Ten years into the Tunisian Revolution

The specificities and limitations of ‘exceptionalism’

Ghassen Ben Khelifa

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Introduction: ‘people wanted life one day, and fate answered’1

Metres away from the notorious Ministry of Interior in Tunis, people gather in Bourguiba Avenue to discuss the political situation. At night, orderly queues form; the atmosphere is good-natured. Neighbourhood committees are in action. During the day, there are marches by different classes and sectors, and there is a campaign to remove former officials. Everybody is talking politics, everywhere, something that was previously taboo…

Recalling these fragments of the events that followed the departure of Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, the grandeur of these ‘days that shook the world’ (as John Reed described the Russian Revolution) comes to mind. One decade later, many in Tunisia and beyond still wonder: was what happened in Tunisia a genuine revolution, a fleeting uprising, or a ‘foreign conspiracy’? Or was it perhaps – using Samir Amin’s words referring to the events in Egypt that same year – ‘more than an uprising and less than a revolution’? And if the latter, how can one explain the continued protests and confrontations with the police carried out by marginalized youth in inland areas and popular neighbourhoods surrounding the capital? Is the answer simply ‘Tunisia’ – as argued by some Egyptians lamenting the return of dictatorship in their country, referring to a ‘Tunisian exception’? What is the truth behind this ‘Tunisian exception’, as compared with the failed revolutions in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria? And what about the revolution’s presumed success and democratic transition?

To answer these questions, it is essential to first revisit the pre-revolutionary period.

Revisiting the context of the 17 December uprising

Undoubtedly, youth unemployment and regional marginalization were the main reasons for the outbreak of the Tunisian Intifada in late 2010. The self-immolation carried out by informal street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, in the heart of Tunisia, was one expression of the increased frustration among unemployed youth in marginalized areas, which had led to a proliferation of protests in the preceding years: the Gafsa mining basin revolt in 2008 and protests in Skhira y Ben Gardane in 2010. Figures indicate a rise in unemployment rates during this period: despite attempts by the dictatorship’s statistical agencies to put forward an unemployment rate of 13 per cent, youth unemployment actually reached 31 per cent at least. Such numbers reflect the failed neoliberalism of Ben Ali’s regime, whose economic policy relied on increasing the number of university graduates qualified to work in the private sector and drawing in foreign investments, and on the Association Agreement with the European Union signed in 1995. Rather than manage to resolve the problem of unemployment, that agreement destroyed the textile sector and rendered nearly half a million workers unemployed.

One of the consequences of these failed developmental policies was the directing of the most important public infrastructure and private sector investments to the coastal governorates, at the expense of the interior governorates. As such, the economic choices that the French colonizers had adopted to facilitate their plunder were maintained. To a large extent, this explains the increased poverty and unemployment rates in non-coastal areas.2 It also explains the 17 December revolution, which broke out in Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia, moved to Kasserine, a neighbouring governorate, then to other marginalized governorates, all the way to the impoverished neighbourhoods in the urban peripheries, where many live in very difficult conditions.

Following the early success of the Ben Ali regime (he reached power through a coup in 1987) in eliminating its main political opponents, the Ennahda Movement, the regime sought popular legitimacy through adopting developmental measures that benefited the most isolated areas. This included constructing roads, and setting up water and electricity networks. The propagandist and temporary nature of what state media called ‘achievements’ was soon exposed, however – as the regime maintained those very same failed ‘developmental’ policies. To make matters worse, Ben Ali enabled his and his in-laws’ families to take over various public sector companies and their budgets, as well as to control public transactions and to deplete state-owned banks, in return for quick personal enrichment. This resulted in a semi-total accumulation of capital in the hands of a minority of intermarried families (21 per cent of the Tunisian economy, according to a World Bank report). It also helped extend anti-regime sentiment into a section of the bourgeoisie that was thereby deprived of the ability to compete in a number of profitable sectors. With rising unemployment rates among university graduates in the mid-2000s (which reached 22 per cent, according to dubious official numbers), the regime lost credibility among large segments of the middle class.

As the causes of anger in Tunisia entwined and multiplied, Bouazizi’s self-immolation triggered popular protest throughout the country.

