CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1The relationship of migrants and their descendents to politics has long been overlooked in the sociology of immigration and diaspora studies. The former has focused on mechanisms of integration into the host country, in terms of the economic, social, and cultural inclusion of migrant actors within the social fabric of the nation, [1] while the latter have often understood communities as being spontaneously bound by a single and depoliticized identity. [2]

2More recent studies have sought to critique this assimilationist view of immigration and essentialist conception of diaspora, in order to capture the political dimension of migration experiences. Sociologists of immigration have thus taken an interest in “immigrant causes” in the host society, termed “immigrant politics” [3]. Rich empirical studies have made it possible to engage with the logic of action of immigrant workers, irregular immigrants, poorly housed people, and victims of discrimination, delineating the specific features of migrant mobilizations relating to their living and working conditions. [4] These modes of politicization, however, remain understood only within the borders of the country of residence.

3The ambition to transcend such a nation-centric approach, in the wake of North American studies on diasporas and transnationalism, has fed a growing interest in long-distance activism. [5] Diaspora researchers have thus explored the importation of armed conflicts in migration contexts, exiles’ ambivalent forms of loyalty and belonging, migrants’ efforts to influence foreign policy, and their mobilization for recognition of their political status. [6] Collective action targeting the country of origin—termed “homeland politics”—has thus gradually become a field of study in its own right.

4Scholars are now considering political engagements exerted simultaneously within the spaces of origin and residence. Their conceptual work has notably made it possible to theorize the shift from a “double absence” to a “double presence” in diasporic experiences, in the sense of political agency deployed across multiple spaces. [7] Initially developed from European and North American case studies, this theoretical framework has now been applied to non-Western territories, including the Arab world. The protest movements that have spread across the region since 2010-11 have accelerated the acceptance of extra-territorial spaces as legitimate objects of study. The political engagement of dual nationals, overseas voting, and the return of exiles and descendents of immigration to the political arena of their home countries have thus been examined as part of the Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Egyptian, Syrian, and Bahraini uprisings. [8]

5This article aims to contribute to research on activism in migration contexts by conceiving the Tunisian and Egyptian Islamist movements active in France as political oppositions acting from afar. [9] It follows in the footsteps of studies of the “double presence” by focusing on transnational oppositional activities against homeland regimes. As Stéphane Dufoix, Olivier Grojean, and Élise Massicard have shown in their respective studies, these opposition movements operate in a competitive space that is occupied by different groups of opponents and is torn between dynamics of co-operation and competition. [10] According to the aforementioned French scholars, these different movements need to legitimize their cause within the host society, which offers new resources and opportunities. [11] These mobilizations are determined by their own distinctive temporalities, resonating with the agenda of the country of residence and, more decisively, with developments in the country of origin. These studies also outline the multi-positioned journeys of engagement and disengagement, transitions to other spheres of activity, and organizational reconfigurations of mobilizations in exile. Scholars hence lay bare the rules shaping these unique political configurations, which they theorize as “exopolities”, [12] transnational social spaces, [13] or transnational spaces of mobilization. [14] Finally, English-language scholars have sought to specify the effects of these opposition movements on political situations in the home country, and often remain caught in a binary perspective between the positive outcome of democratization and the negative outcome of exacerbating conflict. [15]

6Our study of Tunisian and Egyptian Islamist opponents active in France aims to enrich this body of literature in two ways. Firstly, this article offers novel comparative insights on the specificity of movements opposing authoritarian regimes. By focusing on means of resistance in politically constrained situations, this study sheds light on an overlooked dimension of transnational opposition: the way in which remote protest activities remain dependent on the political order they target. [16] Specifically, this research compares two sequences of repression and exile affecting the main opposition movements in Tunisia and Egypt: the Tunisian Ennahda movement fighting the regime of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in the 1990s and 2000s, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement opposing the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi since 2013. In both cases, an authoritarian regime has used the rhetoric of maintaining order and the prospect of “gradual” democratic reforms to establish its domestic legitimacy, while using the threat of an Islamist enemy and the necessary fight against terrorism to justify its repressive methods and consolidate its international base. In both cases Islamist opposition movements have gone underground in their home country, restructured beyond national borders, and intensified their organized mobilization abroad, in spite of repression that has also acted on a global level.

7Secondly, this article advances the study of long-distance protest activity by focusing on actors with religious credentials, who are largely absent from work on transnational mobilizations. [17] The politicization of faith-based engagement and the mobilization of dispositions, practices, and beliefs acquired in the religious sphere have remained below the radar of research on protest movements “beyond borders”. This study engages with these dimensions by focusing on mobilizations belonging to a specific religious movement: Ennahda and the Egyptian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood embody national variants of the same political Islam, appropriating a reformist tradition marked by the politicization of a Muslim lexicon. The profusion of research on political Islam stands in stark contrast to the rarity of work on Islamism in exile. [18] The few studies on the latter topic have focused either on strategies of integration within the so-called host country, such as North African Islamists transitioning to the organization of European Islam, [19] or on the development of a “deterritorialized” religiosity. [20] In neither of these cases are acts of opposition to regimes in the country of origin given consideration.

8This article therefore unpacks the ways in which Islamist activism against authoritarian regimes is reconfigured in diasporic contexts. More specifically, it seeks to understand how the politico-religious identity of actors influences their practices of remote opposition. How do they advance their cause in the various spaces they occupy and make their demands acceptable, given their identification as Islamists?

