This essay is part of a series that examines the genesis, evolution, mobilization tools and processes, impacts and limitations of informal civil society in political transitions, that is, loose groupings of like-minded individuals—those that are unofficial, unregistered, or unregulated—in the MENA and Southeast Asia. Read more ...

Ten hands holding each other around the wrist form a circle around the crescent and star of the Tunisian flag. At critical moments since the popular uprising in 2011 and the ousting of President Ben Ali this picture was often accompanied by the slogan ”Together for Tunisia.” The message of the circle of hands and the slogan is clear: Tunisia is one nation of one people standing together. This narrative was enforced and reproduced in 2014 when the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[1] for their effort to bring the work on a new constitution back on the track. The Quartet consisted of four large organizations,[2] often referred to as “civil society actors,” representing all segments of Tunisian society.[3]

The Quartet seemed to support a view of the importance of ‘civil society’ in Tunisia and who and what ‘civil society’ in Tunisia is that dates back to the takeover of power by President Ben Ali in 1987 and the so-called ‘National Pact’ signed in 1989.[4] The Pact reflected a narrative of national unity articulated in speeches delivered by President Ben Ali that encouraged Tunisian civil society to take an active part in what he called “The New Era.” This led scholars such as Eva Bellin to note that “associational life has indeed blossomed. Recent official counts put the number of associations in Tunisia at over 5,100, with 3,300 formed since 1988.”[5] Today we know that many of these civil society organizations were launched and funded by the authoritarian regime. But Ben Ali’s New Era seemed in many ways to confirm the expectations of the scholars of modernization theory, and of neo-liberal assumptions focusing on civil society as a precondition for and hallmark of democratization. As Yom has noticed: “Drawing upon such work, Arab specialists generated exciting studies that dissected civil society―defined as the organizational sector of public life distinctive from the family, market, and state.”[6]

This essay challenges these ideas and concepts. It demonstrates that national unity was constructed and utilized as a tool by the Tunisian state for the purpose of consolidating power, and that traditional kin-based and family ties have existed parallel to the formal structures of both the state and civil society as frames for social and political activity. As will be shown, these historical frames for organization were revitalized after the popular uprising in 2011.

Narrating National Unity: The Tunisian Family

In many ways, the circle of hands and the slogan “Together for Tunisia” is a reproduction of the Tunisian nation-state created by President Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987) and continued by President Ben Ali (1987-2011), depicting the country as a homogenous, harmonious country composed of a population 98 percent of which is Arab Sunni Muslims and with no significant regional differences in culture, ways of life, or worldviews. The narrative of national unity was launched by President Bourguiba in the wake of Tunisian independence in 1956. As Charrad has noticed: “To establish the hegemony of the state, the groups in power must transfer social control at least in part from its prior basis in local, ethnical, or kin-based communities to national institutions. Only then is the state in a position to make binding decisions for all.”[7] In an effort to solidify his own power and to establish the “hegemony of the state,” Bourguiba devised measures to delimit the role of Islam and instituted family law reforms.

The family law reforms gained Bourguiba and Tunisia a very positive reputation in the Arab world as well as in the West. There is no doubt that the reforms accorded Tunisian women a wide range of legal rights that moved the country towards gender equality. However, the family law reforms, in particular, also aimed to weaken, if not dismantle historically-based kinship ties, which until then had “served as a major anchor for social solidarity, social control, and collective political action.”[8]  The aim of seeking to dismantle these kinship ties stemmed from the concern that they constituted a basis for contenders for power.

The contenders were found within the Tunisian independence movement, Neo-Destour. Although Bourguiba was the titular head of the movement, Neo-Destour was split between a Bourguiba faction, which aspired to replicate the French governance model in Tunisia with its separation of governance and religion, and a faction led by Salah Ben Youssef who wanted Arab-Muslim values to be much more central. Salah Ben Youssef originated from the southern part of Tunisia, where, historically, kin-based and tribal ties and the consciousness of these ties has been particularly strong. Islam, which was also strong in these areas, constituted the frame for legal and societal organization as well as the marker of identity. Ben Youssef considered these values as crucial for the newly independent Tunisia, and placed himself in opposition to Bourguiba’s French-inspired promotion of laïcité. It is in this context—of a struggle for power to define the identity of a future independent Tunisia—that Islam and kinship-based groupings posed a challenge to Bourguiba’s consolidation of the “hegemony of the state.”

Bourguiba emerged as the winner of this internal power struggle when he succeeded in signing an agreement securing Tunisia’s partial independence from France in 1956. He sentenced Salah Ben Youssef to death, though the latter fled to Tripoli and then to Zürich, where he was assassinated in 1961.[9] Shortly after taking power Bourguiba, initiated a comprehensive reform program, including steps towards state-led socialism, education and family law reforms, and the granting a wide range of legal rights for women.

