Metamorphoses of the Cultural Field in Revolutionary Tunisia

Muneer Saidani

The political revolution in Tunisia that erupted suddenly in December 2010 was followed by sweeping cultural changes, which have received little attention. Muneer Saidani examines the metamorphoses of the national cultural field—and the contests of power therein—in revolutionary Tunisia.

In the wake of Tunisia’s revolutionary change, little attention has been paid to the country’s changed cultural landscape. We thus have to begin with a simple question: what are the cultural manifestations of Tunisia’s political transformation?

The country has witnessed an explosion of freedom of expression for many writers, filmmakers, and musical performers, the proliferation of both real and virtual networks, and a generational struggle between cultural producers.

The postcolonial Tunisian state has dealt less and less effectively with the evolving expectations for change among the country’s popular strata. In the months leading up to the December 2010 revolution, cultural metamorphoses were already underway. And they continue over four years on — observable in numerous verbal, written, and witnessed reports diffused by mass media.

Dozens of declarations, statements, positions, and points of view of various actors have sought to assert control over the meaning of this change. Although traditional media remain salient, Facebook and YouTube have increasingly become the main media platforms for diffusing news, declarations, lyrics, video clips, graffiti projects, and stories of art making. A younger generation, with new artistic tastes, has been at its center. The overall cultural landscape thus consists of sub- and sub-versive cultures taking advantage of the social turmoil to dispute the boundaries over freedom of expression.

I identify three aspects—dynamics, mobility, and movement—of the metamorphoses affecting the national cultural field in revolutionary Tunisia, uncovering their role in the social reconstitution of artistic taste. Following French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, I discuss the deeper sociological meaning that such cultural sensibilities carry, particularly against the backdrop of social and political changes. Bourdieu’s notion of field captures how delineated spaces of the social universe, such as politics, the economy, culture, or bureaucracy, are the sites of constant struggles for power and influence among members of those fields. And as fields are linked to one another, the battles within any given field necessarily both reflect and reshape wider social divisions. In Tunisia’s case, these divisions span (but cannot be reduced to) class relations, the religious-secular divide, and the revolutionary-counterrevolutionary mobilization.


From the beginning of the revolutionary process in 2010, some of the actors in the literary subfield, such as writers, poets, and literary critics, inserted themselves in a three-dimensional dynamic context. The first component of this context was contestation, which was prevalent years before the dethronement of the head of the regime in mid-January 2011. The case of the ‘League of Free Writers’ is a very telling example. More than ten years old but without an office or a budget, this organization was able to gather its eighty members, no matter where it had to convene. In the decade before the revolution, the League was demanding autonomy for cultural organizations, freedom of expression, and the end of official control over literary production, so as to guarantee writers’ dignity. The Tunisian Writers Unions (TWU), born only five months before the start of the revolution as part of the formidable, longstanding Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), was voicing similar demands regarding the right to decent jobs, social security, and healthcare for old, ill, and jobless writers.

Collectively, the organizations responded to the common misery of artists and writers: they lacked jobs, money, and social stability. Professional, welfare, and trade unionist organizations, which represented artists in various subfields (musicians, painters, drama-makers, moviemakers, etc.) were unable to really change these artists’ dire situation before the revolution.

Several months after the outbreak of the revolution, however, the majority of these associations, including ones that had been established during the revolution’s very first weeks, organized extraordinary congresses to rectify their guiding visions, with some publishing mea culpa. In each case, young artists and culture producers took center-stage. They were mostly the unemployed graduates of dozens of colleges of the arts (music, painting, film, decorative, heritage, etc.). According to official statistics from the Ministry of Higher Education, in 2010 only 15,000 held jobs in their respective artistic disciplines.

Other demands of cultural organizations targeted the relations between artists and the ruling officials at the central, regional, and local levels. According to them, the state needed to better respect freedom of expression as well as provide a much larger budget for regional events. They demanded that officials alter the way cultural issues are managed, proposing that ongoing dialogues take place involving the very actors of the field regardless of their ideological orientations, political opinions, and cultural trends.

