Citizenship in Tunisia: Liberation, Violence and Rebellion

2016-08-24    |   

On January 14, 2011, the slogan “get out” (degage) raised by demonstrators in front of the Tunisian Interior Ministry is shorthand for the Tunisian people’s will to reclaim the public sphere from which they were excluded during and before the First Republic. Defending the idea of citizenship was the engine of the revolution itself; nationalist sentiment was the safety valve that has facilitated Tunisians’ overcoming the difficulties of a democratic transition in a region where similar attempts have failed.

However, citizens have also committed uncivil acts, ranging from theft and looting to attacks on public property and institutions, and overzealous movements, protests, and demonstrations. The pursuit of Tunisian citizenship has ranged between an excitability that can be read as reactionary, on the one hand, and a sense of awareness that demonstrates a commitment to the notion of citizenship, on the other.

One explanation for the former tendency is the ongoing strained relationship between the individual and authority. Indeed, in the popular imagination, [state] authority is analogous to fear, oppression, and injustice; this is evident in the popular Tunisian proverb: “If the ruler is against you, who’s to argue?” As for the latter tendency –an understanding of citizenship based on collective awareness– it should be seen as the product of a cumulative historical legacy that can be traced through key historical events: the revolution of Ali bin Ghadha’im, the reform movement, the nationalist movement, and the revolution of freedom and dignity.

This legislative inventory demonstrates the cultural depth of the notion of citizenship in Tunisia. This depth may help explain the introspection of the collective awareness of the values of citizenship. But it is also clear that this legislation is not yet on its way to realizing the establishment of citizenship in reality.

Citizenship: A Cultural Legacy That Has Evolved Through Legal Texts

Theoretical research on the foundational texts that have organized political authority in Tunisia demonstrate that the idea of citizenship is not a new one. Locally, the establishment of this cultural concept dates back to the legislative texts of the 19th century. Ahmad Basha Bey’s 1846 decree abolishing slavery is considered the first cornerstone in the establishment of equality among Tunisian subjects. Equality is, of course, among the most prominent principles by which a state recognizes its citizens, whether in terms of equality of rights they enjoy or of duties they are obliged to perform. Equality is a foundational value of citizenship, as the very descriptor “citizen” guards the individual against discrimination or exclusion. Both the Fundamental Pact of 1857 and the Constitution of 1861 also moved in this direction.[1]

For example, Article 12 of the 1861 Constitution, titled “the rights and obligations of the people (ahl) of the Kingdom of Tunisia”, included 19 articles. These affirmed equality in rights and duties among all residents of the Kingdom of Tunisia. The articles used the words “residents” (sukkan), “people”, (ahl), or “subjects” (ra’iyya); but what is worth noting is the use of the expression “Tunisian” to the full extent of its meaning, as set out in the Constitution’s first article. This defined the people of the Tunisian kingdom as anyone who was “born in or outside of the cities and villages, Bedouins, and those of all faiths”. This definition is not very different from a notion of citizenship founded upon [social] understandings within the country and belonging to a homeland; these are reflected in ties of nationality. Affirming this tie, the Constitution clearly distinguishes between the people belonging to the country (ahl al-balad) (Section 14), and those who are only residing in the country (Section 15); the latter are referred to as “subjects of beloved states” (that is, subjects of other political authorities). Thus, although the word “citizenship” is not used in the Fundamental Pact or in the 1861 Constitution, they both present indications revealing the evolution of a concept of citizenship. This concept is established, in theory, in the 1957 Declaration of the Republic.

On July 25, 1957, the National Constituent Assembly of Tunisia issued a Declaration of the Republic.[2] This stated that the people’s representatives had toppled the monarchy. This coup might be described as a citizens’ coup, as it returned authority to the people; that is, to all its citizens. With the abolishment of the monarchy and the Declaration of the Republic, Tunisian subjects became citizens. The Declaration had a clear impact on the drafting of the Constitution in June 1959; indeed, it was the basis of the Constitution, which defined the Republic through the values of freedom, equality, and the rule of law.

It is worth highlighting what is stated in the Preamble of the Constitution of the First Republic. It reads, “the republican system is the best guarantor of human rights, the establishment of equality among citizens, in their rights and duties…and the most effective means for protecting the family and the citizens’ right to work, to health, and to education”. The “Republic” here is presented as an entity liable to the demands of the citizenry. This idea is affirmed in Article 5 of the 1959 Constitution, which was amended on June 1, 2002 and states, “The Tunisian Republic shall guarantee the fundamental liberties and human rights in their universal, global, complementary, and interdependent understanding”. However, Tunisia’s political reality did not reflect its ambitious 1959 Constitution. A one-party system, followed by revisions specified by the original copy of the text, contributed to the establishment of a dictatorial system that dispossessed the citizen of citizenship in its deepest sense.