9In the case of the Tunisian and Egyptian movements mobilized in France, we argue that their activity can be understood as an effort to open up a cause that has been doubly sidelined in the French context: by remote repression from the authoritarian countries of origin, and by a security-focused approach to the issue of political Islam by the country of residence. This unique situation fashions the political isolation of the actors and their desire to circumvent what they perceive to be injunctions to silence. Their effort to break down barriers is reflected in the framing of their discourse of protest in terms of human rights, a search for allies within the political space of the host country, and the creation of coalitions with other opposition movements in exile. These attempts have remained relatively fruitless because of their lack of suitable resources in the French political arena and separation from their fellow immigrants. And yet, while the constraints of the French environment have led to a “de-Islamicization” of their message, and while coercion from the country of origin has drastically marginalized their activity within immigrant communities, these activists have not been deterred from participating in specifically Islamic social networks, both within the activist group and within French Muslim organizations. This article aims to examine how Islamist mobilizations in the context of migration have attempted to reconcile two apparently contradictory imperatives: the preservation of the group’s politico-religious identity, and the need to make their message heard by a French audience.

10This qualitative study is based on in-depth interviews with activists belonging to the organizations studied, with approximately 30 interviews conducted between September 2015 and June 2017 in Paris and Tunis. Although we interviewed both sympathizers and disengaged individuals, it was primarily the leadership of both organizations who provided the empirical material for this study. Through their life stories, we were able to document the history of these movements and consider the ideological systems and social practices of the actors involved. The relative ease of accessing Islamist activists in itself bore witness to their desire for “normalization”. Although the willingness to reveal themselves must be qualified in the Egyptian case—as the repressive atmosphere since 2013 has fueled distrust among activists—their approachability testifies to their strategy of opening up socially and politically: for isolated Islamist activists, the researcher can represent a mediator for their cause. These interviews were “enmeshed” in field research, which was conducted during demonstrations and general meetings of the Egyptian movements, and work in the archives of the Tunisian movement. [21]

11In this article, we begin with a historical narrative allowing us to compare the conditions for the emergence of these remote Islamist oppositions and specify the constraints and forms of delegitimization shaping Tunisian and Egyptian activism. We then study their strategies for overcoming this political marginalization, before examining how their efforts to break down barriers relate to the preservation of a close Islamic community.

The Genesis of Islamic Oppositional Spaces

12Although comparisons are frequently drawn between the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, a comparative analysis of the mobilizations of their communities abroad is yet to be written. [22] In particular, the trajectories of the main opposition movements—the Ennahda Tunisian exiles fighting the Ben Ali regime in the 1990s and 2000s, and the Egyptian activists who have opposed the Sisi regime since 2013—present striking parallels. The heuristic value of such a comparison stems from the similar mechanisms of control deployed against them by their countries of origin, making the criminalization of Islamist movements a pillar of their legitimacy and from the shared “Muslim Brotherhood” affiliation of these movements, which is so strongly reflected in their structure, ideological framework, and social base. [23] Comparing the Tunisian and Egyptian cases unravelling in the specific French context allows us to disentangle the differing modes of organizing an Islamic space of protest in this country, as well as the restrictions to which this space is subjected.

13The mobilizations studied have taken place within immigrant communities shaped by distinct histories, with around 720,000 Tunisians and between 70,000 and 110,000 Egyptians currently residing on French soil. [24] Within these communities, the activist groups we studied represent only a few hundred individuals, with different migration trajectories and social profiles. Although long-distance opposition activity is usually considered from the angle of political exile, a comparison of the Tunisian and Egyptian opposition movements makes it possible to transcend the simplistic exile/emigrant dichotomy. [25]

14In the Tunisian case, exiles formed almost exclusively the activist core of the mobilization, with waves of immigration reflecting peaks of repression of Ennahda by the regimes of Habib Bourguiba (1956-87) and Ben Ali (1987-2011). [26] The main wave came after the 1989 legislative elections, during which Tunisian authorities took advantage of the visibility of Islamist candidates to unleash large-scale repression. Ennahda leaders, activists, and sometimes sympathizers were imprisoned or took the road to exile from 1990 onward. While some chose to reach Germany, Canada, or the Gulf countries, the majority of Ennahda exiles opted for France. Some of the individuals we interviewed suggested that there were a thousand people in the Parisian region, i.e. half of the world’s Tunisian political refugees in the 1990s. [27]

15While the story of Ennahda is essentially one of the movement’s leaders in exile, the Egyptian oppositional space in France is not structured around exiles from the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political leaders have primarily taken refuge in Qatar and Turkey since 2013. [28] In August 2013, when the Sisi military government forcibly removed gatherings of Muslim Brotherhood supporters from Cairo (the Rabaa massacre), it was emigrant workers and young dual national students living in France who led the first mobilizations with Islamic overtones.

16When it comes to the representative bodies of Tunisian activism in exile, a leader of the movement summarized their geographic concentration in these terms: “The political center of Ennahda exile was Paris”. [29] In June 1992, realizing the impossibility of remaining underground, Ennahda leaders decided to move the leadership outside of Tunisia. [30] This led to a split at the head of the organization, with the Ennahda political bureau based in Paris and the leadership, around Rachid Ghannouchi, taking refuge in London following the French authorities’ refusal to grant him asylum. Members of the executive bureau and the Majlis al-Shura (the body for collective decision-making) were scattered throughout Europe. [31] Associations were created in parallel with activist structures: the Comité de Soutien des Victimes de la Répression en Tunisie (Support Committee for Victims of Repression in Tunisia) was founded in the early 1990s, replaced by the association Solidarité Tunisienne (Tunisian Solidarity) in 1997, and the association Tawasol, dedicated to sociocultural activities, in the 2000s.

17In the Egyptian case, the Islamist presence built up at a later stage. Under the regime of Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) there was little trace of organized mobilization. Opposition networks were nonexistent in France and any rare protests that did take place involved the Coptic minorities. [32] One young activist explained:


There wasn’t really any political consciousness: Egyptians came here to work and most of them planned on returning to Egypt one day, so there was no organization. [33]

19It was not until 2011 that the Egyptian community began to mobilize in France, following spontaneous protests in Paris in support of Mubarak’s departure. Several organizations were created, [34] celebrating national unity around a common enemy (Mubarak) and the “rediscovered pride of being Egyptian”. [35] However, this emerging space rapidly polarized following the events of summer 2013 and the removal of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi (elected in June 2012), with an intensification of the rivalry between supporters of the “second revolution” and opponents of the “coup”. [36] In the post-2013 politicized community space, the presence of Islamist actors in the opposition to the authoritarian regime became more visible.