In addition to claims-making, one can see a second aspect of dynamics in the revolutionary Tunisian cultural field: reform. One can refer to dozens of declarations made by the Local and Regional Revolution Safeguard Councils and Committees that hatched all across the country in the first months of 2011. The cultural ministry responded positively to some of the demands for reforms. For example, it instructed officials, with the help of Interpol, to launch some 500 investigations into the plundering of ancient cultural artifacts. Additionally, censorship was eased, funding was reformed, and heritage and festival administrations were established. The first two dynamics—contestation and reform—were visible during the rule of Beji Caid Essebsi’s cabinet from March to December 2011, especially in the explosive context of political contestation in the months before the elections of October 2011.

After the elections another aspect of dynamics became clearer: holding accountable those responsible for corruption, on the one hand, and preventing any potential future loss of the newfound freedoms, on the other. The former has to do with the past, while the latter has to do with the future. Trials sought to hold accountable those involved in corruption and the theft of objects of heritage. At the same time, attempts to prevent impingements upon Tunisians’ newfound liberties have led to a battle over iconoclasm and the religious criminalization of art. Orthodox groups have resorted to religious slogans to safeguard what they consider as sacred institutions, persons, and values. Associations such as the Tunisian Observatory for Culture and Citizenship, the Tunisian Observatory for Religions and Liberties, and the Revolutionary Cultural Movement are fighting to counter the influence and practices of such conservative groups and demand government action against conservative influence over the field of cultural production. Tensions center primarily on the question of the conditions of art production and consumption, the freedom to circulate cultural goods, and the boundaries of the public sphere more broadly.

Regional and Local Revolution Safeguard Councils and Committees were also set up to safeguard liberties. As a 30-year-old activist from Bizerta, a city in Tunisia’s north, put it, “In addition to discussion circles, we had presentations of pictures. We diffused patriotic and nationalist songs. During the holy month of Ramadan we held night discussions with around 300 participants. We used to tape bulletins and other documents and diffused some of them on social networks. The school and college youth were very active in this.”

Another prevention mechanism has had to do with the boundaries between national and international arts and culture. This has posed a very serious challenge to the actors who used to consider themselves as progressives and internationalists. The Fighting Network—a network of roughly one hundred associations of students, activists, and artists, active in 50 countries throughout Europe, America, and Africa—responded to Tunisians’ call for global solidarity by circulating an appeal to hold a meeting in Tunisia (September 29 – October 2, 2011). Students, workers, and activists signed the appeal, and the Network used Facebook to reach participants who were invited to send their art products—written, painted, or sung—and to participate in self-organized expositions, round tables, and presentations. One of the main Tunisian associations taking part in this activity, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tunisia, describes itself as a “revolutionary and progressive organization gathering young Tunisian citizens struggling to safeguard Tunisia’s revolutionary process,” like many other organizations in the Arab world, the Middle East, and Africa, from Egypt to Mali, Morocco to Burkina Faso.

The youth … have been intent on restructuring the institutions, rules, practices, and strategies that had been the cornerstones of the postcolonial Tunisian state’s policies on cultural production

The various aspects of contestation in the national cultural field have paralleled changes in the broader socio-political landscape. The youth, its main agents, have been intent on restructuring the institutions, rules, practices, and strategies that had been the cornerstones of the postcolonial Tunisian state’s policies on cultural production. These dynamics have in turn affected the hierarchy of art and cultural groups, institutions, tastes and trends, paving the way for the vertical mobility of new forms of art.


In revolutionary Tunisia, new mechanisms of cultural production are appearing. Rap music is a main illustrative example. While politically conscious music in Tunisia and the Arab world arguably has deep roots, rap music in the revolutionary context has had an especially strong impact on recent developments. This can be seen at the level of rap artists, their artistic visions, and their links to the world of excluded and marginalized peoples.

Technologically speaking, the conditions of art production, diffusion, and reception are changing, leading to a deep revision of the ‘balance of power’ between the genres and artists in the music sub-field. Economically speaking, rap musicians, whether individuals, duos, or collectives, generally fall outside of the official system of art production. These young people don’t need the support of large recording studios. Instead, dozens of improvised, self-made studios have appeared in houses, apartments, garages and basements throughout the capital and all over the country.

