Short visit at the National Archives of Tunis: looking for traces of the revolt

By Mélanie Henry

One of the objectives of the research project DREAM (Drafting and Enacting the Revolutions in the Arab Mediterranean) is to identify the archives containing sources for the history of revolts since the 1950’s in the Arab Mediterranean worlds. Accordingly, this report dealing with a lurch at the National Archives of Tunisia, has been written with the following intention: to share concrete information that would facilitate, or even allow, further investigations. This modest approach would also allow us to think about the traces of revolts in different historical configurations: what kind of sources are they? Who does preserve and distribute them, and how? How does it relate to the past, history, and social change?

My point of view is tinged with a slight feeling of strangeness: I am familiar with the problems mentioned above in general, but I have dealt with them more concretely in the Egyptian context. I only spent a few days at the National Archives in Tunis, therefore, the odds of being successful were low considering the length of the stay and the relationships of trust being established in the field. However, these few days of enquiry followed an official meeting between the Director of the National Archives, Hedi Jallab, and the DREAM team. The latter includes several researchers known within the Tunisian intellectual scene, and in particular historian Kmar Bendana, whose connection with the director was decisive to my enquiry.

The problem is that there is no systematic accessible inventory of the resources of the National Archives for the period from 1956 onwards. The objective was therefore to conduct a preliminary survey in these archives, a kind of coring in archival material built around three major events: the 1968 student movement, famous for its intense repression, the 1978 general strike in which the Tunisian General Labour Union and the Government were opposed, or the 1984 uprising also known as “the bread riots”. The surveys carried out in the archives of the “High Court and the State Security Court”, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Party’s Coordinating Committees[1] are detailed below.

In his presentation to the DREAM team, the Director of National Archives, Hedi Jallab, traced the beginning of national archiving back to 1874 with the creation of a “State Correspondence Centre”[1]. But he also clearly established the birth of the institution he is heading with the December 1988 national Tunisian decree[2]: the latter formulated the national mission of managing, sorting, depositing, and communicating public archives. It was in the mid-1980s that the principle of an archival institution that would concentrate these different objectives was established. Since independence in 1956, the archiving logic of administrations has been disconnected from that of “consultation”, and consequently from the work of history researchers. The first focus of the reflections on archives and history was on the painful past of the time, the colonial period, usually called the “national movement”. The narrative of the present time was a political affair, on which President Bourguiba (1957-1987) kept control and only a few human and social sciences productions on Tunisia came about since independence in 1956[3]. The documentary work on the present time was carried out by two institutions. The main one, the National Documentation Centre, which was founded in 1962 and whose resources are still accessible[4], did work on the Tunisian press. The other one, the General Archives of the Tunisian government, was too weak, as an institution, to truly centralize the written production of the administrations.

Between the mid- to late 1980s, there was a major upheaval in the ways of relating to the past. When the fusion between the preservation of state documents and their consultation began in 1988 – “modern archiving”, as Hedi Jallab called it – the Higher Institute of History of the National Movement was also created. It represents an institutional innovation that accompanied the new social attention to the witnesses of the past, revealed by the multiplication of memories and autobiographies, which created archives, particularly from oral sources[1].

At the beginning of the 2000’s, Hedi Jallab explained, the National Archives set up a sorting system in the 440 kilometers of documents identified in the administrations, from which it selected about ten kilometers of historical documentation. The Director’s speech showed the strength that had to be imposed with the various administrations so that the National Archives could play the role that was legally assigned to them. Thus, he said, the various departments have learned to comply with the unique rules and formalities of central archiving. Today, the director explained, all the ministries are represented, as well as about a hundred institutions and public companies[1].

The revolutionary process launched at the end of 2010 has helped them in their efforts: the principle of state transparency and the need to open up access to the resources of history is a theme that has been brought to the public debate[2]. The Director confirmed that the sites are open to citizens, whether they are professional researchers, amateur historians, lawyers, journalists, individuals seeking documents from their own stories, or treasure seekers. The national archives, he said, are increasingly popular: between 2007 and 2017, the number of visitors in the consultation room is reported to have increased by 30%.

Houda Ben Hamouda, in her 2014 article on “Access to contemporary collections of the Tunisian national archives”, recounted her pioneering survey where limits and points of support appear. Driven by the collective feeling that things can now be different from what they had been before 2011, she ignored the pessimism of those who advised her to wait for a decree that would give her access to the archives[3] and directly contacted the newly appointed director, Hedi Jallab. It is possible to consult the archives after 1956, he said, but when she arrived at the reading room, the historian came up against resistance from the staff. However, the collaboration of the staff is essential since only documents prior to 1956 are registered in the databases, which can only be consulted on site. Moreover, the staff needs explicit authorization of the director before it can help the researcher find the document.

