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Can We Think in Transition? Reflections from Tunisia

[Image entitled [Image entitled "Tunisian Revolution." Image by Michalis Famelis/Flickr]

We all have a personal relationship with words that is forged by our family history as well as our national history and our inscription—or our inscriptions—in collective histories. For example, the word "nationalism" will not have the same connotation if it is used in Tunisia, in Algeria, or in Poland—countries where it takes on the noble connotation of liberation from the yoke of colonialism. Or in France or Great Britain, where “nationalism” is a term that is associated with certain negative realities, like xenophobia.[1] Here I am building on the idea that certain words can carry opposing connotations and values depending on the context. 

The word “transition” is one of these words. I find that it provokes a sort of resistance in me. Or perhaps reticence—to get away from the psychoanalytic lexicon of resistance. It provokes a reticence, and I do not know if this reticence echoes a personal sensibility, an intellectual and political personal position, or if it is tied to a more general opposition to the practices and reality associated with this word.

A first, quite simple, response would be political. I do not wish to speak of transition because I have made the choice of revolution. Certain political temperaments were stirred five years ago, almost immediately after the Revolution. Aside from a minority of outspoken political militants, many Tunisian citizens, even those who are were with the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), were in a kind of fog regarding their own political tropisms. Even for those who had a clear and unequivocal engagement, for which they largely paid the price, the Revolution created a new reality, a new test in light of the facts (épreuve des faits). Thus, at the intersection of multiple paths, in January 2011, two options seemed to arise: the reformist option of democratic transition or the more radical option of revolution. 

Certain political temperaments were thus revealed. These positions were sometimes unexpected and, for the first time, it was necessary to position oneself even when choosing which terms to use. Transition or revolution? When a work by my friend and colleague Kmar Bendana came out, for example, titled “Chronicle of a Transition” (Chronicle d’une Transition), the author also seemed to be expressing a political sensibility, one that we never had the chance to discuss. From the first weeks of 2011, there was a pervasive debate in order to establish whether we were experiencing a revolution, or a series of revolts, or an uprising. Transition was generally a political way of responding to this discussion that was distinct from revolution.

My own choice was that of revolution. It was that of naming a revolution, of giving it a name in order to be sure that it would occur. But my unease extends further than this decision to cause through the force of words a more radical event than a simple transition.

A second position argues against transition, which is transitology itself. It is well known—especially among economists—as the sudden mobilization of a considerable mass of experts who are generally foreigners,generally Western, who come to preach the good word and to propose ready-made models of democracy. The science of the transition has become a financial windfall, a market. And the word transition has of course become a reflex of language, a term of reference, a call for tenders (appel d’offres) to which the whole society was supposed to respond.  Consequently, the reticence that one can express is the following: our history is framed, transition is a heteronomy. Every democratic revolution is henceforth supposed to take a unique, imposed path, which is, at the same time, indistinctly democratic and liberal (or neoliberal). A more or less non-“negotiable” package. 

It is necessary to highlight the imposed character (and imposed from the outside) of this coming to transition. Yet, the problem is that, in so doing, one also expresses certain closures, and a response that is possibly counterproductive. If democratic transition is (or should be) a good thing, can one refuse it in the name of its injunctive character, of the paternalism of international organisms, and the numerous experts who come to sell it, or finance, verify and control its application? The unease with this concept comes from the unequivocal character of this model of the transition, sold as a ready-made product, which is a liberal capitalist model. At the same time, we remark that the debates on an alternative model are not so numerous in the Tunisian public space. Even though the World Social Forum was hosted twice in Tunis, in 2013 and 2015, it did not lead to vocal public debates regarding alternative models of transition. And the alternative experiences mostly concern the associative sector, often in the regional, rural, local peripheries, rather than the most visible central public sphere.

Today, barring a few exceptions, we all live in “aligned” countries. Here I am thinking of the informal meaning of the phrase: “to align someone,” (aligner quelqu’un), which means to subdue someone, make them conform (faire rentrer dans le rang). 

The problem of democratic transition is thus the problem of transposing prior experiences that have already occurred. Transition can thus be defined as the problem of a relationship to the world, on the one hand, and as a relationship with time, on the other hand—to historical time and that which came before, a history that has already occurred. I would add here the problem of comparison, the difficulty of comparing oneself and thus a way of being “of the world,” of existing in the world and on a world-scale. We saw this problematic in the writing of the constitution of 2014, which led to the mobilization of numerous foreign and international experts, even though Tunisia has a large number of lawyers of international standing. We have been inspired by the end of other dictatorships such as those in Portugal, Poland, etc. The same problematic of a systematic comparison with an external experience also makes sense in thinking about transitional justice, where we know that the universal models are elaborated on the basis of past experiences: Latin America, South Africa, Morocco. Drawing on this empirical foundation, some experts use the jargon of international organisms to define “good practices.” Following, one merely has to apply the recommended formulas. 

