The successive political crises Tunisia has gone through since 2011 (2010–2011, 2013, 2016, 2019, 2021) transformed the relationship between the administration and social movements. Accustomed to using the coercive and non-coercive means available to them during the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali, today, these bureaucrats are obliged to mobilize new resources to carry out their functions. In this context, and focusing on the case of the Tunisian university, I argue that the interpersonal relationships bureaucrats build with student activists have become indispensable to the ways in they run the university. Moreover, endemic political instability constrains bureaucrats and activists who must now mobilize, act, and decide within short-term time horizons. I draw on several literatures on everyday statecraft (Olivier de Sardan, 2004; Thelen et al., 2017; Zacka, 2017), on the role of Tunisian University in post-colonial nation building and the historical trajectory that shaped into a major site of politicization (Dhifallah, 2016; El Waer, 2017), and finally on the concept of political crisis (Dobry, 2009) and their effects on rearranging institutional configurations and political alliances. These arguments build on fifteen months of ethnographic observation conducted between 2019 and 2022 on two university campuses in the capital city of Tunis at El Manar University, and in Gabès University, 400 km from Tunis in the south of the country. During this period, I observed formal meetings, informal encounters, and open confrontations between students and the university administration. My data also includes fourteen interviews with street-level bureaucrats and civil servants in addition to forty-seven student activists in 2021 and 2022.
Dhifallah, M. (2016). Les étudiants tunisiens et les gestations de la patrie au milieu du vingtième siècle. Librairie Tounes.
Dobry, M. (2009). Sociologie des crises politiques. Presses de Sciences Po.
El Waer, M. A. (2017). Production et reproduction d’un militantisme de gauche au sein d’un syndicat étudiant dans la dernière décennie de règne de Ben Ali [Maîtrise en science politique]. Université Paris Dauphine.
Olivier de Sardan, J.-P. (2004). État, bureaucratie et gouvernance en Afrique de l’Ouest francophone. Un diagnostic empirique, une perspective historique. Politique africaine, 96(4), 139‑162. https://doi.org/10.3917/polaf.096.0139
Thelen, T., Vetters, L., & Benda-Beckmann, K. von (Éds.). (2017). Stategraphy : Toward a Relational Anthropology of the State (1st edition). Berghahn Books.
Zacka, B. (2017). When the State Meets the Street : Public Service and Moral Agency. Belknap Press.