Some of these artists already had established reputations prior to the revolution. Balti, 34 years old, was able to hold personal concerts attended by about 5,000 spectators. During the summer of 2010, he launched a single titled “Passe-partout” in which he harshly criticized, quite sanctimoniously, the behavior of teenage girls from poor neighborhoods who are attracted to the nightlife and lavish ways of living. El Général, a rapper in his early twenties, wrote songs about poverty, police repression, and rampant corruption. His most famous song on this topic, “President of the Country,” was an instant hit upon its release in late 2010. It went on to become an anthem of the revolution, and also landed him in jail for a couple of days. For his part, Psycho M, a 24-year-old rapper whose pieces were widely circulated during the five years before the revolution, was moving in a radical Islamist direction. His song “Manipulation” resumes what he considers “an unlearned history in schools”; he details what he regards as a plot against the Umma by Zionists, colonialism, laics and Arab nationalists, and traitors of all kinds, naming among them a moviemaker and a female writer. A few days after it was posted on YouTube, “Manipulation” was seen and shared by about 60,000 persons.

In the years before the revolution, the majority of rap songs and video clips were about youth unemployment and drug consumption. After the revolution, they became more overtly political in content and tone. One of the most famous of them, entitled “No Passaran,” begins with stanzas of the emblematic patriotic and romantic Tunisian poet Abul Kacem Achabi and openly voices opposition to all political parties, whether in power or in the opposition. These songs find their audiences among teenagers attending rap shows in the streets, squares, and even in stadiums. In the wake of the revolution, numerous so-called revolution festivals have invited rap singers and opened new horizons for the spread of rap music. But virtual networks remain the privileged means of rap’s diffusion, as they allow the young artists to overcome conventional time and space boundaries which would otherwise limit their reach, locally as well as internationally.

For traditional Tunisian artists, the new generation of rap singers are ‘outsiders.’ As a result of its heavy presence on the web, the rap scene is considered a ‘virtual community.’ But while the sharing of cultural products, views, and news takes place online, it would be a mistake to think that members of these virtual communities lack real solidarity. To the contrary, these new communities of taste and vision build social identities that, if necessary, can be mobilized not only on the web, but also on the ground and in other domains of social life.

Moviemakers and their spectators have little patience for the professional, mainstream production route… no more big screens, comfortable seats, and dark halls, but improvised screens, indoors or outdoors, in the streets or in the squares.

Similar shifts in scales of value can be seen in the realm of cinematography. Annual festivals are now being organized where the emphasis is on low-budget documentary films that provide unique insights into the revolutionary moment. Moviemakers and their spectators have little patience for the professional, mainstream production route. In fact, they are eschewing professionalism altogether: no more big screens, comfortable seats, and dark halls, but improvised screens, indoors or outdoors, in the streets or in the squares.

In sum, ‘mobility’—the up and down movement in the positions of individuals and groups along the hierarchy of social stratums, categories, and classes—can be clearly seen in revolutionary Tunisia. This has not been a matter simply of capital recirculating throughout the different domains of art production, as if in a cyclic movement of cultural resources between users. Rather, the changing social situation has created new “domains of contact”[1] that have allowed art products to be shared and exchanged in entirely novel ways, giving them added or decreased values. In this, one can see a tension between the acclimatization of the individual taste and the social structural determination of art reception and consumption. More and more consumers of culture have shown themselves to be omnivores and cultural chameleons in the sense intended by sociologist Michael Emmison.[2] What were once considered secondary artistic genres such as rap, documentary short films, and one-man theater performances, have become highly ranked on the scale of art products. Whether in regards to their widespread dissemination, massive reception, or construction of new tastes, these genres are challenging the positions of actors who have long dominated Tunisia’s postcolonial ‘art market.’


One can say that the rules of coexistence between individuals, groups, and communities are being restructured. In some Tunisian universities and colleges, for example, conflicts arose over the question of whether veiled students should be allowed to enter classrooms and attend courses, with veiled students refusing to reveal, however briefly, their faces to their women teachers. In the Letters and Arts Faculty of Kairouan, Salafist students obliged their male and female colleagues to attend the faculty restaurant halls separately. These are some of the practices Salafists consider to be ‘renewing aspects of Islamic public social life.’ The so-called ‘Urfi marriage’ (where marriage may be consecrated verbally and without an official document) is a growing practice; it poses an obvious challenge to a civil-legal formula that has existed since the application of the Civil Code in 1956, which restricted the number of wives to one and made compulsory registration of marriage in the City Hall register. The trend of Islamic renewal is an example of the underlying social forces claiming a new order as a corrective to the longstanding laic regime. About 250 associations have held sit-ins and organized marches calling for the Islamic sharia to be the source of legislation in the Constitution.