Even if these injunctive processes (processus injonctifs) feed our criticism, they come with a fantastic opening to the world: Tunisia has never so often compared itself with the rest of the world and the world has never focused as much on Tunisia. In itself, this opening is a wonderful thing, something to preserve. It inspires certain refusals, sometimes legitimate, like the refusal to be compared. This rejection answers to an injunctive and normative violence inherent in comparison, a violence that enables you to assign a conformation, an external reference, without speaking of the paternalist or neocolonialist character of a process driving this unequivocal model of transition. But I would say that despite the often too-linear character of this well-trodden path of democracy, there is an opening to the world in the politics of transition, an anchoring in the world that I think we have to preserve and that Tunisian public debate is too quick to reject— or to ignore.

Indeed, it is extremely difficult to take control of one’s destiny and, at the same time, to engage in comparison. We see the elaboration of all kinds of defensive reactions, around the theme of national exceptions, of cultural incommensurability (l’irréductibilité culturelle), which are also attempts to refocus on a narrow and specific history, in the negation of this international market of transition or in a vague, perhaps vain, desire to negotiate with it.

I am writing against this conception of political change, which is also a managerial conception of politics. It is an institutional vision of politics, to the detriment of a conception of politics as effervescence and as reinvention of the polity, as an expression of the political subject. In this transitological account, the institution appears as essential and quickly comes to represent the totality of politics. Reducing politics to a transition of institutions, even democratic ones, is the atrophy, and perhaps even a death of politics.

It is also true that the pill is bitter; the paradox is enormous. At the precise moment where democracy is experiencing a crisis in the Western world, the same Western world hails the entrance of Tunisia in the club. At the same time, recently democratized, Eastern Europe recovers dictatorial accents, like in Hungary or Poland. Liberties have been curtailed in the United States and in Europe since 11 September 2001. Moreover, there is a profound democratic crisis regarding the principle of representation, which also concerns the trade movements. Given this crisis of representativeness and representation, one must note a clear discrepancy between the current state of democracy in the Euro-Atlantic world and the democratic model that they are selling us. This discrepancy is rarely analyzed in the “transitional” process that is taking place in Tunisia.

Democracy is fading in the very societies that are prescribing this form of governance. These regressions of democracy—whether or not they are admitted—are not taken into consideration when we make our comparison. Similarly, the international collaboration against terrorism is not analyzed in terms of a violation of liberties and its impact on democratic transition. The relationship of these democratic nations with the world is always a conquering relationship in which being democratic becomes an ontological label rather than signifying a credible and dynamic reality. Thus, an argument regularly employed to support Israel before the "Arab Springs" was that it was a democratic state. An essential difference is thus at stake.

A division of the world has been established that is based on belonging to a club of democratic states. And we observe an enormous hypocrisy, or an enormous illusion, in pretending to teach or share a model that we know should itself be transformed or reformed. More simply stated, if they sell us this model, we must also debate its weaknesses and its current pitfalls. The multiple social movements that have followed the Tunisian Revolution, the Indignés of Madrid, the “Maple Spring” in Quebec, as well as events in Senegal, Tel Aviv, Istanbul…all of these movements precisely claim that a linear entrance into the democratic model is not possible and that this model should be reinvented, and that it is in the process of being reinvented. The last of these movements to date, Nuit Debout in France, has not used the Tunisian Revolution as a founding reference—even if on 21 April 2016, a man tried to set himself on fire in the Place de la République in Paris.

Each linear democratic transition is therefore a lie if we do not simultaneously debate the failures or impasses found in the current model of representative democracy, and if we do not discuss all the democratic alternatives and all the democratic constraints that are currently conceivable.

The problem is also that we, Tunisian citizens, refuse to see the negative aspects that necessarily come with democratic practices. We see this evolution as a passage from a wrong to a right, and this is the general meaning of this story. But the point that resists, that stops us from calmly lancing ourselves in the democratic dynamic is the difficulty of accepting these negative dimensions that come—necessarily—with democracy. In other words, we have completely idealized democracy. Moreover, the image of democracy that we discussed after the Revolution was an ideal, unreal, purified image. Indeed, democracy, in a certain way, is always dirty. It is founded on disagreement and the divergence of views. It thus implies conflict, division, and goes along with insults, accusations, the airing of dirty laundry, and with trials that are more or less scandalous.