Bouazizi can be said to have represented a large country-wide social stratum: those youth who lost access to schooling and were excluded from the small and extremely selective job market. The ‘illegal activity’ of which the Sidi Bouzid police accused Bouazizi is a common charge in many Tunisian governorates, and is particularly leveraged against people in impoverished urban neighbourhoods. Bouazizi stands out, however, for having inhabited a mainly agricultural region that suffered (and still does) from the marginalization of small-scale farmers and the expropriation of their land for the benefit of the agrarian bourgeoisie (especially from Sfax Governorate). A few months before the Bouazizi incident, small-scale farmers from the town of Regueb held a sit-in in Sidi Bouzid, denouncing the state-owned Banque Nationale Agricole’s attempts to steal their lands; the police suppressed their mobilization. One can thus say that the uprising began with an informal street vendor and a peasant deprived of the (agricultural) means of production, who refused to give in to the rules of the market that forced him into employment and into the reserve army of capital.

The uprising soon spread to the rest of the Sidi Bouzid districts, like Menzel Bouzaiane, Meknassy, and Regueb, where others were martyred. It later spread to the neighbouring Kasserine, Siliana, and El Kef governorates, where the same social dynamics are observed: unemployed youth, deprived of the means of farming (which is crucial to the development of a region severely lacking industrial activity), who found in protesting the murder of other young men an opportunity to express their rejection of those same policies of marginalization that affected them.

These protests were soon endorsed by local activists and trade unionists affiliated with regional branches of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) – the biggest and most important trade union in Tunisia, which mainly defends middle class interests linked with public sector jobs – in an expression of the deteriorating living conditions of this particular section of the middle class. The political awareness and democratic aspirations of much of the local union leadership helped give the uprising its slogans, the most important of which was ‘Employment is a right you band of thieves!’

With the regime’s bloody crackdown, anger spread throughout the country and into the ‘democratic opposition’ of the parliamentary left, the Tunisian General Student Union (UGET), trade unionist circles, politicized lawyers, human rights defenders, and universities, and then into the capital and onto its streets. These parties and sections of society, which mainly represent an educated petty bourgeoisie, found the moment opportune for getting rid of political authoritarianism and the oppression that had been imposed on various social classes.

However, these movements were quickly quashed or encircled by the police force. What tipped the balance in favour of the uprising was, undoubtedly, that the youth of the popular neighbourhoods in the urban peripheries joined it. This marginalized social group, one of the biggest victims of the regime, with no wealth or privileges to lose, was the one that challenged the regime’s police and burnt down its headquarters. This came at a price: there were dozens of martyrs in neighbourhoods surrounding the capital, from north to south – especially El-Karam El Gharbi, the youth of which played a pivotal role in threatening Ben Ali the day he ‘fled’ on 14 January), and in Sousse and Sfax, and elsewhere.

The youthful drive coming from the popular neighbourhoods and marginalized areas increased as some labour union leaders – pressured by their memberships – began to grasp the significance of the historic juncture. The UGTT branch in Sfax called for a general strike on 12 January. The strike was a success, and the massive march and violent clashes with the police the same day were a critical turning point that shook the foundations of the regime. This was followed by a similar call by the regional offices of the same trade union for a general strike in the capital on 14 January. In the meantime, Ben Ali made a fatal mistake when he tried to pacify Tunisians with his speech on 13 January. In addition to trying to bribe some of the democratic opposition by offering them positions in the transitional government (which some accepted after 12 January), Ben Ali seemed confused when addressing the Tunisian people in the vernacular for the first time. While in his two previous speeches he had used threats and referred to ‘decisiveness’, now he claimed that he ‘understood everyone, be they opposition, unemployed, or a businessman’. The dictator claimed that some people had ‘misled’ him, absolving himself of responsibility for the firing of live bullets on protesters, and he promised public liberties, not to run for the presidency again, and to hold the ‘corrupt’ accountable. Ben Ali followed this speech by announcing and executing a number of measures reducing media censorship that aimed to alleviate popular anger.

These miserable attempts to contain the damage and refurbish Ben Ali’s image failed. The memorable morning of 14 January began with a surge of protesters into the capital. As the police force retreated, replaced by the armed forces, more people took to the streets. In an unprecedented historic scene, they filled Avenue Habib Bourguiba. There, thousands sat in front of the Ministry of Interior’s headquarters, calling for the ‘fall of the regime’ and Ben Ali’s departure. Led by lawyers and political activists, the protest lasted nearly all day, before clashes with the police arose during the funeral procession for a martyr from one of the popular neighbourhoods.

The same pattern took place in almost every city across the country: cities became hit and run battlegrounds between protesters and the police force. One moment that stood out was when protesters attacked and burned down the houses of some of Ben Ali’s in-laws. In light of this explosive scene, Ben Ali’s family and in-laws began to flee the country, fearing for their lives. According to leaked interrogations with security and military officials and literature examining the events of that day, it seems that some of Ben Ali’s entourage, including his in-law Marouane Mabrouk and head of the presidential guard Ali Seriati, informed him of imminent attacks on the palace. This pushed the dictator to flee with his family to Saudi Arabia, in hopes of returning soon and regaining control over the situation.

