A Betrayed Revolution?: On the Tunisian Uprising and the Democratic Transition Leyla Dakhli

Published in English on Jadaliyya.com and in French on La vie des idees.fr
Read the original here.

Written by: Leyla Dakhli
Translated to English by: Allison L McManus and Mikael Vogel

On the evening of 14 January 2011, a single man was shouting on Bourguiba Avenue, “Ben Ali hrab!” (Ben Ali has fled), celebrating the stunning victory of a revolution. In this cry, the admiration for the people, love for freedom, and sorrow for the dead was heard. He was alone in the dark, on an avenue that an angry mob invaded a few hours earlier. He was a lawyer, one of the many lawyers who supported the revolt with all their strength.

On 8 February 2013, more than two years later, a crowd invaded another site in the capital. This time it was the main cemetery and it was a sad and enraged crowd, which came to accompany another revolutionary lawyer, Chokri Belaid, a vocal critic, who was murdered outside his home.

Between these two moments, the Tunisian people did not come out to celebrate their freedom or to shout their anger with one voice. While protests were continuously undertaken in the country, a form of disappointment and discouragement manifested. The feeling of a betrayed revolution now visibly coexists with the understanding that the revolutionary process is still ongoing. How can this paradox be explained?

Most commentators portray the election of the Islamist party Ennahda after the elections of October 2011 as a betrayal. How could the youth revolution, freedom and justice loving, have given birth to an Islamist monster, conservative and liberty killing? How could the first post-revolutionary free elections have given power to the enemies of democracy and freedom?

Upon analysis, it appears that if there was “betrayal” of the revolution, it is not necessarily in the opposition between “religious conservatives” and “secular progressives.” The partisan tactic of pitting these two camps against one another masks the difficulty of the entire political class to meet the popular demands for social justice.

The Forgotten Social Character of the 2011 Revolution: A Divided Society.

While they seemed a “surprise” for numerous observers, the demonstrations of December 2010 and January 2011 echoed other strong and contentious social movements, notably the revolts in the Gafsa mining basin in 2008.[1] This was a social movement of serious magnitude, leading to the mobilization of the workers and their families for several long months. It was violently repressed to the near-total indifference of the rest of the country. Other moments of strong resistance, like in Ben Guerdane in August 2010, or in the agricultural regions of Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, and Thala in the central West of the country in December 2010, were likewise not considered as part of the “revolutionary contagion.” The riots of December 2010 that provided the first impetus to the popular revolution were in the same part of the underprivileged region in the center of Tunisia and were not so different from those that preceded them. They found their roots in the intersection of a tremendously corrupt system and social blockages that prevented the majority of Tunisians from having a life that was dignified and decent.

While the large coastal cities (particularly the industrial city of Sfax, but also the capital) did rejoin the movement’s revolt in the winter of 2011, this was only after three weeks of rioting in the interior of the country. It was because at this exact point all interests had converged, thus creating the possibility of an observable revolutionary moment. This convergence operated under the pressure of union activists (and structured against their hierarchy) and minority “agents.” Young cyber-activists, artists, and anonymous activists who all engaged in the name of liberty, solidarity and equality – even anarchy – formed the ranks of rioters. Proclaimed democratic opposition groups equally joined them: human rights activists, feminists, and critical intellectuals, among others.

The fleeting revolutionary moment seemed to reveal a people united and welded together. After several weeks, despite the fear and panic sown by the old and collapsing power, a new atmosphere reigned. But the social gap did not take long to reappear. Although revolutionary forces called for a clean slate and the fall of the first provisionary governments in order to take their revolutionary processes even farther, such as through sit-ins at the Kasbah, demonstrations on Avenue Bourgiba in February that resulted in the reestablishment of a state of emergency, the death of demonstrators and the closure of the avenue to all public demonstrations. More and more voices called for appeasement and for compromise. It was necessary to be moderate, to move slowly, and to not reject everything altogether. The tyrant and those close to him were gone, it was necessary to retain some stability so as not to tarnish the image of the country, or disrupt the smooth running of affairs. A discourse of “identity” even developed around the soft and pacifist character of Tunisians, who had steered the “Jasmine Revolution.” The enraged speeches against this watered-down interpretation were legion at the time; the habitants of the interior sometimes spoke of the Hindi Revolution (hindi being the Barbary cactus or fig, much more common in these regions than in the coastal regions of jasmine – and obviously more prickly).

