History in the Making: Tunisia’s Revolution

By Nathaniel GreenbergMay 18, 2014

History in the Making: Tunisia’s Revolution

The Making of the Tunisian Revolution by Nouri Gana

ON THE NIGHT of January 24, 2011, I sat smoking shisha and sipping tea at a coffee shop in the downtown Cairo neighborhood of Lazoghly, just blocks from Tahrir Square. The Tunisian revolution had reached a crescendo, but there was little talk of it in this largely working-class neighborhood. With rumors spreading that protests were planned for the coming day, I asked some of the regulars if they thought Egypt could go the way of Tunisia. It was a laughable query. Egypt was too divided, they said, Mubarak too powerful. The following day seemed to confirm their skepticism. No one had gone to the rallies, and when I asked how many of them were on Facebook, the answer was a resounding zero. Things changed quickly that Friday, however. The Imam at the giant mosque of Sayyida Zayneb, whose sermon could be heard over loudspeakers blocks away, uttered the unimaginable: an open call to revolt. His congregation marched down my block on the way to Tahrir Square to join the tens of thousands of others that were en route. The rest, of course, is history. Egypt indeed followed the path of Tunisia. Or so it seemed. Three years on, however, the two revolutions look very different.

While the Tunisian revolution reached a plateau of sorts with the passage of a new Constitution on January 26, 2014, the transformation is still very much in process, and there has been no attempt to close the book on the revolution like in Egypt. It is perhaps for this reason that the Tunisian revolution as a subject of study has received less attention than some of the other countries affected by the so-called Arab Spring. Of the many books, anthologies, dispatches, and other edited mementos already historicizing the uprisings, The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects (Edinburgh 2013), edited by UCLA Comparative Literature scholar Nouri Gana, is the only academic anthology to date focused on the country that started it all. Additionally, the book is poised to stand apart for the authors’ willingness to embrace the complexity, and relative uncertainty, of what has occurred. Lise Storm sums up this spirit nicely in her concluding essay “The Fragile Tunisian Democracy — What Prospects for the Future?” where she writes:

A further indication things are going well in Tunisia is, rather absurdly, the serious difficulties that have faced the governing Troika since its coming to power in December 2011. Difficulties on the inside. Not from the outside. But difficulties that have unquestionably led to political instability and a certain degree of instability.

Unlike the winner-take-all model that prevailed in Egypt following the Brotherhood’s sweep at the polls, the Tunisian Troika, which limited the number of seats in Parliament as well as the Constituent Assembly charged with writing a new Constitution, completed its task with the help of a little cordial chaos — a quality that helped limit the influence of extra-official actors “outside” while still allowing democracy to work on the “inside.” There have been, of course, a number of “difficulties” outside the halls of government. But the point is well made. And, moreover, it is indicative of this smartly conceived and well-executed anthology that includes not one but multiple equations, from multiple disciplinary perspectives (“multidimensional” is the term Gana uses), none of which add up, or attempt to add up, to the sum of what has occurred.

In this way, The Making of the Tunisian Revolution remains close in spirit to the sort of postrevolutionary anthology exemplified by Walter Z. Laqueur’s classic volume The Middle East in Transition (1958), which appeared just several years after the transformative events of 1952 in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. (The inaugural essay in that collection, by Sir Hamilton A. R. Gibb, was appropriately titled: “Social Reform: Factor X”). What The Making of the Tunisian Revolution loses in its proximity to history, it gains in its experimentalism, a feature epitomized by Gana’s essay on the role of rap and rap artists during the uprising, and Tarek Kahlaoui’s insider account of blogging and the role of social media in the lead up to the revolt. Also distinct from the many instant histories that appeared following the Arab uprisings, this collection makes no attempt to rekindle the collective romance of an “Arab Spring,” or to rehash the notion that the uprising began on December 17, 2010, following the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid. (“The political fate of an entire region turned on December 17, 2010, when Tunisia’s corrupt autocracy pushed the young peddler too far,” surmised Robin Wright in her very quickly written Rock the Casbah.)

Rather, as virtually all of the authors here insist, the Tunisian revolution had been spinning for years. But why did it culminate when it did? Gana advances this question in his introduction, and the most valuable moments of the book address it. Tarek Kahlaoui’s and Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle’s essays on the role of social media in the uprising — arguably the best to date in English on the subject — do so explicitly. And, crucially, this volume engages not simply the long arc of the Tunisian struggle for democracy in general, but the immediate years prior to the ousting of Ben Ali, and, in particular, the Gafsa uprising, which, until now, has remained critically under-examined.

