Today, January 14th, exactly five years ago, Tunisian president Zin El-Abidine Ben Ali was the first Arab dictator to be removed by the will and strength of an Arab nation, ushering in a wave of Arab rebellions. Because of the negative and destructive course taken by these revolts in Egypt, Syria and Yemen, many deem it pointless, futile or indecent to try to speak of their achievements. Nonetheless, having just been on the ground in Tunisia for nearly two weeks (until Monday) — just when Tunisians were preparing to commemorate these events — I feel compelled to speak of how the Tunisian people are building on their legacy while facing the political challenges that still lay ahead.

Public Seminar is a perfect venue in which to do this, with its mission of disseminating academic debates to a wider audience. I take the spirit of a “seminar” to be a place for intellectual exchange; here I will convey some of the ideas that I encountered while conducting interviews throughout Tunisia for twelve days. I would like to think of it as a sort of wandering or “moving” Tunisian seminar for our readers, because over the course of my fieldwork, I traveled from south to north, from one town to the other, hearing different grievances, but also witnessing different activities pushing for more inclusive and democratic forms of politics. Thus, “moving” also refers to the possible changes ushered in by stubborn, creative, and cunning activists, trying to perpetuate the legacy of the 2011 revolt in a positive and democratic direction.

Moving from the peripheries to the center

In order to prepare this seminar, I had to be the first moving piece. After a series of interviews in the capital, Tunis, last summer, I heeded the advice of a good friend and Tunisian researcher to move away from the political center and begin again as far as possible from the capital. I thus started my new interviews in the southeast, in the governorate of Mednine, not far from the Libyan border and the desperately empty tourist resorts of Djerba. I also went even farther south, to Tataouine, the last city before the great southern desert. I stayed in each place for a couple of days before heading back to Sfax, the so-called capital of the south. I concluded this trip with interviews in Sousse before completing the journey in the capital, Tunis. The purpose of this research was to meet with people who either had been active in the process of drafting a new constitution (passed in 2014) or who work on monitoring its implementation. I was moving, but every day I was taken in by a sort of seminar where it was Tunisians — kids, lycéens (students) activists or other political actors — who were teaching me the lived lessons of their economic and political situation.

Smuggled gas sold along the road in the Mednine governorate, Jan 4, 2016 © Benoit Challand | Coutesy of the author
Smuggled gas sold along the road in the Mednine governorate, Jan 4, 2016 © Benoit Challand | Coutesy of the author

There are countless advantages to being a moving scholar, relying only on rudimentary public transports (collective taxis called louages) with no other foreigners in sight. One hears, sees, and perceives things that can be sometimes quite unexpected and different from what one would encounter in the rather cozy and cosmopolitan capital city. In the south, it is as if radio in public taxis are permanently stuck on Zitouna, the Islamic radio channel said to be very close to the main Islamist party Ennahda and constantly airing religious programs or commenting on public morality. In the south one faces an “informal” economy blatantly built around contraband. The main product is gas: smuggled subsidized benzene and “mazout” from Algeria and Libya are sold openly along the roads, under the eyes of all. The customs and regular police, who cannot pretend not to see this informal trade, do not even bother to intervene against the practice. They know that an estimated 15% to 20% of the Mednine governorate (I was told) rely on this traffic to make a living. Moreover, everyone is an accomplice of the system by purchasing these goods. The police only intervene by imposing numerous checkpoints around the governorate, but not inside. Thus on the 225-km ride from Mednine to Sfax, the trunk of our minibus was checked about ten times, while our ID cards were checked only once. Civilian goods that have been smuggled can be traded, but only along border buffer zones, thus generating a form of clientelism between the capital and local ring leaders (1).