How was the revolution aborted?

The previous paragraphs indicate that the popular uprising had created confusion and division within state apparatuses, leading some of its segments to try to salvage the regime by ridding itself of its head, Ben Ali and his family. 14 January thus embodied the confusion of the comprador bourgeoisie that still dominates Tunisian society, which urgently needed stability to guarantee its own interests, which are intertwined with the European market. This class, historically concentrated in the eastern coastal areas (the capital, coastal areas, and Sfax), with vested interests in political authority and its Makhzen state,3 later adapted and was politically connected to French colonialism on every level, even after Tunisia’s formal independence in 1956. Having benefited from the liberal policies adopted by the former head of government Hédi Amara Nouira, who, in the early 1970s, enabled the privatization of public sector companies following the aborted ‘socialist’ cooperatives experiment, this class later used its position to benefit from the Association Agreement with the European Union.

This bourgeoisie had distanced itself from productive sectors, such as those targeting the internal market, farming, and heavy industry. As indicated earlier, the agreement with Europe nearly destroyed the country’s textile industry,4 which the state failed to protect, and so Tunisian capitalists turned to quick profit-generating, low-technical capacity, low-cost labour sectors instead. Aiming to reduce their expenses, they became entrepreneurs for foreign capital in different parts of the production chain (like automotive and plane components, cables, etc), or in export-oriented manufacturing industries, such as the textile, chemical and food industries. They also increased their dealings with the service sector through tourism, communications, banks, commercial spaces, and oilfield services, and with some supply sectors for luxury goods, like car imports, which were monopolized by a small group. Encouraged by the state, some of these capitalists specialized in exporting raw materials, especially agrarian exports, such as dates, olive oil, and citrus fruits. In this manner, and over decades, the country’s trade deficit was exacerbated. Similarly, structural economic dependency on the European Union and international financial institutions was accelerated for the benefit of financial capital in the imperial cores.

However, the bourgeoisie considered the revolution of 2010/11 a real opportunity to free itself from the grip of Ben Ali and his in-laws. But their relief and optimism were marred by concerns that the revolutionary path might become deep-rooted and irreversible.

After 14 January 2011 the youth of the interior areas (particularly Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine) commuted to Tunis and organized sit-ins before the official government headquarters in El Kasbah. They demanded the toppling of some of the remaining symbols of Ben Ali’s regime, such as Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and Minister of Interior Ahmed Friaa. The first clampdown on the sit-in there took place on 29 January, six days after it began, but the protests that were now taking place throughout the country did not stop, and protesters returned to the Kasbah on 20 February.

This time, the protesters not only demanded the government’s resignation, but also the dissolution of the formerly ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), and they demanded that constituent assembly elections be held. There were also the usual demands, like holding the martyrs’ killers accountable and taking measures for the development of impoverished areas.

In parallel, El Menzah area near Tunis, where the bourgeoisie and upper classes of the petty bourgeoisie live, became home to the ‘Qubba’ (dome) sit-in, where a few hundred members of the middle class – calling themselves the ‘silent majority’ – gathered on a daily basis after work to express support for Mohamed Ghannouchi’s government. They called for restoring ‘security and stability’ and for holding presidential elections, rather than the constituent assembly elections that the Kasbah protesters demanded. They also rejected the National Council for the Protection of the Revolution founded by left parties, Ennahda Movement and the Labour Union, in their efforts to pressure the government.

This moment was a clear political reflection of the class struggle in Tunisia. On the one hand, the El Kasbah sit-ins represented the popular classes and marginalized groups, who lacked leadership and a clear political vision. The lower classes of the petty bourgeoisie thus found it easy to steer them. These were made up of right-wing parties (like the Islamist Ennahda, which sought to pull itself out of decades of oppression), small left-wing parties (like the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party, national democratic groups that operated secretly for years, unions, and associations), and organizations controlled by the opportunist petty bourgeoisie that were looking to increase their profits through class consociation and reformism. On the other hand, al-Qubba welcomed the traditional bourgeoisie from the coast and capital, fearing for its interests following the fall of the RCD Party that had previously simultaneously protected and constrained it, along with the upper classes of the petty bourgeoisie. The latter were more interested in stability and the relative values of ‘modernity’ and ‘secularism’ – considered to be the legacy of the former Bourguiba state, which were mainly represented then by the Progressive Democratic Party and Ettajdid Movement.