This divide between the value of citizenship as enshrined in legal texts and practices that formally established voting rights, on the one hand, and the reality of a continued system of subjecthood, on the other, has led to a clash between the citizen and the way citizenship was actually practiced.

The Citizenship Disconnect: What Does it Mean to be a Citizen?

The January Revolution of 2011 reintroduced the values of the Declaration of the Republic, declaring the victory of the values of citizenship over despotism and corruption. The Constitution of the Second Republic embodies this approach; its statutes prescribe a “state of citizens” – that is, a state based on a new relationship between the individual and the state, with the “citizen” at its core.[3] Its framework might be termed “active citizenship”: citizenship that prompts the citizen to participate in governing in all of its aspects. The Constitution of the Second Republic values citizenship as a pillar of the political system, and prohibits legislation that would limit the rights that constitute that citizenship.[4]

The creators of the Constitution aimed to resolve the struggle over citizenship. This is reflected in Article 65 of the Constitution, which stipulates where legislation in the form of Basic Laws should exist in connection with rights and freedoms. They further declared that legislation concerning citizens’ duties also be included in the Basic Laws; the hope is that this will produce legislation for a charter of citizenship.

However, the experience of the democratic transition –and prior to that, the difficulties of creating a legislative concept of Tunisian citizenship, in all its historical dimensions– has affirmed that the establishment of citizenship as a value and a concept is not tied to its practice by way of legislative texts; rather, it is rooted in culture. This raises the question about how citizenship should be enacted in light of the text of the Constitution.

The peaceful nature of the Tunisian revolution does not conceal the level of violence that defined the relationship between the citizen and the state before the revolution. This violence was exercised by the authorities through legislation that repressed the values of citizenship; authorities violated laws through a form of political corruption known for the repression of fundamental rights. It is this same violence that the citizen perpetrates against authority when they rise up against it, or have adversarial dealings with its laws and institutions in the context of anarchic forms of rebellion.

In the Second Republic, citizens have striven to sweep aside the state’s use of illegal violence. They have held sit-ins to hinder institutions and assert their mandate within these institutions. They have actively demonstrated for the right to carry contraband through customs. Likewise, citizens have used professional organizations, labor unions, and local and regional affiliations to put pressure on the state, with the aim of imposing their wants and obtaining services for their own benefit, at the expense of what is legally or financially viable. It may likewise be observed that the state is not innocent of political violence, which has repressed citizens through the corruption of political elites, depriving citizens of their trust in the very notion of their citizenship. Repression has also emerged through expressions of a desire to restore the methods of authoritarian rule –mainly torture– to confront security challenges.

The divide between text and practice might be explained through the novelty of citizenship as a practice, and the need for habituation when it comes to citizenship and democratic rule. However, this interpretation negates neither the dangers of citizens sliding into rebellion against the values of citizenship, nor the infiltration of corruption into political practice. The latter could lead to a failed state, one in which citizenship is curtailed through elections in which votes are bought and sold, and leaders are fabricated.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] The first Article of the Fundamental Pact states, on behalf of the Bey, that it “affirms that all our subjects and residents under our jurisdiction, of different religions, languages, and races, are revered in their person and property, and respected in their honor”.

[2] The members of the National Constituent Assembly were elected on March 25, 1956 and commissioned on December 29, 1955 to write the Constitution of the Tunisian kingdom.

[3] This is affirmed by Article 15 of the Constitution, which requires the public administration to serve the citizenry and public interest. Article 139 states that on the local level, authorities should encourage “the broadest participation of citizens and of civil society in the preparation of development programmes and land use planning, and follow up on their implementation, in conformity with the law”.
[4] It must be pointed out that although the 1959 Constitution announced guarantees of rights and freedoms, it restricted their exercise by deferring to laws that regulated how these rights and freedoms should be practiced in such a way that restricted and marginalized them. The 2014 Constitution avoided this; Article 49 restricts the extent to which legislation can regulate rights and freedoms in ways contrary to their essence. It stipulates that such “limitations can only be put in place for reasons necessary to a civil and democratic state, and with the aim of protecting the rights of others, or based on the requirements of public order, national defence, public health or public morals, and provided there is proportionality between these restrictions and the objective sought. Judicial authorities ensure that rights and freedoms are protected from all violations. No amendment may undermine the human rights and freedoms guaranteed in this Constitution”.

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