The Tunisian uprising and beyond: a tale of two countries

The Tunisian uprising and beyond: a tale of two countries

Corinna Mullin


The fifth anniversary of Zine al Abedine Ben Ali’s ousting after 23 years of repressive rule has been met by a wellspring of retrospective reflection. One finds a spectrum of analytical lenses through which the causes and fortunes of the Tunisian uprising in the name of shughl, hurriyyah, wa adala ijtima‘iyya (work, freedom and social justice) are assessed. On one end, are celebratory accounts that highlight the institutional changes wrought by the uprising, which have broadened citizenship horizons, access to public and political spaces, as well as individual rights protections. On the other end, adopting a more critical inflection, are narratives which bring attention to the incomplete nature of institutional reform, persistent socio-economic despair, and to the unfulfilled collective promises of the uprising. Despite some important differences, approaches along this spectrum often share in common their temporal framing of analysis. This article instead asks whether the kinds of political and socio-economic questions raised by these reflections may be better engaged through a frame that looks beyond the period proximate to the 2010-2011 uprising?

Antonio Gramsci pointed to the dangers of distilling key dates from otherwise complex political dynamics, warning of their potential to become ‘invasive and fossilizing,’ imposing unnecessary straightjackets on our analytical capacities. So much so that the ‘date becomes an obstacle, a parapet that stops us from seeing that history continues to unfold….’ In his book, Citizen and Subject, Mahmoud Mamdani similarly reproached accounts blinkered by analytical barriers – in this case, ‘history by analogy’ –for their tendency to produce teleological, reductionist, and often Eurocentrist renderings of African politics. Not only do such approaches preclude a more nuanced grasp of the complexity and depth of how power functions in the (post)colonial state, but also of how society resists.

Contemporary Tunisia viewed through the lens of the post-colonial state may provide insight into the particular forces facilitating or blocking structural change. It may also help us to better comprehend what the country’s current struggles, in particular in regards to persistent inequality and structural exclusion, share in common not only with many other ‘Global South’ states, but with much of the ‘Global North’ as well.  Viewing the past five years through this lens enables us to move beyond narrow normative judgments concerning which elements of the post-uprising settlement have been ‘successes’ or ‘failures’. It instead helps us to grasp the broader dimensions of political subjectivity, power and struggle as they unfold, intersect and imbricate within and outside of Tunisia’s borders, in particular in relation to the hierarchy of citizenship that has characterised the (post)colonial Tunisian state.

The ‘birfucated state’ was a central feature of colonial domination across Africa, which saw racialised power (re)produced through violence and discipline, structural exclusion, hierarchically ordered access to institutional power, and centrally, as Mamdani elaborates in his iconic work, through legal dualism. Though anti-colonial struggles succeeded in ‘deracializing’ the state, restoring indigenous rule, they often failed to address- and merely displaced- the modes of power through which it had been sustained.

Beatrice Hibou’s account of the ‘asymmetric formation of the [Tunisian] state’ intersects with Mamdani’s contention that power may only become ‘intelligible when put in the context of concrete accumulation processes’ and the struggles these engender. Unequal development of the Tunisian state can be traced back to the Ottoman Bey’s modernisation and centralisation projects. However, it was during the colonial era (1881-1956) that contemporary modes, technologies, discourses, and practices of power were honed (2). The asymmetries these produced are often referred to in the literature on Tunisia as regional (historical marginalisation of the south, centre-west, and border regions vis-à-vis the wealthier and more politically connected coastal cities) and economic (class-based) ‘marginalisation’. There are also the political and identitarian facets of this marginalisation, with a range of movements, including leftists, Arab nationalists and Islamists at varying times barred from public and political spaces through repression sustained by an affective politics of fear.

Tunisia’s asymmetric state has often been experienced as exclusion. In the words of a young man interviewed for a documentary on the 1984 ‘bread riots’ in reaction to the socio-economic fissures exacerbated by Bourguiba’s infitah (‘opening’/economic liberalisation) policies, including the IMF mandated elimination of food subsidies: ‘I revolted. When I see that the rich can do what they want and the poor cannot even buy what they need…When I see a [rich] man like this I have a desire to harm him. He has no respect for the poor. He has no empathy. He thinks we are not Tunisian like him.’