Bourguiba's reform policies were intended not simply to create an independent Tunisia by dissolving the traditional structures but to replace them. His aim was to imbue society with a sense of collective “national” identity. Thus, he embarked on a project of constructing the “nation” by shifting primary identity and loyalty from the family unit to the “Tunisian family.” This message was disseminated through Bourguiba’s many and famous speeches. In one such speech, delivered in 1962, he said that “the consciousness of the solidarity and the brotherhood which link the members of the Tunisian family associated in the same effort, within a cooperative or a society, within a village, the government or the homeland […] constitute the cement of a united nation.” Thus Bourguiba managed to move loyalty and identity from the smallest unit—the village—to the abstract level of the nation. Family, tribal, and village loyalty was thus transferred to the “Tunisian family” and its father, Bourghiba.

Upon taking power in 1987, Ben Ali continued the practice of the iconization of the president as the Father of the Nation. Photos featured Ben Ali embracing old “uncles and aunts” while the “Tunisian family” in the villages applauded him. Billboards in villages and towns throughout the country were emblazoned with the text “Together with Ben Ali for Tunisia’s sake.” However, the reform policies and the articulation of a transcendant Tunisian nation-family as a replacement of the small, close family based on kinship were only partially successful. As will be shown, kinship ties proved remarkably resilient and available to contenders who would employ them, especially after the popular uprising in 2011, for the purpose of social mobilization. In addition, the name of Salah Ben Youssef reappeared as a reference in instances where people in marginalized areas in the interior and southern part of Tunisia argued that the time had come for their inclusion in building Tunisia’s future. Thus, the struggle for identity and power underlying all other organizational structures for social and political activism continued in the decades after independence. 

Narratives of Kin-Based Unity

Over the years, despite the comprehensive reform programs of both president Bourguiba and Ben Ali, there was clear and growing evidence of the state’s indifference and inability to satisfy the basic material needs of the population in the northwest, interior and southern parts of Tunisia—strongholds of the contenders for power. Perhaps less clear is that, in the context of these failures and deficiencies, which sapped the legitimacy of the state and ultimately led to the popular uprising, traditional kinship ties remained intact, as illustrated in the area of Nefzaoua in southern Tunisia, nearby the Sahara.

The Tunisian population living in Nefzaoua area is composed mainly of five major tribes.[10] The Marazig—a tribe that only two-three generations ago was semi-nomadic—now resides in the town of Douz.[11] Other tribes also inhabit Douz, such as the Jleila, who are distant cousins of the Marazig. There is a keen awareness among the residents of Douz of who is a “real” Marazig and who is not. From the very first settlement in this area, the Marazig were seen as superior to the other tribes and had the obligation of protecting and leading the inhabitants of what later became the town of Douz. This hierarchy manifests itself in the physical division of Douz into quarters, as well as in local politics and business. Some members of the Marazig lineage see themselves as essentially different from the Jleila in terms of their mentality, profession, and economic standing. As a result, “real” Marazig and Jleila generally do not mingle with each other. The sharpest distinction or barrier is that between the Marazig and the people of Aouina. The latter are not directly related to Marazig and thus many Marazig do not consider their holding any public position in the town to be legitimate.

Kin-based Ties and Post-Uprising Social Mobilization

While such relationships between tribes and families building on historical descent were not part of the official story before the popular uprising in 2011, the relevance of a division of towns along family and kinship lines became visible to the wider public after the uprising. One example is the mining town of Metlaoui, which is situated in southwestern Tunisia near the mountainous border with Algeria. In May 2011 riots erupted in Metlaoui. Rumors circulated by the Tunisian media would tell that the local phosphate company—by far the biggest and most important employer in the area—recruited mine workers from a specific tribe instead of offering the positions in open calls and on the basis of merit. Clashes broke out between those families favored by the phosphate company and those which were not.

Three years earlier, Metlaoui had also been the site of a popular uprising; however, this earlier unrest was led by Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (The Tunisian General Labour Union, or UGTT), and not by families and tribes vying for jobs. This phenomenon led the editor of the Tunisian magazine Kapitalis to observe that: “At difficult moments and in the absence of a socio-political frame of reference (a strong government, legitimate parties, representative organizations) people take refuge in what they consider as the primary unit of social organization: the family, the clan, the tribe. The feelings of national belonging and civism—if this has ever existed in these regions unfairly marginalized and neglected by the state—leave room for solidarity based on clans and tribes.”[12] As discussed above, the existence and relevance of tribes, clans, and kinship is coupled to the state project of creating a “nation” where the state’s role as provider of social security is crucial.

In the case of Metlaoui, kinship divided the local population. However, kinship ties have also served as the basis for alliances and as a frame for social mobilization. While Tunisia and Libya has been separated by the official border since 1910,[13] the populations in the border area have all along maintained close ties. These trans-border linkages were visible to the outside world in the years prior to the uprising primarily in the form of unofficial, or ‘illegal’, commerce whereby marketplaces in southern and western Tunisia traded goods from Libya at much lower prices than similar products available in official Tunisian markets.

