Co-authored by Wafa Ben Hassine and Nizar Ben Ayed

In a rather low-key, overlooked way, the Tunisian Minister of Culture, Mourad Sakli, announced yesterday on a radio program on Jawhara FM that the ministry plans on privatizing Tunisian heritage sites. The plan is to have private companies lease the sites for periods of 25 to 30 years.

The Minister justified the privatization plan by referencing the dire state of affairs over at the Tunisian National Heritage Institute. Namely, how the Institute only has 6 offices (in a total of 24 governorates) and that there are staff shortages experienced in each office. The conclusion that he (and his ministry) came to is that the Tunisian state must make ‘concessions’ and allow the monetization of heritage sites – with the remittance of some profits back to the Tunisian state. Private investors will be permitted to use the historic sites for monetary gain, and the projects they establish must have an ‘artistic or cultural purpose’.

Adding insult to injury, the minister went on to claim that such a plan is good for ‘development’ and the ‘public good’, and that all other countries in the world engage in similar privatization reforms. ‘Go to Spain, Italy, where ever you want, you will find that private companies are the ones taking care of heritage sites – they establish shops and cafes, and a full-on marketing policy is employed for the preservation of our history.’

Tunisia, home to hundreds of historic monuments dating back to Roman and even prehistoric times, has yet to work out how the sites should be preserved. The former regime is infamous for using the country’s heritage for personal gains – and (we now know) of the existence of gangs that trade artifacts on the black market. Many international organizations, including the International Council of Museums, have launched efforts to protect such sites, and have called for the state to exercise better care in preserving the nation’s rich history.

It is unclear why the minister would expediently conclude that the solution to such problems is to open up Tunisian heritage to the market and render it a trade commodity. The minister fails to outline what range of options were open to him, why they were ultimately dismissed, and why privatization was considered the best solution. Worryingly, his arguments to justify such proposals lack a considerable amount of detail, overlook the risks involved, and provide no guarantee of a successful outcome. In the face of such an important policy decision concerning heritage, it would be reasonable at the very least to qualify in more detail the nature of the relationship with any financially-motivated private group, what level of control the government could exercise, and to outline an exit strategy if events turn sour.

Mr. Minister, we express caution for the following reasons:

1 Tunisian heritage sites should be treasured, preserved, and valued for current and future generations. They are a gift from past civilizations, they tell the story of Tunisia over the ages and are a unique testimony to this country’s diverse history that stems over millennia. Decisions over the fate of these treasured assets should not in any way be captured nor assigned to a small private group whose principal motivation is based on financial gain.

2 Heritage presents a diffuse benefit for the whole of society. As such, the costs associated to this area should also be diffuse, and therefore levied by a government subsidy. To this extent, extra support should be provided to the Tunisian National Heritage Institute, which benefits from a large degree of expertise.

3 The role of preserving heritage should be retained by the state so that equal access to our shared history is maintained and to avoid perverse private decisions. Access to such sites should not be withheld through a monetary barrier. Archaeological sites and monuments belong to the whole of Tunisian society, and they must be preserved as such.

4 The adoption of privatization reforms in some European countries is no proof for why the Tunisian government should implement a similar approach. Decisions in other countries are almost always conditioned by local environments, pre-existing institutional arrangements, and contingent forces and events, which do not necessarily translate to Tunisia.

5 With hundreds of historic sites, our national heritage exists as an ensemble – we would not want to see any detriment to any part of the collection based on financial viability, particularly for less revenue-generating sites, which might require higher investment sums.

6 It is unclear that a private endeavor would be profitable in the local economy. Here, an implicit assumption is made that a net profit can be made. With potential large sums of investment, this may not be possible without increasing price points or decreasing investment sums to status-quo amounts. Alternatively, private companies may turn our sites into Disneyland-style historical theme parks – all for the purpose of making a profit.

7 The interim technocratic government should not be in the position to legislate any policies that will bind future governments – particularly in regards to legally-binding privatization contracts.The Tunisian government has a poor track record of decision-making in this regard.

8 There is a worrying lack of detail to justify this proposal – the government should transparently make its case for the proposed reforms, and allow for the Tunisian people to decide. The fate of our heritage must be decided on collectively

This and more, Mr Minister, lead us to say: no to the privatization of national heritage  no to the privatization of our history.