The MENA and Southeast Asia have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions. Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure.” This essay series explores the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ...



Charles Tilly[1] does not believe that social capital can, by itself, build democracy. In fact, according to Tilly, citizens lacking favorable environmental and historical conditions — even if highly engaged — cannot establish a democracy. If establishing democratic institutions is such an arduous task for citizens living under dictatorship, what political leverage do those living in the diaspora possess? This article explores how the Tunisian diasporas in Italy and France have sought to help implement the transition to democracy.


Previous studies have focused on the diaspora as an amplifier of cyber activism;[2] as a field to observe the effect of the uprising abroad;[3] the diffusion of external voting;[4] the role of Tunisian diaspora in business;[5] the theme of diaspora and identity, etc.[6] However, there are no studies on the influence of diaspora associations in the Tunisian uprising. This article seeks partially to fill this gap by observing diaspora associationism in mass Tunisian emigration countries, namely Italy and France. Since the struggle between Islamists and secular forces in Tunisia persists, it is crucial to investigate whether the diaspora is equally divided.

The Tunisian Diaspora in France and Italy


The 2012 report of the Office des Tunisiens à l’Étranger (OTE) assesses that the Tunisian diaspora community is mainly present in France (668,668 members) and Italy (189,092 members).[7] According to the Republic of Tunisia Ministry of Social Affairs, Office of Migration and Tunisians Abroad (République Tunisienne – Ministère des affaires sociales – Migration et Tunisiens à l’étranger) website, there are 30 associations in Paris alone,[8] notably the ATF (Association des Tunisiens de France), Artistes 100 frontières, ActionTunisenne, ACETEF (Association des Chercheurs Enseignants Tunisiens de France), ATUGE (Association des Tunisiens des Grandes Écoles), UDMF (Union des Démocrates Musulmans Français), and ADTF (Association Démocratique des Tunisiens en France).[9] This study focuses on the engagement of these associations in the democratic transition in Tunisia and the support they have extended to civil society in Tunisia.

The Association of Tunisians in France (ATF) in Paris, which was founded in 1971, has always received French funding. ATF president Mohamed Ellala attested that, as of 2014, the French government had been financing a network of associations in France to support elections in Tunisia.[10] It is difficult to obtain reliable data regarding French financial support to Tunisian associations. Tchernonog’s examination of the associative sector in France revealed that public funding has declined in recent years.[11] Additionally, she highlighted the problem of identifying and distinguishing proper associations from collectives, committees, groups, etc. She also explained that the nature of public funding is complex, and that its allocation depends on an association’s size, staffing, and the activity sector in which it works. About 67% of such public funding in France is channeled to social and medical associations.[12]  As Pouessel argues, the role of ATF was crucial in the aftermath of the Tunisian uprising, especially insofar as defending and promoting the rights of Tunisians abroad.[13] In fact, it was mainly thanks to ATF’s advocacy that Tunisians abroad were able to cast their ballots in the October 2011 elections.

According to Imen Ben Mohamed, a member of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly, exiled members of Ennahda were active in pushing the Tunisian government to allow diaspora participation in the voting.[14] Ben Mohamed stated that “Nahdawis” exiled in Italy and France lobbied Tunisian politicians to design electoral procedures to ensure diaspora participation and made crucial contributions in the drafting of the constitution.[15] Moreover, over the past two years, Ennahda has pushed for the establishment of the so-called High Consultative Committee of Tunisians in Diaspora, which aims to give Tunisians living outside the motherland the possibility to have a voice on matters with which they are concerned. Karim Azouz from Ennahda France is also actively engaged in Tunisian politics, through the Association Tunisienne pour la Démocratie (AT2D).[16] Although Ennahda has affiliated associations in Italy and France, party members prefer not to talk about them because, as Ben Mohamed stated, “If you are committed in a party, you cannot be engaged in the civil society too.”[17] Such precautions suggests that the party needs to maintain an appearance of cohesion and reliability, as if the presence of civil associations could undermine electoral support for or otherwise tarnish the public image of the party.

