Social and Solidarity Economy in Tunisia is not New

2020-12-17    |   

Social and Solidarity Economy in Tunisia is not New
"La ceuillette des olives"(Postcard from Tunisia)

Despite the controversy that the social and solidarity economy (SSE) has witnessed in the sociopolitical arena in the recent period, public debates about it have remained largely limited. One weakness of these debates has been the absence of historical contextualization and exploration of the phenomenon’s cultural roots. In Tunisia, SSE has deep historical roots in the solidarity practices in the lifestyle of the Bedu tribes, rural communities, and residents of working-class urban neighborhoods.

This issue is a pivotal concern as it affects not only the general public and people casually interested but even the experts and researchers in the area. In this article I will present an overview of the historical roots of SSE in Tunisia by presenting a set of traditional solidarity practices and examine the extent to which the Tunisian state in the post-colonial period has been able to incorporate them into its modern solidarity policies. I will divide these practices into three major categories, namely traditional solidarity practices in the private sphere, traditional solidarity practices in the public sphere, and modern “state-ified” or for-profit solidarity practices.

Traditional Solidarity Practices in the Private Sphere

These spontaneous traditional practices may not match modern models of SSE activity. Nevertheless, I shall present them here to highlight the existence of traditional solidarity activities aimed at assisting the vulnerable or those facing enormous unexpected or unaffordable expenses by organizing a redistribution of wealth, property, and resources among a group of people linked by various social ties – primarily kinship and neighborhood – that are maintained and consolidated through solidarity and support.

One well-known example is the raghata or twiza, also commonly termed “the collective tree”. Twiza comes in two forms: the collective twiza whereby the people of one tribe cooperate to resolve a matter that falls within the general interest of the entire group, and the personal twiza whereby one member calls upon the other members of the group for help to resolve a personal matter. The main occasions on which twiza occurs are harvesting seasons, the seasonal preparation of food reserves, olive pressing, housing construction, weddings, the zarda saintly festivals, and other practices. The twiza is based on the principle of indirect and unconditional exchange of services: each constituent of the tribe automatically receives assistance and is not compelled to repay it in a timely manner but is, in one way or another, compelled to participate in subsequent twizas by virtue of belonging to the tribal whole.[1]

The solidarity practices exemplified in the previous paragraph mostly fall within the framework of traditional economic and social practices occurring within the private sphere, such as houses, fields, threshing floors, and other private properties, and within circles of primary nurture, namely the family in either its modern form or its traditional extended form. Similarly, there is no intervention by state bodies to support these practices, and they have no connection to the goods and produce market, which is based on for-profit distribution and redistribution.

Traditional Solidarity Practices in the Public Sphere

The public sphere also contains a set of old practices that are deeply rooted in the general structure of the culture of Tunisian society and connected to the collective imaginary, including “Islamic” solidarity practices. The main historical institutions framing these historical practices include awqaf [sing. waqf] and ahbas [religious endowments], which usually take the form of land or properties whose proceeds are allocated to a public interest such as health, education, culture, charity, and the maintenance of religious facilities.[2]

Despite their solidaric nature, awqaf were banned in 1957. The ban occurred at a time when the post-colonial state was trying to establish a new socioeconomic model wherein the awqaf system had become “open to many deviations”. The system represented an important material boost for the influence of the traditional religious elites, especially those associated with al-Zaytuna, who tried to cling to their position and preserve their sway amidst a new political vision that considered religious affairs a state matter. Such affairs included the administration and funding of the religious institutions, which the state would oversee via its public institutions.[3]

From another perspective, the awqaf institutions had many effects on the societal model, especially with regard to women’s status, which was a cornerstone of the new societal model that the newly independent state wanted to emplace. The institution of familial awqaf was often a means of depriving women of inheritance, especially upon the death of the father or husband, whereupon it would deprive widows and female orphans of the right to dispose or exploit their share while ensuring that the descendants enjoy the waqf’s surplus revenue. On the economic level, the new political vision prevailing at the time deemed that awqaf have “potential deviations” as they obstruct the development process by blocking the flow of capital and restricting access to private property, in addition to immobilizing wealth and thereby reducing the market value of real estate.[4]

One of the other main traditional solidaric practices in the public sphere is the administration of the so-called “collective lands”. “Collective lands” is the modern label for what is known as tribal lands in Tunisia, namely lands collectively owned by the tribespeople who came to inhabit them via inheritance.[5] Hence, the ownership of these lands is not private in the individual sense. From another angle, the “owners” often lack documents establishing their properties’ boundaries or the historical transfer of their ownership from one generation to another.[6]