20Two bodies based in the Parisian region animated most of the “anti-coup” mobilization: a political organization, and a humanitarian organization. In July 2013, following a protest against the removal of President Morsi, the Collectif français pour la défense de la démocratie en Égypte (French Collective for the Defense of Democracy in Egypt, or CODE Égypte) was created by protestors at a mosque in La Courneuve, where are located the headquarters of the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (French Union of Islamic Organizations, or UOIF). [37] The organization was officially registered in August 2013, following the Rabaa massacre, and counted some hundred members in 2016. Humanitarian activities are managed by the organization Égypte Solidarité (Egypt Solidarity), also based at the UOIF headquarters, which runs a scheme for fundraising in the mosques.

21While they were both the result of the closure of homeland political spaces, the Tunisian and Egyptian Islamist oppositions in France came into existence in different ways. In the Tunisian case, a core of activists belonging to the same politico-religious movement was forced into exile following an escalation in repression; while in the Egyptian case, the galvanizing impact of a traumatic event in Cairo brought together an assortment of groups on French soil who until that point had not been politically active. The two movements have, however, shared similar challenges in making their cause heard in the French public space.

Marginalized Mobilization in France

22For Tunisian Islamists and CODE Égypte activists, France represented a relatively safe space for organizing and mobilizing. This being said, the anti-Ben Ali and anti-Sisi Islamist mobilizations were also doubly constrained in the French environment: firstly, by remote repression from the states of origin, and secondly by the security-focused approach taken by the French state to political Islam. This section aims to explore how these oppositional spaces are structured between the politics of host and home countries. It shows how these interactions have contributed to the strong marginalization of Islamist protest activities within their respective immigrant communities as well as their confinement within the French public space.

23The cases of the Tunisian and Egyptian oppositions in France underscore the need to consider repression beyond borders. As demonstrated by recent studies on the repressive mechanisms of the Syrian state in Sweden, the United States, and England, repression by the country of origin does not end at the national border. [38] Defined as “practices that aim to discourage, control, or channel protest”, [39] such repression includes threats, intelligence, and the effective forms of coercion exerted on protestors. [40]

24Under Ben Ali, the Tunisian community was controlled by various organizations designed to maintain ties of allegiance to the home country and suppress political dissidence. In addition to strong consular networks, the influence of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD)—the Tunisian party-state and primary instrument of authoritarian control—was particularly significant in the 1990s and 2000s. The Rally of Tunisians in France (RTF), a front for the RCD with no legal status as a foreign party, [41] was officially tasked with the cultural and social control of the Tunisian community in France. It oversaw a large number of organizations that offered cultural and social activities and worked to surveil opposition activities through a network of informers. [42] Although the surveillance also affected left-wing activists, Ennahda exiles were more directly targeted and kept apart from less politicized Tunisian immigrants.

25The role played by the Tunisian External Communication Agency (ATCE) in regime propaganda is also key to understanding the pervasiveness of Islamist discredit. Created in 1990, with an office in Paris, the ATCE sought to legitimize the regime using three main arguments: the regime as a shield from Islamism, the protection of “minorities”, and the narrative of the “economic miracle”. [43] Circulated through the press and television, the propaganda served not only to legitimize the Ben Ali regime among Tunisians abroad and for its French partner, but also to destabilize Ennahda activity in France. [44] Efforts to discredit the political opposition included a panoply of discursive devices, such as defamatory videos and stories of betrayal, targeting known individuals within the Islamist opposition in France, spread through official newspapers. [45]

26The post-2013 Egyptian regime has resorted to similar techniques to curb resistance abroad: administrative red tape, surveillance by embassy staff of CODE Égypte’s demonstrations, threats to confiscate passports, pressures on family at home, and funding opportunities offered to competing organizations. In its discourse, the Sisi regime draws upon Mubarak’s legacy to develop an anti-Islamist argument, which, as in the Tunisian case, equates to “passing on most of the responsibility for resorting to violence to the radical element of the Islamist opposition” and presenting itself as a shield against religious fundamentalism. [46] This narrative has been reinforced by the criminalization of Islamist actors, with the Muslim Brotherhood classified as a terrorist organization in Egypt since December 2013. The strategy of delegitimization has directly shaped the political isolation of Islamist activists in France.

27These repressive schemes impacted upon Tunisian and Egyptian activism in France by increasing costs of engagement, which include both perceived threats and effective violence exercised by the home country. During the general meeting of CODE Égypte, some members appeared anxious to run for executive positions in the association while others were clearly suspicious of external observers. Such observations bear witness to the association’s “culture of secrecy”, which one young member compared with the techniques used for decades by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to circumvent state violence. [47]

28The repressive methods implemented by Egyptian authorities require some qualifications. Although the Sisi regime does seek to control its opposition abroad, the Egyptian community in France remains too small and too little of a threat for the regime to put a commanding repressive arsenal in place. Due to the demographic weight of Tunisians in France and the political, economic, and diplomatic interests that they represented for the Tunisian state, the Ben Ali regime was more committed to its surveillance. [48] In both cases, however, Islamist opponents in France were excluded from the legitimate immigrant space, as delineated by the countries of origin’s policies toward their citizens residing abroad.

29The pressures exerted by home countries must also be considered in relation to the political arena of the country of settlement. [49] Although France represented a relatively protected space of mobilization for Tunisian and Egyptian activists, the French state combined a security-focused approach to the presence of Ennahda and anti-Sisi groups with injunctions to religious and political discretion in the French public space, and a pervasive fear of political Islam. Islamist actors were thus largely constrained in their actions by various material and symbolic mechanisms of banishment.

