Smoke and mirrors: reflections on the Tunisian settlement

Smoke and mirrors: reflections on the Tunisian settlement

Ian Sanjay Patel

Some important recent analyses have focussed on political economy in Tunisia, revealing unchanging inequities of wealth and power – concisely identified years before in the slogans of the uprising – now subject to new waves of neoliberal conditioning. Here I attempt something more modest, from my own limited perspective as an outside observer, reflecting on the spectacle of Tunisia’s so-called “transition”, its affect and language, and the lived feelings that might be associated with it. I try to convey a sense that the received paradigm of transition, with its assumed structure of legislative milestones, hides a more complicated reality. The too-simple idea of transition distracts from other ways of understanding Tunisia’s recent path from revolutionary mobilisation to old-guard settlement. While I consider the recent period in terms of the affective power of state processes, it’s clear that resistance persists and certain political openings have occurred, and that the current settlement is of course subject to change.

Tunisia has often been raised up internationally as a showcase for the merits of neoliberal settlement, to be contrasted in the same breath with Libya or Syria. Discussion among international analysts about Tunisians deciding their own future following the uprising has often prettified Tunisia’s past – a colonial history whose subsequent adaptions give character to the present. Onlookers have also habitually reverted to the dualisms, potentially more generative than descriptive, which preoccupy our historical moment: endpoints of neoliberal conditioning, political violence or elite retrenchment that are supposedly inevitable or mutually determined.

In current discussions – about Tunisia and more generally – “justice” is deliberately collapsed into the received imperatives of national and international “security”. Transition is deemed to be complete upon the consolidation of an enhanced state security regime. With respect to Tunisia, we can scrutinise this justice-security collapse and at the same time abhor the horrifying attacks that left 38 dead in the city of Sousse in 2015. Since Sousse, Tunisia has undergone an extended state of emergency and mass-arrest campaign. As early as January 2014 the progression of Tunisia’s “democratic transition” was turned on its head, when two political assassinations prompted the dissolution of the elected coalition government and the instalment of an unelected caretaker government that marshalled notions of technocracy, consensus and compromise [1].

Despite the decisive challenge of people to power, elite domestic and international interests often engineer transitions, openly and less visibly, in an image suitable to them. Periods of change tend to involve much tumult and upheaval, revolt and resistance. In such circumstances, “transition” presents itself to interested parties as a means both to temper febrile political conditions and rationalise change itself as a call for neoliberal adjustments. Such an enforced sequential design tends to conceal the different kinds of patterning to be found within periods of political unrest.

The prospect of neoliberal transition in Tunisia was signalled in the days immediately following the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In hindsight, the programme of reform hastily initiated by the unelected 2011 interim government – composed almost exclusively of figures who had served under Ben Ali – was shrewdly designed to pivot post-uprising politics in a particular direction, and provide much-needed breathing room for the surviving elements of Ben Ali’s state, such as the Interior Ministry.

On 14 January, the same day now-exiled Ben Ali flew to Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Ghannouchi (a senior figure within Ben Ali’s former party who had served as prime minister from 1999 until 2011) appeared on national television to announce that he was assuming the role of interim president, invoking chapter 56 of the Tunisian constitution. Ghannouchi appointed an interim government from among the former dictator’s erstwhile appointees. On 18 February 2011, amid on-going protests, the interim government announced three national commissions: one on economic corruption, a second investigating the killings of protesters between 17 December and 14 January by security forces, and a third named the “High Commission for the Realization of Revolution Objectives, Political Reforms and Democratic Transition [al-intiqal ad-dimuqrati]”.

This early program crafted by former regime figures, which collapsed “revolution” into “democratic transition”, had its international effect.  In February 2012 a Chatham House meeting attended by “academics and lawyers and representatives of NGOs, embassies” declared Tunisia a “classic transitional justice scenario”. The idea of “transition” had been heard before, when it was applied to former Yugoslavia, South Africa, and Sierra Leone. It is one of those phrases that purports to be descriptive of events but in fact describes little. A transition to what? A transition from which conditions in particular?

From early 2012, Tunis was deluged with workshops, conferences, pamphlets, and training seminars on “transitional justice”. This introduction of a globally sponsored template for justice was overseen locally by international organisations. “Transition” was invoked profusely and imprecisely; an elastic term ferried from various contexts; an encoded word that generated and sustained a neoliberal rubric for political change. Certain organisations were promoted while other forms of political sentiment and organisation were scrutinised or delegitimised. In certain instances, domestic cleavages synchronised with international assumptions and imperatives. Meaningful debate about which movements or organisations merited “civil society” nomenclature was often lost behind lurid takes on the threat of “Islamism” to “Secularism”.