If democracy signifies transparency (or increased transparency), it also presupposes, as a result, the permanent exhumation of affairs that are more or less shady, more or less dirty, and a process of permanent doubt, of constant accusations toward adversaries. We were not prepared for this as we broke with an unanimist system. This outpouring did not happen except behind closed doors, in secret so that transparency existed, but off-stage, never on central stage. And today we discover that democracy also functions on the basis of the same accusations and outpourings that are brought to light. We believed that we were going toward the light, but we discovered that in appearance, the political establishment is not more moral or virtuous in a democratic system. In a democracy, institutions are virtuous, not necessarily people or political parties. Stated differently, a representative democracy is defined by confidence in institutions, not in people or in parties.

In other words, coming to democracy is also accepting this system of transparency that may result in a very negative image of ourselves, our political actors, and political representatives. An impression of failure and regression follows from this, even though this transparency is an expression of the democratic process—with all the attending problems, for example, defining the limits of private and public life, of that which can and cannot be said, or repressed. And that which varies among societies is often forged by consensus rather than by written rules. We see clearly how in Western Europe, for example, there are certain countries where ministers are forced to leave office at the first sign of a scandal, and other countries where this is not the case.

I therefore express these reservations regarding transition—without irony—because I sincerely believe in the democratic idea. That is to say, I believe in the fundamental and non-negotiable equality of all individuals without distinction—women and men. Moreover, I am almost ready to support the idea that there cannot be a viable social revolution without a change of institutions. It is perhaps pointless to consider that the reformism of transition, that the transitional vision, would be the opposite of the Revolution or even counter-revolutionary. Chantal Mouffe, who provided one of the theoretical inspirations for Podemos in Spain, recently insisted on the fact that the opposition between revolution and reformism is largely inspired by the French tradition, and is not necessarily relevant. According to her, we could also speak of a revolutionary reformism.

The problem here is to know if the reform of institutions—of the state—is a prerequisite for social justice or if it comes along with social justice, if it is an expression of social justice. We have clearly adopted a logic whereby institutional reform is a perquisite—a prerequisite that is substituted for the goal of social justice and the initial revolutionary project.

Having evoked these fundamental questions, my unease in thinking about transition persists because it is fundamentally rooted in something else. My unease stems from the impression of seeing history repeat itself. In reality, when did we stop being in transition? When did we stop thinking of ourselves as being in transition?

Tunisian independence, achieved in 1956, brought with it a race to development, a rush toward a series of economic, social, and cultural objectives that were also pre-defined, pre-established, and that resulted from an international standard of development.

If in Tunisia, we replace the “democratic transition” with the “end of under-development” we find ourselves a few decades back, with the same relationship to time, with the idea of a pivotal moment, and a situation of “catching up” [to the West]. We had integrated this explicit political discourse that conveyed a sense of being “behind,” and this same idea is being imposed on us in a similar way today. The difference is that it no longer implies a paternalistic and authoritarian presidential injunction. Catching up, the linearity of development and the economic take-off…

A political injunction came after the economic injunction, but the logic is the same. We are in a suspended moment. We are in suspense. Waiting for the moment where we will be real democrats, as we were waiting for the moment where we would be really developed, civilized, “educated,” etc. The perspective of transition thus stops us from being in the present and from living politically in the present as a political community in the present. Is this community in construction? But democracy is always being constructed, it is a state of permanent vigilance, of permanent conquest, since there are always new rights to acquire or to preserve.

Indeed, this perspective of transition allows us to establish hierarchies and priorities, to proclaim that “this is not the time.” It was not the time to assert political liberty and political pluralism when we were battling under-development. And today is not the time to militate for economic and social justice, as long as the institutions are not stable, as long as the state is not respected. We risk letting ourselves be trapped again, in the same logic of transition that always justifies waiting. 

If we broaden the historical perspective, we see that this linear injunction to construct oneself for an always distant future comes from far away. All the aims of Ennahda (...) were under the sign of a reform and thus also of a transition. But which one? At least, the perspectives of reform were plural at the time (...). At the end of the nineteenth century and at the very beginning of the twentieth century, certain political actors were in favor of a modernization that was inspired by Western societies, others were in favor of a reform that was a return to origins. For some, this was a modernizing return to origins, for others it was a strictly conservative undertaking, with all the gradations and variations possible in between these two options. There were multiple sensibilities but they all diagnosed a backwardness, proclaiming a global race to modernity in which Islamic countries (not only Arab) were late. 

