Tunisia/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Autor: Bilel Aboudi

Article 1 of the Tunisian Constitution (Constitution of 1959 and as amended till 2010) stipulates that the Republic of Tunisia has Islam as its religion and Arabic as its language. The country's official language is Arabic, and the vast majority of the population is Muslim (99% and 1% Jewish). After independence, government leaders followed the French model - as a symbol of modernity and progress – at administrative, legislative, institutional and political levels. The French culture and history were strongly present in the educational system, and formed an important component of education programs. The French language is being taught starting from the first year in elementary schools, as well as Arabic, and is used in most scientific subjects. Therefore, social values, cultural references, and ways of life, are a mixture of Arab and French cultures (perceived as Western culture), as well as of the Mediterranean culture. During the 90’s, the Tunisian society showed an important shift toward the Arab-Islamic identity. Politically, this tendency was reinforced by the intensive translation of educational program into Arabic.

In terms of population, and according to the figures issued by the National Institute of Statistics[1] in Tunisia in 2011, the youth category (14 to 29 years) represents 27.9% of the population and the middle-aged category (30-59 years) represents 38.5% of the population. These figures show that the beginning of a Tunisian ageing population pyramid shift towards the increase of the aged people ratio in the next 20 years, as a result of the birth control policy adopted by the State since the 1960s. It must be noted that in the 1970s the children category represented more than 50% of the population. Currently, Tunisia has a total population of about 10,672,000 people with 49.8% male and 50.2% female.

After the popular social movement that started by the end of 2010 and led to the escape of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14thJanuary 2011, Tunisia entered a phase of democratic transition. Later, the first free elections were held on 23rd October 2011 and aimed to establish the Constituent National Assembly. It was mandated to prepare a new Constitution for the country in a one year period. These elections resulted in the victory of Ennahdha Party (conservatives) and its coalition with the Congress for the Republic Party and the Ettakattol Party (liberals) to form a majority in the constituent Assembly. An interim government has emerged from the coalition to run the State affairs and was composed of ministers from these parties, with several independents in some ministries, among them the Ministry of Culture.

The Tunisian constitution was suspended from effect in March 2011(Decree N° 2011-14 of 23rd March 2011 on the provisional regulation of public authorities). After its establishment, the Constituent National Assembly issued, what has become later known as the “little Constitution”, the organic law N°2011-6 of 16thDecember 2011 on the provisional regulation of public authorities. This “constitutional” law presented the framework for the conduct of the state affairs during the transition period until the adoption of a new Constitution.

With regard to the cultural sector in this organic law, it was recognized that texts associated with the general principles of the cultural sector would be issued through a "law" and that would take the form of "organic laws” all provisions related to the regulation of the media, the press and publishing, as well as provisions related to the regulation of fundamental freedoms and human rights.

Until the end of 2013 (i.e. two years after the establishment of the Constituent National Assembly) the constitution has not been yet finalized as a result of severe political tensions. During this period, two political assassinations took place leading to the increase of internal political tensions and the presence of high risks for terrorist acts. The cultural sector knew of several cases of assault on artists, creators and artistic events during these years.

On the other side, an increase in the number of associations and civil society initiatives was observed namely for the promotion of freedom of expression and the protection of cultural rights, including the rights of minorities. In addition, Media and publishing sectors gained back a certain degree of freedom.

From a social transformation perspective, the continuous momentum in the transition phase played a key role in reinforcing the position of culture in political and civil interests and its contribution to the principles of freedom for which the Tunisian revolution in 2011 has erupted. The current dynamism and the plurality of views and social interactions are expected to consolidate the importance of culture amongst citizens and creators, as well as within the management of cultural affairs at the governmental level.

Brief introduction to cultural policies and mechanisms:

Tunisia's cultural policy arose after independence as an essential element of the political project, which focused on the national identity development and support. Culture was a central component of the national construction process in post-colonial phase.  In fact, the liberation movement has considered culture as a substantial factor in creating and strengthening social cohesion. The approach was based on the premise that the Tunisian society was homogeneous with one language, one culture, and that it presented one nation. Consecutively, during the construction of national unity period, the cultures and languages of minorities (e.g. the Berbers and Jews) did not receive a special priority in prevailing cultural policy; nonetheless a general framework of coexistence with the majority and of treatment with equal rights as Tunisian nationals without discrimination was maintained.

