On December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest his treatment at the hands of police, setting in motion the wave of uprisings that came to be known as the Arab Spring. Today, Tunisia is experiencing its largest grassroots revolt since those days, with thousands in the streets confronting the police week after week. In the following report, our Tunisian comrades explain the context of this new revolt, exploring what has changed and what remains the same. What we see in Tunisia is a foretaste of the next round of revolutionary movements in the region.
The above photograph shows participants in the Tunisian anti-fascist group Wrong Generation carrying a banner proclaiming their slogan, “There is anger under the ground.”
From 2011 to 2021
As a Tunisian, people always ask me, “Was the revolution of 2011 successful?” There is no simple way to answer without describing the struggles of the last decade. Generally, our analysis is that contemporary Tunisia resembles most of the other democracies that exist under global capitalism. We face the same political and economic crises, the same state violence, the same questions.
Tunisia was the birthplace of the uprisings that swept North Africa and the Mideast, and it is the only country in the region that deposed its dictator without experiencing a military coup like the one in Egypt or a civil war like the one in Syria. That being said, it’s no utopia, either. The country has seen more than ten governments in the last ten years and a lot of conflicts. A decade after overthrowing the government, our demands remain the same: “dignity, freedom, justice.”
The uprising of January 2011 drew together a wide range of people, from the angry and unemployed to Islamic fundamentalists, Marxists, the Pirate Party, and a handful of anarchists.1 At the culmination of the revolution, on January 14, 2011, our former dictator Ben Ali and his immediate family fled to Saudi Arabia. A few of Ben Ali’s family members went to prison, but his political party remained active, and Tunisia’s business class only became more powerful.
The first government after the revolution was led by the prime minister of the previous regime, followed by another government whose members had also been part of the old regime. Both failed, making way for the new electoral system. The first “fair and just election” of the history of Tunisia took place later in 2011, choosing a popularly-elected Constituent Assembly and charging them with writing a new constitution. Just as Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood won the presidential election following the Egyptian Revolution, in Tunisia, Nahdha, a fundamentalist Islamist party, won the majority of seats in this election turned against the other participants in the revolution.
In 2013, the same year that the World Social Forum took place in Tunisia, two major figures who were seeking to unify the left were mysteriously assassinated: Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. All evidence points to fundamentalist Islamists. From 2011 to 2016, fundamentalist Islamist organizations with ideologies similar to ISIS accumulated power with the assistance of the Nahdha party. Tunisia has been one of the chief exporters of volunteers to ISIS; there have been at least five major terrorist attacks in Tunisia since 2011. Still, Islamic fundamentalism is less widespread here than in many countries in this region.
One of the first significant movements after the revolution was “Manich Msemeh” (“I will not forgive”), in which young people joined together to fight the Reconciliation Act of 2014, which was to forgive those involved in the previous regimes before the revolution.
Heythem Guesmi, a revolutionary and a member of the Manich Msemeh movement, considers it a victory, in that it was a horizontal movement, breaking with the orthodox party system promoted by the various communist parties of the left. In his view, “the revolution has been stolen from us,” and the Reconciliation Act only intensified this feeling. He notes that although “civil society” organizations (i.e., liberal groups) joined the movement in its second phase, they only focused on the technicality of the Act by working with the legal institutions to oppose it—while the revolutionaries in the movement focused on the philosophical implications of returning power to the those who had ruled Tunisia for the preceding 50 years. In the end, the Act was not passed.
Ahmed Tlili, a Tunisian militant, also stresses the importance of the small victories in building a new generation. For more than 50 years under Ben Ali and Bourguiba, the previous dictators, Tunisians lived under total surveillance; they were exiled, tortured, or killed for printing political flyers or singing songs that could be interpreted as anti-establishment. This new generation has been raised in different conditions, without internet censorship, with more freedom of expression, having seen what it means to fight a dictatorship. This has built a generation that is more assertive in resisting the police and patriarchy than the older generations were.
