing them with abstract and parachuted-in university knowledge. Destabilising ‘traditional’ structures turned into a goal in itself, with the aim being to replace indigenous forms of knowing with frameworks that mimic those promoted by the imperial centre. This was especially problematic considering that new models were imposed without linking knowledge production to Tunisians’ actual conditions and needs, as well as with a lack of recognition that the means of producing knowledge are multiple, and the university is only one of them.

This authoritarian and class conception cannot be understood without linking it to the ideals that political elites have sought in Tunisia since independence. The ultimate goal of the post-independence state has been to ‘catch up’ with the ranks of developed countries by increasing productivity and supporting the ability to control all the resources surrounding us, subjecting them to our desire. This aim has been instrumentalized to justify class and geographic divisions in the country. Scientism and anthropocentrism dominate as ideologies with the assumption that humans are able to control all aspects of their lives, and that it is desirable to place all assets at their service. Both left and right have defended different variants of the colonial-capitalist development model, with the left arguing that the accumulation of wealth is necessary to ultimately redress social inequalities and guarantee popular welfare.

Since technology disconnected from social and political struggles became an end in itself, it became legitimate for a social group – an intellectual elite – to claim a monopoly on this ‘technological’ production. Of course, this monopoly did not take place arbitrarily. It was subject to the social division of labour in the capitalist society, which increases the estrangement between intellectual and manual work. Tunisia’s elite at independence and its successors had strongly increased this separation by speaking contemptuously about  manual labor while praising intellectual work. This is evident in the country’s successive educational reforms and in the unbalanced relationship between so-called general and professional (and manual) teaching.

In line with these developments, the left student movement ended up defending an elitist conception of the university, in a position that is not radically different from the national consensus that was produced in the country since its founding after independence. The university, according to this model, is a knowledge production institution entrusted with the role of leading the ‘masses’ to rid it of ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘dependency’. Also, the prevailing perception always gives an epistemological superiority to academic over non-academic knowledge, which legitimises a patriarchal and authoritarian relationship between these types of knowledge.

One of the consequences is that the student ‘elites’ have the right to underline the priorities that other students should devote themselves to achieve. The unity of the student movement is based on this perception of the ‘vanguard’, which has the ability to represent the fundamental interests of the rest of the students thanks to its mastery of the  tools of ‘scientific analysis.’ Popularity in this case is the ability to attract the ‘substantial interest’ of the student masses through analysis of abstract scientific knowledge accessible to anyone who masters these tools, independently of their usefulness to the class struggle.

As a corollary of the above, neoliberal and neo-colonial concepts like ‘awareness building’ occupy an important place among Tunisian student movement repertory of collective actions. Political positioning and ideological background have very little influence on the importance accorded to this type of action. I have repeatedly heard students freshly arrived at university talking without embarrassment about ‘the need to educate and raise awareness of citizens.’ What is at issue is not some knowledge that the student believes that she has accumulated and must now disseminate, but rather is it is the outcome of collective mental structures that reproduce the capitalist-colonial epistemology that views the university as the only legitimate producer of knowledge. By saying so, those students are involved in the unequal ‘vertical’ relationship that links the university to society.

The high regard given to the unemployment of higher education graduates is a manifestation of the university’s superiority in the public imagination.[5] It is considered as the most dangerous type of unemployment in public opinion, as it represents a failure of the social development project through education, on which the independent state built its legitimacy. The unemployment of higher education graduates has been targeted by specific research and public policies since the end of the 1990s. Moreover, this social group created its own organisations that defend its interests by a framing that distinguishes it from the rest of the unemployed. Most political actors, whether they are in power or in the opposition, agree that this unemployment is a priority compared to the unemployment of the other social groups.

This analysis should not obscure the liberatory potential stored within Tunisia’s student movement. For the last four decades it has been at the forefront of the forces resisting the neoliberal ‘reforms’ that international lenders are pushing Tunisia to adopt. In addition, the student movement remains one of the most important forces maintaining a continuous opposition to (neo)colonialism in the Arab region, whether in Palestine or elsewhere. Regarding its conception of education, the movement defends the principle of free quality higher education, oriented toward a progressive national culture. This principle could be summed up in the slogan: ‘Popular university – democratic education – a national culture.’ In addition, student activists and professors always had an important role in defending the existence of social services and a public sector – even in the face of their deteriorating quality – against the neo-liberal assault. This means that the student movement remains one of the most important liberating forces in Tunisian society, but in order to achieve its full potential, it is required to engage in critical self-reflection and uproot a part of its intellectual foundations that reside in the remains of colonialism.

Moutaa Amin Elwaer was a member of the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET) from 2003-2009 and is currently a PhD student at the University of Montreal.

Featured Photograph: ‘Moutaa, un combattant aux urnes à Tunis’ (2 November 2011)


[1] The Tunisian student and student movement witnessed several organisational attempts before that date, perhaps the most notable of which was the experiences of the Tunisian Students Association, especially the Voice of the Zitouna Students Association in 1950.

[2] This designation was adopted at the 1956 conference, and the name at the time of the establishment was the “General Union of Tunisian Students”.

[3] At that moment, GTUS has become totally controlled by left-wing (mainly Stalinists and Maoists) students.

[4] It is difficult to present a general reading about the reality of a diverse movement, such as the Tunisian student movement in a limited space, without failing to simplify the areas of difference in it and resorting to generalisations. It should be cautioned that it can become a barrier that obscures the view of the contradictions during a particular historic episode.

[5] This does not mean that the university does not suffer from marginalisation like all public services since Tunisia took a liberal approach from the 1970s. Rather, this means that this marginalisation is more condemned when it comes to university.


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