Dignity was a principle demand of the 2011 revolution that overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Nadia Marzouki examines how that demand has informed the practices of youth and other marginalized groups as they mobilize for quotidian causes like clean streets. President Kais Saied’s recent power grab is a different kind of response to the demand for dignity, one that tries to erase corruption rather than confront it through transitional justice. Marzouki explains how the fluid politics of dignity make it an enduring resource for democratic revival. Forthcoming in the Winter 2021 issue of Middle East Report, “Revolutionary Afterlives.”
Tunisia’s political system is in crisis after President Kais Saied concentrated power in his office in July 2021. Robert P. Parks and Tarek Kahlaoui delve into the reasons why so many citizens support his moves and explain why they have become so disenchanted with Tunisia’s democratic system. The authors find that the governments’ emphasis on the electoral process and political theater over solving socio-economic problems and giving voice to the people are crushing the aspirations of the 2011 revolution.
Ten years after the Tunisian people overthrew the country’s authoritarian ruler, their democracy is in crisis. On July 25, 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked Article 80, the emergency clause in the constitution, to sack the prime minister and freeze the activities of parliament. Nate Grubman and Aytuğ Şaşmaz examine the role of the political party system in preparing the ground for this dramatic move.
In 2018, Tunisia became the first country in the Middle East and North Africa to pass a law that criminalizes racial discrimination. In a society that has long denied the existence of racism, the law—popularly known as Loi 50 or Law 50—has been applauded by local activists and international human rights organizations as a historic step.
In 2019, eight years after the Arab Spring uprisings, President Béji Caïd Essebsi declared that Tunisians would commemorate the abolition of slavery on January 23 each year. It was on this date in 1846 that the then-governor of Ottoman Tunisia, Ahmad Bey, signed a decree authorizing enslaved Black people to request manumission certificates. Dating back to the medieval period, this region—like other parts of the Mediterranean and the Muslim world—had relied on the work of African as well as European enslaved men and women.
Marginalized populations in Tunisia, who have little access to economic and political resources, sparked the 2011 protests that ousted the Ben Ali regime. In the following ten years, marginalized people, especially in rural areas, have continued to push for more jobs, better services and social justice. Sami Zemni examines the long-term processes and dynamics of marginalization in Tunisia and shows how the struggle against it is changing the country’s politics.
This issue of Middle East Report on “Maghreb From the Margins” addresses the evolving challenges that the peripheries are posing to power structures in Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia and the Western Sahara.
Marginalized populations in Tunisia, who have little access to economic and political resources, sparked the 2011 protests that ousted the Ben Ali regime. In the following ten years, marginalized people, especially in rural areas, have continued to push for more jobs, better services and social justice. Sami Zemni examines the long-term processes and dynamics of marginalization in Tunisia and shows how the struggle against it is changing the country’s politics. Forthcoming in MER issue 298 “Maghreb From the Margins.”
Responses to the tragic death of the Egyptian leftist and queer activist Sarah Hegazy reflect a significant transformation in the desire of individuals in the Middle East to claim queer identities. Zeina Zaatari places this moment in the historical context of decades of activism and struggle for freedom and social justice that continue despite tremendous backlash from governments and society.
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.
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.