Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly

By Lubecki, Jacek | Journal of Global South Studies, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly


Lubecki, Jacek, Journal of Global South Studies


Masri, Safwan M. Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Perkins, Kenneth. A History of Modern Tunisia. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

The variance in outcomes of 2011-2013 Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has invited and generated a large body of scholarship intended to explain their dramatically different results. Specifically, the fact that Tunisia emerged as the only liberal democracy from the upheavals naturally led to a debate on the phenomenon of Tunisian exceptionalism. Safwan M. Masri s Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly is the most important recent work on the topic and represents a needed but also predictably one-sided perspective on the debate. The author presents Tunisia as unique and unlike all other Arab countries, which, according to him, lack the cultural and structural preconditions for democracy. In contrast, according to Masri, Tunisia has developed a political culture (a term that he does not use but clearly implies) rooted in Tunisia's "Mediterranean" (not Arab) identity, a long tradition of liberal reformism, and a flourishing civil society Significantly, for him Tunisian post-independence patterns of development emphasized rationalist education, gender equality, and secularism. Besides these factors, Masri also lists and acknowledges structural factors that helped Tunisia's eventual democratization: a fairly small and homogenous population and favorable geopolitical conditions that obviated a need for a strong military and its nefarious influence on politics. However, Masri clearly emphasizes that cultural and developmental factors, not broad structural conditions, are central for explaining Tunisia's democratic success.

It is important to acknowledge, as the author himself admits, that he is not an expert in political science. Indeed, Masri's background is in systems engineering and education/educational administration and his current position is executive vice president for global centers and global development at Columbia University, and a senior research scholar at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. He admits in his preface that "this is my narrative of Tunisia.... It is also a commentary on the Arab world through the lens of Tunisia" (p. xx). In other words, the reader should not expect the book to be a systematic, quantitative, or theoretically informed perspective on Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world. There is no systematic comparison here, just a selective and subjective narrative of Tunisian history with occasional asides to the rest of the Arab world intended to prove that Tunisia is unique and different from other Arab countries and that in many ways it has always been so.

Given the author's and the book's non-expert nature, the volume is gracefully free of jargon and the narrative flows freely and is well structured. The book shines in its easy storytelling fluency and therefore in its appeal to nonspecialists. For teachers of undergraduate students who want to make Tunisia a vantage point from which to understand the rest of the MENA region, the volume can easily become a textbook in their courses. Masri provides a detailed story of the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution and democratic transition in Part I of the book, which is entitled Tunisian Spring. Crucially, he focuses (in chapters four and five) on Tunisia's transition to democracy, culminating in the 2014 elections that marked the first fully democratic transfer of power in Tunisian history--an event perhaps unprecedented in the entire Arab world. The narrative is rich in detail, witty, skeptical, and vivid. Besides written sources, the author based this part of the book on a series of personal interviews with important players in the Tunisian revolution and transition, who reveal key historical moments of the story. This is easily the best part of the book; it can be read (or used in a college course) independently of other parts of the book. …

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