30Ennahda exiles mobilized at a political period favorable to a security-focused approach. The largest wave of exiles in the early 1990s arrived when restrictive laws on migrants (the Pasqua laws) had just been promulgated in France and when the electoral process in Algeria got interrupted. Events in Algeria had a major impact on how Tunisian exiles were offered hospitality, and the Ben Ali regime took advantage of an anti-Islamist consensus to make deals on France’s handling of Tunisian Islamists. [50] It was in this context that Salah Karker, one of the founders of Ennahda, was put under house arrest, and exiles increasingly struggled to obtain refugee status. [51] The refusal of the French government to accept the asylum claim by Ghannouchi, the head of the movement, further illustrates the security-focused approach to Tunisian Islamist activists in France. The United Kingdom, in contrast, granted Ghannouchi asylum and maintained a more inclusive asylum policy, inherited from a different immigration and legal tradition, leading French authorities to criticize its “laxism”. [52] While French authorities did not accede to the Tunisian regime’s repeated extradition requests and appeals to criminalize Ennahda members in France, they also contributed to the isolation of Ennahda exiles. The latter were frequently reminded of the absolute need for political discretion. François Mitterrand declared that Tunisian Islamists in France were “morally and legally required to observe the requirement of reserve”. [53] This was reiterated by Jacques Chirac, who stated during a visit to Tunisia that “we must not confuse the right to asylum with the right to agitation”. [54]

31French authorities’ approach to CODE Égypte also encapsulates the range of constraining measures at the disposal of the receiving country, from house arrest orders placed by the ministry of the interior to demonstration restrictions imposed by the prefecture, via intelligence services’ surveillance. These techniques of control have further delegitimized Islamist mobilizations. They were justified by some illegal actions carried out by Egyptian activists and sanctioned by the police: several CODE Égypte members appear to have engaged, in an individual rather than collective manner, in violent enterprises, including an attempted break-in at the offices of the Egyptian military, the attack of a member of the Egyptian delegation to UNESCO, and the harassment of novelist Alaa Al-Aswany at the Arab World Institute. [55] More broadly, the constraints exercised by the French state against opponents of the Sisi regime reflect a political rapprochement in Franco-Egyptian relations. As with Tunisia in the 1990s, French political elites are willing to collaborate with the Egyptian state to counter the Islamist threat, equated with terrorism. They mistrust opponents with Muslim Brotherhood sympathies and perceive “their Egyptian partner as a factor of stability in the Middle East and a crucial partner in the fight against the rise of terrorism”. [56] This framework of interpretation contributes to the containment of Islamist opposition activity in France. These methods of pressure and surveillance can evolve along the political agenda. The state of emergency implemented in November 2015, for instance, restrained the ability of CODE Égypte to organize demonstrations and led activists to look for “alternative actions, including organizing events, conferences, and days on the subject of Egypt”. [57]

32The religious neutrality imposed in the French public space combined with a climate of distrust toward Islam in general and political Islam in particular further constrain the discourses and actions of Tunisian and Egyptian activists. Lea Müller-Funk hence describes the greater emphasis put on Muslim identity in anti-regime Egyptian mobilizations in Vienna compared with Paris, due to different national traditions in regard to religion. [58] Similarly, Élise Massicard explores the ways in which the Alevis mobilize their religious identity in Germany, spotting an opportunity for recognition in this area and the capital of sympathy from which “a less troubling version of Islam” can benefit. [59] In France, Islamist activists embody particular social anxieties about Muslim fundamentalism, reinforced by the terror attacks carried out on French soil since the 1990s, prompting Ennahda and Muslim Brotherhood activists to dissociate themselves from such images.

33The transnational reach of the Ben Ali and Sisi regimes and the fears associated with political Islam in the French public sphere have thus made Tunisian and Egyptian Islamist oppositions a doubly illegitimate cause: labelled as terrorists in their country of origin, Tunisian and Egyptian activists have been viewed from an essentially security-focused perspective in France.

Breaking Down Barriers and Downplaying Politico-Religious Identities

34The isolation of Islamist opponents within their immigrant communities and the French political space has led them to downplay their politico-religious identity and mobilize alternative resources of legitimization. Specifically, the Tunisian and Egyptian movements have sought to circumvent the injunctions to discretion they face by breaking down barriers and even “de-Islamicizing” their message. This strategy has three strands: attempting to raise awareness among the French elites about the authoritarian regimes of Ben Ali and Sisi; framing their discourse in terms of human rights; and striving for normalization among other opposition groups.

Raising Awareness among the French Elites

35In order to better disseminate their message and break out of their isolation, Tunisian and Egyptian activists in France have conducted periodic awareness-raising activities aimed at French society and its elites.

36One awareness-raising method favored by CODE Égypte is the organization of weekly demonstrations. [60] Taking place in Paris since summer 2013, these public marches aim to express an identity of protest (the “Rabaa identity”) and stage dramatic actions that feed a dramaturgy of indignation (executions, imprisonments, and hangings).  [61] Demonstrations revolve around a “martyrology” of victims that uses images of tortured bodies and disappeared children and speeches as devices for raising awareness. [62] Despite their dramatic staging, these marches and rallies are somewhat at odds with the Parisian public they target, due to the communication tools used (loud Egyptian background music, sometimes illegible educational materials) and the few Francophones among the demonstrators (chants are often in Arabic, banners are poorly translated, and demonstrators sometimes struggle to respond to questions from passers-by). In the same vein, Solidarité Tunisienne used a language of outrage in its regular rallies held in symbolic locations similar to those chosen by CODE Égypte, including the Trocadéro Parvis des Droits de l’Homme (Esplanade of Human Rights), and the Fontaine des Innocents (Fountain of the Innocents) at Châtelet. [63] Tunisian activists hence sought to publicize their cause by arousing indignation and compassion, displaying photographs of “martyrs” and regularly distributing a collection of pained testimonies from Ennahda prisoners. [64]

