Less than a decade after the 2011 uprising that ousted a dictator, the election of an anti-establishment president amidst popular turmoil indicates that many Tunisians reject the narrative that all is well with Tunisia’s new liberal democracy.
Popular news outlets have declared 2019 the year of street protests, ranging from Algeria to Hong Kong and Lebanon to Chile. In Tunisia, too, protests rocked the political landscape in two major ways: First, 2019 witnessed the peak of growing protests, popular activism and contentious oppositional movements since the 2011 uprising; and second, Tunisians elected as president an unassuming retired law professor named Kais Saied in October 2019 who promises to create an anti-establishment form of direct democracy in Tunisia. These two coalescing events of 2019 are easily plotted as coordinates on a global political map of pro-democratic and anti-austerity uprisings. While the Tunisian political establishment treats these two events as serendipitous, the persistence of widespread discontent expressed both in the streets and at the ballot box casts doubt on halcyon visions of Tunisia’s supposed democratic success story.
Since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution ousted the autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, its political and economic establishment and key international donor partners have touted its embrace of liberal democracy. But that vision is disconnected from a parallel reality: Thousands of protests, sit-ins, strikes and attempted suicides underscore Tunisians’ chronic discontent despite its supposed democratic success. Saied’s surprise election was based on a campaign that advanced the revolutionary slogan “the people want” in which both the people and the vision of democracy are constructed around popular visions of equality and the rightful distribution of the country’s resources. Labelled a populist by his adversaries, Saied’s support base views him as a true democrat and proponent of the people’s voice and demands.
How did a revolutionary slogan transform into a successful and essentially penniless political campaign for direct democracy in less than a decade, and what does political protest in Tunisia tell us about the flip side of Tunisia’s democratic success narrative? The election of Saied amidst popular turmoil indicates that many Tunisians do not accept the continuing separation of politics (as a form of dignified leadership) from economics—especially the current model of economic reform and its management in a new liberal guise. Tunisians likewise reject the narrative that all is well with Tunisia’s new liberal democracy.
From Popular to Electoral Dissent
Between October 2018 and October 2019, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) reported a significant spike in economic, social and political protests. Whether linked to the 2019 waves of protests globally or a sign of the increased popular discontent with Tunisia’s transition since 2011, Tunisian voting behavior signified a further channeling of this rising discontent via elections, at least for the moment. Saied gained, for example, the largest share of his votes in all but one governorate (Jendouba), while winning his highest numbers in areas where protests were the strongest. Yet while Saied’s voter base maps closely with the protests, the election more broadly signifies that a large percentage of Tunisian voters reject the status-quo of the last eight years, if not the status-quo of Ben Ali era politics. The more precise reading, for now, is that the anti-establishment vote signifies discontent with the failure of post-revolutionary governments to deliver on their promises. This discontent has manifested in both protests and social movements as well as targeted (electoral) criticism of existing policies and political actors.
As a result, without the aid of a glossy political campaign and resilient in the face of dramatic criticism from multiple configurations of the post-revolutionary consensus-seeking political elites, Saied reignited the revolutionary wave of 2011 with a pared-down campaign built around the revolutionary slogan Ashaāb Yūrid (“the people want”)—but without calling for “the downfall of the regime” as was declaimed in 2011. The inexpensive campaign was built around Saied’s students and followers, who for years had engaged in spontaneous conversations in and around local coffee shops. He earned adulation for his non-establishment status, his commitment to public service and his disinterest in the material gains of joining the elite political class. His dose of social conservatism around issues of personal status law also united political tendencies across the spectrum.
With both nation-wide and local-level support, Said secured over 70 percent of the vote in a run-off against media-mogul Nabil Karaoui, who had been leading in earlier polls. Early analyses of the results mapped closely onto the large-scale social movements that had materialized after 2011. Saied polled highest in regions with a strong presence of movements, especially the southwest and southeast. These movements included the sovereigntist Winou El-Petrol? (Where is the petrol); the pro-transitional justice and anti-corruption Manish M’Sameh (I will not forgive); the anti-austerity and pro-dignity Fech Nestannew (What are we waiting for?); and the radical Harakat Yezzikom (Enough!) established in the impoverished Kasserine region. While any landslide voting victory would overlap with patterns of protest, the most telling aspect about this geopolitical configuration is the intensity of protest and the high levels of support for an anti-establishment candidate reigniting a revolutionary call for change.
The broad-based support for Saied’s revolutionary call is rooted not only in the last decade of post-revolution protest but in a context of heightened economic austerity and technocratic governance that has caused dissent to spread beyond anti-establishment protest to consider more fundamental and even revolutionary change, especially after 2014. The 2019 elections, therefore, are not simply another step within Tunisia’s progressive democratic transition but are rather the product of Saied’s ability to connect his campaign to a long durée of popular activism and social movements, by rejoining economic despair with demands for a just and dignified political project in Tunisia.
A Political Economy of Contention
The intensified protests of 2019 are neither new nor are they a rejection of the political configurations that emerged in the transition period after the 2011 revolution. By taking to the streets and then translating their grievances into a protest vote, Tunisians have rejected both the opposition’s national-political pacts of the Ben Ali period and the post-2011 centrist-led consensus matrix, the hallmark of Tunisia’s democratization experiment—an experiment that has excluded most Tunisians from the political game and eroded public trust in political institutions. This condition is reminiscent of a widespread public sentiment of political exclusion during pre-revolutionary regimes, which ultimately culminated in the 2011 uprising and demands for a new system of political dignity.
Among other grievances, these contentious voices are calling into question the division between political and economic systems by demanding dignity and a moral state.
