The Arab uprisings seemed to herald a fatal rupture in orientalist narratives, challenging as they did essentialized renderings of the region as one mired by "authoritarian resilience" and failures to democratize. However, four years after the uprisings, familiar forms of reductionist analysis about the regions persist, albeit more subtly. The latest readings of the Tunisian experience have not shied away from condescending tropes regarding the success of its stable, liberal transition as opposed to the volatility and illiberal failings of other “Arab spring” countries. The Economist’s rationale for choosing Tunisia as the magazine’s “country of the year” exemplifies this trend, offering a “Mabruk!” to the country for its “pragmatism and moderation,” which “have nurtured hope in a wretched region.”
Such analysis bestows praise on the country for finally submitting to a Western-embedded teleological vision of progress, including the development of a free market, democratic institutions, and various rational-bureaucratic processes. In their elite focus, reductionist analyses tend to overlook the importance to Tunisia’s transformation of popular mobilization, and of the radicalism that was necessary to suspend (even if momentarily) “awe of the state” in order to imagine and attempt to construct an alternative order. They also conveniently ignore the past role external powers played, the West in particular, in propping up the Ben Ali regime through arms sales, trade, aid and military support, and through obscure new forms of intervention transnational and multilateral institutions practiced. External pressure to liberalize, deregulate, and make Tunisia more “business friendly” to foreign investors had made the Ben Ali regime not more but less accountable.
In addition, by overlooking similarities between the form and content of the Tunisian uprising and those of other recent mass mobilizations across the world, these recent analyses also reinforce orientalism’s geographic violence. Although it would be impossible (and unwise) to explain the Tunisian uprising through any one analytical lens, there were certainly facets of the uprising that sit as comfortably alongside the Indignados in Spain, the Occupy movement in the United States, and the Syntagma Square protests in Greece as with the Syrian and Egyptian experiences. Protesters in all of these contexts similarly challenged the (often externally mandated) neoliberal policies that had contributed within their societies to a retraction of the state, deregulation, reduced social spending, high unemployment, entrenched inequality, and increasingly repressive national security policies.
Despite what much of the western (as well as Tunisian) media would like us to believe, Tunisia’s uprising was not only a “liberal revolution.” While liberal demands regarding freedoms and rights figured prominently in the contentious repertoires of the protestors, radical social and economic justice aims were equally, if not more central. These radical demands were expressed in a non-institutionalized setting—in the street and in public spaces where protesters achieved power not only by acting in “concert," but also by (in Judith Butler’s phrase) rendering their bodies “vulnerable.” Contrary to prevalent readings, the radicalism of Tunisia’s uprising did not end once the revolutionary process became institutionalized.
The 2014 legislative elections, in which Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda received a majority of votes, albeit with high levels of voter abstention, suggest the strong purchase of the political language of “consensus.” Many had expected a more polarized electoral politics—not due to the reductionist and misguided Islamist-secular framing often applied to the Tunisian political scene, but rather to the history of Ennahda’s repression under the ancien régime, many of whose architects today comprise the Nidaa Tounes leadership and rank and file. Yet despite what one would assume to be existential differences between the two parties, there seems to have been a compromise, at least at the level of party leadership, with regards to a roadmap for the country’s economy, foreign policy, and national security. We may only speculate as to whether such a compromise would have occurred in the absence of the Egyptian experience, in which the elected Islamist government and its supporters were violently repressed following a military coup.
In the context of Tunisia’s transition, “consensus” (ijma’), which often invoked alongside institutional continuity (istimrariyyat al mu’assassat), is presented as vital for protecting the “prestige of the state” (haybat al-dawla), and thus the state’s economic wellbeing and security. As such, it is often employed as a means to shut down debate with those whose opinions are deemed to undermine such “consensus”—opinions to be dismissed with various derogatory labels, including “dangerous,” “obscurantist,” “terrorist,” and “crazy.” To be a “statesman” in this context means to support the status quo, or, at the very least, only incremental change.