Following a massive rally on 25 February 2011, the protesters successfully dissolved Ghannouchi’s government and founded a constituent assembly, which aimed to introduce a new constitution. Ghannouchi resigned two days later, only to be replaced by an old face of the system, but one who had had little involvement with Ben Ali’s regime: Beji Caid Essebsi. This was a successful move by the traditional bourgeoisie, which knew how to reassure everyone: the leadership of the labour union UGTT, worried about their own corruption files, other groups who sought a return to security and calm, and especially Western embassies worried about the escalating revolutionary path. The main protagonists agreed to disperse the sit-in and form a ‘Higher Authority for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Reform, and a Democratic Transition’. This provisional commission comprised representatives of all former opposition parties, associations, and organizations that had played a role in opposing Ben Ali, as well as some independent groups. One of its main tasks was to propose a new electoral law. The commission agreed to hold constituent assembly elections in order to draft a new constitution and elect a new government – which took place on 23 October 2011.

Not only did the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie ride the wave of the revolution that was led by the popular classes, they also opened the door wide to imperialist intervention and control over the ‘democratic transition’. Such intervention has been clear almost since the very beginning: after influential imperialist powers in Tunisia (France and the US) were taken by surprise when the uprising erupted, they hastened to contain it. One example of such tactics is the US Department of State’s statement on 9 January 2011, which called for respecting the will of the Tunisian people. Washington saw an opportune moment to experiment in the ‘New Middle East5 and to ‘encourage’ a liberal ‘democracy’, as noted by Obama in his famous speech in Cairo in 2009, in order to preserve US hegemony in the region. It was therefore not surprising that Ghannouchi’s government rushed, two days later, to remove Ben Ali and appoint the neoliberal Mustapha Kamel Nabli, former Senior Adviser at the World Bank, as a new governor of the central bank. Right from the beginning, Nabli blocked leftist demands to audit Ben Ali’s odious debts and to refuse to pay them. It was equally unsurprising that the G8 would organize the Deauville Conference in France in May 2011. During this conference, major imperial powers sought to contain the ‘Arab Spring’ countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, etc) by flooding their provisional governments with loans, false promises to return their looted money, and offers of aid and investments. They also sought to reassure other subordinate regimes, which had also started to witness social and political unrest, such as Morocco and Jordan. Most alarmingly, the early embroiling of these countries in the ‘reform’ recipes that were proposed by global financial institutions, conditioned on austerity measures and loans,6 has resulted in the negative economic, social and political repercussions that we see today.

The evacuation of El Kasbah on 3 March and Essebsi’s takeover of the government in order to oversee the transitional period was the beginning of the undoing of the uprising and the abortion of its possible transformation into a revolution (or the defeat of the revolution, as some see it). In other words, this was the beginning of the victory of counterrevolutionary forces in Tunisia. Protesters from marginalized areas and impoverished neighbourhoods failed to put forward political representatives, thus paving the way for a political takeover by dozens of political parties aspiring for legality after being banned for so long by the Ben Ali regime. These included weak left-wing parties that failed to grasp the priorities of the period, instead engaging in identitarian conflicts between secularists and Islamists7 that had been ignited by bourgeois media outlets. Further, these parties had no influence on the balance of power as they bought into the illusion of ‘change through the ballot’. From this time on, the regime began to regain its balance and reconstruct its security forces. The mass movement in the capital came to a stop: the momentum dissipated and the mass movement disintegrated into scattered and detached social protests in inland regions, focusing on local or sectoral socioeconomic questions. As the founding of the ‘second republic’ began, the grassroots movement retreated, making way for partisan competition and the birth of a ‘civil society’8 that is mainly funded by foreign actors. Tunisia thus moved from an uprising with a revolutionary horizon to a ‘democratic transition’ under imperial tutelage, which led to further dependence and neoliberalism.

Unrest under the Troika and ‘terrorism’ at the service of neoliberalism

The Ennahda Movement won the elections on 23 October 2011, after two decades of persecution by the regime. Undoubtedly, financial support from Qatar and political support from Turkey both played a major role in its success. The movement benefited not only from an easily spreading religious discourse, but also from its status as a victim of the regime’s dictatorship. After its electoral victory Ennahda entered into an alliance with two parties affiliated with the centre-left, but which actually appeared to be closer to the centre-right: the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR) and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (FDTL). This alliance of the three parties was called the Troika.