The elaboration of a framework for cultural policies has started by the end of the 1950s, through the "democratization of culture”. It aimed to the diffusion of culture to people all over the country and to all social groups based on what was known as "official culture".  The government has monopolized cultural affairs and directly intervened at strategic, financial, and legislative levels, where grants allocated to organizations and governmental institutions presented the main executive mechanism of cultural policy.

The post-independence new State has intensified its investment in education, in the conviction that it was the cornerstone for ensuring progress and development, and that it represented the most effective means to disseminate national culture. This relationship between culture and education is permanently deep in Tunisia’s cultural policies and was the main reason for which the importance of culture sector in successive national development plans was maintained despite changes in governments or cultural policy trends.

Only two months after the proclamation of the Republic of Tunisia (1957), the Government established “the Secretary of State for News and Guidance” to be in-charge of the management of journalism, television and film fields. Its main objective was the development of life and culture. In addition, a decree was issued to establish the organization of a network of public libraries and publishing houses. In 1961, “the Secretary of State for Cultural Affairs and News” was created and was responsible for the development and the implementation of Government policy in culture and media fields. Later on, it was changed to be a ministry (the Ministry of Cultural Affairs) in 1970 which was constantly restructured and supported in terms of budgets and legal framework. It has been renamed several times since 2006 and currently it is the Ministry of Culture. Despite periods of economic crisis (1968 and 1969), the budget allocated to the culture sector has steadily increased to reach a maximum of 1.25% of the State budget in 2009.

The chronology of cultural policies in Tunisia can be divided into the following three phases:

Phase 1: Culture as a factor in the education of the nation and in human resources capacity building (from 1960s until mid-1980s)

After independence, the cultural development was a complementary element to broader national development plan, namely, education, rather than as a separate program. Culture was viewed as a pillar of modern education, as well as an effective power in eradicating illiteracy and to build human resources capacities. This framework has resulted in strong linkages and coordination between education and culture sectors. In early 1960s, music and painting education were introduced into the curricula of primary and secondary education. In addition, theatre, music, group singing and film clubs flourished in secondary education institutions since late 1970s.

Within the national plan for the eradication of illiteracy, cultural activities had an important part in popular culture program which was performed by centers for illiteracy eradication (People’s Houses / “Dour Eshaab”).  Theatre plays, conferences, debates and film screenings were recognized as pedagogical tools.  For example, theater was considered as «...a powerful tool for the dissemination of culture, besides being a very popular and highly effective educational tool … “(speech of Leader Habib Bourguiba on 7 November 1962).

The integration of culture in educational policy, from 1960s till the mid-1980s, had led to foundation programs and topics that focused on building libraries, cultural centers (houses of culture “ Dour Ethaqafa”), and youth centers, and on the dissemination educational manuals , Therefore other cultural forms did not receive enough attention. The cultural policy strategy had included heritage, visual arts, cinema and theater domains with a focus on infrastructure and human resources capacity building. It resulted in the creation of specialized institutes and the provision of grants for training. Inevitably, theater, cinema, music and visual arts went out of the State control, leading to a gradual loss of governmental control and influence on cultural production.

The implementation of the national education program and the achievement of its objectives was one of the direct causes to the major changes in State policy, especially with the emergence of a dynamic cultural production outside the control of the State. Moreover, the absence of an active and an innovative cultural policy together with the emergence of a political opposition to the one-party monopoly, created a cultural movement that expressed the refusal of the State control driven by partisan influence on cultural sector. Theatre was the mostly used artistic expression for the cultural movement of the opposition.

The trend began to change in the mid-1980s as the State regained its responsibility in cultural development and has adopted a proactive cultural policy, by establishing the National Funds for Culture in 1984, set prices for literature works and film production, and by organizing national artistic competitions.

The cultural policy was based on the following three directions:

  • Democratization of culture: the democratization of culture was a high priority for the national government at that time, and was intended to facilitate access to culture for all; regardless the social or the economic status. It was a reaction to the elitism of culture under colonialism, where education and culture were only available to the French colonials and to the Tunisian high bourgeoisie categories.
  • Re-nationalization of culture: the goal of re-nationalization was the reintegration and the highlighting of Tunisian culture and heritage symbols in the identity formulation process. During colonialism, the educational curricula have ignored national history such as traditional architecture, literature, and traditions, which were only mentioned distortedly from an ethnic perspective, alike in the national contemporary cultural schools. During this phase, the re-nationalization effort incorporated historical and contemporary literature in educational programs (example: Abu Al-Qasim Al Shabi – IbnKhaldun...), supported and encouraged authors and poets by organizing conferences, and literature festivals, and promoted new excavations and research for Carthaginian and Medieval sites to highlight national cultural heritage. Amongst the specific features of the cultural re-nationalization effort in Tunisia, and in comparison with the other similar initiatives in Arab region, was the absence of any objective regarding rejection of other cultures – i.e. western cultures or minority cultures – rather, it was a federating process to identify the elements of an open and a rich Tunisian identity. Cultural programs have included: Theatre, Music, Film, Arts, Conferences and Literature. The artistic works were mainly based on national and Arab cultural references with equal interest in translated works and universal art works such as Shakespeare, Dante, Baudelaire, and Goethe. 
  • Decentralization of culture: the decentralization concept was essentially based on reducing the concentration of cultural events and cultural infrastructure in the capital and in major cities of the country, and turn them toward all regions in the country. From administrative perspective, this tendency had no emphasis on the decentralization of decision-making process related to cultural policies development and implementation at regional or local levels.


Phase 2: Culture as an integral element of economic and social development program (mid-1980s to 2010)

Starting from the 1990s, Culture was at the center of government interest from a new perspective. Due to the influence of the global wave of economic liberalization in the 90’s and to the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Plan[2] on the economy - as led by International Monetary Funds and the World Bank for the economic crisis remedy at that time- the State began to formulate a new approach for Culture based on two simultaneous objectives: strengthening national identity and increasing the contribution of the cultural sector in economic development.

The structural change of the Tunisian economic system from socialism toward liberalism has prompted a wave of trade liberalization in industry and services sectors, including the culture sector. The wave of liberalization resulted by the inclusion of cultural industries sector in the Code of Investment Promotion since 1994 and gave access to private investors in the culture sector to financial and tax incentives, compared to any other productive sector. Moreover, public companies in Publishing and cinema domains were dissolved and paved the way for private investments. These evolutions showed a gradual recognition of culture by the government at that time as an integral element of the economic and social development process and as a key sector to reduce the effects of cultural globalization through new investments and dynamics in national cultural production.

The fundamental changes in the Tunisian cultural policy were as follows:

  • Decentralization and thematic specialization through the promotion of regional delegations in governorates, the creation of new cultural institutions (e.g., National Center of Cultural Communication, Arab and Mediterranean Music Centre, Agency for the Development of National Heritage and Cultural promotion) and the reduction of administrative control over publications and artistic works.
  • The adoption of a participatory approach in the elaboration of cultural policies in the establishment of High level Advisory Councils such as the Supreme Council for Culture (2007), an advisory body composed of representatives of ministries, political parties, Artists Unions and non-governmental organizations involved in cultural activities.
  • The expansion of the cultural sector by including digital culture and cultural tourism, and to explicitly support creativity and cultural production through the promotion and the protection of artists’ rights (the foundation of Tunisian Organization for the protection of Authors' Rights).
  • The integration of information and communication technologies and invest them in the development of the Tunisian culture nation-wide and internationally.
  • Encouraging cultural industries, private sector initiatives and public-private partnerships through financial and tax incentives.
  • Create big cultural projects such as the construction of “The city of culture”


Despite the existence of a relatively free economic environment for culture sector, genuine freedom of creativity and of expression, considered as essential to ensure high dynamics of culture, was barely present. Cultural forms were under strong control of the oppressive regime at that time with weak enforcement of cultural rights.

Phase 3 (transitional period): Structural Reforms and Cultural rights

The governmental work in 2011 was characterized by a major focus on resolving social issues primarily throughout urgent solutions to pending social situations, amongst them the conditions of ministries’ staff and workers. The Ministry of Culture took part in this trend by focusing on the review of sector related staff and workers special job categories. Apart from this focus, the Culture Ministry has also experienced, during this period, numerous studies and initiatives from regional and international organizations (especially with UNESCO and the European Union) and from European countries (for example France and Germany) towards strengthening cultural sector contribution to socioeconomic development and youth employment, especially in interior regions. The objectives related to culture and development as well as national identity and decentralization were maintained as important elements for current cultural policy with special emphasis on cultural rights.

[1]National Institute of Statistics ( Table : General data about population/population distribution according to age category : http://www.ins.nat.tn/indexar.php)

[2]“Structural Adjustment Plan” began in 1986 , for more information about this economic mechanism please see definition at WTO site : http://www.who.int/trade/glossary/story084/en/#.

Capítulo publicado: 12-06-2015