37These efforts to regularly occupy public spaces have been complemented with advocacy work among parliamentarians, diplomats, and NGO leaders. [65] Both Ennahda and anti-Sisi activists have hence been calling upon humanitarian organizations, the media, and politicians, in order to raise their awareness and keep them informed about the Tunisian and Egyptian authoritarian regimes. [66]

38In the Egyptian case, this advocacy work is relayed internationally through the International Coalition for Egyptians Abroad (ICEGA), which coordinates the political message between national sections and communicates best practices. [67] The coalition exemplifies how opportunities depend upon national arenas: in the United States, where interest groups have routinized access to the executive, the ICEGA section has claimed to benefit from direct access to high-ranking politicians and has hired a communications agency to make its lobbying more effective. [68]

39These awareness-raising activities have nevertheless had little impact due to the lack of allies in civil society organizations, the media, and among French political decision-makers, who remain distrustful of Islamist organizations. For Solidarité Tunisienne activists, their collaboration with human rights organizations was limited to information sharing and legal assistance for victims of human rights violations, in contrast to left-wing Tunisian organizations who benefited from close connections with anti-racist organizations, political parties (notably the French Socialist Party and Communist Party), and non-Tunisian migrant associations. Left-wing opposition organizations thus took advantage of personal relations with a certain French political and intellectual elite to secure both material and symbolic resources. [69] Conversely, both Tunisian and Egyptian activists encountered difficulties in attracting the interest of French media in their cause. This pushed them to work almost exclusively with Arab media outlets (primarily the Al Jazeera channel) more willing to communicate their message of protest.

Using a Human Rights Frame

40In order to circumvent political distrust and make their cause audible to a larger audience, activists engaged in a repositioning effort. They couched their awareness-raising activities in a democratic and human rights idiom in order to better conform with the expectations of the French public authorities and media. Without embracing a strictly utilitarian interpretation of this strategy to open up the cause, [70] it is important to unpack its general approach, possible contradictions, and procedural nature: both Solidarité Tunisienne and CODE Égypte have adopted such a framework only after adaptation, trial, and error. [71]

41The terms used for naming the movements are significant: while the Arabic name of the Egyptian organization means a “National Coalition for the Defense of Legitimacy in France”, its French name, “Collectif Démocratie en Égypte” (Democracy Collective in Egypt) more directly echoes the concerns of political freedoms. [72] The statutes of the organization also emphasize democratic claims, at the expense of partisan and religious identification. The goals of CODE Égypte are formulated as follows:


Fight against the military coup of 3 July 2013. Support the democratic process in Egypt. Assist the development of democracy in Egypt. [73]

43The statutes of Solidarité Tunisienne go further in downplaying Islamic features and partisan identities:


Defend the rights of Tunisians through civil and legal means. Work toward better integration of Tunisians abroad. Keep humanitarian organizations and the media informed of the situation in Tunisia (the human rights situation). Provide material and moral support to Tunisian asylum seekers and refugees. Help the families of political prisoners in Tunisia. [74]

45Similarly, the leaflets distributed by CODE Égypte are infused with the vocabulary of democratic freedoms and document the human rights violations under the Sisi regime. [75] This political grammar aims at raising awareness among the French public by contrast with the leaflets distributed in mosques by the humanitarian organization Égypte Solidarité which are explicitly couched in a religious idiom. This alignment with social expectations signals the difficulty of offering an alternative political project in an authoritarian context. One Tunisian activist thus explained:


We cannot speak of a political project while there is a problem with freedom [in our country]. The priority is freedom of speech, freedom of movement, human rights, and an end to repressive practices. [76]

47While other refugee Islamist movements in Europe have followed a similar strategy of “human rights-ization”, the adoption of a democratic and humanist framing is not self-evident for these actors. [77] A comparative analysis highlights different frames used in various contexts of mobilization. Marie Vannetzel has shown that, for the anti-Sisi movements in Turkey, “the effective construction of symbolic solidarities and imagined identities with a global reach results in part, from a collective action strongly determined by Turkish national issues”. [78] While in Turkey, mobilizations are framed as appealing to “Islamic solidarity”, in France CODE Égypte couches its message in humanist and human rights terminology. For both exiled Ennahda members and anti-Sisi opponents in France, the frame of human rights allows them to express their cause and increase its general appeal, insofar as these rights open up access to a globalized arena. [79] This grammar is part of the “delocalization of grievances”, with the law “providing the principles of equivalence that make it possible to construct broad, polysemic categories of injustice”. [80]

48Yet this human rights rhetoric is not devoid of ambiguity. In the case of CODE Égypte, it appears to be at odds with some attributes of the observed political activities of the group and reflects a discord between the leadership of the organization, committed to a strategy of normalization in the French public space, and its grassroots activists, attached to the charismatic figure of the head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The latter condemn the crimes perpetrated by the Sisi regime while concomitantly stressing Morsi’s legitimacy. The portrait of the deposed president is omnipresent both in the weekly demonstrations and on social networks, and several figures close to the Muslim Brotherhood, Wasat, [81] and the Morsi government have taken part in the events. [82] In other words, the issue of human rights violations is tightly intertwined with a partisan positioning, despite the efforts of the leaders to downplay this political angle: “anti-Sisi” are also “pro-Morsi”.

49More generally, the means of action of Solidarité Tunisienne and CODE Égypte raise the question of the efficacy of their mobilization. [83] The very limited media coverage of their activity, their weak connections with French organizations and political parties, and the cultural and linguistic disjunction in their repertoire of action account for the reduced impact of their demands on French public opinion and political decision-makers.