Ennahda continued to rule until December 2014. The most important developments during its period in power can be summarized as follows:
– At the beginning, Ennahda tried to face the vestiges of the former Rally Party RCD. It moved away from the discourse of ‘revolutionary cleansing’ and chose to make deals with sections of the previous regime in politics, media, security and economics.
– In parallel, the party engaged in a dangerous battle with that part of society that held onto Tunisia’s acquired legacy of secularism and social wins (especially for women), by proposing a first draft of the constitution that contained reactionary articles. The movement also opened the door to Salafist currents, which took advantage of new-found liberties and the state’s weakness, and it utilized these currents in its struggle against leftist and liberal opponents.

As political parties representing the traditional comprador bourgeoisie suffered from fragmentation following the dissolution of the RCD, and amidst the failure of the new liberal parties in representing the interests of the comprador bourgeoisie, some left-wing parties and the national progressive current tried to join forces as part of the ‘Popular Front for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution’ in an attempt to join up the social protests escalating in some regions. Tension soon grew between, on the one hand, Ennahda, and, on the other, Nidaa Tounes (which had been founded by Beji Caid Essebsi, reuniting the scattered elements of the RCD), which was implicitly in alliance with the national labour union the UGTT. In the meantime, the Popular Front joined up with the latter group, at times to defend liberties and women’s rights and at others to refuse the new rulers’ neoliberalism. However, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), historically the lead organization of the bourgeoisie, seems to have initially chosen neutrality. Identitarian and cultural questions appeared to be the core of these tensions, but in reality what was taking place was a power struggle between a new elite seeking to control state functions and an old elite that refused to give up its privileges and positions.

The new conditions greatly impacted state institutions, including the security and intelligence services, enabling extremist Salafist groups to organize, arm themselves, and carry out terrorist operations. The storming of the US Embassy by Salafist protesters following a film screening that mocked the Prophet Mohammad was a turning point, as was the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a prominent leader of the Popular Front, on 6 February 2013. Before his assassination, the leftist leader had stood out for his confrontational discourse against the Ennahda Movement and his strong activism in support of social protests. Fingers were thus automatically pointed at Ennahda’s leadership, holding it responsible for his assassination.

Massive protests took place following Belaid’s assassination. This confused Ennahda and pushed its Prime Minister and party leader, Hamadi Jebali, to accept opposition demands of forming a technocrat government headed by him, without approval from the head of the party, Rached Ghannouchi, who considered it a ‘coup against legitimacy’. Ennahda’s leadership appointed Minister of Interior Ali Laarayedh as Prime Minister in lieu of Jebali; it also approved the addition of some ‘technocratic’ ministers. These changes did not relieve the intra-elites tensions. Trade union and social protests thus continued, such as protests against a tax imposed on cab drivers and goods transporters.

Ennahda was now facing a hostile regional environment – including al-Sisi’s coup that had overthrown the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt three weeks before – and was also under popular pressure at home, in the form of the ‘departure sit-in’ organized by the ‘Salvation Front’, an alliance of Nidaa Tounes and the Popular Front supported by the ‘modernist’ bourgeoisie9 and its media outlets. The sit-in before the constituent assembly lasted for more than a month, finally forcing Ennahda to concede. Ghannouchi met with Caid Essebsi in Paris, under the mediation of some businessmen and right-wing politicians, and with the blessings of the French government, and agreed on a deal by which Ennahda gave up control of the government, in exchange for approving a consensus-based constitution and ending the constituent assembly’s functions as soon as possible. Thus, through a ‘national dialogue’ (locally sponsored by national organizations and internationally sponsored by the G8), it was agreed that a ‘technocrat’, Mehdi Jomaa, a former director of Hutchinson (affiliated with the French company Total), would be Prime mMnister until the 2014 elections.

By concluding this agreement, which was lauded both locally and internationally as a historical achievement, the trajectory of ‘democratic transition’ was saved and the new constitution finally agreed upon. However, the reality as it concerned the popular classes and state sovereignty worsened. Mehdi Jomaa, who had been nominated by UTICA’s president, took over, and labour strikes organized by the labour union UGTT ‘miraculously’ stopped, particularly in the private sector. Furthermore, alarming new laws and agreements were passed, which further instilled Tunisia’s dependence on foreign capital (especially the law that privatized solar power production) and other cases, including negotiating a comprehensive free trade agreement between Tunisia and the EU. Global financial institutions and liberal civil society organizations brought pressure to bear to ensure the new constitution included certain chapters, which undermined the country’s, and its people’s, sovereignty. Perhaps the most alarming of these was the chapter about the fiscal balance.10 With imperialist blessings, this short transitional period paved the way for the next phase of right-wing coalitions.

