Eight Tunisian scholars explored the possibility of establishing a democracy studies program in the North African republic during a visit to Georgetown last week.

Georgetown professors collaborated with the visiting scholars, who included representatives from the University of Tunis, the University of Kairouan, the University of Manar and the School for Higher Education in Economic and Commercial Sciences, from March 17 to 23.

According to Co-Director of the Master of Arts in Democracy and Governance Studies program DanielBrumberg, the academic community in Tunisia has looked to Georgetown for advice partly because it suffered under the reign of former dictator Ben Ali.

“The systematic study of comparative politics, international relations [and] human rights suffered. We are assisting [scholars in Tunisia] in reconstituting these programs, in standing up a new democracy after decades of authoritarianism,” Brumberg said.

Tunisian academics, the Democracy and Governance Studies program at Georgetown and the United States Institute of Peace and the Project on Middle East Democracy are working together on the initiative. USIP contributed two-thirds of the funding for this visit, while the Democracy and Governance Studies program funded the remaining third.

Mohamed Sarsar, a professor of law and political science at the University of Tunis and one of the visiting academics, said that Tunisia must confront a series of problems in order to establish a stable democracy.

“There are three challenges [for Tunisia],” Sarsar said.  “There are challenges about constitutional building and the second challenge is the election — how we should [succeed] the next election — and three is justice. We have a big problem with our judge; we should reform the judicial system and we need a transitional justice.”

Eight Georgetown faculty members presented about their courses in democracy studies. The Tunisian academics took home relevant readings, syllabi and disks.

“The bulk of it is sitting down and doing the hard work of thinking about curricula [for their program],”Brumberg said.  “We didn’t want to go into this imposing any sort of preconceptions about what the results of this endeavor would be, but we wanted to open the process of brainstorming and dialogue.”

Professor of public law and political science at the University of Kairouan in Tunisia Haykel BenMahfoudh said that there are more opportunities than obstacles in creating a democracy studies program in Tunisia.

“We need to take advantage of what we have already in our home country, but also to strengthen based on the [longstanding American] experience in terms of political science.” Mahfoudh said. “It doesn’t mean that we want to move straight to that system, but at least to get our teaching in terms of political science much more open, richer, and to offer a variety given the new context and the new challenges and stakes that we have to take up in Tunisia.”

Participating professors from Tunisia and Georgetown discussed setting up a Summer Democracy Workshop for summer 2014 to push forward this initiative.

“This week was really a tremendous success on many levels, not least of which was creating a core group of U.S. and Tunisian scholars and experts who will be the vanguard for this program,”Brumberg said.

The scholars will convene for a follow-up meeting in June or July in Tunisia.

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