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Social Struggles in Tunisia: A Curse or a Revolutionary Opportunity?

[Protesters march during a demonstration in Tunisia on 20 January 2011. Image by cjb22/Flickr.] [Protesters march during a demonstration in Tunisia on 20 January 2011. Image by cjb22/Flickr.]

The Tunisian revolution was often painted as a sort of “divine” event during which the united and homogenous “Tunisian people” succeeded in getting rid of their “dictator.”  As if by the force of some quasi-magical act, all it took was the coming together of the people screaming a unified dégage on 14 January 2011 for the dictator to suddenly take flight. In using this lens, the causes and consequences of the revolt itself are glossed over. Moreover, the historical context is abandoned in favor of a de-politicized narrative that revolves around young bloggers triggering a spontaneous movement, managing to succeed in dragging a whole population out into the streets to revolt against a shameful dictator.

In a different vein, the majority of researchers and the media working within the arena of Arab politics tended to focus either on analyzing the continued persistence of the authoritarian structures of power within the Arab world, or the evolution of the Islamist movements. This had the effect of making the diverse forces of change that emerged in the past two decades invisible[1]. In addition to this, collective mobilization struggles carried out by more traditional organizations, coordinated through networks like those of the bloggers “Yizzi Fok” in 2007, or the coordination on 18 October  2007, also contributed to the historical events that led to the departure of Ben Ali. Examples of these organizations include the mobilizations of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Human Rights League, the Lawyer’s Union, the union of the educated unemployed, immigration associations, etc. Hence, democratic demands were linked with social and economic demands, and had a great effect on the continuing revolutionary process. 

On 14 January 2011, political analysts of Tunisia generated a widespread mea culpa, confessing that they never saw this revolution coming. A short time later, however, these same analysts and politicians ironically revived the old Islamist versus modernist debate to analyze the political transformations of the Tunisian scene. They focused their analyses on the danger of the rise of religious dictatorship yet again. In doing so, they lost sight of the different social struggles that the political elite at best marginalized, and at worst criminalized. 

When Politics Overshadows Social Struggles 

The first phase of the revolutionary process carried the two sit-ins of Kasbah 1 and Kasbah 2 to the ballot boxes for a new constituent assembly. The electoral process therefore significantly affected the revolutionary process’ direction towards a political solution. In other words, only the political demands of the revolution found an arena within which to manifest themselves, at the peril of both its economic and social demands. Thus, the old and new political and economic elites, both within the government and within the opposition, found themselves allied in the struggle to neutralize the revolutionary process. In doing so, they simply redirected the same political, social, and economic regime of the days of Ben Ali. This attempt was carried out through the formation of a distinction between the political issues (which were considered to be a priority), and the social struggles (which were considered to represent obstacles standing in the way of arriving to the shores of stability, barr al-aman).  Thus, this schism, either carefully engineered or largely internalized by the governing elites and set in motion through the utterance of the magical words “democratic transition,” became the best mechanism through which the vested interests of the dominant economic social classes were maintained.   

The clash between the political struggles and the socio-economic struggles took several forms in Tunisia. First, there was the dramatization of the political struggles surrounding the build-up to the up-coming elections. These were aimed at attracting the attention of voters, at keeping their interest, and at justifying the existence of political organizations as the only checks and balances available on the scene.

In this vein, the political and media discourse crystallized around the necessity that the political actors had reached a consensus on the calendar of the elections. Any economic or social considerations were thus considered to be unimportant in comparison to what were collectively labeled the “real issues” that must be dealt with in order to reach political stability. Secondly, the revolutionary social movements (whether they are under the umbrella of the UGTT or not) were systematically criminalized and accused of ”thuggery”—as well as accused of scaring away both local and foreign investors, and obstructing the country’s march towards economic and political stability. The popular argument often mobilized in this context is: “We want a truce. Be patient and let us work and you will get what you want.” Thirdly, the only economic alternative that has been proposed to date is the perpetuation of the same economic model, while centering the ills of the economic system solely on the struggle against corruption. This focus marginalizes the structural problems of the Tunisian economy as a secondary issue. Finally, the same violent and deadly police tactics of repression Ben Ali used are still used by the successive transition governments.   