Here as well, we can link this problematic of backwardness (retard) —the famous “why did other countries advance and why have we remained behind,” which has been the title of so many books on the Islamic world—with that of transition since the relationship to time is fundamentally similar to both problematics. There is a global idea of Progress, a faith in Progress that implies the idea of a predefined goal to be attained. The idea of Progress claims that the trajectory of humanity (la marche de l’humanité) occurs to ensure its happiness and advancement. Regardless of what one thinks of this idea today, it has not historically been contained in a single socio-economic model. To liberate oneself from work, can be one expression of Progress, for example. But what constituted the notion of good government in the nineteenth century? At the time of Bin Dhiyaf ? Of Khayr ad-din?

Without idealizing this social-economic-political model, I would like to remind us that the nineteenth century in Tunisia (as well as in other North African and Islamic countries) continued to refer to the famous “circle of equity,” until quite a late date, until the reformism of Khayr ad-din. It is a conception of politics in Islam that historical research is currently rediscovering, as are certain economists, because it is a circular formulation of political equilibrium in economic and social justice (a justice that is not necessarily egalitarian nor democratic for that matter). It is a formulation of political equilibrium that interests us here in the sense that, in contrast with the Arab dictatorships of the twentieth century, the notion of adab as-sultan (the Sultan’s political culture) was really a reflection on the present (pensée du présent).

It was the direct policies of the sultan that formed the loyalty of his army, it was his immediate justice, ideally without delay, that was responsible for the prosperity of his subjects and the collection of taxes. It was the prosperity of the subjects that made the State, which in turn protected its subjects. I will not enter here into an analysis of this virtuous circle, but one must highlight the extent to which this vision was one of the immediacy of politics and its social effects. It was a thought of the present, and this, reference was always that of Bin Dhiyaf and of Khayr ad-din. (…) There is certainly a “modernity,” a relevance that has been rediscovered in this Sultanian thought (cette pensée sultanienne). It is even more important that historians now challenge the notion of historical decline in the Islamic world—a question that is so thoroughly present. The notion of backwardness thus becomes even more fragile and obsolete. Historical linearities, in a more general way, do not make much sense and are challenged by historical research, even if the proclaimed aims of Ennahda were based on these linearities.

At the same time, the characteristic of the nationalist reforms—in the noble sense of the term—of Ennahda, was to construct, in a new way, a linearity against the West, a linearity that ran parallel to the dominant western history. There was no longer a history in-and-of itself, even in regards to thought. Of course, there is never a history in-and-of itself. Europe was constructed in reference to the Muslim world as much as the Islamic world was constructed in reference to Europe. More than in reference, these two spaces were constructed in a state of permanent imbrication and interaction to the other part of the Mediterranean or Adriatic. [2] Each history is always based on interactions. Interaction, confrontation, entanglement did not stop the actors from thinking in accordance to their own development and from acting accordingly. 

Historians today deny that Ennahda was merely a response, a reaction to the colonial interferences—direct or indirect—of the Occident.[3] Instead, they posit a specific and endogenous dynamic. The base of interactions constitutive of societies that historians study today does not overlook that the nineteenth century was also marked by a new and different confrontation, involving a [European] society that had become conquering and dominating. Thus, the complex thought of Ennahda also introduced a regime of reforms and transitions founded on the idea of liberation and emancipation. This was a conditional and suspended primary form, because we were already oriented toward a goal, and committed to the goal of “catching up” to the external world. The entire nation was waiting to achieve this goal. Achieving independence has led us to renew this same principle and we should be wary of this mimetic reproduction today. 

Behind this posture of transition, one should also identify inherently political stakes and the question of context: Today, it is allegedly not the moment to decriminalize homosexuality or to abolish death penalty, as it was not the moment yesterday to weaken national unity by authorizing a multiparty system. A hierarchy of priorities is taking shape, happily without any consensus, that is not a function of the present, but of a sanctified future. The present is always sacrificed. This is also, obviously, a discursive tactic.