This speech, emanating from the bourgeoisie and the middle urban classes, quickly took on the appearance of social contempt against all those who pitched their tents in the city, at the entrance to the old city of Tunis, on the beautiful street lined with trees, and who spoke with a marked peasant accent. After first admiring the extraordinary event of 14 January, they began to distrust these revolutionaries: they were too easily manipulated; they seemed too far from the secular ideals of the urban elites. These elite ideals were themselves bound to the “historic” identity of Tunisia—that of a reformed Islam capable of compromise and of conciliation with “modern,” especially in questions of the stature of women. This tendency of the “revolutionary moderate” was illustrated notably through the severe criticism of the General Tunisian Worker’s Union (UGTT) and its leaders, after it was alleged that they were all on the payroll of the former regime. However, if the government of Ben Ali had, in effect, succeeded to infiltrate the union’s organization, it was principally aligned with the leaders and certain segments of the unions. Most segments remained anonymous, and some, like the Second Degree Teacher’s Union were emblematic as an opposition front.

An assembly at the Qobba (Cup,) a sports complex in the bourgeois neighborhood of el Menzah in Tunis, was held on 6 March 2011 after the fall of the Ben Ali government. There they celebrated the revolution, national solidarity, but there was a marked difference from the gatherings at the Kasbah (that were held in the same place as the government). They assembled to support the exiting Prime Minister, Ghannouchi, considered in good faith and “let go” by the Kasbah occupants. An article published in the online journal Kapitalis entitled “Kasbah and Qobba, same struggle,” seemed to come from another planet. While the Kasbah protests were held in the name of people united behind the slogan: “We took down the dictator, now let’s take down dictatorship,” at Qobba, slogans were in the name of the “silent majority” and called for a return to work. Work and property were considered symbols, creating a mirror image of the young political revolutionaries that were unemployed and cared very little about property, portraying them as lazy and dirty. Thus, a message was loudly disseminated at the Qobba event:

“We have put trash bags on the soles of our feet. We throw nothing on the ground. We must show the whole world that we are a wholesome people, clean and civilized. That is our revolution. That is our spirit; it is our example to neighboring countries and to our brothers who seek to construct their democracy. We are going to prove to the whole world that we are a dignified people.”

If I come back to these episodes, lost in the weeks of revolution that followed the flight of the dictator, which could seem as mere anecdotes but which remained present in the memory of Tunisians, it is to add some sense to those who express themselves today in the streets of Tunisia. For the voices of social resistance are never killed: they occupied sites in the capital until the month of March, they occupied factories, besieged the ministries, and, more recently, occupied the streets of Sidi Bouzid in the summer of 2012. They no longer oppose and harass Ben Ali’s regime, but instead, shift their frustration toward the provisionary government led by the Ennahda party. They were reunited under a simple slogan, that of the revolution before the final “Dégage”: “Work, freedom and national dignity,” similar to the winter variety heard sometimes as “Bread, Water, No to Ben Ali!”

Thus today there is, like a “basso continuo,” unappeased social anger. This anger, augmented under Ben Ali, added a more transparent spectacle of inequality and divergent interests between the urban coastal elites and the interior of the country. This interior that led the uprising against the dictatorship, now addresses the current government. Workers, day laborers, and the unemployed have not been able to find the answer to their anxiety in the vote and the constitution of the new government—they spoke of justice, of rights, of equality. Social issues remain at the center of the problems facing Tunisia today. This is shown more clearly in the confrontation between the UGTT and the party in power, to which it gave a strong response in a general strike on 8 February of last year. Today, numerous studies are reassessing the role of the union in Tunisia’s revolutionary movements, showing to what point the logistic support it offered and the presence of its activists in the streets have been decisive determinants since the downfall.

The “Democratic Transition”

The consideration of social fractures shows to what extent the confrontation between the “secularists” and “religious,” given so much scope in the French newspapers, is not a central concern. There is no denying that there were certainly demonstrations to protect the status of Tunisian women, and there is equally an obvious presence of radicalized young Islamists in the streets of Tunisia who intend to impose a puritan and orthodox rule. Yet, the reading of social tensions in Tunisia in terms of identity imposed both by the defenders of secularism (Tunisian specificity, Bourguibist inheritance) and by the Islamists (who, in this way, mask their inability to meet the social demand for justice) is an illusion. After the elections of October 2011 the Islamists, who had strongly emphasized their religiosity and the persecutions they had suffered under the former regime – deemed, in particular, to distance them from corruption – have suddenly lost their subversive potential. After being persecuted, after presenting themselves as “pure,” they are now in power. Rather than seeing that the revolution brought them to power, it is more accurate to say that the event put them face to face with reality.

