Saturday, January 29, 2011

Meanwhile, in Tunisia

As protests go on in Egypt, the editors of Nature checked in with Tunisian scientists to find out how their revolution is working out for them.

Tunisian scientists contacted by Nature could barely contain their emotions about the uprising that this month overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator who had ruled their country for the past 23 years. Although aware of the challenges ahead, many are convinced that a new era of democracy, human rights and academic freedom will prevail — and help to unleash a surge of creative and entrepreneurial forces among a highly qualified but repressed Tunisian population. . . .

Students and intellectuals are often in the vanguard of revolutions, but this was not the case in Tunisia. Instead, broad segments of Tunisia's relatively highly educated youth rose up to protest against high levels of unemployment, government corruption and a dearth of human rights, says Abdelaziz Chikhaoui, an engineering scientist at the University of Provence Aix-Marseille in France, and president of the Association of Tunisian Researchers and Lecturers in France (ACETEF).

"The revolution was unexpected both in intensity and rapidity, we were all surprised by the movement," says Hamed Ben Dhia, president of Tunisia's University of Sfax, who is considered by colleagues to be relatively independent of the Ben Ali regime. Many academics and intellectuals soon rallied to the cause and, on 11 January, the regime shut the universities and schools to stop protests spreading there.

Tunisian researchers are now free to express their frustration with the regime's suppression of human rights — and its management of the higher-education and research system. To judge from publication rates and other metrics, the country has a fairly strong science and higher-education base, which compares favourably with its Arab neighbours. Although proud of the figures, scientists argue that they mask a reality that is much less upbeat.

The scientists complain that under Ben Ali the government micro-managed their institutions, paying them decent salaries but demanding conformity to an agenda that, they say, ultimately stymied the development of Tunisian science and higher education more broadly.

It is good to hear that educated Tunisians are still so upbeat about their revolution, but I feel a little cynical about the hope that more freedom will make everything better. One of the causes of the revolution was the economic stagnation of North Africa and most of the Middle East, and it will not be easy for Tunisia, Egypt or any other Arab country to turn this around and provide the jobs that their large cohorts of young people need. In the short term a democratic government may cut science funding to provide more help to the poor. I wonder how these scientists will feel about the revolution in two or three years. I hope that, eventually, things will improve for all Tunisians, but freedom itself will not make that happen.

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