The concern that arises is almost philosophical, beyond the tactical and strategic debates. The view of transition is actually that which stops us from thinking in the present. In history, there is a notion that I refuse and that I always try to deconstruct, which is the notion of a “period of transition.” This notion actually does not mean anything, since any period (...) is necessarily a period of transition. There is no such thing as a pre-existing “period” of history. A period is always before something and after something. To speak of a period of transition, then, is to engage in a retrospective and thus teleological reading. If we want to isolate a historical period and analyze it, we must take it as a moment in and of itself, to analyze it for itself, and not as a pre-written path to something else.

The very notion of transition, that is to say the hope placed in an “after,” is maybe that which stops us from implementing more social justice in the present, without waiting. It is true that the writing of the Constitution projected us as a political community into the future, constrained us to think in the future more than in the present. It was by definition a foundational text, for the future and not for the present. And thus, the logic of suspension and of transition was reproduced, and even extended because this writing has surpassed all expected time limits. But it seems to me that in a structural manner, this process has turned its back on objectives other than the political institutionalization. This is an appropriation of the revolution, certainly, and it is a confiscation. But was this not in the logic of a hierarchy of objectives introduced by the very notion of a “democratic transition?"

The major problem, it seems, is the illusion that there is an end to this process. The writing of the Constitution is an achieved objective but there are always other objectives to accomplish. What is the end of transition? In reality, no end is possible, since democracy is a process that is, by definition, always in construction, never achieved, always to be defended, or pushed further. This is why it is so important that we do not focus on external models that seem to be achieved, like American democracy, but which are always in motion, a motion that today is regressive. Thus investing in the democratic path is always-already being a democrat, knowing that, as I have mentioned, democracy is not a personal or even collective virtue, but the virtue of an institutional configuration that is never really achieved, an institutional process that is by nature always in construction. It is all the more legitimate to think of social justice in the present, as a component of democratic edification, as its support, rather than viewing it as a secondary and derivative benefit, continuously postponed for a future more stable and more sure. Politics lives in the present.

Finally, I have two minor remarks. The first concerns something that seems to me a contradiction, although perhaps one that specialists of political economy will be able to resolve. This contradiction is the following: as I just underscored, the notion of transition mimetically brings us back to other transitional moments, such as Ennadha and the reforms of independence, with the same teleological linearity. In these two historical moments, that are perhaps in some way a single national moment that is presented differently, the pertinent political scale was that of the nation. All the more so in the 1960s and 1970s when socialist and socializing models weighted heavily on the Tunisian and Arab destinies, as the individual and the rights of the individual hardly had no place in the authoritarian regimes and the rushed societal transition. We can think, for example, of the family planning policy, which was never conceived as an individual or personal liberation of women, but as a good for the nation and the general society. 

Today, I fear a reiteration of this same logic, though the difference is that we have arrived at dominant liberal models that are focused on the individual and his/her rights and agency. All the while invoking, and here is the problem, the same national unanimity, now reinforced by the threats of terrorism, of war and broader concerns around security.

The discourse of rights and individual responsibilities is certainly present and is particularly strong in the language of NGOs and international organisms. Yet, in politics, we are always in a persistent and idealized logic of the collective accomplishment of an ideal unity, with the rooted idea that anything that divides us makes us weak. It seems to be that these are contradictory logics, with certain generational cleavages, whereby the young generations are more sensitive than their elders to a discourse of individual accomplishment and less reactive to injunctions that call upon unity. (...)

A second and last remark concerns the linearity of history and how to escape from it. I do not want to say that we must envision a history that is cyclical and that has no place for a linear vision of achievement, of accumulation, of advancement, and of progress. But there are linearities that are open, those that are not already inscribed, and there are linearities that are closed, locked because they have a fixed end-point. Transition belongs to this latter category. I would hope that the revolution will lead us to a future that is not already written, to an openness regarding the horizons of the possible, outside of an already definitive repertoire. This means moving from a reflection on transition (pensée de la transition) to reflection on becoming (pensée du devenir).

[This text was translated to English by Muriam Haleh Davis and initially presented during a conference organized by Baccar Gherib in April of 2016 in Tabarka (Université de Jendouba). It was subsequently published here in French on]

[1] On this relationship to words, see the recent work of Hédia Baraket and Olfa Belhassine, Ces nouveaux mots qui font la Tunisie, Céres Editions, Tunis, 2016

[2] Here, I am taking the liberty of invoking two books, which I helped publish with B. Vincent et W. Kaiser, “Les Musulmans dans l’histoire de l’Europe,” Paris, Albin Michel, 2011 et 2013. 

[3] See, for example, the entry that Leyla Dakhli consecrates to this movement in Dictionnaire de l’Humanisme arabe, 2012

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