These new customs in Tunisian society are linkable to the emerging scale of what is decent and what is not, what is right and what is wrong. They are expressions on a wider scale of the analogous struggles over values happening in the cultural field, the effects of which have affected everyday life more broadly. The German word Bildung captures this reality quite well. Changing customs, new modes of making cultural objects, tasting new art productions and remodeling rules of diffusion and reception of cultural goods are evidence of the conflicting worldviews underlying this struggle.

As Alain Touraine[3] and other scholars[4] of social movements have shown, cultural movements are often born out of such moments of deep, divisive, historical social change. As the Tunisian situation reveals, they can emerge from interrelated cultural dynamics and forms of mobility. The latter push towards a deepening process of conscious and organized activities, actions, and practices done by cultural agents. Their aim is to usher in transformations and metamorphoses to the rules of the cultural field. Generally speaking, and it is true for the Tunisian situation, this can be accomplished through series of changes affecting the condition of producing, the diffusion and reception of art products, and the scales of artistic valuation. Such a movement cannot be addressed to all the social system since it is challenging the conditions of common life of members of society.

Identity-based movements certainly aren’t missing from this contentious arena. The Amazigh movement for cultural and linguistic recognition, in particular, has grown in Tunisia since the revolution. The Tunisian Association of Amazigh Culture, the first of its kind in the country, was established in July 2011, joining a movement that stretches from Morocco to Algeria, Libya to Egypt, demanding greater rights for the ethno-linguistic community. Amazigh associations have organized and taken part in various festivals showcasing the community’s art, traditions, and legacy.

The movement represents a range of voices from the Amazigh minority acting under the leadership of various activists, among them artists, politicians, journalists, teachers, and doctors. Its sphere of influence is getting wider and wider as actions become increasingly transnational — not only at the level of the Maghrebean neighbors, but on the global level too. Associations and activists are networking and building relationships with the International Amazigh Congress and Berbers all over the world, from the Caribbean Islands to the Siwa Oasis. In 2012, the World Amazigh Congress even convened in Djerba, where most of Tunisia’s Amazigh population resides. But the ideological, political, and social orientations of this movement are not homogeneous. Some currents, for example, demand greater recognition, while others hold that they are fighting for Berber independence from the Arab occupation, to valorize ‘Mountain Settlers,’ as they call themselves, and to devalorize those ‘Saharian Arabs and their Camels.’

It is quite clear—and the same could be said of the earlier examples—that the Amazigh movement is not simply concerned with cultural celebrations and the cultural field per se. Rather, these activities form part of the process by which the movement attempts to accumulate greater symbolic resources that can then be parlayed into concrete political victories. It also serves as a reminder of the tremendous willpower of the popular sectors, who are intent on upholding cultural-civil politics and aim to keep up the pressure on state officials to respond to their needs. This reality would not have been possible were it not for the shifting social and political terrain since Ben Ali’s ouster.

Social construction of artistic tastes

This emergent form of art valuation is a function of the country’s conflicting cultural politics. For much of Tunisia’s postcolonial history, the conditions of art production, diffusion, and reception were almost totally regulated through official political channels. This was a ‘normal’ situation in a socio-political context dominated entirely by a single party. Controlling the allocation of funds for artistic productions was the ruling regime’s main mechanism for guaranteeing the silence, if not the active support, of culture makers. Censorship of books, movies, and theatre was another weapon in the regime’s arsenal.

The management of culture remained largely centralized in the wake of the Revolution. Successive ministers of culture in Beji Caid Essebsi’s cabinet (March-December 2011) directly appointed the heads of regional and local committees of culture, festivals, etc. This was reminiscent of the previous regime’s attempt to control matters of art (the difference this time around, however, was popular pushback). The roadmap of Mehdi Mabrouk, the minister of culture during the ‘Troika’ coalition, for example, sought to assert what he considered the norms of high art. He argued that, as minister, it was his duty to forbid some Lebanese singers, known for their risqué videos and performances, from being invited to Tunisian festivals. When asked to explain if it was the ‘dictatorship of the Minister’ that allowed him to do so, Mabrouk responded, “that’s the dictatorship of the good taste.”