The widespread sense of exclusion felt by most Tunisians emerged from the saturation of neoliberal politics of the Ben Ali years, which were themselves inherited from previous ruler Habib Bourguiba’s austerity measures that sparked the 1984 bread riots. The elite political class has long followed neoliberal dogma to insist on austerity measures, public sector contraction, management of debt burden, employability and job creation around social entrepreneurship. That goal of increasing economic competition has distanced citizens from the state, although in surprising ways.
Tunisians protesting today are not so much expressing a rejection of the state as they are calling for more state—one that is invested in providing social security (if ensuring the most minimal of social survival) rather than global economic competitiveness. Unquestionably, the country’s heavy debt burden is in tension with demands for more equitable and performative social service delivery. Tunisia remains enmeshed in the global economy, and political pressures since the 1970s—riots, a coup, a revolution, thousands of protests and Saied’s surprise electoral win—all are effects of the country’s inequitable political economy.
Mapping and Timing Political Marginalization
Both the regime and international financial institutions described Ben Ali’s Tunisia as an economic miracle. A bon élève (good pupil) of international financial institutions, Tunisia was celebrated as a Mediterranean Tiger for its liberal investment structure that attracted considerable foreign direct investment (FDI). Domestically, the Ben Ali regime cemented this image by heavily investing in public relations to advance the economic success narrative as separate from the regime’s repressive political project.
The 2011 revolution and subsequent protests and social movements have brought this tension to the surface. Among other grievances, these contentious voices are calling into question the division between political and economic systems by demanding dignity and a moral state. The 2019 protest map in Tunisia and its overlap with pro-Saied electoral results precisely reflect the demand for a democratic state that also provides for dignified lives for its citizens, resembling the Hirak in Algeria (along with other protest movements globally) in its insistence and frequency. The challenge for post-2011 Tunisia is how to establish such a dignified state at a time when neoliberal economic projects have relegated politics either to the contractual (social contracts, legal reforms) or the street (protest and contention).
Asef Bayat examines how this neoliberal effect of an “economic rationality that solicits contention” is intertwined with “a form of governmentality that cultivates compliance.” Referring to decades of autocratic rule entrenched in economic neoliberalism, Bayat captures the tension of an economic project that by its exclusionary logic calls for protest, embedded in a political project that instead forces compliance, if not quiescence (and for decades criminalized dissent). The Tunisian political elite pre- and post-revolution largely implemented precisely this mix, reinforcing and reinventing a tension that clashes with its own post-independence developmentalist narrative with an emphasis on unionized labor, protectionism, social subsidies and an interventionist state.
The project of portraying Tunisia’s economy as separate from its political system dates to the early 1980s. At that time, the space and possibility for capitalism was accelerated, with two noticeable effects. The first effect of a new capitalist potential was the necessity of managing the economy via technocratic expertise–the rule of experts–disconnected from political and moral considerations. By 2012, 70 percent of Tunisians held 20 percent of the national wealth, while youth unemployment, already at 30 percent in 2008, continued to rise. Job creation, employability, leadership and social entrepreneurship are the names of the international development game—a game that ignores the demands of citizens such as those who voted in the first round elections (on September 15, 2019) for Saied and his populist contender, the media mogul Karaoui, both of whom challenged—at least discursively—this technocratic and de-contextualized rule of experts.
The second effect of maintaining this status quo of economy rule by experts has been reinvigorated dissent. Activists are now more visibly pushing for the state to recognize the political and moral underpinnings of the current economic reform proposals. The 2019 elections reflected protesters’ demands to re-link the political with the economic and to move from prioritizing the reconciliation of corruption to what the people want. While the technocratic and internationally funded reform projects aim to save the lone democratic success of the 2011 uprisings, the protests and elections reopen the question of precisely what type of democracy it is that the people want.
A Striking Continuity
Rather than a straightforward democratic success story, therefore, the Tunisian case reflects a striking continuity between the pre- and post-revolutionary periods in terms of Tunisians challenging the political matrix in which the economic sphere is treated as separate from politics. What was once an economic miracle story against the backdrop of authoritarianism is today a democratic miracle story transposed onto a backdrop of economic failure.
The tens of thousands of protests, strikes and sit-ins registered in the last five years are operating against a political formula similar to that of the Ben Ali regime—or the multiple post-1970s political-economic regimes. But the protests today differ not only in their frequency and geographic sprawl but also in their ability to reconnect the economic with the political through the language of social movement. Whereas in 2011 the uprising called for a disruption in the status quo and the fall of the regime, the endurance of a rule of experts linked with a particular form of liberalization and modernization is now being challenged through protest, the ballot box and demands for a new and more substantive democracy.
 Laryssa Chomiak, Archipelagos of Dissent: Protest and Politics in Tunisia, (forthcoming).
 Forum Tunisien Pour les Droits Economiques and Sociaux (FTDES), “Rapport du mois Octobre 2019: des mouvementrs sociaux, suicides et violences,” 76 (November 11, 2019), pp. 2-4.
 Lana Salman and Laryssa Chomiak, “Refusing to Forgive,” Middle East Report 281 (Winter 2016). The campaign opposes various iterations of an “economic reconciliation bill” put forth by late President Beji Caid Essebsi to forgive corruption among business elites and the administration that enabled such corrupt practices.
 In 2014, protests begin to call for the reemergence of the revolution, against the consensus-based liberal political establishment.
 Banu Bargu, “Why Did Bouasisi Burn Himself? The Politics of Fate and Fatal Politics,” Constellations 23/1 (2016).
 Karen Pfeifer, “Rebels, Reformers and Empire: Alternative Economic Programs for Egypt and Tunisia,” Middle East Report 274 (Spring 2015).
 Laryssa Chomiak and Robert Parks, “Tunisia,” in Ellen Lust, ed. The Middle East, 14th Edition (Congressional Quarterly Press/ Sage Publishing, 2019).
 Asef Bayat, Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017).