Normalizing the Protest through Coalitions

50Finally, Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists sought to break down barriers around their cause by becoming legitimate interlocutors to the other forces of opposition within the Tunisian and Egyptian communities in France. In this regard, the French political scene has been conducive to the formation of temporary alliances between different homeland opponents (Islamists, left-wing militants, Arab nationalists, and independents). The opening up of a new space of engagement makes it possible to transcend social, political, and national barriers within anti-regime mobilizations, ultimately leading to a political normalization of Islamist movements. Whether scholars conceptualize them as protest coalitions [84] or cross-ideological alliances, [85] such gatherings of groups with different political leanings have been documented in the Middle East but remain little studied in the context of migration, even though they often have greater success in such circumstances. [86] In the Tunisian case, the movement of 18 October 2005, born in Tunis and continued in Paris with the creation of the Collectif Parisien du 18 Octobre pour les Droits et les Libertés en Tunisie (Parisian Coalition of the 18th October for Rights and Freedoms in Tunisia]), exemplifies such rapprochement. In October 2005, as the Tunisian government was preparing to welcome a global summit organized by the UN, eight men with various political sympathies—far-left militants, Ennahda members, Arab nationalists, and human rights activists—seized the opportunity to stage a collective hunger strike. They called for respect for freedom of assembly, organization, and opinion, and recognition of all political parties, and demanded the release of political prisoners. Their forum gave rise to lively internal debate, particularly on the issue of women’s rights, freedom of conscience, and the relationship between religion and the state. [87] Such alliances between Islamists and secularists do not forestall competition between groups and often remain temporary, “as they are formed of actors concerned with preserving their autonomy and specificity”. [88] This dialogue did, however, result in joint approaches, enabling Ennahda to sidestep its political isolation. The specificity of such political rapprochement in the French environment becomes clear when compared to the London context. While the Ennahda exiles appeared to be relatively well-integrated into the landscape of Tunisian opposition in France, Michel Camau and Vincent Geisser note that the culture of exile in London was “more focused on a Middle Eastern Islamist social network”, with Ghannouchi considered to be “a figure symbolizing fundamentalist circles in London rather than being treated as a Tunisian opponent”. [89]

51Co-operation may also develop beyond the immigrant community to which organizations belong and between activists of different nationalities, as the Egyptian case illustrates. [90] The French-Tunisian organization Uni-T, created after the revolution, has thus supported some of the demonstrations organized by CODE Égypte. The two organizations also signed a joint open letter to the prime minister in May 2015 and are united in various initiatives around the Palestinian cause. This rapprochement needs to be understood in the context of the global symbolic resonance of the Egyptian coup, which had a galvanizing impact that transcended national affiliations.

52The need to escape their political marginality has thus driven Islamist opponents to downplay their partisan claims and their religious identity in the French public space. The will to advance their cause in a diasporic context has led these activists to normalize their movement by framing their message in terms of human rights and aligning with various related activist groups. This effort of normalization reflects the need for the group to secure a public existence by addressing political decision-makers and opposition groups perceived as mediators for the cause, rather than mobilizing their respective immigrant communities.

Maintaining a Close Islamic Community

53Islamist opposition movements in France have suffered from their political isolation, shaped by the repression of their home countries and the security-focused approach of their state of residence, and sought to make their discourse acceptable by adapting to the injunctions of political and religious discretion. The circumscription of their activity has not however been imposed only from outside constraints: activists have also voluntarily maintained a close Islamic community to ensure internal cohesion.

54In the Tunisian case, the leaders of the Ennahda movement were not concerned with recruiting from within immigrant populations, as much due to awareness of the political stigma of their identity as through fear of infiltration. Furthermore, unlike left-wing Tunisian activists, they did not involve themselves in “immigrant causes”. One activist confided:


For Ennahda, French soil was a safe haven. We had been chased from our home so we weren’t going to cause trouble, we watched our step. [91]

56Working in isolation hence represents a resource for maintaining the group’s politico-religious identity. Parallel to their publicization of the anti-regime cause, which targets the outside world, Tunisian and Egyptian activists in France have created spaces for Islamic social interaction targeting the activist group. As with other long-distance opposition mobilizations, a shift occurred from places of exile to milieux of exile, with the settling down to exile through the creation of infrastructures to welcome activists and their families. [92]

57Developed over nearly two decades in France, the Tunisian Islamist mobilization epitomizes the constitution of a close activist community designed to protect the group’s Muslim identity. Once they arrived in France, Ennahda political refugees began to create spaces of socialization: holiday camps in Normandy organized by Solidarité Tunisienne, sociocultural activities (conferences and events on issues of religious practice) organized by Tawasol, lessons in Arabic and Islamic education (e.g. at the La Réussite school in Aubervilliers), and religious celebrations (marriages, Eid, Ramadan). By running a range of activities aimed at different generations of members, Ennahda members built a “place for producing community identities on the model of those prevailing in the country, through the intermediary of institutions or practices that ensure the current relevance of yesterday’s leaders in the here and now”. [93] In these close-knit networks, they engaged in identity-building work by designating an adversary (the Ben Ali regime) and drawing boundaries between “them” and “us”. [94] As the former head of Solidarité Tunisienne explained:


We were cut off, we were among ourselves, in a closed circle. [95]

59Although the Islamist anti-Sisi mobilization in France is more recent and smaller in numbers, a similar process has begun with the creation of a school, El-Amal (The Hope), which offers lessons in Arabic and religious education to the children of CODE Égypte’s members:


The idea was to be present in the community and to preserve Arab culture and religious culture. [96]

61This construction of a close community in which group values are disseminated and linguistic, cultural, and religious ties to the country of origin are maintained points to the emotional economy of Islamist organizations beyond borders, which involves reinforcing the attachment of members to the beliefs of the group and thus winning the loyalty of a pioneering elite, sufficient to keep the mobilization alive. [97]

62The “de-Islamicization” of the message perceptible in activities with wider audiences does not therefore conflict with truly Islamic social networks, necessary for the preservation of the movements’ identity. This religious socialization facilitates the transition of politico-religious engagements from one space of mobilization to another. [98] Ennahda refugees were thus strongly involved in the foundation of the Groupement Islamique en France (Islamic Group in France) (1979) and then the UOIF (1983), as well as the creation of a certain number of Arabic language and religious schools in the 1990s. [99] Similarly, the members of CODE Égypte and the children of Ennahda members are involved in some Islamic organizations in France, such as Jeunes Musulmans de France (Young Muslims of France) and Secours Islamique (Islamic Relief). We see here at work the multi-positionality of Muslim actors: their religious socialization enables their involvement within the French Islamic space while they maintain political engagement with their country of origin.