The notion that art taste is a public affair is a point of view held not only by such high-ranking officials. The Centrist Association for Awareness and Reform, which does not participate directly in political life but advocates strongly for sharia, has attempted to openly enforce Islamic values and morals, including what it considers to be ‘appropriate’ conduct and display at certain festivals and celebrations. Indeed, the Association, which the Interior Ministry approved in 2012, and other Salafist groups like it have a word to say about all of these matters. They were behind a campaign against the diffusion of a movie on a private TV channel which they alleged “concretized God, which is totally illicit is Islam.” Another group attacked a cinema that was playing a movie entitled No God, No Master. The same fate was seen by a cultural center exhibiting paintings, among them a piece alleged to be poking fun at God and the Prophet. Between September 2012 and February 2013, some 100 sanctuaries and marabouts were desecrated, burned, and partially destroyed by several Salafist groups which consider them violations of monotheism.

…the legitimacy of art itself has become a stake in the struggles against the imposition of religious norms and values. This is almost an unprecedented situation for Tunisian artists.

In such a context, the legitimacy of art itself has become a stake in the struggles against the imposition of religious norms and values. This is almost an unprecedented situation for Tunisian artists. Forbidding art production as illicit activity is one of the new boundaries of practice artists have to negotiate. One can say that this is a domain of conflict between two types of symbolic and spiritual values and norms-makers; each side views the other as a serious threat to the legitimacy of its monopoly of the scene or even its mere presence in it.

This is a very hard battle between two symbolic visions of culture, defined in its narrow sense as the realm of arts, literature, and cultural goods and commodities. But the actors involved are arguing on behalf of divided social forces. The first camp is made of those who are trying to enlarge as wide as possible the range of freedom of expression. The second one consists of those who are trying to deny the right of the screen, the brush, and the camera to exist and to create. Certainly, this is part of the battle around the liberty of enjoyment of life. It has a lot to do with the determination of the rules of existence of bodies, their ways of living, domains of circulation, and types of exposure in private and public spaces. Such aspects of the conflict between actors in the social taste-making arena indicates that the rules of engagement-disengagement respected over the course of Tunisia’s postcolonial history are already being transformed.

This context has given birth to expectations, aspirations, fears and attractions towards opposite fates. Visions of what is ‘right to do and worse to avoid’ have pushed opponents to reflect on and take action to realize what has allowed them to control, to the highest degree, the fate of the ongoing social change.


The cultural transformations exhibited in the case of Tunisia both challenge and expand our understanding of the wider political transformations experienced across the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the Arab uprisings. We should expect the struggles currently underway across the region, from Egypt to Yemen to regions of Iraq and Syria, to be fought not simply through political contests and warfare, but also through the variegated forms of meaning-making available to actors across the torn fabric of social space. It is incumbent upon us to understand how these various sites, and the actors at their center, link to and shape one another. For in Tunisia and elsewhere, these struggles will increasingly influence not only domestic political contests, but also, just as crucially, the way in which the national is integrated into the global.

Muneer Saidani is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Higher Institute of Human Sciences, Tunis Al Manar University. He is interested in the socio-anthropology of culture and art, and socio-cultural change in contemporary Tunisia and the Arab world. He has published several books and articles in Arabic, French, and English in Tunisia and abroad.

References and Footnotes

  1. Greenblatt, Stephen. 2009. Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Emmison, Michael. 2003. “Social Class and Cultural Mobility. Reconfiguring the Cultural Omnivore Thesis.” Journal of Sociology 39(3):211-230.
  3. See Alain Touraine, [1965] 2000. Sociologie de l’action, Paris, LGF ; 1969, La Société postindustrielle, Paris, Denoël ; 1973, Production de la société, Paris, Seuil ; 1984, Le Retour de l’acteur, Paris, Fayard ; 1992, Critique de la modernité, Paris, Fayard.
  4. See, for example, Sidney Tarrow, 1994, 1998, Power in Movement: Collective Action, Social Movements and Politics, Cambridge University Press; Sidney Tarrow, Bert Klandermans, and Kriesi Hanspeter, eds. 1988, From Structure to Action: Comparing Social Movement Research Across Cultures, International Social Movement Research I, JAI Press.