The Union for Tunisia (Uni’T) is an active association dedicated to promoting the interests of French-Tunisians in Tunisia. Uni’T was created in the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution in 2011. Bader Lejmi explained that during his tenure as Uni’T treasurer in 2016, this group organized many café-debates and conferences on numerous political topics, such as the rights of Blacks in Tunisia, anti-discrimination law, women’s rights, and violent extremism.[18] Lejmi averred that Uni’T is entirely self-financed because they want to maintain their ideological freedom from the French government.[19] They are also engaged with Tunisian civil society and with Tunisian academics. 

Likewise, Association Tunisienne des Grandes Ecoles (ATUGE) contributed to the Tunisian transition. As Bel Haj Zekri explained, the diaspora elite, especially the youngest members of ATUGE, took active part in the reconstruction of the Tunisian political environment. For instance, three ministers in the 2011 interim government came from the ranks of ATUGE, namely, Mehdi Houas, Jalloul Ayed and Elyès Jouini.[20] Although training abroad for Tunisian politicians is not new (Habib Bourguiba studied and worked in France), the presence of politicians from the diaspora in parliament is a new phenomenon, which contributed to change the perception and attitudes of Tunisian politics vis-à-vis the elite outside Tunisia. As a result, emigrants are no longer only a source of remittances, but also crucial political actors.[21]

Finally, the youth branch of Ennahda is also very active in France. The leader of the Office for the Tunisian Students Abroad observed that the Jeunes Ennahda France is part of the broader Ennahda party but is considered a wider “community.”[22] The youth in the community (ages 18 to 35) come from different backgrounds. My interviewee, who requested to remain anonymous, is a Tunisian who moved in France three years ago, while other members are third or fourth generation French-Tunisian. He had had previous experience in the UGETE, the Islamic student association in Tunisia. He decided to become active in Ennahda for both ideological and operational reasons. Jeunes Ennahda France are active in helping students, organizing debates and sport events. The same interviewee told me that Jeunes Ennahda France are strongly connected to broader civil society, the congressmen and the youth of Ennahda in Tunisia and that their goal is to sustain the party with their ideas and contributions.


The Italian Ministry of Labor and Social Policies has compiled a list of Tunisian associations active in the country. Among them are Association of Tunisians in Italy (ATI), PONTES, La Voce del Migrante Tunisino, Studenti Tunisini in Italia, Associazione Voce Nuova Tunisia, and Centro Integrazione AMAN.[23]

PONTES is an apolitical secular association engaged in promoting civil rights and advocating for Tunisian citizens in Italy that initiated its advocacy activities following the ouster of the Ben ‘Ali regime in 2011. According to Mejri, who has served as director since 2006, PONTES had a role in the democratization process in Tunisia only because Tunisian civil society accepted the help of expats.[24] PONTES’ support took the form of two main projects in Tunisia, namely Reutilisation Economie Circulaire Participation Italie Tunisie (REPIT) and COMmunauté d'ACTion pour la DIASPORA (COMACT DIASPORA).[25] REPIT is funded by the Tuscany regional government and is focused on reinforcing local Tunisian institutions to improve the quality of life in urban areas. COMACT DIASPORA seeks to promote entrepreneurship in the diaspora through supporting Tunisian-owned businesses and encouraging investment.

ATI, established in 2017, is the youngest of its kind in Italy. It was created by Adel Chehida, a Tunisian doctor, to help Tunisian students in Italy with documents and bureaucratic problems linked to the residency permit. As Chehida explains, “we have a serious problem when it comes to the drop-out rates of many second-generation Tunisians, as they are affected by the unstable economic condition of their parents. So, our goal is to be useful in Italy first.”[26] As Chehida illustrates, the Tunisian diaspora in Italy is not as “cultivated” as in France, as most of the Tunisians on Italy are working-class.[27] Therefore, broadly speaking, the associations of the diaspora active in Italy are not involved in debates around cultural and political issues, preferring to focus on material problem-solving ones.

