Published online 26 January 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.44

News: Q&A

Revolution may end repression of academic freedom in Tunisia

Hamed Ben Dhia, vice-chancellor of Sfax University, recalls life under the ousted dictator.

Hamed Ben DhiaHamed Ben Dhia.Courtesy of Hamed Ben Dhia

There is optimism among researchers in Tunisia that the overthrow of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's regime will unshackle the country's universities from tight restrictions on academic freedom (see 'Tunisian scientists rejoice at freedom' and 'Vive la révolution'). Nature spoke to Hamed Ben Dhia, vice-chancellor of Sfax University (and considered by colleagues to be relatively independent of the Ben Ali regime) about the changes that academics in Tunisia are hoping for.

What was life like under Ben Ali?

After Ben Ali's bloodless coup d'etat in 1987, I initially subscribed to the change. I even wrote articles at the time saying that a new university era was about to start. The regime initially made concessions on human rights, and brought respected human rights activists into the government. But it was to be a deceit, we were all duped, and things really degenerated around 1992 to 1993. We had pretences of democracy and liberty, but we knew that we were hopeless in terms of human rights such as freedom of speech and of the media. We demanded greater democracy, and we kept telling ourselves that this would gradually come. One got used to the limited liberty.

I'm still a member of the Tunisian League of Human Rights, and I'm still a trade union member. I saw the repression that thumped any movement — including students — which dared to criticize the regime. The repression took all forms, including imprisonment. The league and trade unions were harassed and hammered with lawsuits just to paralyse them.

What was the effect on Tunisia's universities?

“It will certainly be difficult. But the revolution has unleashed a burst of energy.”

Hamed Ben Dhia
Sfax University

I'm proud to say that despite our poor resources, in terms of research and education, Tunisia is among the top five in Africa, and near the top of the Arab world. Much of that is due to an extraordinary education system that was started in the 1960s by Habib Bourguiba, the first president after independence.

But decisions, often improvised, always came from on high, and we had to apply them. We enacted an expansion of the universities just to meet targets, we made our baccalaureate easier just to meet targets, we created institutes even when this went against common sense. Universities became just a means to produce papers, but of what impact? PhD theses just fit to be put in a drawer, and a machine to produce numbers of graduates. That's a university system which will not go far, and that's what it has been like the last few years. The universities no longer believe in what they do.

We needed authorization for the smallest thing — for permission to meet someone, to leave the country, for any overtime — we even had to send weekly reports of how staff spent their time. It was more like being policed than university administration.

Above all what we wanted was more freedom, more freedom of initiative, and true evaluation and accountability — in Tunisia, evaluation was used just as another means to control people, not to improve the science.

Nepotism was a problem. Often, people weren't nominated for their competence, but for their allegiance to those in power. Now we can hope to install a meritocracy.

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In student elections to university boards, the candidates of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RDC) had to win 100% of posts. When you deprive a faculty of its right to election, it's all the students who end up being against the RDC and the government.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I have some lurking pessimism, but I think yes. Now we are in a phase of reconstruction. It will certainly be difficult. But the revolution has unleashed a burst of energy. Everyone had been frustrated — university staff, industrialists, the young, even the state bureaucrats. I'm convinced that together we can create a formidable force. I'm resolutely optimistic that, within two years, we'll take off with renewed vigour.

This is a translated and edited version of an interview conducted in French.  

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