The years 1973, 1976, 1978, 1980 saw strikes in Tunisia targeting the textile, agricultural, and mining sectors of the economy. The latter of these even prompted violent intervention on the part of Tunisia’s neighbor to the East. As James Markham of The New York Times noted at the time, the Tunisians accused Gaddafi and Algeria of using the labor tumult as cause for attempting a “mini Kabul,” in reference to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year prior. Conversely, as Amy Aisen Kallander keenly observes in her essay from the collection, reaction to the mining strikes within Tunisia “revealed the existence of a vast private militia” affiliated with the ruling party, led still by the country’s leader of independence, Habib Bourguiba (1957-1987).

In part because of its large mineral reserves, its proximity to Europe, and its powerful literary class that has helped lionize the struggle in the mines from early on (one thinks namely of al-Bashir Khurayyif’s three-part, postrevolutionary masterpiece al-Digla fi ‘arajinaha / Date Palms 1969), the history of the labor movement in Tunisia is one of the longest and most stringent in the Middle East and North Africa. Gana and a number of the contributors coalesce around the problem of unchecked foreign capital investment and local labor resistance, positioning this history, in essence, as the combustible core from which the Tunisian Revolution erupted. But Gana still obliges those skeptical of the power of the internet, or indeed skeptical of the significance of the image of Bouazizi as a kind of techno-mythical “rallying point” (in the words of contributor Sami Zemni) to ask the question “why now?” Why did 2008, for example, not lead to the kind of national protests witnessed in 2010? The volume does a good job of addressing the historical dimensions of the struggle in this regard. But still, the best of the essays geared toward unpacking the role of social media —Haugbølle’s “Rethinking the Role of the Media in the Tunisian Uprising,” and Kahlaoui’s “The Powers of Social Media” — strike a corrective stance, emphasizing the institutional reform of private media laws from the early 2000s and the import of individual activism, over crowdsourcing, flash-mobbing, or Facebook.

In this respect, the collection is poised to redirect some common misperceptions of the revolution, to reorient subsequent inquires toward the collapse of the center. The decadence of the Trabelsi family (that of the first lady) is well-covered by Emma C. Murphy’s introductory essay, “Under the Emperor’s Neoliberal Clothes! Why the International Financial Institutions Got it Wrong in Tunisia”; less so the decision-making and the decision makers behind the choice to exile Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia, for example. In general, the collection reveals a certain want of acuity in the description of those in power, or those abandoning power. With the notable exception of Kahlaoui’s essay, and to a lesser extent Zemni’s essay on the origins of the labor movement, the same may be said of those driving the demonstrations, or, even more significantly those who benefited most from the revolution. 

That said, it is, of course, a study in the Making of the revolution, not the Makers. The shifting of money, and bodies, and office placards: the interpersonal reordering of hierarchy in revolution that is the stuff of Shakespeare, really, is not here. Nor will the emotion of those days appear any time soon in an academic text. For this, one might look to a collection of reflections like Youssef Seddik’s Chronicles of a Revolution, published in the now-defunct Francophone daily, Le Temps. Seddik, the former Sorbonne professor and one of the country’s renowned public intellectuals, was well poised as a historian of Islam and a political commentator to capture the return from exile of the man who would become the veritable prophet of the revolution: Rachid Ghannouchi. He was greeted by his followers at Tunis-Carthage airport on January 14, 2011, Seddik wrote, with the hymn of the Prophet Muhammad’s flight to Medina by the sisters Najjar: “Here comes among us a full moon [...]” The effect of his arrival quickly “metastasized,” in Seddik’s words, with his followers “gaining behaviors, dialects, dress and personal appearance” almost instantaneously. “Pious formulas invade conversations […] scarves, veils, niqab and black gloves spread along with their specialty shops and their ‘stylists,’ beards of any size, pustules encysted in the foreheads of the young and the old.” “The city,” he wrote, had undergone a “metamorphosis,” becoming, in record time, a veritable theater for “this sad comedy.” He does not hide his scorn for the man he studied with at lycée and whose number he has in his cellphone. His animosity is reserved not for his politics, per se, but for the more intangible impact of his popularity. 