The diaspora Giovani Ennahda Italia is interesting. I interviewed the leader of the young “Nahdawis” in Italy, Hamdi M’barki,[28] who stated that his group is still young and that though nominally affiliated to Ennahda focus more on civil activism than on politics. Unlike in France, where associationism is different and Tunisians are more and have been organized for a long time, in Italy the panorama is more fragmented and more devoted to voluntary work. M’barki told me that his aim is to get young people involved in the association to make them active in their society and maybe to think about projects of development in Tunisia.

Lotfi Ben Hammouda, president of the Associazione Voce Nuova Tunisia (New Voice of Tunisia) explained that the association was created in 2011, but they were already active on the territory, notably in Parma.[29] The main goal of the association is to help the Tunisian diaspora in Italy by navigating Italian bureaucracy, providing social services, and organizing cultural events. The association is linked to civil society in Tunisia, and especially with the OTE, to facilitate cooperation and exchange of information for the diaspora. Ben Hammouda notes that the association is apolitical and that it is there to help Tunisians, not to do politics, however, he was engaged himself in politics in 2011, in a civic list to help drafting the constitution. Nowadays, Ben Hammouda is really concerned about the project of The High Consultative Committee of Tunisians in Diaspora, since he thinks it’s necessary, but he fears that the OTE would somehow hinder the process.

What Role for Civil Society Abroad? 

As we can observe from the interviews, the French and Italian diaspora associations are strikingly different. Their goals are not identical. Furthermore, broadly speaking, those based in France tend to be more engaged in advocacy and democracy-building than those residing in Italy. These differences largely reflect the demography of the Tunisian diaspora in the two countries — characterized by a wide variance in size, permanence and education. 

Associations in Italy and France have supported Tunisian civil society through many different means and connections. Some directly influenced the constitution and strengthened the power of the diaspora while others raised public awareness of the democratic culture in diaspora countries. Still others engaged in cooperative projects oriented toward Tunisia. As Bel Haj Zekri observed,[30] in the aftermath of the uprising, the Tunisian elite abroad raised its voice to engage in political participation in the motherland. Pouessel reported that “The Tunisian diaspora has long remained silent for fear of reprisals by the regime. [But] After the revolution, the Tunisian diaspora was involved in rebuilding the country.”[31] In addition, according to Graziano,[32] the links between the Tunisian diaspora and are motherland had been strong and have been further strengthened in the post-revolutionary years through the power of the Internet. In fact, most Tunisian activist websites, especially in the first years after the uprising, were managed by the Tunisian diaspora. As Lecomte observed, the Tunisian diaspora was crucial in creating networking of online activism.[33]

The Secular-Islamist Divide in the Tunisian Diaspora

The Uni’T militant Bader Lejmi states that the secular-Islamist divide is alive and well in France as it is in Tunisia. In France the ideological debate is more nuanced than it is in Tunisia, where the cleavage is represented in binary political terms as liberal versus illiberal. In fact, the French ideology of laïcité and equality overlaps with this divide. As Lejmi explained, in France there is not only an Islamist-secular debate various positions within the secular trend. For example, the French values of laïcité and equality have become a field of “resistance” for secular Tunisians who do not wish to subscribe to imposed “French” values.[34] According to the Jeunes Ennahda France interviewee, the secular-Islamist debate in France is not as contentious as in Tunisia.[35] 

Mejri claims that the secular-Islamist struggle within the Tunisian diaspora in Italy is not an issue.[36] This is in sharp contrast with the situation in Tunisia where, as M’barki attests: “In Tunis there is fear, and if you tell you believe and you’re religious, secular people start being skeptical of you.”[37] Chehida adds that the political cleavage is strong among the Tunisian associations in Italy, many of which are subsumed in the Ennahda party, making it very difficult to create a common project.[38] Finally, Ben Hammouda observes, Tunisian associationism in Italy is sometimes menaced by Tunisian political forces that want to control the diaspora, as they had before the revolution.[39]


Divisions persist even in the diaspora, despite being mitigated by the geographical and cultural distance. In France, the secular-Islamist debate is profoundly influenced by French cultural stances (e.g., the concepts of equality or laïcité). However, the secular-Islamist divide in Italy is, to a lesser extent than in France, anchored in a deep intellectual debate. Instead, the defining characteristic of associationism in the Italian diaspora appears to be the strengthening of cooptation and control, which could engender and reinforce the secular-Islamist divide.


