Property and Power: the Transformation of the ‘Waqf’ system in Tunisia

By Alexandra Blackman
Submitted to Session P4927 (Occupying Space: Land, Religion, Power in Colonial North Africa, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
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This paper draws on records from the National Archives in Tunisia and the Center for Diplomatic Archives in France in order to evaluate how French rule interacted with the ‘waqf,’ or religious endowment, system in Tunisia. Many scholars have argued that pre-colonial land institutions have long run effects on investments in local areas and economic development. In line with these arguments, I demonstrate that, despite attempts by the French colons to expand French land ownership in the protectorate, these endowments presented an important challenge to French rule and expansion. I argue that the French administration’s changes to the property rights regime in Tunisia did not resolve significant issues with the endowment system and, in some cases, complicated later efforts at land reform.

Moreover, the French colonial regime’s attempt to control land and redefine property rights had important political implications. Historians generally agree that the endowments provided local elites with an independent economic base and, in particular, the endowments associated with particular mosques or madrasas provided religious scholars with a private economic base that allowed them to maintain greater independence vis-à-vis the state. With the arrival of the French in 1881 and the transformation of the endowments, the distribution of power among local elites was also transformed, with the French regime favoring its own local agents and certain economic elites involved in agriculture and trade. Importantly, the differential effect of colonial endowment policy also had repercussions for geographic and class representation in Tunisia's nationalist movement and post-independence government.