The director’s discretionary power is multi-faceted. For example, Hedi Jallab must guarantee the Communist Party, which has just joined the sixty or so contributors to private funds already archived[4], that its archives will not suddenly be seized by the State and disappear forever. He is also bound by a certain moral contract to the administrations that entrust him with their documentation. Not only the different actors who deposit their archives may share a conflicting history but also the National archives has to both guarantee that it preserves this document (including against a malicious use) and that it makes them accessible. Thus, the reconciliation of those potentially divergent interests depends on the appreciation of the director. The subtlety of his function contributes to the very personal nature of archival management. Though, the sustainability of the institution’s commitments to openness is questionable.

As a result, this small survey showed the impressive potential of the Tunis National Archives in terms of revolt and revolution and the importance to multiply breakthroughs in documentation to capture thematical and chronological gaps. If I had to produce a paper on the 1984 uprising, my collection would have been very meagre at the end of the week, an element which, for its part, testifies to the relevance of DREAM’s targeting: to mark out the available documentation on revolts, small and large, even if it means being surprised.

The inventory of these archives is not just a matter of time. Like Houda Ben Hamouda and Khansa Ben Tarjem[5], it is therefore important that we continue to share our knowledge on the global architecture of these funds, their lexical fields, shadow areas, themes, and gaps. For this concrete understanding creates possibilities for the history of revolts and revolutions in Tunisia. It also helps to imagine what is hidden when opacity reigns on archiving policies, in other places and at other times.

“High Court and the State Security Court”

With the authorization of the Director, the inventory of the Archives of the “High Court and the State Security Court” may be consulted on site. From one of the computers in the research room, which is adjacent to the consultation room, you can consult the file on State security matters. An Excel file, listing the different trials, provides the ribs that allow circulation between the “boxes”, meaning the computer files where the digitized archives of the cases are stored.

1521 “themes or charges” associated with persons were classified as being related to State security by the services of the Palace of Justice, according to Fathî Ben Qâra Ahmad the store manager, who explained that he had been collecting the inventory and files himself, “just next door”, where the courthouse is located. However, the inventory indicates that not all cases have been dealt with by a court specifically dedicated to State security[6] and some charges, such as “writing on the walls”, may at first sight depend on ordinary, non-political cases. This file traces continuity in “political justice” between the different courts of justice and the charges[7].

It is this classification that makes this abundant file so valuable: it allows us to follow actors targeted as enemies of the state in the range that separates those accused of “participation in a demonstration” or “unauthorized association” from the deposed minister Ahmed Ben Salah. Thanks to the text search tool – the only navigation tool in the document – it is possible to search by date, person’s name, keyword of the charge, type of court or locality when cases have been tried in regional, trial or appeal courts.

Trials were held between 1954 and 2011, but from the 1990s onwards, cases became rare. This corresponds to the fact that under Ben Ali, President since 1987, political opponents started to be judged in ordinary courts. Sporadically, however, the file continued to be fed. The inventory frequently provides the year, the starting and ending dates of a trial, but not the month and day. There are 40 entries for the year 1968, four for 1972, 125 for 1978 and only eight for 1984. There are only two cases involving women. Political characterizations are not very mobilized (the term “socialist” appears four times, “Islamist”, twelve times) unlike the modes of action listed according to a repetitive lexical field with which it is easy to become familiar, the “demonstration” (51 entries) is often “malicious” [‘idâ’iyya], the animation [ihtifâz] of unlicensed associations [ghayr murakhas], or “attacks by residents on…” were condemned [haml sukkân ‘alâ…] (29 entries).

1968, a more memorable year for the importance of the repression of protests than for the scale of the mobilizations, is thus strongly represented. There are many cases but it is still difficult to establish at first sight how they stand with regard to the student movement. A number of mentions for that year relate to complaints made by prisoners about their incarceration.

The opening of some archive files reveals a great heterogeneity. The size of the file can range from one page to hundreds. It sometimes summarizes the outcome of the trial and sometimes gives way to further developments where one can learn about the vicissitudes of the investigation. It sometimes contains a single case and occasionally brings together several cases, etc.