In the south, one also witnesses, over and over, the consequences of the Libyan civil war. Carloads of Libyan civilians are moving out of their country — torn by an internal struggle between at least four local factions, not to mention two branches of Al-Qaeda and Daesh – and rolling north towards larger Tunisian cities. Convoys of trucks carrying food bought in Tunisia stream back into Libya. From the testimonials I gathered, it seems that the number of Libyans seeking refuge in Tunisia has recently been stepping up. Figures revealed in the media speak of up to 1.5 million Libyan refugees having moved to Tunisia. But as is often the case with displaced persons, this figure is probably exaggerated, beefed up by governmental or international organizations seeking to obtain international diplomatic and financial support. But the fact is that Tunisia, a rather small country of 11 million people, is probably hosting close to one million Libyans. In the most southern town I visited, Tataouine, which counts 60,000 inhabitants, I was told that 3,000 families have opened their doors to host Libyans compelled to leave their country. Counting an average of five people per family, this means that a fourth of the local population has made a gesture to accommodate the pressing Libyan crisis. Throughout the country, Tunisia bears the brunt of a massive Libyan presence: the scarcity of housing in large urban areas is pushing rental prices to a level unaffordable for Tunisian pockets, particularly in the capital where a majority of Libyans are based.

One hears constant grievances from the rural areas where economic life revolves around commodities, from the deep south, where oil production is important, to the southwestern borders, where some of the largest phosphate production sites are located. While listening to them, I wondered whether the ideals of social justice, so central to the 2011 revolts, had succeeded at all in rooting out economic clientelism. People point out how channels to obtain a job in this sector remain opaque, despite the fact that, in this part of the country, this was one of the original motives of the revolt in December 2010 (larger northern cities did not at first show any enthusiasm for what appeared to be a rural upheaval, and only joined the wave of protests a day or two before Ben Ali was forced to depart). The pie is still divided along political lines — instead of the old RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique, Ben Ali’s former ruling party which was disbanded right after the revolution in 2011) distributing jobs, this is now done by the two new ruling parties, Nida Tounes and Ennahda, along with powerful trade unions, with little improvement in terms of transparency. Locals lament the fact that these sources of revenue leave no trace in the peripheral regions. Even though the new 2014 constitution has introduced at least three articles (7, 12, and 186) calling for equal development between the different regions of the country and for mechanisms favoring de-concentration and de-centralization, very little progress seems to have been made on these fronts, provoking a new wave of internal migration towards cities such as Sfax, Sousse or Tunis. For many observers, the south and southwest regions are again ripe and ready for another wave of revolts, while actors in the capital obtusely trumpet the inscription of the principle of decentralization in the constitution as a major achievement.

A public moving seminar

Despite these rather pessimistic reports, I was nevertheless struck by the fact that Tunisians seem determined to keep the struggles going. In a way, Tunisia itself is a moving seminar, a place of profound and essential debates, full of sharp disagreements at times, but a place, or a multitude of places and spaces, that harbor provocative and constructive initiatives, trying to identify new and sometimes moving targets. What has been most compelling in the discussions I have had with Tunisians from various parts of the country is the awareness that has emerged post-revolution of the political problems that exist in other parts of the country (despite the problems with resource allocation described above). Tunisia used to rank, internationally, close to last in terms of freedom of information. People under Ben Ali simply did not know what was happening in other governorates. Media only relayed the lionized achievements of the ruling RCD party and of its leader. It silenced all talk of problems and kept the country compartmentalized. Many people (some of whom had perhaps preferred sticking their head in the sand) had simply not heard of the Rdayyef uprisings, or of the several-months-long protests around the phosphate mines of Gafsa in 2008. Nor did they hear, outside of the region, of the revolts in the border city of Ben Guerdane in the summer 2010 – all events considered preludes to the explosions of December 2010 and January 2011. This is no longer the case. A major achievement of the 2011 revolt is the freedom of expression, which Tunisians now cherish and which really contributes to a new consciousness of the intricate local, regional and national challenges. This new consciousness is in part generated by the possibility of physically moving around the country, but also through (social) media interactions. Post-revolution, people move from one place to the other, be it as part of caravans of freedom or to take part in some of the sit-ins in Tunis, in 2011 and 2013 (2). Other, younger people, who have freshly acquired a taste for political activism, are traveling for the first time in their own country, and after discovering the ordeal of the western and southern parts of the country, have moved away from the rich coastal cities. Return migration of Tunisians who had chosen or had been forced to leave the country during the dictatorship is another factor. Many highly educated and with rich (with cultural and political capital) individuals have decided to return and are now active in cultural associations and politics. This is a new, surely tiny, but welcome contribution by people probably much less hampered by entrenched historical regional identifications.

