New outlook on culture raises Tunisian hopes, fears

Article Summary
The Tunisian Ministry of Culture has an increased budget and committed leadership, but some worry it might squeeze civil society's role in the arts.

At the opening ceremony of Ennahda’s 10th National Congress in late May, Rachid Ghannouchi, founder and president of the moderate Islamist party, took to the stage. The speech, much like the rest of the congress and the media frenzy surrounding it, focused on the party’s rebranding and newly enforced separation of religious and political activity. Ghannouchi also took a moment to touch on something else altogether — culture.

“No human development can take place without a cultural renaissance, without establishing cultural and sports activities in all regions,” he told the 13,000-strong audience.

Tunisia isn’t lacking in cultural icons. Ibn Khaldun, the founding father of modern sociology, was born there, as was Abdul Qasim al-Shabi, the early 20th-century poet whose “Tyrants of the World” was chanted across Egypt and Tunisia during the 2011 revolutions. Cinema is a particularly bright spot in Tunisian culture these days. In February this year, Tunisians won for Best First Feature and Best Actor at the Berlin International Film Festival for “Inhebbek Hedi.” In 2013, French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche snagged the top prize at Cannes for “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” 

The role of culture has recently taken on increased importance, as several thousand Tunisians have left the country to fight with the Islamic State in Syria and Libya, and terrorist attacks have increased across the country. “We believe that the fight against terrorism begins with the support of culture,” Ennahda spokesman Oussama Sghaier informed Al-Monitor by email.

“Culture is essential,” Karim ben Smail, owner of Ceres Editions, one of Tunisia’s oldest book publishers, told Al-Monitor. “When we sell 10,000 books about our history, I believe we are saving 10,000 kids. The only way to stop losing our youth is through culture. … [It] can save people.”

There are more than 200 cultural centers across Tunisia and 500 festivals each year attracting artists from around the world. The coastal city of Sfax is this year’s Capital of Arab Culture, and “Making Peace,” an international photo exhibition, has been set up along Avenue Bourguiba, the main thoroughfare in downtown Tunis. Young Tunisians are organizing such interactive art events as Dream City and Doolesha, and the island town of Erriadh is covered in more than 300 works of public art.

Contemporary culture — as an institution supported by the government — is, however, struggling in Tunisia. Most related laws are outdated relics from the 1960s that limit the scope of the private sector and civil society in the arts. For decades, under the dictatorships of Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Ministry of Culture — like most other government entities — was viewed by the citizenry as corrupt, opaque and self-serving. Allegations of nepotism, funneled money and misappropriated funds were common.

For example, Michael Jackson performed a concert in Tunisia in 1996 during his HIStory Tour. Jackson donated the proceeds from the concert to 26-26, a government-run “charity” ostensibly focused on supporting vulnerable groups in Tunisia. Ben Ali's government allegedly pocketed more than half the money, according to Mourad Mathari, who works for Scoop, which organizes large-scale concerts and festivals in Tunisia.

Since Ben Ali’s ouster in 2011, there have been some significant changes in the culture sector. Under Article 42 of the country’s new constitution, drafted in 2014, the “right to culture” and the “right to freedom of expression” are both guaranteed. In addition, Ennahda's Sghaier noted, a 12% increase in the Ministry of Culture’s budget was approved in December 2015. It now totals 228 million Tunisian dinars, Culture Minister Sonia M’barek told Al-Monitor. Earlier this year, Tunisia enacted financial transparency laws that will take effect in July, and the Ministry of Culture will be required to release its financial records.

This is all welcome news said M’barek, who is politically unaffiliated. M’barek, a professional singer, previously served as director of the Carthage Festival and also worked in publishing and copyright. She took her current post four months ago, becoming the country’s sixth culture minister since the revolution. Some observers feel that so much turnover reflects the government’s unwillingness to prioritize culture, but M’barek is adamant that her ministry is “a priority.”

She has several ambitious goals for the coming years, including plans to decentralize culture by focusing on disenfranchised governorates, promoting cultural education in schools and creating a “participatory” dialogue between the government and civil society that will bring about innovative, and in M’barek’s words “life-changing,” cultural projects. The result, as she described it, will be an “industry of culture.”

Despite M’barek’s expressed, genuine commitment to supporting the cultural sector, it is the institution of culture led by the government that worries publishers, festival organizers and other members of Tunisia's cultural civil society.

“The activities of the Ministry of Culture … are in direct competition with the private sector, which is the backbone of any future development in the cultural industry,” wrote Mathari, in a letter to the ministry in April. He told Al-Monitor that the government should focus on “infrastructure,” not festival organizing and attracting international artists.

Mathari’s is a sentiment echoed by Noureddine El Ati, who runs L’Etoile du Nord, the only contemporary theater in Tunisia. “I am militant about a culture of creation,” the theater director told Al-Monitor. “Without a culture of creation,” continued El Ati, “we cannot have a real democracy.” He believes the government focuses too much on commercializing culture.

M’barek disagreed with El Ati, remarking that Tunisia is a young democracy, and political transitions take time. “I have faith in the future,” she told Al-Monitor. “We are living a historic moment in Tunisia.”

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Found in: zine el abidine ben ali, tunisian revolution, sonia m'barek, rachid ghannouchi, film, ennahda, culture war, culture

Sarah Souli is a freelance journalist currently based in Athens, after several years in Tunis. Her work has appeared in The Economist, Al Jazeera English, Quartz, Vice, The Guardian, Middle East Eye, Roads & Kingdoms and other outlets. On Twitter: @sgsouli

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