In short, in addition to the three doctoral students who are already working on it, important work can be carried out on this background, whether to understand its global logic from the perspective of a history political justice or by mobilizing parts of it in histories of revolts.

The archives of the trials are subject to derogation when they are 60 years old or less. This collection is however still relatively easy to access: well ordered, it is explored by historians. The staff seemed to wish that the researcher would limit his interest to that fund. Exceptional in terms of the history of revolts, this fund seems to be only a foretaste of what these archives contain. For example, testimonies, or police reports sometimes contribute to the evidence mobilized during trials, providing valuable sources for the study of revolts. Would the national archives have such resources?

I spontaneously requested to consult the archives of the Ministry of the Interior to access the police archives. The director invited me to start my research with the court records and at first only provided a semi-authorization for the rest. The latter allowed me to consult the “deposit slips” [bordereaux de versement] as they related to my research, leaving it to the research room staff to judge whether this was the case.

These deposit slips are inventories of archival units, compiled at the time of the institution’s deposits to the national archives. I don’t yet fully understand the logic of their constitution, but these archive units are small: they contain one to 16 boxes for those I have chosen to consult. These deposit slips are therefore numerous. The archivist, who had been entrusted with the task, thus flipped through a paper file contained in a folder entitled “Ministry of the Interior” and didn’t find anything.

I had to rephrase a request to the director that Kmar Bendana explicitly supported. Unlike my first request, where I diversified the approaches – the archives of the High Court of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior, and the administration of prisons – I concentrated in this second stage on the archives of internal surveillance: the archives of the Ministry of the Interior, and in particular those of the police, and those of the Party’s Coordination Committees. I was following an advice provided by the store manager who, in a moment of archival enthusiasm, shared that he thought that sources of internal surveillance were to be found in the correspondence between the Department of the Interior, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (i. e. the Party) and the External Communications Agency (ECA) [Agence de communication extérieure], his voice testifying that concern took over between the C and A of “ECA”. According to Hedi Jallab, there is no ECA fund but there are funds of the Ministry of the Interior and of the Party’s Coordination Committees.

Ministry of the Interior

After this comings and goings to the directors’ office, I was able to consult the inventory entitled “Ministry of the Interior”. The same one that, just days before, the staff had to justify confidentiality of its files on the grounds that some of the documents were sensitive and private.

The 24 pages of inventory are the result of two searches addressed to a database according to the “depositing department [service versant]”: the “Ministry of the Interior” (56 entries) and the “Ministry of the Interior and local Development” (168 entries). In addition to the “depositing department”, this inventory lists the reference of the deposit, its purpose in three to five words (e. g. “files relating to the supply of electricity to certain regions”), the date of receipt (in the national archives), the producer services and the start and end dates. The police are not present as such, but some entries such as “internal security reports” or “political reports” suggest possible resources. It is among these that I have selected some files.

I then accessed the communicated data slips which provide an additional level of details: a description is provided, box by box, for example: “Situation of general security in Tunis: notes and reports (1993-1999)” (file 1, box 64/2014). From this point on, the request can be made to the storage units and the consultation can begin.

Archives of internal surveillance archives are indeed available but they are very incomplete. The “political reports” file[8] seems to bode well since the 1978 general strike and the 1984 uprising are included in its period: 1978-1991. These reports on the political situation generally sent by a Wali (person in charge of a governorate) to the Ministry of the Interior concern essentially only three years: 1978, 1981 and 1991[9]. For example, the monthly report of the Wali of Sidi Bouzid of March 1981, develops in six pages the global situation of his region, including, beyond trade and health, unrest, and protests. These precious documents are very fragmented, like the file entitled “Social Climate” from 1991, which lists strikes and strike notices in the country for October 1st, 2nd and 9th, 1991.

A strike in November 1977 was commented on by the Walis of Gabes, Gafsa, Sousse in their respective reports on this matter, addressed to the Minister of the Interior[10] and we can see the “public opinion” of July 1981 made up into a sheet[11].

In short, these archives from within make us want to lose ourselves in order to exploit their potential, and if this collection was not successful in documenting the events of 1978 and 1984, this may not be the case for the next one.

Party’s Coordinating Committees

This research on revolts since the 1950’s leads us to funds whose inventory is yet to be catalogued, leading to delays in access to documents. The archives of the Party’s coordinating committees do not have a “deposit reference”. Thus, if they are theoretically accessible, the intervention of the store manager is necessary. Due to lack of time, this could not happen during my visit.