A huge amount of legislative activity took place between 2011 and 2014, leading to substantive and vastly important achievements that often maintained grassroots support, including national elections, an elected Islamist-secular coalition government (October 2011-January 2014), a new constitution, and the creation of a national “Truth and Dignity” commission. It is not to dismiss these achievements to say that they distract attention from a more complicated landscape of losses and successes – of intransient elite interests and embattled grassroots activism – amid Tunisia’s current settlement.

The “transitional toolkit” – including media reform, judicial reform, security sector reform, and youth unemployment programmes – is a type of reformist compartmentalisation, in this case overriding calls for an unabridged response better apprised of the former regime’s nested distributions of power. For Tunisians awaiting justice – from the investigation into economic corruption; from proposed justice mechanisms that would address regional inequalities; from the criminal trials of state security personnel; from the amnesty law that stipulated benefits to former political prisoners – the uncertainty and promise of uprising gave way to frustration at apparent governmental inertia. Transition meant a guided narrowing of possibility and hope. This has been an experience, so typical following technocratic responses, of lassitude and anger in place of transformative change.

The public spectacle of transition relies on a kind of trompe-l’oeil – elite-level shows of contestation and consensus, displaying the apparent balance of legislative promises against identified national threats, conceal a busier picture underneath. Despite the resonance of former Islamist political prisoner Ali Laarayedh being placed as Minister of the Interior in 2011, the Ministry itself has remained a closed box. Actors and interests were able to play unreconstructed institutions against the formal architecture of transition. The 2011 investigative commissions turned out to be damp squibs. The trials of security personnel were given over to military jurisdiction, resulting in military tribunals that convicted senior security officials to custodial sentences (now subject to appeal) of three years despite the killing of at least 132 protestors and the injury of some 1,452. The Truth and Dignity Commission is embattled by pending legislation – a law whose language of “reconciliation” manipulates that pliant transitional theme transposed from South Africa – that will strip the Commission’s power to enact economic redress.  A lustration law designed to prohibit former regime figures from assuming public office was fiercely contested in 2012-2013 before being thrown out of parliament [2]. In the current settlement, as Nadia Marzouki points out, “more than half of the 86 deputies [of the Nidaa Tounes party] who now sit in Parliament held high positions in … the ruling party under Ben Ali”. The current coalition government also includes the Islamist party, Ennahda, whose leadership supports the current settlement.

Newly empowered political parties, established business interests and old-guard actors have tussled to steer the direction of transition. Amid vagaries since the uprising, it has been too much to hope for full acknowledgement of the former regime’s political repression, who it targeted and why, or its structures of governance, which worked to marginalise regions away from the coastal cities. Vacuums in meaning have allowed certain demands to remain stifled and certain groups to remain perceived as threatening to public life. Reactions to recent political violence – itself a form of public spectacle – have been decisive in restating terms of settlement and compromise over revolutionary ambition and hope.

Most seriously, perhaps, the claims of the unemployed and disenfranchised to economic justice have been consistently postponed, as current protests in Kasserine and elsewhere suggest. Perhaps the language of transition is appropriate here – if only to describe people held in deferral, who must resist being straightened by processes designed to hold their assertions captive to preferred solutions. The justice claims of a people – perhaps because so recently articulated – are readily suspended [3]. Only a variety of perspectives can provide a fuller understanding of the ways in which dissent and hope have been closed down or regimented in Tunisia and preferred types of solution and continuity have been protected or enforced.



[1] Nadia Marzouki (2015) records the dominant terms mobilised in Tunisian political discourse: consensus (ijma‘), alliance (tahaluf), cooperation (ta‘awun), union (ittihad), deal (safaqa), pact (ittifaq), contract (‘aqd), negotiation (tafawud), dialogue (hiwar), moderation (i‘tidal), solidarity (tadamun) and forgiveness (tasamuh).

[2] The so-called “Law on the Immunization of the Revolution”.

[3] A population, as Robert Meister has written, is held in thrall during transition to a “time after evil has been brought to a close that is still a time before justice”. See Meister, After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights, Columbia University Press, 2010, p.84.


Ian Sanjay Patel is Associate Lecturer at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London. He has a PhD from Cambridge University and has held academic posts at the University of East London and King’s College London. @ian__patel