Consensus around an early agenda for Tunisia’s newly elected Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) has secured legislative approval of the recent financial budget as well as new bankruptcy, competition, and Private Public Partnership (PPP) laws backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, in return for credit guarantees and loans. Such neoliberal initiatives seem to be an indication of what is in store for Tunisia’s “post-political” future. Chantal Mouffe describes the "post-political" as a “crisis of representation” resulting from “the ‘consensus at the center’ that has come to dominate politics in most liberal-democratic societies." Consensus, Mouffe contends, has the effect of eliminating “agonistic pluralism,” in which radical difference and political conflict is given institutional expression. Agonism, Mouffe explains, is a prerequisite for “radical democracy” and the more "just society" promised by such a political system.
The failure of mainstream analyses to perceive nuance in the causes and fortunes of Tunisia’s uprising reaffirms the urgency, as Nadia Marzouki contends, to “develop new analytical methods and new concepts” in political analysis and practice. Perhaps one way to respond to such urgency is to recall the spaces for radical politics that Tunisian revolutionaries achieved—both on the streets and in the context of state institutions.
Discursive Challenges to Tunisia’s Constructed State Identity
Despite numerous structural obstacles, it is undeniable that the uprising gave rise to important and irreversible changes in state-society dynamics as well as at the level of Tunisia’s state identity. Regarding the former, the revolutionary wave that swept the country in 2011 fundamentally altered the balance of power, with a range of social actors—from student leaders, trade unionists, and weathered political activists to watch-dogs and critical think-tanks—claiming a greater space within the public sphere where their claim-making on the state could be heard.
Concerning the latter, as with all processes of state identity construction, the discursive construction of Tunisia’s post-colonial identity was complex and at times contradictory. For example, many people point to Bourguiba’s support for the National Liberation Front (FLN) as a sign of his Pan-Arab predilections. However, as Nicole Grimaud notes, Bourguiba also undermined the nascent Maghrebi Front (Neo-Doustour-FLN-Istiqlal) when he settled for internal autonomy instead of full independence for Tunisia. This move facilitated France’s favorable negotiating position vis-à-vis Algerian and Moroccan anti-colonial movements.
Bourguiba’s socialist leaning economic policies in his early days of rule are often attributed to his nationalist tendencies. However, it was also under Bourguiba that Tunisia’s first IMF loan was agreed, that the neoliberal restructuring of Tunisia’s economy began and that the framework was established for the violent repression-cooptation relationship between the state and Tunisia’s vibrant labor movement. Bourguiba ultimately failed to challenge the structural inequalities underpinning Tunisia’s relationship with Europe, and France in particular, one of the reasons that Tunisia’s economy remains structurally dependent upon its former colonizer.
Furthermore, the excommunication and eventual assassination of one-time confidante and fellow Neo-Destour general secretary Salah Ben Youssef exemplified Bourguiba’s hegemonic ruling style and attempt to exclude more radical forms of Arab nationalism from Tunisia’s political sphere. Bourguiba has also been praised in certain Tunisian as well as western circles for his “enlightened rule.” However, it is important to remember that both Bourguiba and Ben Ali employed the discourse of Tunisia’s historical “reformism” (claiming roots in the Fundamental Pact of 1857 and the 1860 Constitution) to provide a veneer of liberalism to their rule. Yet, as an “official discourse,” the reformist tropes had more to do with what Hibou describes as “power, what it is and what it would like for people to believe that it is” than any approximation of Tunisia’s national development trajectory.
The post-uprising period witnessed a discursive and, to a certain extent, policy shift on the level of Tunisia’s foreign affairs. An alternative vision was presented, underpinned by south-south cooperation, including advocacy for and solidarity with anti-authoritarian resistance and diplomacy that would be more consistent with post-revolutionary foreign policy principles. Drawing its inspiration more from the Youssefiste rather than Bourguibist tradition, such a vision provoked strong condemnation from Tunisia’s foreign policy establishment.
President Marzouki’s call to dissolve the Arab League and replace it with an Arab Union along the same lines as the European Union can be seen within the context of this discursive shift enabled by the uprising. There was also Tunisia’s official condemnation of the overthrow of the elected Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi; its condemnation of the Israeli attacks on Gaza; its hosting of two major conferences on Palestine sponsored by the Presidency; and its withdrawal of recognition of Bashar Al Assad’s government (and subsequent expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador to Tunisia) in response to the brutal repression of Syria’s popular uprising. Of course, many were quick to point out that the government was selective in its criticism of authoritarianism, withholding censure from countries like Morocco and Qatar due to close relations. Nevertheless, there appeared to be a tangible shift in Tunisia’s foreign policy discourse, albeit one limited by political and economic considerations as well as internal and external pressures.
