Decolonize North Africa’s Historical Records

For the past year, questions of how to decolonize the historical records of North Africa have been in the news, since historian Benjamin Stora reported to France’s President Emmanuel Macron that it was necessary to “reconcile the memories and the French and Algerian peoples.” As a result, the Élysée Palace announced a law granting better access to French archives of the colonial period. How might “decolonized” historical records in North Africa look? Let us consider Tunisia as an example; here, ministries, public establishments, and companies, local public authorities, private bodies responsible for public services are all required by law to maintain their own records.

Arguably, efforts to decolonize North Africa’s historical records are of decades’ duration. Bessem Khouaja notes that major transformations in Tunisia’s efforts to decolonize historical records started with the adoption of the Republic of Tunisia’s law no. 88-95 (2 August 1988) relating to archives. This law recommended creation of an Archives nationales de Tunisie, endowed with both a civil identity and financial autonomy, under the Prime Minister’s supervision (art. 35).

Tunisia’s archives 1988 law gave reasons why the nation needs its own archives. Each government bodies is obliged by law to have an archive service and to provide adequate human, financial, and material resources to ensure its proper functioning. This permits each government body the autonomous management of its own archives from the moment records are created, until their transfer to a National Archives or their disposal. Tunisia’s “centralizing tradition” means that neither ministries nor the Presidency of the Republic escape the law’s requirements. This law compares with France’s Archives nationales d’outremer, established during 1966.

Located on the Boulevard 9 Avril 1938, Tunisia’s National Archives is headed by a Director-General appointed by the Prime Minister. Archivists are trained at the Higher Institute of Documentation (ISD) in Tunis (within the University of La Manouba). During the first decade after the 1988 law, the number of graduates remained low compared to the needs, which led to the establishment of an intensive training cycle in archival science recruiting graduates possessing master’s degrees by competition.

During the second decade after the 1988 law, the ISD and the National Archives established a study program leading to the award of a Specialized Higher Education Diploma (DESS) in archival science. Together, the National Archives of Tunisia and ISD both maintain relations with teachers and professionals from the School of Library and Information Sciences (EBSI) of the Université de Montréal.

Tunisia’s National Archives provides reading rooms for on-site access to documents; it is possible to request photocopies or digitization. A month and a half after the dismissal of Tunisia’s former president Ben Ali, historians Sonia Combe and Hédi Saidi published an op-ed in the Parisian daily Liberation, affirming the significance of transparency to allow Tunisians to understand their country’s recent past:

“They have the right to know the mechanisms of the police terror of which they were the victims. To prevent such an experience from repeating itself, they too have the right and the duty to reclaim their history. Once again, the Tunisian people must lead by example. The opening of the archives of the dictatorship and their consultation to write the history of this dark period are part of the ongoing democratization process. It is one of the conditions for democratic elections. The issue is decisive for the future of the Arab world.

(Combe and Saidi, 2011)

As Houda Ben Hamouda observes, other actors act on these issues, such as the Tunisian association Le Labo Démocratique, created a few months after the fall of Ben Ali, in order to alert the deputies of the Constituent Assembly to the question of the preservation of archives. Since then, this association has multiplied actions (conference, symposium, exhibition, article, etc.) for the conservation and thoughtful opening of sensitive archives. Article 40 of the organic law on transitional justice of 24 December 2013 includes an exceptional clause: “To accomplish its missions, the [Truth and Dignity] body has the following prerogatives: access to public and private archives notwithstanding all the prohibitions provided for by the legislation in force…”.

Hédi Jellab, director of the National Archives of Tunisia, convened a conference at the Institute for Research on the Contemporary Maghreb, under the title “The National Archives Put to the Test of the Tunisian Transition” (Friday, May 30, 2014), interrogating two keywords: “archives” and “transition.” A historian by training, Hédi Jellab observes that two “transitions” intersect to give rise to an open and more democratic political system.

Today, the ISD trains 1,400 archivists (while the majority work for the National Archives, 160 are employed in the Ministry of Justice, 90 are employed in the Ministry of the Interior) and 17 directors. These represent specialized personnel at the service of a program routing “dead” documentation to archival storage spaces which are designed to international standards.

The struggle to decolonize historical records in North Africa continues. In the Kingdom of Morocco, legislation is more recent: created by a royal dahir during 2007, the Archives du Maroc is endowed with premises, staff, and a general manager (Jamaâ Baïda, historian). For that reason, archival staff are at the beginning of a process of collecting and sorting documents transferred from government agencies.

In her report on the 2014 conference, Kmar Bendana concluded: “Archives have several meanings. They vacillate between visions of the past and (excessive?) expectation of truth. They obey, depending on the context, various constraints and temporalities. A sentence by Hédi Jellab elicited a mixed reaction from the conference audience: ‘the Revolution is cyclical!’ The perception of time and events of a historian coupled with a manager of archiving and conservation reflects one of the awareness of these temporalities.”

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