Lyceens demonstrating in front of the Municipal Theatre, Tunis, January 9, 2016 © Benoit Chaland | Courtesy of the author
Lyceens demonstrating in front of the Municipal Theatre, Tunis, January 9, 2016 © Benoit Chaland | Courtesy of the author

A second dimension of the Tunisian moving seminar is the generation of new political projects grounding the calls for more participative and democratic practices. In the time I spent in the country, almost every day I witnessed spontaneous or planned strikes, demonstrations, conferences or debates: lycéens striking each day last week throughout the country for not having been consulted by the Minister of Education on a new reform; citizens in Djerba and Sfax occupying or blockading roads to force the authorities to shut down a garbage or polluting site; free screening of films on the Manouba campus to create a political forum the day before the anniversary of the revolution, and new cineclubs elsewhere; political theatre in local dialect aimed to pushing urban dwellers to reclaim social and economic rights; Facebook actions to protest the use of public spaces such as trottoirs for unregulated economic activities; social work in some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in Tunis (which I had described in an earlier post on Public Seminar) to give small jobs to unemployed men; the planning of a large demonstration in Sfax on the 14th, using the same route and slogans as a decisive protest on January 12, 2011; public meetings to discuss regional and national budgets; etc. Although mostly anchored to the local level, the examples provide a sense of the broader political change they are aiming for.

The phrase “Moving Public Seminar” nicely captures the projects and activities I encountered in the last few days. I am listing only the events that are geared at changing public opinion through open invitations, as opposed to closed-door training for NGO members or beneficiaries, or actions that concern only a small local political club. These events I witnessed remain mostly local but at times succeed in creating cross-class and cross-partisan dynamics. Unhappy with formal representation by parties — and this is true for Islamists and modernists alike — people and associations try to generate new forms of political representation (or direct democracy). I found this to be particularly true for young activists hoping to foster their own agenda and program, away from the tutelage of the older generation, and in a manner that would generate, in the words of one militant, a “mixed representativity” — understood as a temporary quota system that would give formal political recognition and involvement for youth, marginalized regions and black Tunisians.

An illusion? Challenges and contradictions

A revised law on political association, much less liberal than the one passed in 2011, puts pressure on these numerous initiatives. Cases of intimidation of association leaders have been documented, and there is a risk that in the name of the fight on terrorism, spaces of public and political action might be again restricted or even closed.

Some may perceive talk of these movements as naïve. There is indeed an issue of scale, with a fair amount of push for change happening at the micro level, but still very little happening at the macro or structural level. In that sense, one could hardly speak of a revolution happening in the sense of profound social and economic changes (à la Theda Skocpol). The five-year commemoration that already took place in Sidi Bouzid, the place where the revolution started with the immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, was not a joyful or optimistic one. There was even an armored vehicle in front of the wilayyah (governorate) building and the ambiance was morose for clear economic reasons: this peripheral region of rural Tunisia has received only a scant portion of the government’s various efforts and policies. International donors have poured money there, but some have also already packed their suitcases and left the region. Only a meaningful national effort to increase and equalize development between the rural and urban regions, between east and west, and between north or south could really improve the situation on the ground.

Talking enthusiastically about these local democratic movements might also sustain the illusion of change when political actors and institutions in reality still work on reinforcing their entrenched economic and political privileges. That may turn out to be the case, but it would be myopic to dismiss the political ferment going on. By talking about a “moving seminar” I mean to avoid Manichean judgements about a “stalled or confiscated revolution” versus “the glorious Tunisian success story.” Overall the situation remains bleak, but movements do exist. It is not yet clear where they will lead, but it is a significant fact on its own that they continue, despite all attempts at shutting them down.

(1) For a discussion of contraband in the border governorates, see the excellent analysis of Hamza Meddeb, “Rente frontalière et injustice sociale en Tunisie”, in I Bono et al. (eds), L’Etat d’injustice au Maghreb. Maroc et Tunisie, Karthala, 63-98

(2) Caravans of freedom or of liberation were collective events taking place early after the fall of Ben Ali, with large groups of people moving from one town to another as a sign of national solidarity. This form of collective protests continued taking place in 2012 and 2013. Famous sit-ins in Tunis were the so-called Qasbah 1, and Qasbah 2 in 2011, or the sit-in in front of parliament in August 2013. All of these events raised public awareness among the population at large about the need to keep the train of reforms going and to change the ruling coalitions. See my piece here.