The economically liberal tenet of Tunisia’s pre-2011 state identity came to be challenged policies that seemed to be informed by Third Worldist and anti-imperialist sentiments, reflected in the revolutionary demand: “karama wataniyya” (national sovereignty). Examples of this can be found in attempts to audit Tunisia’s international debt with Ecuador’s help, as well as the inclusion in the constitution of Article 13, which guarantees parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of contracts involving state-owned natural resources.
However, these revolutionary gains are by no means secure. In the latter days of its mandate, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) experienced robust pushback from Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa’s “technocrat” government. As explored in an investigative piece by FadilAliriza, the Assembly’s energy committee, for example, was repeatedly warned that challenges to government policy and dubious contractual practices would result in dire effects on the economy. While Jomaa claimed that ANC’s meddling was hurting the country’s economic development, his critics maintained that his previous career in the oil industry meant he would prioritize that sector’s interest over those of the Tunisian people.
Although the protests, sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience that led to Ben Ali’s departure comprised the most dramatic episode of the uprisings, the elections that followed, in which a secular-Islamist coalition emerged victorious, were just as significant. The forging of a space for the previously banned Ennahda within the Tunisian political scene was an impressive achievement, and represented a challenge to the centrality of “secularism” in Tunisia’s previous construction of state identity. Secularism in the Tunisian context has often meant not the complete separation of state and religion, but rather a sometimes-violent containment of religious expressions not sanctioned by the state. This included state control over religious institutions (including mosques and the Ministry of Religious Affairs), state promotion of certain types of acceptable public manifestations of piousness, and the criminalization of deviating practices in public and political space.
Responding to the legacy of repressive state secularism, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) party and its leader, Mohamed Moncef Marzouki, worked together with democratic secular and religious forces to open a space within Tunisia’s political system in which an alternative vision of the relationship between religion and politics could be presented. It was under the “Troika,” the coalition of parties (CPR, Ennahda and Ettakatol) that formed a government after the November 2011 elections, that political agonism as a means of overcoming the politics of fear and alienation were first institutionalized. These efforts were in fact begun before 2011, and can be dated back to the 18 October Coalition of 2005. This coalition saw agreement between a range of liberal and leftist civil society organizations and political parties from across the Islamist-secular spectrum on the broad demands for basic human rights and an end to Ben Ali’s repression. This coalition paved the way for the types of compromises that resulted in the Troika government.
Challenges to Tunisia’s Transitional Justice Process
In the period following the January 2011 uprising, there has been a concerted effort to promote and institutionalize transitional justice in Tunisia. The first steps were taken on 18 February 2011, when the first interim government, under pressure from the streets, formally established three commissions to investigate former state abuse. It also established a national commission to investigate abuses committed during the uprising and adopted a general Amnesty Law for political prisoners, which allowed for the release of more than 500 remaining political prisoners, some of whom had been convicted or were facing charges under the country’s 2003 “anti-terror” law.
Following the November 2011 elections, a Ministry of Transitional Justice and Human Rights was established, followed much later by the passage of legislation on transitional justice in December 2013. Though President Marzouki’s revelatory “Black Book” was criticized by his opponents and several global liberal governance actors for its ad hoc approach towards justice, thereby undermining “trust towards state institutions,” others contended that without it the transitional justice law would have confronted further delays in the ANC. The transitional justice law seeks to establish culpability and redress for past victims of state crimes, with mechanisms created to provide specialized judicial chambers, necessary “institutional reforms” and the “vetting of civil servants” (Human Rights Watch 2013). The law also mandated the establishment of the “Truth and Dignity Commission,” which is tasked with enacting victim reparations and state recognition for human rights violations as far back as independence (1 July 1955).