Therefore, I cannot communicate the results of this last survey, but I had an overview on the organization of the inventory. At the request of the inventories of the Party’s Coordinating Committees [Lijan al-tansîq al-hizbiyya], I received two boxes containing the inventories for twelve localities in Tunisia[12]. Each sheet, about three to five centimeters thick, is related to one of these localities. In order to build the survey, I chose the Kasserine region during the year 1984, and then randomly restricted to the first pages of the thick sheet devoted to the region. I do not know exactly the dates that limit this inventory, but the selection contains documents dated from 1959 to 2010. Within each inventory date, box and file numbers are listed, as well as a brief description of the contents.




[1] The production of the various institutions is systematically divided into two sets, one gathering the documentation common to all, and the other, the specific documentation.

[2] Hamouda, « L’accès aux fonds contemporains des archives nationales de Tunisie ».

[3] Members of the constituent assembly with whom she developed her research material.

[4] Among them are the funds of the General Union of Tunisian Students, the Scout Movement, the Perspectives Movement, Hassine Raouf Hamza and Noura Borsali.

[5] I thank her for pointing out in an oral statement about her research, the accessibility, subject to derogation, of the archives of the Ministry of the Interior and the archives of the High Court and the State Security Court. Khansa Ben Tarjem, “Leaving colonization and “tunisifying” the baton after independence”, intervention in the seminar “A Tunisian paradigm? History and social sciences in revolution”, moderated by Jocelyne Dakhlia, EHESS, 27 November 2018

[6] State Security Court, often, but also Court of First Instance (Tunis, Sfax, etc.), Court of Appeal (Sfax, Gabès, etc.), High Court, General Directorate of National Security.

[7] Hafidha Chekir, « La justice politique en Tunisie », L’Année du Maghreb, no III (1 novembre 2007): 141‑62,

[8] Tunis National Archives, Ministry of Interior, 47/2012 “Al-manâkh al-ijtimâ‘î”, 1991, box 1, file 1.

[9] Partial description: Specific reports addressed to the Ministry of the Interior, concerning the year 1978 (border security, reports of February, April and May) and the month of January 1991 (letter from the Wali of Gabes concerning a leaflet calling for a demonstration on 1/1/1991; student and high school strike in Sfax on 7/1/1991; report from the Wali of Tatawin concerning a demonstration on 2/1/1991). Monthly reports on the political situation during 1981 (in Sidi Bouzid, March 1981; Ministry of the Interior, August 1981; Gabes, August 1981).

[10] Tunis National Archives, Ministry of Interior, 12/2004 “Murâsalât mukhtalifa taham al-shu’ûn al-siyâsiyya”, 1970-1982, box 9.

[11] Tunis National Archives, Ministry of Interior, 12/2004 “Murâsalât, musawidât, bitâqât irshâdât”, 1968-1981, box 8.

[12] La Marsa, El Menzah, Mahdia, Kasserine, Médenine, Sfax, Ariana, Tozeur, Tataouine, Sousse, La Manouba.

[13] Hafidha Chekir, « La justice politique en Tunisie », L’Année du Maghreb, no III (1 novembre 2007): 141‑62,

[14] Tunis National Archives, Ministry of Interior, 47/2012 “Al-manâkh al-ijtimâ‘î”, 1991, box 1, file 1.

[15] Partial description: Specific reports addressed to the Ministry of the Interior, concerning the year 1978 (border security, reports of February, April and May) and the month of January 1991 (letter from the Wali of Gabes concerning a leaflet calling for a demonstration on 1/1/1991; student and high school strike in Sfax on 7/1/1991; report from the Wali of Tatawin concerning a demonstration on 2/1/1991). Monthly reports on the political situation during 1981 (in Sidi Bouzid, March 1981; Ministry of the Interior, August 1981; Gabes, August 1981).

[16] Tunis National Archives, Ministry of Interior, 12/2004 “Murâsalât mukhtalifa taham al-shu’ûn al-siyâsiyya”, 1970-1982, box 9.

[17] Tunis National Archives, Ministry of Interior, 12/2004 “Murâsalât, musawidât, bitâqât irshâdât”, 1968-1981, box 8.

[18] La Marsa, El Menzah, Mahdia, Kasserine, Médenine, Sfax, Ariana, Tozeur, Tataouine, Sousse, La Manouba.




One Reply to “Short visit at the National Archives of Tunis: looking for traces of the revolt”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search