[1] Charles Tilly, Social Movements 1968-2004 (London: Routledge, 2004).

[2] Teresa Graziano, “The Tunisian diaspora: Between ‘digital riots’ and Web activism,” Social Science Information 51, 4 (2012): 534-550.

[3] Nora Ragab, Elaine McGregor and Melissa Siegel, “Diaspora Engagement in Development: An Analysis of the Engagement of the Tunisian Diaspora in Germany and the Potentials for Cooperation,” UNU-MERIT 6, 2 (2013),

[4] Thibaut Jaulin and Björn Nilsson, “Voting at Home and Abroad: The Tunisian Diaspora since 2011,” Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales 3, 31 (2015): 41-71.

[5] Sylvia Garcia Delahaye and Gabriela Tejada, “Transnational Investments of the Tunisian Diaspora: Trajectories, Skills Accumulation and Constraints,” in Maria Elo and Indianna Minto-Coy (eds.), Diaspora Networks in International Business: Perspectives for understanding and managing diaspora business and resources (New York: Springer International Publishing, 2019): 105-126.

[6] David Carment and Ariane Sadjed, “Introduction: Coming to Terms with Diaspora Cooperation,” in D. Carment and A. Sadjed (eds.), Diaspora as Cultures of Cooperation. Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship (New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2017): 1-26.

[7] Office des Tunisiens à l’Étranger (OTE) 2012 Report,

[8] République Tunisienne – Ministère des affaires sociales – Migration et Tunisiens à l’étranger,

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mohamed Ellala, interview with author, Paris, 2018.

[11] Viviane Tchernonog, “Le secteur associatif et son financement” [The voluntary sector and its financing], CAIRN 4, 172 (2012): 11-18.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Stéphanie Pouessel, “Report on Tunisian Legal Emigration to the EU Modes of Integration, Policy, Institutional Frameworks and Engagement of Non-State Actors,” INTERACT Research Report – European University Institute and Robert Shuman Centre for Advanced Studies (2014).

[14] Imen Ben Mohamed, interview with author, Tunis,  2019.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Karim Azouz, phone interview with author, March 2019.

[17] Imen Ben Mohamed, interview with author, Tunis, 2019.

[18] Bader Lejmi, phone interview with author, March 2019.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Abdelrazak Bel Haj Zekri, “La dimension sociopolitique actuelle de la migration en Tunisie” [The current sociopolitical dimension of migration in Tunisia], CARIM Analytic and Synthetic Notes - European University Institute (2011).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Jeunes Ennahda, Leader of the Office for the Tunisian Students Abroad, skype interview with author, March 2019.

[23] Government of Italy, “Living and Working in Italy,”

[24] See PONTES website,

[25] Ibid.

[26] Adel Chehida, interview with author, March 2019.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Hamdi M’barki, phone interview with author, February 2019.

[29] Lotfi Ben Hammouda, skype interview with author, March 2019.

[30] Zekri, “La dimension sociopolitique actuelle de la migration en Tunisie.”

[31] Stéphanie Pouessel, “Report on Tunisian Legal Emigration to the EU Modes of Integration, Policy, Institutional Frameworks and Engagement of Non-State Actors,” INTERACT Research Report – European University Institute and Robert Shuman Centre for Advanced Studies (2014).

[32] Teresa Graziano, “The Tunisian diaspora: Between ‘digital riots’ and Web activism,” Social Science Information 51, 4 (2012): 534-550.

[33] Romain Lecomte, “Internet et la reconfiguration de l’espace public tunisien: Le role de la diaspora,” TIC&Société 3: 1–2 (2009).

[34] Bader Lejmi, interview with author, March 2019.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ouejdane Mejri, interview with author, December 2018.

[37] Hamdi M’barki, phone interview with author, February 2019.

[38] Adel Chehida, interview with author, March 2019.

[39] Lotfi Ben Hammouda, skype interview with author, March 2019.

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