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Chantal Berman and Elizabeth Nugent: Reinventing the Revolution in Tunis

Four years after its revolution, what has changed for Tunisia, and for the rest of the world?

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Posters inveigh against vote-selling prior to Tunisia's 2014 election.
Image from Flickr user Atlantic Council.

By Chantal Berman and Elizabeth Nugent

Downtown, the streets were cordoned off and the Tunisian flag vendors were out in force. At 9 a.m. on January 14, 2015, the police outnumbered the revelers, but by 3 the Avenue Habib Bourguiba was sparsely crowded with families strolling, socializing, and cheering-on the odd street performer. A small band of students protested for the release of Yassine Ayari, an imprisoned blogger. Clowns gathered on the steps of Tunis’s grand theater. Banners slung along the perimeter of the Ministry of the Interior, an imposing concrete cube adjacent to Tunis’s iconic clock tower, read The City of Tunis Celebrates the Anniversary of Our Revolution, January 14 2011.

Tunisians have a lot to celebrate this year. In January 2014, after months of unsettling political stalemate, the country adopted a new constitution representing a timid consensus between Islamist and secularist parties. Tunisia’s independent electoral agency, ISIE, organized clean elections where nearly 70 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. No major assassinations have succeeded this year, though a few have been attempted. Most political scientists say that a country transitioning from autocratic rule has “democratized” once power has changed hands twice through elections. Tunisia passed that milestone this fall—and remains the only “Arab spring” state to do so at all.

What does it mean for Tunisians to vote in a free election while regretting the events that brought those elections in the realm of possibility?

Yet in an exit survey of Tunisian voters we conducted during these elections last October, almost half of voters—asked to reflect on whether the revolution had been a “positive” or a “negative” event for Tunisia—chose “negative.” In the capital of Tunis, that number was more than 60 percent, and in some neighborhoods, more than 80 percent. What does it mean for Tunisians to vote in a free election while regretting the events that brought those elections in the realm of possibility? Or to sit out street fairs planned to venerate the uprising after risking their lives to attend the original event?

Commemoration is an exercise in collective memory, an idea first advanced by sociologist Maurice Halbwachs in his 1950 book, La Mémoire Collective. Evoking psychoanalytic notions of the group, Halbwachs observed that by remembering together, individuals remember differently. Commemorations transform individual achievements into group triumphs, and individual complaints into patterns of group injustice. But what about contested memories? Asked in our survey why they viewed the revolution in retrospect as a positive or negative event, supporters of the revolution overwhelmingly answered with some variation on “freedoms”—freedom of choice, freedom of expression. Opponents of the revolution gave a much wider range of responses. As Tolstoy might have said, happy revolutionaries are all the same, but unhappy revolutionaries are each unhappy in their own way.

On the day of the anniversary, we returned to neighborhoods to ask residents about their impressions of the revolution and all that has come after. As Tunisia’s seat of government and industry, Tunis is sometimes painted as an outlier in the country: a bubble of wealth and cosmopolitanism that has little in common with the blighted southern towns where the revolution began. But the capital’s diversity, socio-economic and otherwise, is striking. So is the diversity of lenses through which its residents refract the defining political event of Middle East politics this century.

“You’ve heard about the unemployed Tunisian men who sit in cafes all day?” said Aymen. “After the revolution, we joke that Sidi Hassine had to increase the number of cafes, to seat all the unemployed.”

“I am staying home today,” said Mohamed, an elderly produce supplier, who reads newspapers in a café near his home in Sidi Hassine, a low-rise neighborhood thirty minutes from the city center. “We didn’t get healthcare. We didn’t get development for the poor areas. After the revolution, Tunisians didn’t get the things we asked for.” Aymen, an IT worker in his late twenties and a neighbor in Sidi Hassine, agreed. “You’ve heard about the unemployed Tunisian men who sit in cafes all day?” said Aymen. “After the revolution, we joke that Sidi Hassine had to increase the number of cafes, to seat all the unemployed.”

We asked the men whether they had participated in protests four years ago. Mohamed recalled, “I went out in the streets holding a sign, but I was chased and attacked by police.”

What did that sign say?

“Employment.”

Sidi Hassine is an archetypal informal neighborhood, built over decades by rural migrants unable to afford the city’s more established neighborhoods. Residents say that years ago, there was no infrastructure, no banks, no police. Today, the side streets are barely navigable by car but the police presence is real—a result of the neighborhood’s reputation for religious conservatism and its economic marginalization, the social cocktail local authorities and foreign journalists deem responsible for “terrorism.” In our survey, Sidi Hassine voters regretted the revolution at higher rates than any other neighborhood, with the majority citing an increase in living expenses. Aymen’s mother Barga, an elderly homemaker, said that before the revolution she used to be able to go to the market with ten dinars but that sum of money buys nothing anymore. “There’s nothing to be happy about. There is always bad news, there is anarchy.” Barga’s cynicism reflects a life devoted to raising a family in the shadow of neglect and brutality—a life as testament to how the Ben Ali state treated its poorest citizens. In 2001, Barga’s son Aysam was fleeing police on his bike in the dark and fell into a canal, where he drowned. Barga recounts that no one tried to pull him out, and no one investigated his death. Aysam was twenty-three at the time.