On 14 January 2011, it seemed that the Tunisian surprise precisely extricated the region from the binary of alternatives that had dominated it for decades (notably since the Algerian civil war): authoritarianism or Islamic revolution. In Tunisia, the “noiseless land,” according to Jocelyne Dakhlia’s expcression,[2] the Ben Ali regime had collapsed with a crash. The leader and his clan left the country and took refuge in Saudi Arabia, while the crowd was chanting the slogan, “Get out,” before one of the symbols of the power, the Ministry of the Interior, whose basements had been a hidden, though well known, theatre of countless tortures.

A few months later, the first free elections in post-revolutionary Tunisia gave the Islamists a relative majority which allows them today, thanks to agreements with two other parties (the so-called troika,) to head a coalition government. The juxtaposition of these two signs may give the impression that the 14 January Revolution brought the Islamists to power. But the Revolution did not bring the Islamists to power, rather they seized power in the context of the elections that followed. Notably, it is by shifting debates into the field of identity that they could win these elections, while parties, notably the left, failed to build a single and audible speech in the confusion that reigned. Lines were constantly moving, depending on where which side one was positioned along the “secular border,” of international issues (Libya, Syria, the Gulf States…), of the nation and what defines it (Arabism, secularism, Islam…).

It is necessary to dig a little deeper into the grooves of the “democratic transition” and the history of Tunisian political movements to understand the gap between what was observed in the streets from March 2010 to March 2011 and the expression of the popular will through the ballot box in October 2011. This may help us understand why the mobilizations have not stopped, why the city of Sidi Bouzid, notably, and with it so many others since then have once again ignited several times over, and why the Gafsa mining basin is still boiling.

For this country, the cradle of major reform movements in the nineteenth century had virtually no experience in autonomous and democratic nation building before the year 2011. However, the revolution did not take place in a “fallow” social field or a tabula rasa. The national movement and the struggle for independence contributed to the formation of political and administrative elites. Bourguiba’s long reign was not only terror and could not prevent the development of a strong trade union movement, or of a feminist movement still active despite its appropriation under the Bourguibist regime, who built an image of liberating the country and its women,[3] and then under the Ben Ali dictatorship, who used it as an excuse to earn its stripes of modernist despotism, fighting against the Islamist threat. This wealth of mobilization and the social movements’ vigor has had a paradoxical fate: they have produced highly recognized characteristics of modern Tunisia (notably secularism and the status of women), while being the victims of a repression, often poorly known to both the exterior and the interior of the country.

In the early 1980s, following the repression of both the great trade union movements and of contestations emanating from the radical left, Islamist movements emerged, becoming both the main enemies of the regime (aside from the interlude of 1987-1989,) and taking on a form of “social hope.” Some life courses, like the one of the current leader of the Ennahda party, Rachid Ghannouchi, trade unionist in the 1960s and Nasserist in his youth, are there to remind us that the trajectories were more complex than is often thought. They are not anecdotal because they allow us to remove the criteria of contemporary analysis from its framework and automatic differentiations, the strongest of which is the opposition of secularists and Islamists.

Omission of this recent period of Tunisian history has several origins: first, the extent of the crackdown on leftist movements from 1968 to 1978, under the Bourguiban power, which eventually struck the Islamists, led to the implementation of a “selective” education of contemporary history in primary and high schools, and the Benalist propaganda simply replacing that of Bourguiba. Finally, outside of Tunisian borders, the strength of an understanding of civilizational clashes that came to support an orientalist conception of Arab societies that led to the placement of social classes and social movements in an increasingly diminished position in society.[4]

Having observed the disappearance, sometimes physical, of a progressive and activist generation, both in the socialist left and in the milieu of Arab nationalism, some adopt a fatalistic position that says: “Today, all social change in the Middle East and North Africa can only lead to conservatives seizing power.” This approach returns to a “pro-Western” and modernist argument indicating there is only one supposed way of subversion, revolutionary radicalism, and national dignity. This is disregarding the role of trade union and progressive activist movements, including anarchist-inspired movements, in the uprisings that took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and that continue in Syria (and we could add: Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, etc.) This discussion became common in Tunisia and elsewhere – at least within the intellectual elite – well before 2011.

In early 2011, for a brief moment, the social distance and indifference seemed to evaporate, only to reappear forcefully immediately after Ben Ali’s flight. Thereafter, the election campaign and the victory of Ennahda produced other transfers, noticeably in the constitution of the party led by former Interim Prime Minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, Nida Tounès. Such an agglomeration of political forces would have been unimaginable a few years earlier. Indeed, this party brings together many of the former partisans of Ben Ali’s regime – and Bourguiba’s – and, like Essebsi himself, a fraction of the post-communist left under the banner of the struggle against the Islamists and for Tunisia’s modern identity. There are those who have been adversaries for a long time, employing a platform that takes great care to remain on the side of national identity (especially vis-à-vis the outside world), of “progressivism,” and of modernity, to avoid social and ideological issues. He stands in front of Ennahda as its mirror image. The emergence of such a force, unknown in terms of electoral score and what this might represent, shows the effect of “retrospective treason” produced by the passage from a revolutionary situation to a new context of electoral democracy. Meanwhile, it gave neither the time nor the effort to develop social positions establishing democracy. The press is weak and most often simply amplifies the voices of political actors without deepening the issues. Associations are quite present but very few of them have taken up the question of democracy, with the possible exception of those who were involved during the campaign.