For all these reasons, these lands are exploited collectively by the people inhabiting them and therefore administered collaboratively. In the past, their exploitation was overseen by the “assembly” (thajmaath), a parliament composed of the tribes’ elders that made important decisions and adjudicated various disputes, including those related to land and its division and exploitation, especially in connection with agricultural activities and grazing.[7]

In modern times, these lands are overseen by two councils. The Management Council, composed of representatives elected by locals exploiting the collective land, regulates the existing activities by “allocating the collective lands to members of the group, whether male or female, via private titles and in accordance with the conditions stipulated by law”. The Regional Supervisory Council comprises representatives of the administrations concerned and, along with the region’s governor, exercises the right of state oversight over collective lands. Its functions include monitoring the activity of local actors and submitting reports concerning them, as well as settling disputes concerning the collective lands should the Management Council be unable to do so.[8]

The significance of this example is that it shows that traditional solidarity practices can be incorporated into a modern legal framework overseen by the state, albeit in an assimilatory and possessive manner. It thereby leads us to state-sponsored solidarity practices.

Modern Solidarity Practices: “State-ified” and/or For-Profit

The first amicales and cooperative associations emerged during the colonial period of modern Tunisian history, namely in the early 20th century.[9] These amicales and cooperatives were born amidst the establishment of many nationalist, anti-colonial organizations and associations of a social, unionist, cultural, or even athletic nature. One of the first and most prominent of these organizations was established by Muslim railway workers during the First World War (1914-1918). This association was not the only amicale, as tobacco factory workers quickly followed suit. This trend toward amicales was a product of the debates among Mohamed Ali El Hammi, Tahar Haddad, and their companions, whereby they concluded that the Tunisian people must organize into unions and associations that defend their interests and support the national liberation process.[10]

One of the most important ideas to emerge from this intellectual effort was to form a network of cooperative productive companies all across the country to be later unified under a common leadership that realizes what theorists termed “the nation of participants” [ummat al-musharikin], which aims to instigate social change by establishing productive associations. However, the initiators struck a series of practical difficulties that made establishing industrial or agricultural associations impossible and thereby pushed them toward establishing consumer associations. They drafted a bill for a “Tunisian Economic Cooperation Association”, which was established in the hall of the Khaldounia on 29 June 1924. Its objectives included mitigating the economic crisis of the 1920s (the rise in prices and high living costs) by providing consumables at below-market prices.[11]

In the same vein, the economic report was issued by the Free Destourian Party conference in Sfax in 1955. The unionist influence in the report appeared via many of its key points, particularly nationalization and cooperation [ta’adud], which were the two themes that characterized the Tunisian state’s economic experience during its early independence. Besides the name that was bestowed upon this practice, which itself denotes collaboration and solidarity, this official policy worked to unify large swaths of agricultural land for the establishment of agricultural services cooperatives while also establishing local mutual security funds. Following the launch in the agricultural sector, many other cooperatives were established in the field of services, commerce, and industry.[12]

This experiment was distinguished by the control of state bodies over most solidaric economic activities and their conversion to official institutions dually subordinate to the party, which changed its name to the “the Socialist Destourian Party” at the Bizerte Conference,[13] and the state via the regional agriculture administrations. It was based on a political trend that considered itself to have a socialist dimension and that the one ruling party adopted as “constitutional socialism” – an economic policy espousing “complementarity among the governmental sector, private sector, and cooperative sector”. This occurred after Ahmed Ben Salah, former secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labour Union, was appointed as assistant secretary-general of the party (with Mohamed Sayah as secretary-general) and a minister with a total of five portfolios.[14]

However, this official trend came to a halt, in particular, with the economic transformations that Tunisia witnessed as it moved toward a liberal economic system under Prime Minister Hedi Amara Nouira in the early 1970s.[15] Nevertheless, the Tunisian state continued to exercise control over solidarity practices and activities in the economic realm in other ways, namely by directing them toward for-profit purposes. These policies continued for decades: in addition to the establishment of the Tunisian Solidarity Bank by a presidential decision on 21 May 1997, the Tunisian public authorities endeavored to establish a framework for the microcredit sector via Law no. 67 of 15 July 1999.[16]

The 1990s also witnessed the establishment of “development groups” in the agriculture and fishing sector via Law no. 43 of 10 May 1999. Other measures included the establishment of economic interest groups subject to the Commercial Companies Code, which was promulgated via Law no. 93 of 3 November 2000. As for the first decade of the new millennium, it witnessed the establishment of cooperative companies for agricultural services.