In many parts of the country today, it is commonplace to hear such feelings of exclusion expressed as the absence of the state vis-a-vis public goods, including security, development projects and the upholding of justice. In Kasserine, for example, one of the poorest regions of the county that helped to spearhead the 2010-2011 uprising and suffered the highest death toll as a result, many people feel they have been forgotten by the state. In June 2015, an application was filed for Kasserine to be awarded “region as victim” status with Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD), in charge of overseeing the transitional justice process. With the highest rate of youth unemployment, where sixty percent of the population does not have health insurance and one in three households has no access to drinking water, it is unsurprising that feelings of ‘marginalisation [and]…that the government only protects the elites’ are widespread, as demonstrated by the grievances expressed in recent protests.

Yet Hibou urges us not to view these exclusions as the absence of the state, but rather as a strategy of state power. Similarly, though historically marginalised regions have often been the site of resistance to repressive forms of governance – from the fellagha uprising against the French from 1952-1954, to the Youssefiste struggle with Tunisia’s first post-colonial president Habib Bourguiba in 1954, through the labour revolt of 1978, the ‘bread riots’ of 1984, the 2008 uprising in the Gafsa mining basin, as well as the revolutionary period 2010-2011 – Hibou prefers the lens of governance to that of revenge.

It is not the absence of the state, Hibou contends, but its presence – as a ‘political-military power’ – in marginalised regions that has been a salient feature of power, dating back to the protectorate when even the head of the privately owned Compagnie des phosphates de Gafsa (CPG) was a military appointee. Yet heavily securitised zones are paradoxically ruled by a ‘laissez-faire‘ form of governance. Stop-gap and ‘clientalistic’ measures substitute for a serious strategy to address unemployment, with associations and ‘civil society’ often filling the breach.

In this context, ‘smuggling’ and ‘black market’ activities may be tolerated insofar as they exacerbate vulnerability, facilitate surveillance and buy ‘social peace’. Informal markets loom large in the International Financial Institution (IFI) discourse on blockages to Tunisia’s economic development. However, it is the ‘criminality’ of the most vulnerable in these transactions (street sellers, border smugglers, etc.) that is targeted. The activities of the ‘barons of informal commerce’, with their profit-making and tax evasion/avoidance activities entangled in global economy induced ‘zones of ambiguity’, are instead facilitated by the kinds of economic liberalisation and deregulation advocated by IFIs (2).

In his discussion of the ‘laissez-faire’ and ‘profoundly unequal’ modes of governance and ‘political regulation’ that have for decades characterised the state’s attitude towards border regions, Hamza Meddeb points to the inadequacy of past and present public policy to respond to ‘the social demands of subaltern populations’. His critique extends beyond the government’s ‘short-termist management’, to the politics of ‘faire attendre’ (to make wait/postpone) and various ‘mechanisms of inclusion’ that have functioned to mask continuities in the post-uprising ‘social order’ despite changes to the ‘political order’.

Such ‘inexpensive’ modes of governance are based on a political economy that calculates the minimal state resources required to regulate labour (e.g. ensure a constant flow of cheap labour for the extractive industries in the south/centre of the country as well as for the factories and construction sites in the coastal cities) and achieve social control. They are also, most importantly, a condition for accumulation- for the foreign companies that repatriate their profits, as well as for elements of Tunisia’s (trans)national elite, with whose interests those of global capital intersect, and for the northern coastal cities where power and wealth have been historically concentrated.

That these modes of governance have persisted in different permutations under all of Tunisia’s post-uprising governments, is a testament to the intransigence of structural constraints (both ‘global’ and ‘local’), but also to memories of centralised and exclusionary state power, as well as to the neoliberal outlook of prominent political actors at various stages of the ‘transition’.

A focus on ruptures rather than the complex processes of unfolding history undermines the centrality of Tunisia’s past to current struggles, in particular in relation to the often violent technologies of state power, from legal-institutional mechanisms like the ‘state of emergency’, to carceral and policing strategies. Linked to these are the naturalising narratives that have intersected and cross-fertilised with global imperatives and discourses of power, around the threat of religious extremism, the inevitability of economic (neo)liberalisation, and the nature of Tunisia’s ‘exceptionalism’.