Here, one cannot ignore Naomi Klein’s theory of the ‘shock doctrine’. Klein explains how imperialist powers and their global financial institutions – with complicity by the local bourgeoisie – take advantage of devastating events in a given country (disasters, coups and wars) in order to put in power ‘technocrats’ that implement neoliberal policies that were formerly unacceptable to the people. Just as the Chicago Boys took advantage of Pinochet’s coup in Chile and the military invasion of Iraq, so were assassinations and terrorism used in Tunisia to advance such policies. This raises genuine questions about the possible links between terrorist movements in our region and imperialist powers.

2014–2019: A right-wing coalition and growing social protests

Mehdi Jomaa’s rule ended with the holding of legislative and presidential elections. The party Nidaa Tounes won a sweeping victory, taking the majority of parliamentary seats, with the presidency going to the party leader, Beji Caid Essebsi. Ennahda ranked second in parliament, while the Popular Front ranked third. Competitive and electoral mischief between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda gave way to what became known as the ‘Two Sheikhs’ Deal’ (referring to Essebsi and Ghannouchi), whereby the two former opponents became allies in a government whose head was appointed by Caid Essebsi.

During this phase, the Tunisian state defeated terrorist movements (after many bloody operations, the most dangerous of which was the attempt to establish a Salafist emirate in Ben Gardane), while social protests witnessed a significant quantitative and qualitative transformation. During these years, unemployed youth sit-ins spread across both cities and governorates, demanding the state provide work and development for their marginalized regions. From 2015, however, social struggles began to change. Jemna, a small southwestern city, whose population fought an important battle, with the help of leftist groups and organizations, was a case that stood out. The people of Jemna reclaimed the oasis land that the state had previously taken over (in order to offer it to private capital), and they began to collectively manage it for the benefit of the general population. This enabled, for the first time, a discussion to take place about the state of agriculture, food sovereignty, and modes of production (or the ‘developmental model’ in dominant media discourse) in the country. Similarly, through their heroic battle against Petrofac, a gas production company, unemployed youth in Kerkannah Islands raised the question of employment from a new perspective, shedding light on the way energy wealth is managed and distributed. Similarly, as part of the ‘Where’s the Oil?’ campaign, activists demanded transparency in regard to the country’s fossil fuel extraction. To give another example, despite media distortion and police brutality, an ongoing battle took place in Tataouine governorate in 2017: youth there rallied in the middle of the desert in an area known as ‘El Kamour’, located by a road intersection through which foreign oil company trucks pass, raising the issue of the right of the local population to benefit from the natural resources in their own region, which are exploited by foreign companies. These protesters and others started to use new mobilization slogans, like ‘wealth nationalization’, recalling their ancestors’ historic legacy and the struggle against the French colonizers.

Nonetheless, the two governments that followed the 2014 elections disregarded these demands. The regime maintained the same neoliberal choices and continued to follow the dictates of imperial powers and their international financial institutions. It continued the policies of obtaining foreign loans, implementing austerity, and engaging in the privatization of public sector institutions. The government of Youssef Chahed took troubling decisions that threatened state sovereignty and the rights of the popular classes. This included the new central bank law, which further entrenched the bank’s ‘independence’ from the state, as well as the commencement of official EU–Tunisian negotiations over the trade deal (ALECA).

This phase was an important turning point in the class struggle in Tunisia. The popular classes had learned from previous experience and struggles that no gains can be achieved unless they directly target capital, rather than stopping at pressuring the incapacitated state institutions, which are pawns in the hands of the local comprador bourgeoisie at home and imperial powers and global financial institutions abroad.

2019: Electing Kais Saied – a change or a return to dictatorship?

Amidst the traditional left’s inability to join the popular classes and politically channel their struggles, it was only natural that it would fail to gain voters’ trust in both legislative and presidential elections (though it should be noted that a significant part of these classes no longer cared for elections). As their frustration with different political parties and with the entire system of ‘democracy’ grew, the popular classes placed their trust in those who, in their view, were against the system and were independent from corrupt parties, and whose hands were clean. Thus, a surprising turn of events occurred in October 2019: a university professor of constitutional law rose to the republic’s presidency.

Beside the popular classes’ frustration and search for a ‘clean saviour’, one may understand the rise of this stranger to politics as an expression of the ‘last hope’ of the conservative petty bourgeoisie, particularly those that had yearned to reclaim the ‘social welfare state’ since the 1970s, when the results of Tunisia’s neoliberal choices began to be apparent.

