Jamie Furniss is currently a researcher at the Institut de recherche sur le Maghreb contemporain in Tunis, on leave from a position as a lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. He has a DPhil from the University of Oxford in International Development and has conducted fieldwork in Egypt and Tunisia, primarily on topics pertaining to environment, waste, and urban development.
There is hardly a city in the whole of Tunisia without a faded sign reading “Boulevard de l’environnement” (Shari‘ al-bi’a) on one of its most prominent thoroughfares. If it hasn’t fallen over from neglect or been removed—for example by angry protesters or as a sort of nostalgic and kitsch lawn ornament—one may find a statue of desert fox (Fennec) in a blue jumpsuit, minus a few limbs, standing at the end of the avenue. These are the traces of the authoritarian environmentalism of Ben Ali’s Tunisia, the forms and afterlives of which this paper seeks to sketch. I begin by arguing that environment emerged as a category of political action in 1990s Tunisia largely as a way of papering over the totalitarian state by appealing to strategic hot-button issues in the eyes of the “West” (like women’s rights), as well as an attempt at aesthetic and moral discipline. I then evoke some of the consequences this genealogy has on the ways “environment” is used and understood in Tunisia today. What exactly does “environment” refer to in Tunisia is both a necessary contextual backdrop to this paper and a question that emerges from the political and social history I aim to examine. From some examples such as analysis of the Arabic terms (bi’a vs. muhit), the discourse in public signage pertaining to waste, the creation in 2017 of Tunisia’s “environmental police” and participant observation I have conducted on civil society “environmental” projects, I attempt to demonstrate that environment is a concept characterized by visuality and proximity. This makes garbage and in particular its visual accumulation in public space a kind of archetypal “environmental problem”. The rapid political telescoping of waste into issues of corruption (e.g. during the “Italian waste scandal”) as well as the use of cleanup as a political idiom (e.g. during the halit wa‘I movement following Kais Said’s election as president) are indices of ongoing political overtones of the issues of waste, cleanliness, and environment more broadly, in contemporary Tunisia.