Of particular salience have been discourses of wehda wataniyya (national unity) and haybat ad dawla (state prestige), with claims to ‘public order’ and the need for ‘consensus’ often functioning to protect (new and old) elite hegemony. In doing so, they have succeeded at excluding different voices, forms of knowledge, and ways of imagining and organising the state from the public sphere, such as the Youssefists, Islamists, leftists and, at times, liberal rights activists. Operating as a discourse and mode of power under Ben Ali, consensus politics reached a post-uprising apex in the form of the ‘Quartet’ (3), whose purported ability to steer the country through the troubled waters of unconstrained antagonistic politics was lauded by global governance forces eager to maintain Tunisia’s status as a ‘model’ (neo)liberal ‘transition’.

The ‘transitional’ settlement seems to have once again confined more radical forms of agonism to the margins of Tunisia’s institutional, political and public spheres. Rights organisations continue to decry the excesses of the national security state, including the expansive counter-terror law adopted in July 2015, only weeks after the Sousse beach attacks, the use of the state of emergency as a pretext to crack down on journalists and activists, and the continuation of police violence and impunity. As in the past, it is those on the political and socio-economic margins who are most likely to be the victims of the national security state.

Periodically, more radical challenges have emerged to the post-colonial political order. In 1978, it was the challenge of the UGTT to Bourguiba’s attempts to shift the balance of power in relations between the state and the labour union, which have been deeply entangled since Tunisia’s independence struggle. The ensuing general strike resulted in a bloody crackdown, with tens of protesters killed and the UGTT’s entire leadership put on trial. Conversely, it has been general compliance that enabled the syndicate to occupy an important position in the structures of power – allowed to play the game as long as it refrained from questioning the rules of the game. Hèla Yousfi discusses this as the ‘historical cleavage’ that ‘pitted the union’s base,’ with its more radical orientation and claims to ‘autonomy vis-à-vis the regime’ against the Executive Bureau, which has often been ‘more or less subservient to power.’

Though it has fought some important battles over wages and other measures designed to protect what Harvey refers to as the ‘privilege[d]’ working class, the UGTT has ultimately refrained from challenging the boundaries of the bifurcated state, or unsettling class relations that continue to economically and politically exclude Tunisia’s ‘wretched of the earth’- the un/underemployed. More radical forms of labour activism continue to be discouraged and even criminalized by the state, with the UGTT’s public stance at times intersecting with state discourses on ‘national security,’ ‘public order’ and ‘stability.’

National security prerogatives have also been summoned in the crackdown on grassroots activist campaigns such as winou el petrole (where is the oil?). With its roots in the country’s impoverished south, the campaign in many ways picked up where the 2010-2011 uprising left off, organising around questions of sovereignty, governance and the (re)distribution of Tunisia’s natural resources. In response to the recent nation-wide protests that were sparked in Kasserine, members of the political opposition have proposed alternatives to redress Tunisia’s asymmetries- from a moratorium on debt repayment to an exceptional tax  on large fortunes, as well as a ‘national dialogue’.  However, as in the past, more radical demands around employment, sovereignty, access to land, the (re)distribution of wealth and resources, and transitional justice, are often expressed in non-institutionalised spaces.

In focusing his work on the technologies through which subject populations were ‘incorporated into – and not excluded from – the arena of colonial power,’ Mamdani substantiates his notion of the bifurcated state as a mode of governance. Bringing this analysis to its logical conclusion, he argues that ‘no reform of contemporary civil society institutions can by itself unravel’ such power. Rather, to redress the legacies (both material and epistemological) of the bifurcated colonial state would ‘require nothing less than dismantling that form of power.’ As attested to by past and ongoing forms of revolutionary mobilisation by those who have been treated as second-class citizens, many Tunisians have reached a similar conclusion.


NOTE: All translations this author’s own.
(1) Mullin, Corinna and Rouabah, Brahim (Publication Forthcoming), ‘Discourses of Power and State Formation: The State of Emergency from Protectorate to Post-Uprising Tunisia,’ Middle East Law and Governance.
(2) For a comprehensive and informative discussion of these issues, see Ben Rouine, Chafik (2016) ‘La réforme douanière sous ajustement structurel : lutte ou promotion du commerce informel ?’ Observatoire Tunisien de l’Economie.
(3) The quartet was composed of Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), Tunisia’s employers’ organization   (UTICA), the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH) and the Tunisian Bar Association.



Dr. Corinna Mullin is currently based in Tunisia, where she has been Visiting Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Tunis since 2012. She is also a Research Associate at the London Middle East Institute at SOAS.