The above list of the various legal forms of SSE activity in Tunisia shows that most of the legislative effort that the state began in the 1990s was directed toward supporting farmers and agriculture and fishing sector producers. Despite the existence of a cooperative and solidaric foundation within these various laws and the practices they framed, for-profit objectives are present, just as they are present in the work done to incorporate these activities into the state’s economic policies on production and distribution, and on marketing in relation to the governmental market and the capitalist market. Hence, the legislative direction that the Tunisian state took and actively pursued particularly in the 1990s was focused not directly on supporting an SSE sector but on supporting the agricultural sector, which reflected the lack of a strategy based on direct interest in the former. This interest was rejuvenated and imposed itself on the social area following the unfettering of associational activity after 2011 in particular, which provided an opportunity for entrepreneurs and people active in the SSE sector to expand the areas of their work, gather their resources, and develop their capacity in the framework of civil society activities. This process of development and empowerment subsequently managed to create a movement conscious of the sector’s identity and able to defend the interests of the actors within it. The debate ignited by the crisis surrounding the Association for the Protection of Jemna’s Oasis and the series of difficult negotiations with stage agencies that accompanied it helped to expand the scope of this movement. The movement then culminated in a united push for an organic law regulating the sector, which was approved on 17 June 2020, more than four years after the Tunisian General Labour Union presented the bill to the government.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] Diagnostic de l’économie sociale et solidaire dans les gouvernorats d’intervention du projet IESS, Jendouba, Kasserine, Mahdia, Sidi Bouzid, CRESS PACA, 2014.

[2] Fathi Elachhab, “L’économie sociale et solidaire en Tunisie, un potentiel troisième secteur?”, RECMA, vol. 349, no. 3, 2018.

[3] Al-Hala al-Diniyya fi Tunis 2011-2015: Dirasa Midaniyya Tahliliyya, ed. Mounir Saidani, Hmida Ennaifer, and Nader Hammami, eic. Mounir Saidani, Mominoun Without Borders, Beirut, 2018.

[4] Sahbi Nablia, La conceptualisation de la société́ civile islamiste selon Ibn Khaldûn, Université du Québec à Montréal, 2011.

[5] This is comparable to what exists in Morocco, for example. See Mohamed Tozy, “About the Tribe: A Reality with Changeable Dimensions”, translated by Mounir Saidani, Omran, is. 15, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2016, p. 23-40.

[6] Nidhal bin Terdaiet, “al-Nizam al-Qanuniyy li-l-Aradi al-Ishtirakiyya fi Tunis”, Kadha News, Tunisia, 2017.

[7] Hanafi bin Isa, “al-Amazigh (al-Barbar)”, Arab Encyclopedia.

[8] Loi n° 2016-69 du 10 août 2016, modifiant et complétant la loi n° 64-28 du 4 juin 1964, fixant le régime des terres collectives, JORT, Tunisia, 2016.

[9] Habib Belaïd, “Le mouvement associatif en Tunisie à l’époque coloniale : quelques réflexions”, Cahier Du Crasc, vol. 5, 2002, p. 93-104.

[10] Mounir Saidani, “Rihanat al-Iqtisad al-Ijtima’iyy wa-l-Tadamuniyy fi Tunis”, a 13-page manuscript that the author graciously allowed us to access.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Décret sur les sociétés mutualistes (18 février 1954), JORT, Tunisia, 1954.

[13] This occurred during the party’s seventh conference, which was titled the “Fate Conference” and held in Bizerte from 19 to 22 October 1964.

[14] Ahmed Ben Salah, “Masirat al-Intilaq 1961-1969”, translated by Muhammad Quba’ah, reviewed by Ahmad Ayed, Dar al-Junub, Tunisia, 2012.

[15] Ezzeddine Moudoud, “L’impossible régionalisation « jacobine » et le dilemme des disparités régionales en Tunisie”, La Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Régionales, vol. 8, is. 3, 1985, p. 413-438.

[16] Loi organique n° 99-67 du 15 juillet 1999, relative aux micro-crédits accordés par les associations, JORT, Tunisia, 2009.

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