As soon as he became president, Kais Saied became involved in a heated struggle against the parliament’s majority, led by Ennahda, and its two right-wing allies, the Dignity Coalition (a group of culturally conservative demagogues) and the Heart of Tunisia Movement (a group of opportunists, led by the corrupt businessman Nabil Karoui). In parallel, the Free Constitutional Party, led by Abir Moussi (a Ben Ali regime lawyer) sought to inherit the leftovers of the Nidaa Tounes Party, which had collapsed following the death of its founder Caid Essebsi on 25 July 2019, whilst competing with Ennahda against Saied.

Simultaneously, social protests continued to spread and diversify. More small-scale farmers became involved (for example in the protests at Al Houaidia and Ouled Jaballah), alongside the yearly winter clashes between the impoverished youth of the popular neighbourhoods and police forces. The winter of 2020/2021 – marking a decade since the revolution – was a notable moment of widespread unrest among popular neighbourhoods adjacent to the capital and some marginalized interior regions, which saw significant support from leftist and youth groups.

Hichem Mechichi’s government further enraged Tunisians with its failure to manage the Covid-19 pandemic.11 The death of dozens became daily news, amidst a collapsed public healthcare system and a government that dared not use private healthcare facilities or impose a full lockdown that would harm bourgeois interests.

This combination of anger and frustration exploded on 25 July 2021 in protests that called for the dissolution of parliament. The protests particularly targeted the Ennahda Movement, which it held responsible for the situation, burning down many of its regional headquarters. Amidst a lack of a revolutionary alternative capable of organizing this movement, Kais Saied saw an opportune moment to announce that same day a state of ‘imminent threat’. Accordingly, he arbitrarily interpreted Article 80 of the constitution, dismissed the government, suspended the parliament, lifted immunity from its members, and took control of the legislative and executive branches (and even some part of the judiciary), while promising not to harm any freedoms. The state of joy and popular relief prompted by these exceptional measures (ongoing when this article was written in late August 2021) reflected the extent of the so-called democratic ‘Tunisian exception’. Once more, it confirmed that freedom is like a mirage in the shadow of a representative democracy that is dominated by capital and imperialist powers, and that lacks any social or sovereign content.


In this article I have shown how the popular uprising in Tunisia that was initiated by marginalized people in interior regions and by youth in impoverished neighbourhoods on 17 December 2010 did not turn into a revolution – in the sense of a radical change of the mode of production followed by building different cultural, political and value systems. One could say that this was a revolution that began with slogans expressing popular demands and ended with political demands that mainly concerned the petty bourgeoisie, resulting in its defeat. The aborted process of turning an uprising into a revolution (or the defeat of the revolution) began the day the counterrevolutionary forces managed to disperse the protesters from El Kasbah, after the trade union bureaucracy and some left-wing parties managed to convince them to accept liberal democratic crumbs. This culminated in the 23 October 2011 elections, amidst capitalist media hegemony and under imperial tutelage, embodied by the Deauville Conference resolutions and the International Monetary Fund’s recommendations. It was then that the ‘revolutionary path’ was replaced by the ‘democratic transition path’ – towards more neoliberalism and dependence on imperial centres.

What about the future? It is difficult to predict what will happen in the next phase of Tunisia’s journey. Amidst a divided political landscape (including on the left), between those who have denounced the ‘coup’ by Kais Saied and those who view it as a path correction or a partial response to popular will that deserves critical support, implementing initiatives remains in Saied’s hands alone. He gives little attention to the opinions of political parties or civil society; rather, he seems high on popular backing, convinced he is the bearer of a divine, historic task: to fulfil the people’s wishes. Other than his electoral slogan ‘the people want’, and his political project to change the regime from an adjusted parliamentary democracy to a localized, non-partisan and presidential democracy, Saied seems to have no vision for the economic and political decisions that are needed to save Tunisia. Amidst the tough economic and financial conditions, this opens the door to foreign intervention (especially apparent in the support from the Saudi-Emirati axis,12 which is allied with the Zionist entity).

Moreover, the president’s lack of an institutionalized political organization that is capable of feeling out society and helping him on the ground renders him almost completely dependent on the reports of state institutions and security services. Should he fail to find quick enough solutions to provide living and healthcare essentials for the popular classes, Saied might pave the way for his opponents – who have been harmed by the post-25 July situation – to overthrow him. More dangerously, this moment could be exploited to carry out a coup against him, or he might slip into tyranny and overdependence on state apparatuses to suppress those classes that see in him the country’s ‘last hope’.