For now, only the trade union seems to offer other benchmarks and this can be seen as it takes on a more important role in the post-revolutionary political landscape. Houcine Abbasi, Secretary General of the UGTT said this of the Ennahda party on 25 February 2012: “They want to stifle our voices to decide our fate on their own. They want to plant fear in our hearts to prevent us from defending our cause and our rights, but we will not surrender and we will not submit.”[5] The union has also reaffirmed its independence and willingness to engage itself “alongside civil society and the Tunisian people in its diversity to defend not only the working masses, but also and above all, the Republic and its institutions.[6]” It is not surprising that the UGTT is the only prevailing force. It relies on its 517,000 members, its territorial coverage, and its history.

Elsewhere, everything is still weak. The revolutionary spirit released unexpected forces, but it was met with a democratic logic that has forced everyone to make a choice, leading to a strong political disappointment within a climate of ongoing debate. The political class, still captive of an approach made up of alliances and secret negotiations, sustained this disappointment. Conversations continue to rustle strong criticisms towards the political class who seek only negotiating positions, or joining forces to keep their privileges. The debates that take place in the Constituent Assembly are taking place in an atmosphere of agitation, which is not conducive to building a foundation of shared values.

In his first column just after the Tunisian revolution, historian Kmar Bendana wrote: “This life (the one before January 14) now resembles a hibernation which kept us alive in some niches, but left us slowly to defrost, indolent and soft, stunned and numb, unable to get involved in this wave that swells and grows.”[7]

The output of this hibernation carries with it many issues left unresolved for decades. All these questions are summarized in the difficult emergence of what might be called a minimal national consensus. Everyone thinks they know what it is based on, and interprets in their own way, yet this consensus is in a process of complete rewriting, more so in the streets than in parliament. Today, Tunisian society is plunged into uncertainty, oscillating between moments of enthusiasm and despair. And the mechanisms, according to Claude Lefort “can help reduce the political fluidity of the transitions, to manage uncertainty. The drafting of a constitution, the establishment of new institutions, the codification of new rules…”[8] A form of diffused mistrust places these processes of “democratic invention” into constant questioning. This is reinforced in a time of information overload, the rapid spread of information, extreme individualization of training, and information channels, which sustains the oscillation. The remnants of the authoritarian regime are also at work, constantly undermining confidence in authorities, whether they are the government, trade unions, schools, or the political parties and elected officials.

The revolutionary times first led to a democratic process, offering the citizens, through the ballot box, an opportunity to vote for a political offer. Today, they continue in a specific form of temporality: Tunisians are writing a story. They are reclaiming their common references, redesigning a national destiny around what seems important: business, landscapes, secularism, culture, language (Arabic, dialect, bilingualism etc.). Everything is disputed and everything is constantly tossed between phases of activism over commitment and phases of strong disappointment. Thus, the country keeps alternating between ephemeral moments of “revolutionary reconciliation” and moments of divergence where everything seems out of control and where power belongs once again to those who claim it. Here, there seems to be a form of necessary betrayal of the “democratic revolution”—difficult to perceive and to decrypt, bitter to those who experience it, but which certainly does not amount to one party’s representative takeover over the rest.

[1] Cf Amin Allal. “Processus de radicalisations politiques 2007-2011,” Revue Francaise de Science Politique 62, No. 5 (2012), 821-841.

[2] Jocelyne Dakhlia, Tunisie. Le Pays sans bruit, Actes Sud, 2011.

[3] Through the promulgation of the Personal Status Code, notably, and through symbolic acts, whose most famous was to publicly « unveil » Tunisian women on August 13, 1966, during the Women’s Day.

[4] One must note that over the past few years, some works, notably from historians, have tied up with the region’s social history. Cf. Joel Beinin et Frédéric Vairel, Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2011).

[5] Cited by Héla Yousfi, Op. Cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kmar Bendana, Chronique d’une transition, Les éditions Script, Tunis, décembre 2011.

[8] Lefort (C.), L’invention démocratique, Paris, Fayard, 1981.

Tags   •   Arab Spring   •   democracy   •   North Africa   •   politics   •   revolution   •   Tunisia


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