The Islamic party Nahdha has recently formed an alliance with “Kalb Tounes,” the liberal party—whose leader is in jail for money laundering, thanks to a group of young Tunisians who pursued the case for years—and the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), the party of Ben Ali and the only ruling party from the beginning of Tunisian independence in 1956 until the 2011 revolution. This alliance forms the absolute majority in the parliament, a symbol of corruption and one of the chief causes of poverty, inequality, and patriarchy. This has left people with no hope of reform, concluding that the only way forward is insurrection or another revolution.
The first signs of the current revolt appeared three months ago. In November 2020, a deputy in parliament made a speech opposing abortion, calling all “liberated” women “whores” and singling out single mothers specifically. On December 8, women protested in front of parliament, holding signs reading “We are all whores until the fall of patriarchy.” Two days later, the parliament announced the budget for 2021, angering many people. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they allocated very little resources to public health.
Despite the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic, in early January, the government bought a fleet of brand-new anti-riot trucks, along with 60 vehicles intended for the Tunisian police.
On January 9, football fans took the streets to protest the corruption of the president of their soccer team, Le Club Africain. Soccer has always been politicized in Tunisia; it is the only means of expression or pleasure left to the working class. There is a longstanding tradition of soccer songs promoting egalitarianism and rebellion. At the same time, the presidents of soccer teams have always been involved in the government—a great scheme for money laundering. In their protest, the fans framed Le Club Africain as a symbol of what is happening throughout the country. The police arrested 300 of them, 200 of whom were minors. This enraged many people.
January 14, 2021 was to be the tenth anniversary of the victory of the Tunisian revolution. On the evening of January 12, the government announced that there would be a total lockdown from January 14 to January 17. They justified this on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the real reason was obvious. On January 14, thousands gathered in the streets in defiance of the lockdown order.
Today, more than 1600 people have been arrested since the beginning of the unrest. This movement brings together a new coalition involving soccer fans, students, anarchists, communists, peasants, and other rebels. Notably absent are the fundamentalists who played such a significant role in both expanding and betraying the 2011 uprising. The next round of movements faces a context in which Islamic fundamentalism is associated with the state, and rebellion must bring together a critical mass to oppose it from outside.
Though Tunisia is a small country, with a population not much greater than New York City, it has repeatedly served as a bellwether for events throughout the region. It is more ethnically and religiously homogenous than many neighboring countries; when revolt breaks out in these comparatively stable conditions, that can indicate that it is likely to spread. This is significant as we enter the global economic crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Electoralism Is No Solution
The most recent election witnessed something never seen before in Tunisia: three million people—70% of voters—cast their ballots for Kais Saeid, a law professor with no affiliation to any political party whatsoever. He funded his campaign with 3000 dinars (1000 dollars) of his own money and small donations. Unlike candidates from other parties, Saeid refused the customary 60k “allowance” from the government, or should I say, from the pockets of ordinary people, to sponsor election campaigns. A president who sounded and acted “honest,” he repeated over and over that he stands with the “people” and not the political parties. To the Tunisian mind, “we have won against corruption.”
In his first months in office, Saeid opted to continue living in his modest house in a middle-class neighborhood instead of in the presidential palace, taking his morning coffee from his local café. And just this week, on February 3, 2021, in the middle of a demonstration involving clashes between protesters and police, the president made a surprise visit to the streets, talking to people and hearing their “demands.” He repeated the same speech over and over: “I stand with you: the people, and I will not let you be a morsel in the mouth of the corrupt politicians.” He even denounced the police, saying: “There’s no such a thing as bad police and good police, it’s all coming from the government.”
This sounds like a children’s fairy tale about a benevolent monarch who loved his subjects and lived in a modest cabin instead of his luxurious castle, disguised as a normal person. Yet people have slowly realized that having a “nice” president is not changing their situations, nor has it made their struggles easier. People see that the electoral system has failed to deliver change over and over—that the real power lies either in the hands of the government, meaning the parliament and the ministers and above all the police, or in their own hands when they take the streets.
Democracy in Tunisia
Even where it did not end in grievous oppression or civil war, the so-called Arab Spring was largely channeled into movements for electoral democracy, with the same disappointing results that such movements achieved in Europe, the United States, and Latin America.
Today, in Tunisia, the word “democracy” has mostly negative connotations among the left. It is mostly associated with capitalism and the current (neo)liberal democratic states—and, of course, with imperialism. However, opinions vary as to what to replace democracy with.