If Sidi Hassine residents provided the most damning indictments of the past four years, the view from Bardo was more optimistic. Bardo, an historic middle class neighborhood closer to the city center, is home to the National Constituent Assembly building where Tunisia’s political class churns over the issues of the day. Bardo Square, a traffic roundabout outside the parliament, hosted the sit-in that paralyzed Tunisia’s first post-revolutionary government in August 2013. In those weeks, “going to Bardo” became a nightly routine for Tunisians, who protested a string of political assassinations at the same time they voiced the perennial concerns of the transition: stability, employment, rights. Emna, an art student who lives with her family around the corner, brought the protesters food and juice.

Lamia became a revolutionary when she visited her brother’s home-in-exile in England, and together they watched YouTube videos—censored in Tunis—of Tunisian police breaking into homes.

Emna was fourteen at the time of the revolution but “she insisted on coming with me to every protest,” said Emna’s mother, Lamia. Lamia became a revolutionary when she visited her brother’s home-in-exile in England, and together they watched YouTube videos—censored in Tunis—of Tunisian police breaking into homes. Lamia doesn’t make the connection explicitly, but the videos recall her family’s own experience when this same brother was accused of spreading Islamic faith too vigorously. Stalked and arrested on a trip home from studying biology in Saudi Arabia, Lamia’s brother, like many Islamists of the early 1990s, expatriated permanently.

Lamia could be one of the sixty percent of Bardo voters in our survey who remained positive about the revolution despite all of the setbacks. Have her expectations for change been met? “Not yet, but the revolution isn’t over,” Lamia said. “A lot of people are saying negative things about the revolution, but those people are selfish. They are only thinking about themselves, about their shops or businesses, and they don’t care about the destiny we all have, together.” Emna, now eighteen, nodded her approval.

Carthage, near the Mediterranean coast, is a wealthy suburb of impressive villas and quiet streets dotted with archaeological sites. It hosts the Presidential palace where Ben Ali once lived with his notoriously corrupt wife, Leila, and their rumored coterie of tigers. On the afternoon of the anniversary, families of activists killed during the revolution came to disrupt a speech by newly elected president Beji Caid Essebsi delivered in front of that same palace, demanding accountability from the same security force still guarding its doors. Down the road, we met Kaouther, her sister Paten, and her husband Sghair in Carthage’s cultural center.

“The revolution should have happened in 2008, but the media didn’t tell us about the protests in Gafsa until after the revolution.” Paten referred to the miners’ movement in Gafsa, a campaign of civil disobedience in an inland region dominated by the corrupt mining industry. Many histories of the revolution spotlight the 2008 movement in Gafsa, which laid bare—or would have, with the cooperation of a more critical media—the social failures of the Ben Ali era. Before the revolution, Paten explained, the media was showing the capital “a sort of life in pink.” None of the family protested during the revolution, though Kaouther and Paten regret that now. Kaouther, a higher-up in an insurance company, watched the first protests in front of the Ministry of the Interior from her office window in downtown Tunis.

Kaouther’s experience of the revolution evokes the stereotype of the posh northern suburbs: sheltered. But that feeling of insulation is wearing away. In the survey, voters of Carthage also opposed the revolution 2-to-1, overwhelmingly for reasons of security. That Tunis’s better off should view their country’s trajectory more in light of security than the cost of living makes sense—few in Carthage are sensitive to fluctuation in food prices, but fluctuation in the feeling of safety in the streets was something new.

And yet Tunisia’s dependence on tourism and trade means that concerns over security among the wealthy tend to have an economic inflection. Before retiring, Sghair worked in Germany as a representative of Tunisian tourism. His hopes for Tunisia’s new era echo in substance those of Mohamed from Sidi Hassine, if they differ in register. Sghair wants Tunisia to become a hub of technology, and for Tunisian degrees to carry the weight of qualification abroad. He worries that the messiness of democratic politics will get in the way of these goals. These are men of a certain age, raised on Habib Bourguiba’s promise that economic development, and not necessarily democracy, would bring fortune and freedom to Tunisians. Kaouther and Paten are more enthusiastic about democracy for democracy’s sake. They’re optimistic about the new government. They refuse to regret the revolution.

Whose hindsight are we talking about? Before the events of early 2011 became the “Arab Spring,” they were the Tunisian protests against corruption, inequity, and arbitrary authority.

Political friends are often bemused by the simplistic reverie with which we foreign researchers speak about “the revolution.” In the logic of social science, the revolution stands as a singular event, a definitive intervention on systems that transcend the individual. We ask why it happened; we ask what it changed. But we don’t ask often enough what it was. In Inventing Revolution at the Bastille, William Sewell wrote that events are created only in hindsight. Only in the teleology of the present does the past become shared history. But whose hindsight are we talking about? Before the events of early 2011 became the “Arab Spring,” they were the Tunisian protests against corruption, inequity, and arbitrary authority. Tunisians remember them as such, and judge them against the accumulation of lived experience in these areas ever since.

And what about those “freedoms” cited by revolutionary optimists in our survey? Those aren’t negligible either. Among the most important freedoms is the freedom to say what’s wrong—to strangers no less—without fear of repercussion. Here is hoping that come the fifth anniversary, Tunisians will have equal reason to celebrate if they want to, and equal space to complain if they don’t.

Chantal Berman and Elizabeth Nugent are PhD candidates in Politics at Princeton University. They have had work published in Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, Jadaliyya, and other outlets.

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