As regards the left, it has no alternative after wasting many opportunities to take root within the masses in the past few years – unless it manages to rid itself of its elitist cultural delusions and seriously think of ways to get involved with the popular classes.


Ghassen Ben Khelifa is a journalist and a revolutionary socialist activist from Tunisia. He is the editing coordinator of the media outlet inhiyez.com, which mainly covers the struggles of the popular classes. He is the former coordinator of the national campaign to support social struggles (Isned) and the Tunisian campaign for boycott of, and opposing normalization with, the Zionist entity.


Note: I would like to thank my two friends, Hamza Hamouchene and Maha Ben Gadha, for reviewing this article, and for all the valuable feedback they gave, which enriched it.

Translated from Arabic by Yasmine Haj

Revised and edited by Meriam Mabrouk

Copy-edited by Ashley Inglis

Illustrations by Fourate Chahal El Rekaby

Sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung with funds of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of the Federal Republic of Germany. This publication or parts of it can be quoted by others for free as long as they provide proper reference to the original publication.

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1 In reference to two famous verses by the Tunisian poet Abu al-Qassim al-Chabbi.

2 While the national unemployment rate reached 13.3 per cent, it reached as high as 37 per cent in Tataouine, in the southeast. Similarly, poverty rates remained four times higher in Tunisia’s inlands when compared with the coastal areas. See Al-Arabi Sadiqi (2019) ‘Regional development in Tunisia: The implications of complex marginalisation’, http://urlr.me/bnZX2

3 See Salehi, S. (2017) Internal Colonialism and Unequal Development. [In Arabic].

4 An economic expert, Jamal Oueididi, notes that Tunisia lost around 55 per cent of its local industrial textile because of this agreement. In parallel, nearly 400,000 textile workers lost their source of income: http://lexpertjournal.net/?p=3613

5 This is an expression that was used by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006. Rice also spoke of the advantages of ‘creative chaos’ in the region, in reference to the potential implications of an expected Israeli victory over Hezbollah, which did not happen. It is also the title of a book by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in which he called for a ‘peace’ in the region that would be based on Zionist economic hegemony. The expression is also often used synonymously with the ‘Greater Middle East’ that former US President George Bush Jr. mentioned during the occupation of Iraq from 2003.

6 This analytical paper, published by the Tunisian Observatory of Economy, gives an overview of the unjust economic conditions with which the G8 group shackled Tunisia and Egypt in Deauville: http://www.economie-tunisie.org/fr/observatoire/analysiseconomics/actes-conference-partenariat-deauville-politiques-economiques-tunisie.

7 Less than one month after Ben Ali’s removal, questions of religion and secularism began to rise. On 14 February 2011, some Salafists protested, calling for the closure of brothels. Four days later, a Polish Christian priest was killed (it was later revealed that his death was unrelated to religious extremism), and this was then followed by protests by secularists calling for a secular state. An important part of the Islamist and liberal stream (along with some leftists at times) became involved in similar activities that ignited cultural and identitarian conflicts, at the expense of the pursuit of social and economic justice, for which the popular classes had risen up.

8 This phenomenon witnessed in Tunisia during the past decade requires a thorough, detailed study. The colonial and regional international powers have pervaded Tunisian ‘civil society’ through the injection of funding. The former have forced on the latter their liberal agenda, which has helped remove from the streets many movement leaders and has created a social class of ‘civil society activists’ who are detached from the reality of the popular classes and who receive elevated wages in return for their work on projects related to the process of a ‘democratic transition’. Funders determine the priorities, such as capacity building for youth, women’s empowerment, fighting extremism and radicalism, strengthening local communities’ resilience and their economic integration, fighting corruption, decentralization, and local governance. For more, see Hela Yousfi’s research: http://urlr.me/1WPKz.

9 In reference to the secular bourgeoisie, influenced to a large extent by Western (particularly French) culture, and which generally perceives cultural and political expressions that are influenced by Arab-Islamic discourse in a negative light.

10 According to critics, this chapter hinders legislators who might wish to allocate a part of the budget (even if exceptionally) to help the poorer social classes.

11 After Tunisia managed to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in its first year, thanks to the serious efforts of Elyes Fakhfakh’s government (prior to reopening borders to tourism), the situation experienced a terrible deterioration under Mechichi’s government, seeing record death tolls and viral transmissions.

12 This support was clearly revealed in the important number of consecutive visits by senior Saudi officials to Kais Saied, and in Saudi/Emirati media celebrations of what happened on 25 July, and their incitement that aims to achieve the elimination of the Ennahda Movement.