In 2015, Tunisia’s President Beji Caid Essebsi proposed a draft economic reconciliation law to forgive graft and other corrupt acts committed by civil servants and businessmen under the regime of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in exchange for closed-door confessions and return of ill-gotten gains. Such economic crimes were a major trigger of the 2010-2011 protests that led to the Tunisian revolution—and Essebsi’s bill provoked a powerful response, a campaign called Maneesh M’sameh (I Will Not Forgive). The campaign’s initial goal was to protect the integrity of investigations of economic crimes by the Truth and Dignity Commission (L’Instance Vérité et Dignité), created in the summer of 2014.
The mood in Tunisia was tense after Ramadan, a month after 38 tourists were killed in the beach resort of Sousse at the end of June. Key buildings on the capital’s main boulevard, Habib Bourguiba Avenue, including the Ministry of Interior, were surrounded with barbed wire and conspicuous police protection. Parliament had just passed a counter-terrorism law criticized by local and international human rights associations for granting extraordinary powers to security agencies.
From Little League banquets to honorary doctorates, it may well be in the nature of award committees to tilt toward hyperbole. Elevating the legacy of the recipient is, among other things, an affirmation of the importance of those who can recognize importance when they see it. The committee that selects the recipient of each year’s Nobel Peace Prize unquestionably evaluates a slate of tremendously significant nominees, but even this august body fits the exaggerating profile in the language of its encomia. And with stakes higher than many, the Nobel’s fulsome praise can be faulted in recent years not simply for its overstatement, but also for its timing.
Since the 2011 Arab uprisings gave way to the dreadful combination of civil war and terrorism that has spread from Syria to Libya and Yemen, analysts and political actors from both the Arab world and West have felt an acute need for at least one success story in the region. Tunisia has provided such a tale—despite suffering two lethal terror attacks on its soil so far in 2015, the second being the killing of 38 tourists at a seaside resort in Sousse on June 26.
For 20 years leading up to the uprisings of 2010-2011, Egypt and Tunisia suffered the ill effects of neoliberal economic reform, even as the international financial institutions and most economists hailed them as beacons of progress in the Arab world. For ten years preceding the revolts, workers and civil society organizations led a burgeoning protest movement against the liberalizing and privatizing trajectories of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes. Then came the uprisings, which brokered the possibility of not only new political beginnings but also alternative economic programs that would put the needs of the struggling middle, working and poorer classes first and at least constrain, if not abolish, the privileges of a deposed ruling class.
Nearly four years later, the dusty road between Sidi Bouzid’s main thoroughfare and the humble residential quarter where Mohamed Bouazizi grew up is still blemished with the same potholes. He was not known in his hometown by that name. Though international media outlets immortalized this moniker after he set himself on fire, the first name of the young Tunisian street vendor who lit the now clichéd proverbial match was Tarek. (Full name: Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi.) His friends called him Basbousa. In the popular discourse, the story of Sidi Bouzid’s December 2010 uprising is something of a fairy tale: The youth revolted, the tyrant fell and the Arab world’s first real democracy was forged in the fires of Bouazizi’s rage.
“We should make it up to the peasants,” Muhsin al-Batran, erstwhile head of the economic affairs unit in Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture, told the official daily al-Ahram two months after the toppling of Husni Mubarak in 2011. “Make it up” — why? And what is it that needs to be made up?
How is gender related to revolutions? What is the connection between “gender” and women or, for that matter, between gender and women and men? If gender is generally understood to be the social construction of sexual difference, what explains the differences in gendered identities across cultures or over time? And in thinking about gender, how can observers avoid the naturalization of the familiar, or the demonization of gender relations that seem foreign?
Bill Lawrence is director of the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer (Morocco), Fulbright scholar (Tunisia), development consultant (Egypt), State Department official, Arabic translator and filmmaker (Marrakech Inshallah, Moroccans in Boston). He has also participated in the production of 14 albums of North African music, including co-production of the first internationally released Arabic rap song. He has lived in North Africa for 12 years, six of them in Morocco. I spoke with him in Rabat on March 15.
Can you talk about the problems in Libya caused by the proliferation of militias and arms?
Many of the slogans of the Egyptian revolution have been poetry, and as compositions with rhyme, meter and purpose, they resonate with very old conceptions of lyrical form. But slogans are not literary texts whose meanings can be reduced to a purely semantic level. Most often, they are part of a performance — embodied actions taking place in particular situations. This fact opens up avenues for thinking about literary aesthetics and political practice, and it shows the relevance of cultural analysis for the study of revolution.
On October 23, 2011, for the first time since independence in 1956, Tunisians were called to the polls in free and transparent elections. They were to choose 217 members of a Constituent Assembly that for a year would play a double role: drafting a new constitution and governing the country.
About 78 nautical miles separate the Tunisian town of al-Huwariyya at the head of the Cap Bon peninsula from Capo Feto at the southwestern tip of Sicily. An Italy-bound voyage between the two points, on the straight line headed roughly northeast-east, takes about 13 hours at an average speed of six knots under sail. A speedboat moving at 30-45 knots would traverse the same distance in about two hours.
Tunisia was the first Arab country to have a pro-democracy uprising in the winter of 2010-2011, and now it is the first to have held an election. Tunisians took to the polls on October 23 to choose a constituent assembly that will be tasked with drafting the country’s first democratic constitution and appointing a new transitional government. The elections were judged free and fair by a record number of domestic and foreign observers, testimony to the seriousness with which the interim government approached the poll. In the eyes of many observers, Tunisia is lighting the way forward where others — notably Egypt — are faltering.
While Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation will undoubtedly remain the iconic image of the 2011 Tunisian revolution, another set of pictures has also stuck in the minds of Tunisians. On the evening of January 14, despite an army curfew, a man staggered across Avenue Habib Bourguiba, shouting, “Ben Ali fled — the Tunisian people is free! The Tunisian people will not die! The Tunisian people is sacred!”
As the waves of protest inspired by Tunisia continue to roll across the Middle East and North Africa, analysts have remained puzzled by the mysterious timing, incredible speed and cross-national snowballing of these uprisings or intifadas. In the six months following the electrifying scenes of thousands occupying Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis, directing the imperative Dégage! (Get out!) at President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian “virus” has spread across the region, unleashing apparently similar moments of resistance and revolution. Yet a “back-door” view of the intifadas reveals wide variations.
Casbah Square in Tunis has the feel of the morning after. Strewn around the plaza are the odd, drooping Tunisian flag and other relics of the mass demonstrations that forced the fall of the ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January and then two “interim governments” deemed too closely associated with his regime. There are still a few protests in the Tunisian capital. But they are no longer transformative of the political order. They are small, sectional, partisan — almost routine.
The Tunisian revolution of January 2011 drew upon the participation of nearly every social stratum. Organized labor threw its weight into the struggle early on, in an important sign of the breadth and depth of opposition to the rule of the dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In mid-March, the Sacramento Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO) hosted a delegation of leaders of Tunisia’s powerful labor federation, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), on a visit to the United States. The Council co-hosted the Tunisians with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. Abdellatif Hamrouni is secretary-general of the country’s federation of public works employees and a member of the UGTT general assembly.
Revolution is a weighty word, one as freighted with past disappointments as with hopes for the future. In the Arab world, where the first spontaneous popular revolutions of the twenty-first century have begun, cabals of colonels long expropriated the term to glorify their coups d’état. It is an accomplishment of the groundswells in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011 that no prospective Asad or Qaddafi will get away with stealing the word again. Thanks to Tunisians and Egyptians, everyone has received a crash course in what revolution looks like.