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Masmoudi, First Global Scholar, Travelled to Tunisia to Study Politics

When Iman Masmoudi ’14 traveled to Tunisia this summer, she hoped to better understand what life was like for her parents, who grew up under the dictatorship first of Habib Bourguiba, then of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This became the focus of her Global Scholars project, where she studied the Renaissance Party, a moderate Islamic political party in Tunisia that was created after the fall of dictator Ali.

As Andover’s first Global Scholar, Masmoudi discussed what distinguishes the Renaissance Party and Tunisia as a whole from other Arab Spring nations in her presentation titled “The Renaissance Party: Ennahdha’s Model for Political Islam in Post-Revolution Tunisia.”

“I think what brought me closer to my parents and their culture was researching the dictators that came before the revolution and understanding what life was like for my parents as they were growing up under a dictatorship,” said Masmoudi.

“[A] lot of times when I was in Tunisia, I was like, ‘Why is this happening? Why can’t people all agree? What’s the problem?’ But understanding the historical context and the psyche that all the Tunisians are bringing to this conversation and this transition was really helpful to me,” said Masmoudi.

The Renaissance Party is the first party to successfully establish a government that finds a balance between religion and politics, according to Masmoudi.

Unlike the previous dictators, the Party adheres to the principles of the “Twin Tolerations,” a doctrine that allows religious citizens to freely express their views within the restrictions of the democratic process.

“I was interested in the way that the Tunisian identity encompassed being Muslim while being democratic without there being tension as there usually is. It made me really hopeful that if [the Renaissance] Party could create a liberal democracy with their religion intact, then perhaps democracy could spread in the Muslim World,” said Masmoudi in an interview with The Phillipian.

The current situation in Tunisia is one of great political and economic tension, as civilians are still learning to voice their opinions in a democracy rather than protest or attempt to overthrow a dictator.

“While I was in Tunisia, there was a political assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, a prominent opposition man. This revealed a lot of the faults that were undercurrent in Tunisia. There was a lot of fear [and] accusation after this uproar. This really showed me that I had been a little disillusioned with the transition,” said Masmoudi.

Tunisia also faces an unreliable and untrained media. By the end of Ali’s dictatorship, all established journalists had been thrown out. Their replacements lacked professional training and often published erroneous facts or exaggerations, said Masmoudi.

“For example, this French-Tunisian journalist… basically just took the fact that I attend Andover and wrote an entire article about how my dad must be this wealthy businessman and how the US and the CIA must be funding his operations in Tunisia—all entirely made up, with no basis in fact,” said Masmoudi.

Part of her research included interviews with politicians from both the Renaissance Party and the opposing party, as well as with civilians. Masmoudi met with Meherzia Laabidi, the Vice President of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (NCA).

“It was so intimidating. The same person who was shaking my hand was also writing the constitution of the country,” said Masmoudi, recounting the exchange.

“[Talking to civilians] helped me to see the micro-level. When I spoke to the politicians they would use these big words, trying to be inclusive of all Tunisians. But talking to people I could hear their individual concerns about how the current Tunisian state affects their lives,” she continued.

Masmoudi said that she came to better understand the political situation in Tunisia through her research process.

“Sometimes when you write a history paper, it feels like what you say doesn’t matter because everyone already knows about it. But this time, [I was] actually a part of something as significant as creating a new government [and] establishing democracy in the Middle East, while it’s happening, [and that] was the most remarkable [thing] for me,” Masmoudi said in an interview with The Phillipian.

“I hope that people leave this presentation thinking that the Arab Spring isn’t a lost cause, that democracy in the Middle East, in the Muslim World, isn’t a lost cause. There is a possibility of a democracy being created,” she continued.

The Global Scholar Program, in its inaugural year, allows selected students to explore global issues and cross-cultural perspectives in topics that interest them through independent summer research. With the guidance of a faculty advisor, they write an extensive paper over the summer and present it to the Andover community the following school year, according to Susan Torabi, International Student Coordinator and Academy Travel Coordinator.