Given the aforementioned situation, will these allied elements of the old and new regime succeed in reducing the current process into a simple game of liberal democracy with their symbolic concession of free elections? The continuing, unabated social struggles suggest the elements of the revolutionary process remain alive and united.

When the Revolutionary Social Movements Question the Links Between the Governing and the Governed 

If the only alternatives proposed remain grand-scale tourism, sub-contracting, intensive agriculture, and the development of infrastructure (a highway here, a hospital there,) then it is only natural for there to be an explosion of social movements on the scene. These movements are either under the umbrella of the UGTT, or outside of the structures of unions. As such, not a week goes by without either the occurrence of mass general strikes orchestrated by entire villages, such as El-kef, Silaina, Ben-Guerdan, Sidi Bouzid, roadblocks, and industrial actions, such as education, transport, phosphate, etc.

The most influential revolutionary movements, however, are those linked to unemployment and unequal development between the coastal areas and the rest of the country.  Unemployed youth usually lead these movements. These unemployed youth are angered by the government’s inaction in these areas as opposed to the creation of employment or the development of the interior regions of the country. These movements are much more frequent than the polemics opposing Islamists and secularists—which both the national and international media focuses on far more. 

While these socio-economic movements do have some support among some activists engaged in political organizations, they are often seen as a nuisance.  While they could certainly turn into tools in a political battle, they remain peripheral to the famed struggle for a ”democratic transition.” 

Yet, these movements represent a unique laboratory enabling exploration of avenues of political representation and governance that popular uprisings have long championed. Due to their continued pressure on the political process, not a week goes by without a minister being held accountable and asked to explain his or her politics to the public. Moreover, these movements offer an unprecedented opportunity for the creation of an alternative society through their semi-spontaneous capability to articulate the political, social, identity, and economic struggles of the moment.

When the unemployed youths of Siliana or Makther link their individual right to work with the regional problems of development and the history of the erosion of centralized power in these areas, they offer a potent illustration of the interlinked nature of the economic, the political, and of identity. This is even more specifically the case when these same youths link the phenomenon of unemployment with the issue of administrative divisions and the decentralization of political decision-making process. As one explains: “The political battle is obviously for the re-division of the cake, and this does not interest us. We want to work, we want a way out of this misery and the contempt of the central power since independence, and we will not be silent until our demands are met.” 

Additionally, a quick look at the new linkages emerging with these social movements—like the 20 March protest group, the New Generation Movement or the Economic and Social Rights Forum—bears witness to the emergence of a new political movement that breaks ties with classic political organization both intellectually and organizationally. Instead, their central objective is one that questions the classic separation between issues of democratic change and social struggles, while breaking ranks with hierarchical forms of organization. 

In this way, protests in support of the unemployed are articulated in defense of the injured of the revolution; defending individual rights is intimately intertwined with demands for social justice. Protests for the rights of migrants are articulated within a critical analysis of the accords of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership agreements. This articulation that links different struggles on multiple levels and through multiple forms was aptly translated in the slogan chanted in Redeyf in January 2008: “Ahla Gaza/Redeyf ramz el-3izza.” "Good Morning Gaza/Redeyf, symbol of dignity."

Taken together, these collective struggles carry within them the seeds of a new type of socio-political mobilization in which the message is clear: the rejection of neoliberalism, along with both its internal and external partners. They represent a curse for the political elites fighting each other for power, and a real window of opportunity for the revolutionary process. Nonetheless, there remains a challenge. There is a revolutionary process that centers on the dialectical and complex linkages between the economic and the political, leadership and spontaneity, and classical forms of organized collective action and emergent struggles of class and individual rights. Is this revolutionary process capable of escaping fragmentation, political incorporation, and of galvanizing a mass movement that can channel the energy of the masses and propose a real alternative society?

[This article was first published in Arabic on Assafir `Arabi.]


[1] Jocelyne Dakliya, Tunisie le pays sans bruit, Actes Sud, 2011.

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