Trans-border ties played an important role in the 2011 humanitarian response, when more than 40,000 Libyan refugees arrived in south Tunisia in February as a consequence of the confrontations between protesters and state security forces. Little, if any, official emergency assistance was available to cope with the initial mass influx of refugees. The local population stepped in to fill the vacuum. Ties between families, relatives, and friends became the framework for social mobilization. Many Libyans in the first waves of refugees were accommodated by families, friends, and kin in the southern Tunisian towns of Medenine and Tataouine and on the isle of Jerba. Informal volunteer groups emerged, setting up primitive offices and organizing the collection of cash donations to cover the expenses for packages of fruit, vegetables, pasta, and milk distributed to the Libyan refugees, as well as gathering of blankets, clothes, and other basic needs. These informal groups continued their work for many months, even after the arrival of international aid organizations such as the Red Cross/Crescent and the World Food Program. By May 2011, Tunisia had officially received more than 400,000 refugees from Libya. Half of them—guest workers from China, Egypt, Sudan, and elsewhere—were repatriated through the intervention of the Tunisian state and international organizations. However, the rest were accommodated and assisted through informal networks based on generations of family relations and other kin-based ties.

Does a Socio-political Frame Exist?

The two examples above demonstrate how family and kin-based ties were activated, and how they formed an important framework for social and political mobilization in the months following the popular uprising in 2011. Since then, Tunisia has seen the creation of more than 2,800 new, formal civil society organizations.[14] Nevertheless, family and kinship-based activism continues to exist. At the beginning of 2016, there was a fresh outbreak of unrest in the cities of Kesserine, Le Kef, and Medenine. Historically, these cities have been among the most deprived areas of the country, not least because they were strongholds of tribal- and religious-based challenges to the power of presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali. The 2016 unrest was a reaction to the continued high rates of unemployment and economic deprivation in these regions. The unrest indicates that the population in the periphery still feels excluded from the “nation” and from political processes which they regard as still dominated by a Tunis-based elite.

The question which arises is whether the current relevance of kin-based groupings reflects the absence of a strong state, political parties, and representative organizations or constitutes a fundamental, historically rooted base for social and political mobilization and as such is an integral part of Tunisian civil society. The American political scientist Lisa Anderson has criticized Middle East scholars for focusing their research only on issues, actors and events “where the light shines.”[15] Anderson calls on researchers to be more discerning: “We may have to search a bit more in the shadows, in the arenas of political life less well illuminated by conventional political science.”[16] If we set aside conventional notions of civil society and search instead in the shadows—as, for instance, in the informal sector—we might discover, as this article has sought to demonstrate, that socio-political activism and mobilization can be based on kinship, tribal, and family belonging; and that such frames were never really dismantled and are indeed still very much alive in Tunisia.


[1] Sewell Chan, “Nobel Prize is Awarded to a National Dialogue Quartet in Tunisia,” The New York Times, October 15, 2015, accessed October 14, 2016,…

[2] The four organizations were: The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), The Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), The Tunisian Human Rights League and The Tunisian Order of Lawyers.

[3] Julian Borger, “Who are the Tunisian national dialogue quartet?” The Guardian, October 9, 2015, accessed October 14, 2016,….

[4] In September 1988, Ben Ali invited the leaders of 16 opposition parties and civil society organisations to discussions of a new national agreement, The National Pact. The agreement was approved on November 7, the first anniversary of Ben Ali’s takeover. The National Pact was signed by the four associations, which 15 years later, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (The Tunisian General Labour Union, or UGTT), Union Tunisienne de l’industrie, du commerce et de l’artisanat (Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, or UTICA), The Tunisian Human Rights League, and The Tunisian Order of Lawyers. See Lisa Anderson, “Political Pacts, Liberalism, and Democracy: The Tunisian National Pact of 1988,” Government & Opposition 26, 2 (1991): 24–260.

[5] Eva Bellin, “Civil Society in Tunisia,” in Richard Augustus Norton (ed.), Civil Society in the Middle East Vol. 1 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), 136.

[6] Sean Yom, “Arab Civil Society after the Arab Spring: Weaker but Deeper,” Middle East Institute, October 22, 2015, accessed October 14, 2016,

[7] Mounira M. Charrad, Women’s Rights. The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 20.

[8] Ibid, 6.

[9] Omar Khlifi, L’Assassinat de Salah Ben Youssef (Tunis: MC Editions, 2005).

[10] Field work conducted from 1996 to 2001.

[11] The Marazig trace their origin to Hamad Ghoudh Marazug, who led a caravan from the Arabian Peninsula in the 13th century. Other tribes in Douz are descendants of relatives of the Marazig, such as the Jleilas.

[12] Editorial, Kapitalis, April 26, 2011, accessed October 14, 2016, Assiste-t-on à la resurgence du clanisme et du tribalisme en Tunisie?”

[13] Convention de délimitation des frontières entre la Tunisie et la Tripolitaine (Treaty Demarcating the Borders between Tunisia and Libya), Wikisource, accessed October 14, 2016,

[14] Foundation for the Future: Study on Civil Society Organizations in Tunisia, January 2013.

[15] Anderson, Lisa (2006) “Searching where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East,” Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 189-214.

[16] Ibid., 210.


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