After Morocco and Tunisia gained their independence in 1956 and Algeria in 1962, they decided, as an affirmation of their cultural identity against the former colonial power, to adopt Arabic as the official language instead of French. But the most common languages used by their citizens were Arabic dialects and Berber, not classical Arabic, which was known only in limited circles.
By the time Algeria became independent in 1962, written communication, except in the religious sector, was almost exclusively conducted in French. Algeria's first constitution declared Arabic the only official language, although French remained the de facto language of government and industry.
Beginning in 1964, the gradual Arabization of the educational system was inaugurated. As there were few able teachers of Arabic in the country, many came from Egypt. By the 1970s, the secondary school system featured an Arabic track and a bilingual French-Arabic track. But the shortage of openings for non–French speakers in most scientific, technical, and managerial fields caused frustration among Arabized students and graduates and led to increasing unrest on university campuses. In response, in 1979 the government accelerated the Arabization of education and totally Arabized the judicial system, creating overnight significant new outlets for graduates of the Arabized track. By the end of the 1980s, most curricula, except in the physical sciences, had been Arabized and the parliament had passed a law calling for total Arabization of the administration.
In 1996, the National Council of Transition prohibited the use of any language other than Arabic after 1998 in government, commerce, and civil organizations, and after 2000 in the higher education system. Strong opposition appeared, especially in Kabilia, the heart of Berber country.
Morocco had been a French protectorate, not a French colony, so some educational institutions had continued to use Arabic before independence, although most used French. Those using Arabic included the religious institutions connected to the Qarawiyyin Mosque of Fez just before its independence. Slightly more than 10 percent of Moroccan Muslim children attended French schools; most attended Qurʾanic schools, where they memorized verses from the Qurʾan and learned to write Arabic.
After it became independent in 1956, Morocco began a process of Arabization similar to Algeria's, but more human resources were available internally. Fewer than a hundred teachers were hired from Egypt and Syria. Arabic become the official language of political power, and French remained the vehicle of the governmental administration and economic sectors. Outside the main cities, Berber remained the most common language.
In 1962, an Egyptian high school was open in Rabat and a Iraqi college of science in Casablanca. Both were closed a year later as political tension arose between Rabat and Cairo, which was supporting Algeria in territorial disputes. In addition to public institutions, numerous French schools, supported by the French government, and bilingual French/Arabic schools continued to function. The former attracted mainly children from privileged backgrounds, because they were more able to open the doors to higher education.
After gaining independence in 1956, Tunisia, which had also been a French protectorate, was the most able of the three countries to shift to Arabic without outside help. It was only after 1970 that some teachers from the Middle East were invited to teach in Tunisian universities. With fewer Berber speakers than its neighbors, Arabization policies in Tunisia never gained the political attention they received in Algeria. The internal political debate focused more on curricula than on the language of instruction.
Under the Protectorate, some Arabic public schools functioned beside French schools: les écoles franco-arabes. An Arabic high school, Sadiki College, was created in Tunis as early as 1876. The influence and the prestige of the famous mosque of Zituna in Tunis was considerable, since most Arabic teachers received their training there.
In the first reform after independence, the bilingual system was not abrogated, but some courses about Islam and the history of the Arab world were introduced. After a short period between 1968 and 1971, where there was a clear attempt to separate citizen education (in French) from religious teaching (in Arabic) in secondary schools, Islam began to be taught in all public schools. Today, French remains widely used in business circles.
Cultural Identity in the Maghreb
A debate exists about the role foreign teachers played, especially in Algeria. Many of them came from small villages of Egypt and were criticized by their students' parents, who considered their methods old-fashioned and based too much on memorization. In return, some of these professors accused the families of non-Arabic, non-Muslim behavior.
Linguistic identity in the Maghreb is twofold: The language used within the family can be either local Arabic or Berber, and the language of the Qurʾan is the link to Muslim identity. In Algeria, due to direct French rule and the violent struggle for independence, Arabization is a far more politically sensitive issue than it is in the neighboring countries.
see also algeria: overview; arabic; berber; morocco: overview; tunisia: overview.
Entelis, John. Algeria: The Revolution Institutionalized. Boulder, CO: Westview Press; London: Croom Helm, 1986.
Updated by Rabia Bekkar