Safwan M. Masri and Andrew Hussey discuss Masri’s book, Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly

A young and diverse public gathered at the Paris Center on October 17 to discuss Safwan M. Masri’s recent book, Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly.

Joelle Theubet
November 27, 2017

Masri, former executive vice president for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University, was joined on stage by cultural historian and author Professor Andrew Hussey for a compelling conversation on the historical, political, and cultural factors that have contributed to Tunisia’s specificity within the Arab world.

“For me this book has been a very personal journey,” explained Masri, who hails from Jordan and has worked tirelessly on promoting and developing education programs in many Arab countries, including Tunisia.  “In Tunis I saw a version of the Arab world that I had not seen since the 1960s and 1970s. It made me very nostalgic for the Amman, Beirut, and Cairo of my childhood.”

Masri’s quest to understand the factors that make Tunisia “an anomaly” led him to interview dozens of experts, leaders, activists, and ordinary citizens while writing his book.  The result, according to Andrew Hussey, is “both timely and provocative… a cultural, historical, and political mapping of a country that, despite its central role in the Arab Spring, has remained relatively uncharted.”

Andrew Hussey and Safwan Masri

The book traces both Tunisia’s modern history, as well as its reform movements of the mid-19th century, which were essential to the advancement of women’s rights, education, the emergence of a strong civil society, and the limited role of religion on society. These reforms, Masri argues, planted the seeds for modern Tunisia’s relatively liberal and democratic society.

Masri and Hussey also addressed the influence of French colonialism on present-day Tunisia. The country’s first president following independence, Habib Bourguiba, is largely credited with advancing and protecting social reforms in the areas of education, women’s rights, and health care, among others. Masri explained that Bourguiba skillfully negotiated Tunisia’s post-colonial transition to independence and did not completely reject the French social and political model as leaders of other Maghreb countries did.  As a result, he blended the best of both systems.

The conversation ended with a discussion of the Arab Spring and thoughts on the future of Tunisia. Masri argued that the term “Arab Spring” is something of a misnomer as it gives the impression of a monolithic Arab identity, whereas Tunisia’s exceptionalness only proves that there is no such thing. 

In conclusion, Masri returned to the importance of Tunisia’s unique educational system, which shaped the youth who led the Tunisian Revolution. He concluded that, if Tunisia’s democracy is to find stability and flourish, the younger generations must play a role in shaping the future of the country.

Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly is available through Columbia University Press. To read excerpts from the book, please visit CUP’s blog.


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