Situation Assessment 18 July, 2011

The Tunisian Revolution: wither the sovereignty of the Arabic language?


The Tunisian Revolution of 2011 called for a complete break with the previous policies of both the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes, which were marked by lacks of democracy and freedom of expression, and by iniquitous policies of development across the country's different regions. This revolution was, to my mind, a revolution within the world of semiotics: it was about values and ideas and self-perception, and a way of envisioning (and codifying) the past, present and future of Tunisian society. What further inflamed Tunisian sentiment was the iron-clad grip of Ben Ali's security forces and the rampant corruption within his inner circle, and in particular his wife (dubbed "the Queen of Carthage") and her relatives in the Trabulsi family, whose decadence was on such a large scale it expanded outwards from Tunisian society. Those in the vanguard of the revolutionary struggle have the support of the majority of Tunisians to set the stage for a new culture which values democracy and freedom of expression, and real justice in every aspect of the country, putting an end to the political tyranny of the more than 50 years of Bourguiba and Ben Ali rule.

One of the paradoxical aspects of this revolution, from a cultural viewpoint, is that most Tunisians remain in near-total silence when it comes to the question of the cultural legacy of the colonial past, which both Bourguiba and Ben Ali worked to consolidate within their own governments and Tunisian society at large, and even went on to project it as part of their own image. These efforts have been successful to the extent that most Tunisians boast of this legacy of imperialism, cherish it and call for its protection. This silence on the cultural question is best evidenced in the way that Ben Ali and Bourguiba had nothing to say about establishing an indigenous linguistic culture as an alternative to the language foisted onto them by the French occupiers[1]. That silence bears witness to the ignorance of Bourguiba and Ben Ali of the true meaning of patriotism, and their short-sightedness with regards to these matters.

The Tunisian Constitution states, in its opening clauses, that Arabic is the national language of the free people of Tunisia. This raises the question: how exactly did Bourguiba and Ben Ali, together with their own groups of social elites, come to be classed as patriots when they worked towards the marginalization of the language and culture of their own country[2]?

The absence of the other sovereignty

There is a deep connection, as far as the Tunisian political lexicon is concerned, between the concept of national sovereignty and the ability of the state to defend the borders of the homeland and maintain internal peace while guarding the independence of its foreign policies. It is for this reason that the ministries responsible for defense, internal security (the police and so on) and foreign affairs are referred to as "sovereign ministries". At the same time, there is a noticeable and worrying lack of concern among average Tunisians for what I would like to call "linguistic sovereignty"; there is no protection of the Arabic language - the country's national language - like those accorded to other symbols of the nation-state, such as flags and so on. Industrialized, "advanced" nations do take on this notion, and to them linguistic sovereignty is a sacred charge. This can be evidenced within the European Union, an institution made up of member-states of various sizes, but which enshrines the language of the smallest of these states - such as Malta - alongside to those of the largest states - such as Germany - as a hallowed symbol of a nation's independence[3].

Indicators of linguistic sovereignty in developed societies

A number of different characteristic markers emerge from the study of politically developed societies and how they deal with the issue of linguistic sovereignty, and examining these characteristics can be instructive when looking at the Tunisian example. These markers include:

  1. The national language is used in both written and spoken communication, and at all levels of official communication.
  2. There is a feeling of national respect, pride and protectiveness when it comes to the national language.
  3. An unofficial, yet widely popular, refusal to use foreign languages on the part of a nation's citizenry.
  4. A grassroots effort among the populace of these countries to use only words and phrases native to their country in their everyday speech.
  5. Self-censorship among the Tunisian citizens to avoid the usage of foreign terms and expressions, with permanent national policies adopted by the authorities aiming at translating new foreign terms and words to national language.
  6. The widespread use of the national language as an identity-defining aspect of an individual's collective identity.


  • [1] Mahmoud Al Thawidi, The Other Backwardness: The Globalization of the Identity Crisis in the Arab Homeland and the Third World; (Arabic), Atlantic Press, Tunis, 2002;
  • [2] Mahmoud Al Thawidi, The Other Face of Tunisian Society, (Arabic), Tabr Az Zaman Press, 2006;
  • [3] P. Kraus, A Union of Diversity: Language, Identity and Polity-Building in Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).