63* * *

64The Tunisian and Egyptian cases shed light on the ways in which politico-religious identities are mobilized and reconfigured in migratory contexts. By focusing on Islamist oppositions from afar, our inquiry contributes to an emerging research field on transnational mobilization and makes it possible to draw out avenues for further research on protest by politico-religious actors operating abroad. These mobilizations primarily proceed from repressive policies by the countries of origin, whose authoritarianism transcends national territory and who seek to delegitimize opposition movements beyond their borders. They are also constrained by the country of settlement’s expectations regarding what constitute acceptable and socially credible means of action. The injunction to religious discretion in the French public space, the demand of political neutrality on the part of foreign activists, and the security-focused approach to political Islam lead activists to downplay their identity features and gradually adjust their partisan markers. Tunisian and Egyptian Islamist activists have therefore constantly walked a fine line between the need to make their cause heard by the French public and the necessity to preserve the coherent identity of their movements through a close intracommunity structure. The ambivalence of this enterprise is illustrated by the framing of their message in terms of human rights, the search for allies among the French elites, and the pursuit of support from other opposition groups, combined with the maintenance of a close Islamic community designed to ensure the longevity of the group. Finally, the fragility of these mobilizations over the long-term must be considered, as illustrated by the struggles of the Tunisian opposition abroad before the 2011 revolution. The strategy of downplaying the religious vocabulary is not free of cost in the processes of identification of some activists, who ultimately leave the group, give up all political activity in exile, or choose forms of activism that do not center on religious credentials. [100]


