On 14 January 2021, ten years after Ben Ali’s downfall, history insists, persists and repeats itself endlessly in Tunisia: a shepherd in the region of Siliana, in the northwest of Tunisia, was attacked by a police officer because his herd of sheep entered the headquarters of the governorate while trying to crossing the road. In a video shared on the social networks, a policeman can be seen pushing the young man, telling him, “It is as if you were insulting the ministry of the Interior by keeping your sheep in front of this institution.”
The reaction of the young people from Siliana and other working-class neighborhoods did not take long to come, reminding us that historical events such as the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010 are not specific sequences of history, but are expanded before and after in time, and are only uncovered gradually.
For the past ten days all around Tunisia, night protests have been organized by young people with radical demands, blaming the entire political class for the economic and political crisis, in particular, "Ennahda”, the most powerful force in parliament.
These protests were violently repressed by the police. Several appeals were then made by civil society activists through social networks to set the date of 26 January 2021 as the anniversary day of the 26 January 1978 uprising—the first bloody face to face clash between the social movements and the authoritarian regime of Tunisia—a day of anger and demonstrations.
The Past Seared into Memory
While appeals to the past are among the most common strategies in the interpretations of the present, what drives these calls is not simply a memory-based or mobilizing issue, but rather the uncertainty as to whether the past has really passed, finished, and concluded, or whether it keeps triggering the actions of the individuals and the groups, albeit perhaps in different forms.
Certainly, the causes of this new wave of protests have been the subject of several insightful analyses: the dismantling of the state, the governments’ inefficiency, the corruption, the deepening of the social and economic crisis, the pandemic crisis, and more.
But the question that concerns me in this article is whether these movements are entirely new. To what extent are they motivated by the historical events? Are the social movements of the previous generations, movements probably never experienced by these young people aged between fifteen and twenty-five years old, still inspiring their actions in one way or another? Can history and memory be—as Walter Benjamin has articulately worded it—a “mysterious rendez-vous between the past generations and ours”?
How can we understand what has happened in ten years? Is it just a slogan, “the people want the fall of the regime,” that has never come into effect? Or is it a turning point in the history and the political culture of the country, with a vital scope shedding light on everything that has happened over the past decade and, to a large extent, is still happening in Tunisia?
January, the Horizon of Possibilities
A horizon of possibilities has emerged during the month of January, which is considered to be the month of “history cracks” in Tunisia. The social movements of January 1978 represent the first breach during the Tunisian authoritarian system, and the first bloody clash between the social movements and the party-state, the uprising of 17 December 2010, and the escape of Ben Ali on 14 January 2011 are the events that have defined the last decade.
There is the before and the after 14 January 2011. As the Mexicans would say, it is a separation of waters. However, there is a unanimous consensus that a solution to the causes that triggered these uprisings has not yet been found and that the political and economic forms of government in Tunisia have remained the same despite the implementation of institutional democracy. But then, what does this rupture or separation of waters reveal?
Multifaceted Struggles and a Profound Rupture
This rupture is a profound change in the political imaginary. Far from it being a simple event, it consists of all the cracks brought about by the revolutionary process embodied in the daily struggles for dignity, succeeding—whether one likes it or not—in maintaining the horizon of political possibilities open.
These struggles take various shapes. They can directly target the state by forcing it to make concessions, such as regular trade union mobilizations or new citizens' movements like “We will not Forgive” (Manish Msameh), against the bill on “economic and financial reconciliation” with the elites of the old regime, or the mobilization against the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union, known as (ALECA) in French.
These struggles are also embodied through the creation of new autonomous political spheres allowing the establishment of social mutual assistance networks to manage the pandemic crisis where the state has failed or to promote the appropriation of territories and spaces too long confiscated by the main authorities.
Citing the experience of the peasants of the region of Jemna reclaiming their land or of the mobilization of “Kamour’s” militants, both cases have targeted the industrial and political structures of the state in the region, radically raising the question of the redistribution of wealth. Spaces that have been marginalized for so long have now turned to be sites for both creation and contestation.
The rupture is eventually embodied in the ways of doing things, in the new political imaginary created by citizens in struggle, from which new social relations emerge, relations that can be, as in the examples previously cited, based on a conception and practice of power that is distinguished by the autonomy in relation to the classic institutional power.
In this conception of rupture, the word power is changing its meaning: it is no longer a thing to be taken, but a thing that is created every day throughout struggles and resistances.
Youth in the Pursuit of Justice
Young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five from working-class neighborhoods are now occupying the spheres of politics and media and saying “no” to the Tunisian economic and political regime that has crushed their hopes and mistreated their bodies, they are fed by this political fantasy of rupture where the citizens are the protagonists and the agents of their destiny.
Their political awareness is before all material when they say "no" to a police force that represses them, to a state that keeps them in social destitution and puts their lives in danger. Each "no" against the power is a new crack to be added to the previous ones so the flame of dignity and rupture that have been stoked over the years can endure the creation of a power of a new type.
It is the inconceivable power of the fragile that allows them to exist in spite of the attempts of those in power to deny them their agency and their space in the making of a common destiny—by attempting to exclude them meticulously and methodically from history. The power of young people in the working-class neighborhoods is of a different kind, not based on resources nor attributes, but rooted in the socio-local relations and in the common destiny of the fringes of society, in an interdependence that is not concentrated at the top but potentially widespread everywhere, in all the physical, political, and symbolic territories previously marginalized and/or confiscated.
This rupture is not only with the state, but also with the other forms of authority that dictate to them what should be done and how it should be done. It is a rupture with the successive governments as well as the political parties, the mainstream media, and the so-called political experts.
Repression and an Authoritarian Logic
The answer to the very least of paradoxes of Tunisia's “young democracy”—acclaimed worldwide—to this political protest by the youngest and the most fragile members of the society—ten years after the fall of Ben Ali regime—is to spread out police repression. This police repression is destined to extinguish not only the desire to resist, but also to live, while claiming that citizens are free and their demands are legitimate.
When the Tunisian government and both the economic and the media elites try to reduce the self-defense strategy of the young protestors to merely banditry, illegality, and violation of private property or when one of the executives of the country's most important political party Ennahda calls for the formation of militias to protect the nation, the security logic has then a sole purpose: to destroy the political subjects in struggle. The purpose here is to frighten and to mark the bodies of those who oppose.
Yet these ruling elites underestimate the collective immunity created throughout decades of struggle against the blows/hits of a repressive regime. They have forgotten that for these kids of the revolution, 14 January 2011 is the date of the conversion of the experience of fear into the first experience of what is political, making of submission an impossibility and of self-defense a vital strategy when life has become so unbearable to come down to just survival.
Eventually, in this political, economic, and pandemic context, where everything contributes to preventing the dominated, the most fragile, from acting, young people in the working-class neighborhoods of Tunisia are in the frontline, creating a togetherness of a political “we.” These young people are reminding us that marginalization is not a fatality, collectively emphasizing their strength and, above all, brilliantly proving that dignity cannot be given by a simple electoral game—it can only be won. Thus they give us, once again, the opportunity for an essential resuscitation of the political body.
These young people who have ideas and dreams for themselves and for the world demonstrate to us with their bodies bravely facing police violence and repression, that revolutions and social movements cannot be measured by criteria such as success or failure. The issue is not just about winning a struggle; it is the revolutionary process which, taking as its starting point the dignity of the rebellious no matter how, when, or where it takes place, transforms forevermore the way these young people—the major actors of Tunisia's future—perceive themselves, approach their relations with the others and build the society in which they aspire to live.
[Translated by Naouress Bellili.]