While Tunisia’s official language is Arabic, signs are often bilingual

On December 31, 2018, Tunis’ city council voted unanimously to pass a measure requiring businesses to integrate Arabic language in their signs. The decision suscitated strong reaction from two sides: one in favor of arabicization as a matter of sovereignty and respect of the constitution (articles 1 and 39), the other denouncing the measure as authoritarian, with the view that each business owner has the right to choose the preferred language for his sign. What could have been limited to a discussion on the right to a public space that is comprehensible for citizens who cannot or prefer not to read in French or English, quickly became a debate on identity.

An idea dating back to the 90s

The instrumentalization of questions concerning language by turning them into an identity issue is no new phenomenon. Unexplicitly, previous attempts to arabicize commercial signs have consistently come in the form of direct, albeit short-lived, opposition to France and French language in the public space. Ahmed Bouazzi, the city council member behind the initiative who is affiliated with the Democratic Current (Attayar) party, relied on a circular from May 17, 1994 that pushed for commercial signs and advertisements to be written at least in Arabic. Circular 94/33, entitled « more interest accorded to the Arabic language », applied in the same context to road signs and administrative documents. At that time, however, the sudden show of interest in language and the public space was framed as no more than a reaction to the international arrest warrant for Moncef Ben Ali. The brother of deposed president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Moncef was accused of heading a drug trafficking operation related to the « Couscous Connection ». Issued by the French justice department, the warrant allegedly suscitated a political reaction that led to the circular in question. The measure challenged French language in the public space which was regarded as undermining national sovereignty.

In Tunisia, bilingualism is engraved in the rock. Crédit photo : Sabra Staali

Language, political tool for « national sovereignty »

The circular of 1994 was the first step towards arabicization of the public administration. If, in 1994, the prime minister advised civil servants to « avoid using a foreign language in their communications and internal documents », that advice became an obligation beginning on January 1, 2000. The circular of October 29, 1999 built off of this obligation, explicitly mentioning the political stakes associated with arabicization: « the Arabic language is one of the pillars of our civilizational affiliation and a symbol of national sovereignty ». A subsequent circular, which we were not able to find in the archives, asked businesses to reserve more space for Arabic on their signs than for other languages. Once again, these decisions were perceived to be a political reaction, this time to the publication of Notre Ami Ben Ali [Our Friend Ben Ali], a book by journalists Nicolas Beau and Jean-Pierre Tuquoi. Nonetheless, arabicization of the public administration was one of the few concrete effects of circular 94/33, which quickly became a dead letter. The proof: circular 94/33 promised to create a special commission to oversee the application of different measures. That commission never saw the light of day, as archives of the Official Journal of the Tunisian Republic (JORT) confirm.

Although Ahmed Bouazzi operated on a certain continuum of political instrumentalization, he personally never instigated any event in particular. The speech addressed to his colleagues at city council evoked the history of decolonization, from Dien Bien Phu to the Bizerte Crisis, without so much as alluding to the interests of the citizens he was elected to serve. The omission was no simple oversight. When we ask Mr. Bouazzi about it over the phone, he hastens to underline « the violation of the rights of citizens who cannot read foreign languages in a country where the national language is Arabic ». Time must have been too short to touch on this aspect of the question during his speech. Bouazzi qualifies his action as a continuation of the work of his predecessors who struggled against the oppressor, affirming that « it is time to continue cultural decolonization ». He cites, by way of example, « a society where those who succeed are those who speak foreign languages ».

With the recent arrival of a number of foreign franchises, new signs in English have appeared in Tunisia. The trend adds yet another dimension to the Arabic speakers vs. French speakers debate. Photo credit: Adriana Vidano

But given the way that the debate is presented by both sides, questions about the role that western languages play in social and spatial inequalities are likely to be shoved aside. In the meantime, the growing visibility of advertisements in English makes it increasingly difficult to ignore the classist function assigned to language. The use of French and English in advertisements and Facebook events is by no means neutral, indicating which groups are being addressed and which are excluded.