After a slow start, the pieces of the transitional justice process seemed to begin to fall into place. Yet criminal prosecutions of individuals variously connected with the Interior Ministry and other security services of the former regime have been limited, with only twenty-three in total tried for acts of state violence alleged to have been committed between 17 December 2010 and 14 January 2011. Furthermore, verdicts issued by military tribunals, in which relatively short sentences were handed out for former regime abuses, provoked widespread consternation. Verdicts concerning high-profile regime members, including former Interior Minister Rafik Haj Kacem and the former director of Ben Ali’s Presidential Guard, Ali Seriati, were the target of particular opprobrium. The defendants were sentenced to three years in prison for causing deaths and injuries to protesters during the uprising in the cities of Thala, Kasserine, Greater Tunis, and Sfax. The verdicts meant that each was released for time-served within two months of the sentence. Ben Ali himself was given lengthy sentences on charges of embezzlement of public funds and the murder of protesters during the uprising. However, the Troika government was criticized for not doing enough to ensure his return from Saudi Arabia.
Despite some significant steps, transitional justice achievements have thus far been more superficial than substantive. The violence of the former regime took both material and discursive forms. Though the courtroom is far from the ideal venue for redressing discursive legacies, transitional justice is ideally a more holistic process. Juridical forms of redress may form an important part of this process, but equally integral are the redistribution of wealth and power (in the Tunisian context this is not only a class issue, but also regional as the interior regions, south/southwest and north have been historically marginalized- both materially and in terms of political influence), and the overcoming of deep societal cleavages that resulted from repressive rule.
Tunisia’s transitional governments, however, have failed to significantly challenge the discursively constituted “existential threat” on which exceptional rights- and constitution-violating polices the Ben Ali regime often adopted under a "national security" pretext. Such a process of discursive redress would entail, as Doris Gray has argued, the transformation of “previous identit[ies] of [those deemed] enemies of the state” to “valuable members of society” and, in some instances, “heroes” for their resistance to state repression. In the absence of such a process, it is unsurprising that existential mistrust and deep societal cleavages remain.
Additionally, though many have credited the decision with paving the way for a "stable," "pacted" transition, the ANC’s failure to pass a lustration (or "exclusion") law paved the way for the eventual return to power of ancien régime members, who threaten to undermine the transitional justice process to secure self-protection. Derisive statements regarding the transitional justice process made by Beji Caid Essebsi, who served in high-level government positions in both the Bourguiba and Ben Ali governments, and by other senior members of his Nidaa Tounes party, have caused consternation among activists and victims of former state crimes.
Despite these concerning developments, activism continues in old and new forms. Recent protests outside courtrooms at unsatisfactory verdicts have been complemented by truth-telling from below using social media to challenge the largely unreconstructed mainstream media’s views and create an alternative public sphere. With the imminent presidential elections, transitional justice has once again become a site of contestation through which different visions of Tunisia’s past and potential future are debated.
Challenges to the National Security Paradigm and its Politics of Fear
Despite many internal and external obstacles, the transitional period witnessed important challenges to the “national security state” paradigm and associated practices and policies. At the time of the Troika government, a consensus seemed to be emerging among legal and human rights scholars and activists, as well as some key Tunisian political actors, on the terms of an alternative counter-terror approach. The essence of that approach was that it is more effective to deal with terrorism cases through the tools of a justice-based system, where due process and human rights are guaranteed. An obvious target of reform efforts has been the 2003 anti-terror law, which was, notoriously, used by Ben Ali as a tool to criminalize dissent and to discipline and punish “problematic communities” and divert attention from other forms of criminality - including those supported by elements of the state.
Highlighting the anti-democratic effects of the 2003 anti-terror law, the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LTDH) has criticized its negative impact on “the foundations of a fair trial ... (and) human rights.” President Marzouki has decried past instrumentalization of national security concerns to “restrict the rights and freedoms of and harass political opponents.” He called on lawmakers to bear in mind international human rights standards and, most importantly, the “values” expressed in the context of the revolution “for people`s dignity.” Rather than viewing terror as an ideology or social phenomenon linked to certain types of undesirable communities, as is often the case within the “war on terror” national security framework, Marzouki’s approach instead sought to address each incident of violence on its own merits, through ordinary, rather than exceptional, policing and legal mechanisms and processes.
