Tunisia’s student unions have a history of blurring political activism on and off campus, often with violent results. To promote peace and improve higher education in their fledgling democracy, Tunisian student unions must change with the times and turn away from national politics.
They appear to be taking steps in that direction now. But we must remain vigilant to ensure they complete the transition.
Today, the same ideological divide between secularism and Islamism that separates Tunisian voters and politicians also separates the two largest student unions, a situation that also exists at universities in some other Arab countries.
Student unions in Tunisia became politicized during the last days of the regime of the former dictator, Ben Ali. As the Arab Spring swept through North Africa and the Middle East, their role as an opposition force grew. In time, however, their off-campus political activities eclipsed their role as the voice of students in academic affairs.
Members of the secular General Union of Tunisian Students were particularly vocal in their criticism of Ennahda, the Islamist political party that dominated the interim government that ruled Tunisia from 2011 to the end of last year.
Meanwhile, the other major student organization, the Islamist-leaning General Tunisian Union of Students, has close ties to Ennahda.
Popular protests against Ennahda’s rule erupted in the wake of the assassination of leftist politician Chokri Belaid in 2013. Those protests spread to campus, where clashes between the two student unions led to violence on campuses in Sousse, Manouba, and Kairouan.
In December, before voters elected Essebsi to office, members of the two student unions fought again at Manouba University during an event to commemorate the death of the Tunisian labor leader, Farhat Hached.
Now, Essebi’s election provides both student unions with an opportunity to put their disagreements behind them.
Essebi’s victory eliminates the secularist General Union of Tunisian Students’ raison d’être as an opposition force. Both Essebi and the General Union of Tunisian Students are committed to keeping Tunisian universities secular and ending the central government’s meddling in campus affairs. This dynamic should pave the way for the student union to focus on academic issues and strengthen efforts to achieve independent universities in Tunisia for the first time in years.
There are already signs of de-politicization: The Ministry of Higher Education originally scheduled student elections for Nov. 13—at the same time campaigns for Tunisia’s presidential elections were underway. Leaders of the General Union of Tunisian Students objected to the timing, saying they didn’t want to student elections to become wrapped up in national politics. The government postponed the student elections.
Meanwhile, the Ennahda-affiliated General Tunisian Union of Students has also divested itself of national politics.
Despite the involvement of Islamist student union members in supporting Essebi’s rival, former interim Presidential Moncef Marzouki, the union’s leaders deny any official ties to Marzouki’s campaign. Recently, the General Tunisian Union of Students has also disavowed off-campus activities, focusing instead on building its membership and organizing university events in solidarity with the Syrian revolution, the Palestinian cause and against the military coup in Egypt.
My fear is that Ennahda’s transition to the opposition will shift the General Tunisian Union of Students back to politics, especially since Islamists in Tunisia have great fears concerning Essebi’s administration and the rise to power of his secularist political party, Nidaa Tounes. Those fears have yet to be realized, however.
Because Tunisia’s transition has opened up a public space where students from political movements and parties can express their opinions directly, Tunisia’s student unions no longer need to fulfill this purpose. They should maintain distance from political and ideological disputes and completely renounce violence.
The two main unions could, for example, sign a joint document recognizing the diversity of student organizations and rejecting the use of violence on campus. Politicians and party leaders must also help neutralize student unions’ political inclinations by sending a clear signal that the unions no longer have a role to play on election day.
There is an urgent need to strengthen freedom of association, assembly and demonstration in Tunisian universities without restricting the pluralism of student organizations. The student unions should be focusing on these issues alone.
* Mohamed Abdel Salam is a researcher for the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, in Cairo. Another version of this article appeared first in Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East – Atlantic Council .