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    As with the integration of Hungarian, Polish, and Czech intellectual opponents within universities, the creation of Kurdish cultural organizations, and the Alevis making use of an internationalized legal arena.
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    Dufoix, Politiques d’exil.
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    Valérie Amiraux, “Les limites du transnational comme espace de mobilisation”, Cultures et conflits, 33-34, 1999, 25-50.
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    Lyons and Mandaville (eds), Politics from Afar.
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    Following Stéphane Dufoix, who calls for “breaking the logic” of state categorizations (Politiques d’exil, 24).
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    Interview with the chair of this convention, Tunis, July 2016.
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    Interviews with various leaders of the movement in exile, Paris and Tunis, December 2015-December 2016.
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    Interview with Amr, Paris, January 2016.
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    Such as al-I’lan (The News) in Arabic and Les Masques (The Masks) in French. On the defamatory campaigns, cf. in particular: “Tunisie: les défenseurs de droits humains pris pour cible”, Amnesty International, 11 January 1998.
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    Discussion with Irchad, Paris, November 2015.
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    This mode of action reflects a division of labor within the organization between non-Francophone emigrants, who are largely involved in the weekly demonstrations, and dual national students, who are engaged in more elite activities.
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    This identity has its roots in “the ‘martyrdom’ of peaceful demonstrators and the existence of a transnational Islamic solidarity in action“: Marie Vannetzel, “#R4bia: The Dynamics of the Pro-Mursi Mobilizations in Turkey”, presented at the conference “With or Without the Brothers: Domestic, Regional, and International Trends in Islamism (2013-2015)”, Paris, 2015.
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    Christophe Traïni and Johanna Siméant, “Introduction: pourquoi et comment sensibiliser à la cause?” in Christophe Traïni (ed.), Émotions... Mobilisation!, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2009, pp. 11-34, here p. 13.
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    Michel Offerlé, Sociologie des groupes d’intérêt, Paris, Montchrestien, 1998, 168.
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    Various authors, La tragédie des prisonniers politiques en Tunisie, un livre contre le déni, Paris, Solidarité Tunisienne, 2003.
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    CODE Égypte sent a delegation to a socialist member of parliament, an open letter to the prime minister, and a letter to the UN Secretary General. Tunisian activists worked with multiple organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights, and Amnesty International. Fax messages were regularly sent to French and European parliamentarians, as well as Western embassies.
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    One member of the Ennahda Majlis al-Shura in exile explained that “a press release from Amnesty or the [Human Rights] League, or Human Rights Watch is much more important than a demonstration of 10,000 people in the streets, because it raises awareness, and it causes a lot of unease” (Interview, Tunis, July 2016).
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    Founded in November 2014, ICEGA has a dozen sections, with the majority based in Europe and the rest of the Western world; the Turkish and Arab organizations are independent. Interview with Marwan, Paris, April 2016.
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    Interview with Amr, Paris, January 2016.
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    Interviews with various leaders of the Comité pour le respect des libertés et des droits de l’Homme en
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    We do not question conviction in the appropriation of a rhetoric of rights, so as not to reduce the process of framing to “a marketing technique [.. . ] neglecting the role of fundamental and ideological considerations” (Jean-Gabriel Contamin, “Analyse des cadres” in Olivier Fillieule, Lilian Mathieu, and Cécile Péchu (eds), Dictionnaire des mouvements sociaux, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2009, pp. 38-46).
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    The early CODE Égypte demonstrations, for example, were more geared toward emphasizing an Islamic identity and the demands of the Muslim Brotherhood.
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    In Arabic: al-tah¯aluf al-watan¯i li-da ‘m al-sar ‘iyya bi-firans¯a.
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    Statutes of the organization consulted in December 2015 at the prefecture of Paris.
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    Statutes of the Solidarité Tunisienne organization, personal archives.
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    Leaflet of 20 June 2015, and CODE Égypte press releases of 11 February 2016 and 3 July 2016. This mobilization of human rights is also reflected in recourse to legal action: several suits have been filed against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for violations of human dignity at the high court in Paris.
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    Interview with Fethi, Paris, October 2015.
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    Cf. the case of Participation et Spiritualité Musulmane (Muslim Participation and Spirituality) in France, linked to the Moroccan Islamist movement of Abdessalam Yassine (Samir Amghar, L’islam militant en Europe, Paris, Infolio, 2013).
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    Vannetzel, “#R4bia”.
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    Florence Passy, “Supranational Political Opportunities as a Channel of Globalization of Political Conflicts: The Case of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” in Donatella Della Porta, Hanspeter Kriesi, and Dieter Rucht (eds), Social Movements in a Globalizing World, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999, pp. 148-69.
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    Éric Agrikoliansky, “Les usages protestataires du droit”, in Olivier Fillieule, Éric Agrikoliansky, and Isabelle Sommier (eds), Penser les mouvements sociaux, Paris, La Découverte, 2010, pp. 225-43.
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    Created in the mid-1990s in a political space on lockdown, Hizb al-Wasat (the “Center Party”) was spearheaded by a group of Muslim Brotherhood activists. Seeking not to present itself as a total movement and refuting the Islamist label, this party has adopted a democratic rhetoric and works toward a private re-Islamicization. Cf. Clément Steuer, “S’approprier un nom pour occuper un espace: le parti du centre en Égypte”, Mots. Les langages du politique, 101(1), 2013, 113-26.
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    Such as former ministers Yahia Hamed and Mohamed Mahsoub and former member of parliament Abdel Mawgoud al-Dardiri.
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    Janine Clark and Jilian Schwedler, “Islamist-Leftist Cooperation in the Arab World”, ISIM Review, 18, 2006, 10-11.
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    Cf. the special issue “The Dynamics of Opposition Cooperation in the Arab World”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 38(3), 2011.
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    Mathieu, “Éléments pour une analyse”, 77.
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    Camau and Geisser, Syndrome autoritaire, 305-6.
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    Experiences are often shared by former Ennahda exiles and current Egyptian activists through informal meetings and discussions, reflecting the interdependency of these networks.
  • [91]
    Interview with Karim, Paris, September 2016.
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    Mario Sznajder and Luis Roniger, The Politics of Exile in Latin America, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, 193.
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    Dufoix, Politiques d’exil, 87.
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    Michael Voegtli, “‘Quatre pattes oui, deux pattes, non!’: l’identité collective comme mode d’analyse des entreprises de mouvement social” in Olivier Fillieule, Éric Agrikoliansky, and Isabelle Sommier (eds), Penser les mouvements sociaux, Paris, La Découverte, 2010, pp. 203-23.
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    Interview with Salim, Paris, December 2015.
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    Interview with Marwan, Paris, April 2016.
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    Isabelle Sommier, “Les états affectifs ou la dimension affectuelle des mouvements sociaux” in Olivier Fillieule, Éric Agrikoliansky, and Isabelle Sommier (eds), Penser les mouvements sociaux, Paris, La Découverte, 2010, pp. 185-202.
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    On the politicization of Christian activists, cf. Johanna Siméant, “Socialisation catholique et biens de salut dans quatre ONG humanitaires françaises”, Le mouvement social, 227(2), 2009, 101-22; Julie Pagis, “La politisation d’engagements religieux: retour sur une matrice de l’engagement en mai 68”, Revue française de science politique, 60(1), February 2010, 61-89.
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    Michaël Béchir Ayari, “Rester le même tout en devenant un autre: les ‘islamistes’ tunisiens exilés en France”, Maghreb-Machrek, 194(55), 2007, 55-69, here 59.
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    We would like to thank Stéphane Dufoix, Vincent Geisser, Stéphane Lacroix, and Michel Offerlé for their constructive review of this article.

How to mobilize from afar? The study of homeland oppositional politics entails an examination of the set of rules configuring this singular space of mobilization as well as an analysis of the ways organisational structures and frames are renegotiated in a migratory context. By comparing Tunisian and Egyptian Islamist mobilizations in France, this article accounts for the effects of the actors' politico-religious identity on their oppositional political practices. Both anti-Ben Ali activists in the 1990s-2000s and post-2013 anti-Sisi protesters are torn between their ambition to make their claims relevant to the French audience and the need to preserve their group's religious identity.


  • Activism from Afar
  • Political Opposition
  • Islamism
  • Authoritarianism
  • Tunisia/Egypt
Margot Dazey
Margot Dazey is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Cambridge and visiting Ph.D. student at CERI-Sciences Po (2016-17). She has published “Les Frères musulmans au prisme des renseignements britanniques pendant la Seconde Guerre Mondiale”, Vingtième siècle: Revue d’histoire, 136(4), 2017, 71-84. Her current research focuses on religious politicization and Muslim activism in France (POLIS, University of Cambridge, The Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT, UK, <>).
Mathilde Zederman
Mathilde Zederman is a Ph.D. student in political sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London) and an associate Ph.D. student at CERI-Sciences Po. Her publications include “The Hegemonic Bourguibist Discourse on Modernity in Post-Revolutionary Tunisia”, Middle East, Law and Governance, 8(2-3), 2016, 179-200; and “Construction nationale et mémoire collective: islamisme et bourguibisme en Tunisie (1956-2014)”, Matériaux pour l’histoire de notre temps, 117-118(2), 2015, 46-56. Her current research focuses on the remote mobilizations of Tunisian exiles under the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes and on transnational authoritarianism (SOAS, University of London, 10 Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG, UK, <>).
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