Despite these efforts, the 2003 anti-terror law is still very much in effect. Thousands of individuals (1500 in the past year alone) alleged to be involved in terrorism have been arrested. These arrests appear to point in the direction of a continued policy of criminalizing communities and of using exceptional measures. The decision of the “technocrat” government to suspend, without due process, 157 non-governmental religious associations as well as several mosques for alleged links to terrorism, reinforces this perception.
Both the Troika and "technocrat" government have been accused of not doing enough to reform the Interior Ministry, a key component of Ben Ali’s repressive rule. Additionally, rights groups have documented the ongoing abuses and continued impunity of the police, often with the support of the powerful National Union of Interior Security forces. With the establishment of the Technical Agency for Telecommunications (ATT), described as the Tunisian National Security Agency (NSA), expansive government surveillance without oversight is also likely to continue. Such “counter-terror” measures have had a deleterious impact on civil liberties across the world in recent years. Tunisia is not unique in this sense, except in its context as a state emerging from a popular uprising.
Though the “international community” purportedly supports Tunisia’s democratic transition, an unreconstructed international and regional “security” agenda, whose policies often depend, for their functionality, upon strong executive power and little democratic oversight, may hinder rather than help those efforts. With an expansion of US Africa Command (USAFRICOM) and US Army Africa (USARAF) activities, and the overall expansion of the “war on terror” in recent years to the African continent, Tunisia will most likely continue to figure prominently in the United State’s regional “national security” agenda.
The politics of fear associated with the “national security state” paradigm absorbs vital political time and capital and distracts from other pressing issues. It also inhibits the opening up of a discursive space within which radical alternatives can be debated and different ways of conceptualizing the state and state-society relations realized. Though that debate began under the Troika government, the transitional period has cut it short. "Security" issues figured prominently in the campaign with Nidaa Tounes employing emotionally loaded billboards and advertisements, such as the one below, associating the Troika government (2011-2014) with poverty, violence and high food prices, and by extension, insinuating that should Marzouki be elected, this state of affairs will continue. This device of Nidaa Tounes suggests that the days of instrumentalizing “security” are far from over.
[These billboards can be seen across the country on major roads and highways. They are sponsored by the Karoui brothers communications agency Karoui & Karoui owners of Nesma TV and financial backers of Nidaa Tounes and Beji Caid Essebsi`s presidential campaign. It reads: "provisional violence." Image from Agence Ecofin]
The End of Politics or Continuing Tunisia’s Radical Revolution by Other Means?
The fast tracking, with little discussion, of the 2015 Loi de Finance (budget law) through the ARP may be a sign of a post-political scenario taking root in Tunisia. The leftist/nationalist front, Jebha Chaabia, however, may provide an alternative economic vision to the supremacy of legislative neoliberal “consensus.” However, considering its role thus far in reinforcing status quo national security policies, and therefore a politics of fear, it is unlikely that Jebha will contribute a counter-hegemonic perspective here.
Regardless of political differences, it is difficult to ignore the role of both Marouzki and the CPR during their time in office in consistently contributing to “agonistic pluralism” in Tunisia. Whether it was in regards to their crucial role in facilitating the incorporation of a formerly repressed and excluded movement into Tunisia’s political system, in presenting alternative visions of state identity, economic development and national security, this political current has facilitated the institutionalization of political conflict in a place where it was once systematically excluded. Marzouki’s defeat in the presidential election would seem to represent a blow to agonistic politics in the institutional setting. However, it would not mean the end of politics.
Non-institutionalized spaces will, and to a certain extent, already are, regaining prominence as loci where political contestation can be expressed and claims made on the state. These include labor activism, the activities of watchdog and advocacy NGOs, as well grassroots community organizations. Such non-institutionalized spaces are likely, as they have in many other places in the world, to absorb and respond to people’s—in particular young people’s—disillusionment with institutionalized politics.
The extent to which these elections will impact the ongoing transformations of state-society and state identity issues remains unknown. What is clear, however, is that the mobilizations of Tunisians in 2011 and beyond have reminded a large part of the world of a fundamental lesson about democracy: It is not only at the ballot box and in government institutions that politics take place.