The revolution, it hardly needs to be said, brought to power a man and a group that had been imprisoned, exiled, and oppressed for decades. Though it had been in existence for some years prior, Ghannouchi’s Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI) gained official recognition in 1981. Its authorization was arbitrary. Under the leadership of the outspoken government critic Habib Achour (d.1999), the 500,000 strong General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) had reinvented itself following the Libya debacle. In an attempt to counter the growing influence of the union, Bourguiba authorized a range of previously clandestine social organizations, including MTI. As such, clustered along with opposition groups such as the Movement for Popular Unity, the Communist party, and the Movement of Social Democrats, MTI (today Ennahdha) attracted little attention, or concern, on the part of the authorities. Salah al-Din al-Jourshi, a co-founder of MTI and the first appointed head of the Constituent National Assembly (ANC) in 2011, described the situation in an essay for the recent, important collection Min qabḍat Bin ʻAli ila thawrat al-Yāsamīn: al-islām al-siyāsī fī Tūnus (From the Fall of Ben Ali to the Jasmine Revolution: Political Islam in Tunisia, 2011):

While other parties were busy dealing with the effects of the crisis from the Sixties—the result of the failure of the country’s experiment in socialism — a small group of individuals, in the early 70s, began meeting in one of the mosques of the capital forming the first nucleus of the Islamic Movement. Its direction was formed by clear and simple orations of ideology. Even though some of the organizational elements of the Movement began migrating to the public realm [the public elite took little notice]. Lectures and gatherings were held in mosques and in the corners of mosques. The magazine Al-M‘arafa [1972] which [among other things] forecast the appearance of the hijab before Tunisian women began wearing it in the mid-seventies — was published and sold at kiosks. Nevertheless, the powerful elite, though suspicious, never saw it as anything more than a “passing phenomenon.” They paid little attention to the seriousness of the issues or the “significance” of the Movement to the development and balance of power. It was only with the Iranian revolution and the overthrow of the Shah that the warning became real. 

The struggle against foreign capital investment and local corruption constitutes one crucial component in the contributors’ “multidimensional” approach to the making of the Tunisian revolution. The relevance of the labor struggle to the rise of political Islam and of political Islam to the making of the revolution is somewhat less clear. Fabio Merone and Francesco Cavatorta, a tandem that has written extensively of late on the differences and histories of Jihadist and Quietest (or Scientific) Salafism in Tunisia, provide in their essay, “The Rise of Salafism and the Future of Democratization,” a general introduction to the relatively new phenomenon of public Salafism in Tunisia (al-Jourshi suggests it did not truly take root in Tunisia until after 9/11), a core segment of which sees Gafsa and the industrial interior, including the ancient religious center of learning Kairouan, as its spiritual and material point of origin. However, the essay best placed to address the realpolitik of Ghannouchi’s older and more moderate movement, Kennith Perkin’s “The Use and Abuse of Religion,” tends toward historical extrapolation (“the coupling of demands for economic and social justice with an explicit call for spiritual renewal particularly sparked the interest of Tunisians eager to find anchors as they drifted in a society changing faster and more thoroughly than they could easily grasp”) rather than material analysis.

This may be a result of the essay’s rather heavy reliance on secondary sources. The only direct quote he attributes to a member of Ennahdha comes from an essay by American University in Cairo President Lisa Anderson. Gana provides a valuable counterbalance to this essay, however, with a pointed selection by Nadia Marzouki, who looks closely at Ghannouchi’s own discourse. While summarizing the utopist nature of his early vision for political Islam, she strikes an interesting focus, examining his party’s emergent capacity to “strategize as you go.” Though, as she notes, such pragmatism, in part, led to a significant split in party leadership (between the more radical views of Sadok Chourou and Ghannouchi) in late 2011. More importantly though, Marzouki engages a critically misunderstood aspect of political Islam today, what she describes as popular constitutionalism, spelling out the ideological familiarity of a group like the American Tea Party and Ennahdha based not on religiosity (though that connection is evident), but the parallel desire for greater local autonomy and a grassroots restructuring of “education, social welfare, and religious associations.” 

There is an evident degree of strategic ambiguity to this idea of popular constitutionalism. In Marzouki’s words,

the nationalization of religion by a secularist, westernized elite blocked the natural progress of Islamic thinking and threw Tunisian society into a state of ignorance and disarray. The key question, therefore, argues Ghannouchi, is not how to impose religion on politics, but how to liberate religion from the state. 

For the Islamists, such was the charge of the revolution. But the challenge in the postrevolutionary context has been to balance the demand for greater freedom with the institutionalization of such freedom as provided by whatever central authorities might emerge. This balancing act was fleshed out dramatically in the debates surrounding the new Constitution, which Marzouki and Gana both cover. But that document too is far from set in stone. And for this reason, all the more so, the present collection should become required reading for those engaged in the study of the Arab Middle East and North Africa. A revolution has indeed been in the making, and as history would suggest, it is far from over.


Nathaniel Greenberg is author of The Aesthetic of Revolution in the Film and Literature of Naguib Mahfouz.

LARB Contributor

Nathaniel Greenberg is author of The Aesthetic of Revolution in the Film and Literature of Naguib Mahfouz. He teaches modern Middle Eastern and world literature at Northern Michigan University. 


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