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ISRAEL: Researchers see Tunisia as a textbook revolution

February 2, 2011 |  8:45 am

Revolutions seem to take place all of a sudden, but usually they don't really come out of the blue. Whether religious, political or economic reasons are behind upheaval, it often reflects a long process that reached a tipping point and a window of opportunity. 

The time must be right but the ground must be ripe, too. In this context, an Israeli research group suggests Tunisia's was a textbook revolution. Not in the sense that it was a perfect storm or that it followed a certain formula -- no two revolutions are the same -- but in the sense that it may actually have begun in school textbooks.

The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE) is a group that conducts in-depth studies of school curriculum throughout the Middle East, checking hundreds of books per country and they way they teach about tolerance and peace.

A comprehensive study of the Tunisian curriculum, completed in 2009 and presented before the European parliament, found that education in Tunisia cultivates equality and is much more progressive in teaching tolerance than any other Arab country.

But it wasn't always so, says Yohanan Manor, a retired Jewish Agency official and political scientist who established the research group a decade ago. According to Manor, Tunisia began instituting educational reform in the mid-1990s, when Zine el Abidine ben Ali (who was overthrown last month) appointed a political opponent as minister of education. Mohamed Charfi, who died a few years ago, was a lawyer and longtime human rights leader in Tunisia and a fierce critic of Ben Ali, in particular concerning human rights issues.

The now-deposed president had placed Charfi in charge of the education ministry, maybe so that  he could keep an eye on him but also because Ben Ali  was interested in letting the rights leader implement his agenda, which was separating religion and state, Manor said, noting that the issue is a longstanding one in Tunisian history.

The first phase was to extricate the school curriculum from the influence of the clerics -- not in an action against religion, but rather from the position that democracy and Islam can work together so long as "church" and state were separated. A second phase followed later on, geared to prepare for globalization rather than resist it.

The material still takes the Palestinian side in their conflict with Israel, researchers found, but not in a way that negates Jews or Israel. Above all, the study found the educational system to have a "profound understanding of equality and democracy."

Charfi's reforms shaped the younger generation in Tunisia that ultimately rebelled. "Mohamed Charfi is the true champion of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution," Manor said.

According to the group's research, Egypt is another story. With school curricula still very much under control of clerics and shaped largely by Muslim clerics and religious authorities, it does not encourage independent thinking and emphasizes war narratives, not peace. While textbooks do urge tolerance to minorities such as the Copts, according to the study, Manor says they have obliterated any mention of historic injustices they have suffered.

The study also found anti-Jewish material and denial of Israel's existence. Comparing the findings, research group CEO Shelley Elkayam predicts that the chances for the emergence of a liberal democratic regime in Egypt are low.

Currently, the group is studying some 400 textbooks studied in the Israeli education system to compare to previous studies done in 2000 and 2002. Less than halfway through, they haven't found any major changes from previous trends, despite the troubled decade that passed.

A different study uses another model to gauge social attitudes and possibly predict uprisings. Tamir Sheafer and Shaul Shenhav, Hebrew University political scientists, analyzed data from public opinion polls and objective international indices to measure what they call the "democratic gap," which is the gap between the democratic aspirations of the citizens and the level of democracy the state actually allows.

Explained on a popular news site, the study finds that a negative gap  increases regime instability and the chance that people could take to the streets to undermine a government. The study, which should be published by the Journal of Conflict Resolution soon, revealed that the popular uprisings that occurred in Thailand, Iran and Egypt could have been predicted as much as two years earlier.

Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Belarus and even China should read the study when it comes out, as the data indicate they could be looking at civilian unrest in the near future, too. Jordan and Algeria, where democratization is low but the people's aspirations are likewise, appear to be more stable, according to the study.

Of course, there are other factors at play in explaining instability, and wild cards too. Even the weather forecast doesn't always get it right.

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-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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