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 East’5 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.