The recent closure of the Université Libre de Tunis (ULT), Tunisia’s renowned first private university, and its suspension for three academic years, could have been foreseen.

The days of this pioneering institution, established in 1973, became numbered after the publication by its founder and director, Mohamed Bouebdelli, in September last year of a book critical of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s rule. Published in France, and read by Tunisians mainly on the Internet, it was titled “The day I realised that Tunisia was no longer a land of freedom.”

Bouebdelli, an engineer by profession, had long dreamed that Tunisia would be among the first countries in the Arab world to become a democracy. The huge efforts to provide better education for all and promote and protect women’s rights achieved in the wake of the country’s independence in 1956 were behind this belief. As he explains it, the dream was shattered by Tunisia’s evolution into a sophisticated and ruthless police state.

The authorities announced that “administrative and pedagogical irregularities” warranted the move against the university, whose nearly 1,500 students include many from abroad, and which has now been placed under the control of a government administrator. State-run Tunisian media parroted the line that the institution committed “irregularities” and that nobody in Tunisia is “above the law”. Some papers have recently been intensifying attacks against the regime’s critics, including Bouebdelli, and also the Al Jazeera channel for giving them a platform.

Bouebdelli, who has been traveling to Europe and North America to meet with journalists and human rights campaigners, described the move as an act of “political vengeance” provoked by the publication of his book. As one of the groups supporting him in the US, the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association, noted in a letter to Ben Ali on 18 February, the decision to close the ULT was a “culmination of a long-standing pattern of singling out for mistreatment this particular institution and its founders.” In particular, it recalled previous government attempts to close down two schools – the Ecole Jeanne d’Arc and the now-defunct Lycée Louis Pasteur – established and managed by the Foundation run by Bouebdelli and his wife.

The first came in 2004 after a student related to the “ruling clan” (as Bouebdelli put it at a news conference in Paris on 24 February) was denied registration at the Ecole Jeanne d’Arc for academic reasons. This unleashed a “real Tsunami”, including withdrawal of the school’s authorisation, eviction of the headmistress and administrative control of the Foundation’s resources. But the school was saved by a huge movement of solidarity and protest launched by teachers and parents, according to Bouebdelli.

Another blow was dealt in 2007 when the authorities arbitrarily ordered the closure of the Lycée Louis Pasteur. “Everybody knew at that time that it was a decision aimed at favouring, even illegally, a newly established institution, the Ecole International de Carthage, at the initiative of Ms Ben Ali, the President’s wife, and Ms Suha Arafat,” said Bouebdelli. “The Lycée Louis Pasteur affair further poisoned the climate: e-mails hijacked. Repeated health and fiscal inspections.”

The repeated attacks on the Bouebdelli Foundation finally turned a man who for decades was solely involved in running private educational institutions into an indefatigable democracy advocate.

Kamel Labidi

Middle East Iinternational Vol. II, Issue 9: 5 March 2010