The existing communist groups in Tunisia participated in the struggle for independence from France, then were forced to go underground for 50 years, facing oppression and imprisonment, torture, and assassination. For them, it was a dream come true to participate in an electoral system for the first time in history and play a role as an opposition group in the process of writing the new constitution.
However, there is a controversy along generational lines regarding how to understand the current fight. We see a lingering experience of trauma affecting the older generation, for example, in their refusal to use technological tools (neither digital messaging nor publishing articles online) for fear of surveillance. They are critical of decentralization, believing that the party system is the only way to overthrow the government, even if they do not participate in elections.
Among the younger generations of the left, however, there is a new spirit. People see that “democracy” does not guarantee the implementation of the things that the revolution demanded. For few years now, there is an increasing interest in decentralization.
Heythem Guesmi notes that there are two ways to move towards replacing democracy. The “political” approach would be to establish a federal system à la Bookchin, involving rotating responsibilities. To be honest, this system resembles what the president, Kais Saeid, is proposing. In any case, this will require a longer-term fight.
In the shorter term, referring to David Graeber, smaller groups already bound together by material affinity can seek common cause with other groups to build collective autonomy. Heythem says, “Even small experiences like having a community barbecues in a public park represent a step toward occupying public space and getting more in touch with our identity and struggles.”
For the past few years, the Tunisian government has wanted to pass a law granting total immunity to the police. There is even a sub-paragraph in the bill to be passed that says people can be jailed for “hurting the feelings of the police.”
The activist Wajdi Mehwachi was arrested and is now being now tortured in jail for the photograph below. His gesture symbolizes the corruption of the police who do not arrest people who have the means to bribe them, the ones who hold power in society.
The police union has been on strike since January 28, claiming that they are subjected to insults and humiliation. Humiliation—such as people throwing colorful paint on their shields in response to them shooting tear gas and beating people. Their “strike” has stopped them from bringing arrestees to the court, causing delays for court rulings and keeping people in jail, but it hasn’t stopped officers from using their sticks and motorcycles to attack protesters, even when they are not on duty. Today, police impunity is at its worst since the revolution.
Hichem Mechichi, the politician who heads the coalition that controls the parliament and therefore the de facto head of the government, is still appearing in the media, supporting the police and denouncing “any form of rebellion.” This comes as no surprise after the aforementioned purchase of anti-riot vehicles from Marseille Manutention, a French company. France supported Ben Ali and every Tunisian government since in order to protect their market in their previous colonies in North Africa—tech companies, oil companies, hotels, and the like. French interference in Tunisian affairs is driven by the most reactionary players in France2: the trumped up “anti-terror” case against the activists in Tarnac was led by French Minister of the Interior Michèle Alliot-Marie, who also declared that France should send troops to support Ben Ali before supporting the Arab Spring became fashionable for politicians in the US and Europe.
Feminist struggles have been vital to the new wave of organizing. Since the revolution, we have seen a Tunisian version of the #metoo movement, more LGBTQI-friendly spaces, and more progressive art. This is significant, in a part of the world where homophobia and misogyny are rampant.
In early January 2021, the governor of Gafsa, a southwest gouvernourat [state], disqualified women whose husbands are employed from applying for government jobs. Women in Gafsa filed a demand for mass divorce, saying that all the women in Gafsa who have been refused the right to equal opportunities because of “their working husbands” are asking for a divorce.
“We are serious, we are getting a group divorce, we studied just as hard, we earned the same degree, and it’s our right to apply for the same job,” said one of the protestors.
Police aren’t just a problem during protests; they are also part of the foundation of patriarchal society in Tunisia. All women attest to sexual harassment by the police, it is a kind of common knowledge among women, a shared experience at least once in your life—if not many more times—if you are a Tunisian woman.
Faced with rejection and rebellion from women, police don the hat of “male guardian.” While drinking alcohol or showing public affection are not crimes in Tunisia, for example, police often threaten to call the parents of women they see doing these things, which could put women in even more dangerous situations if they are from conservative families.
I invite everyone to watch the 2017 film La Belle et la Meute, directed by Kaouther Ben Hania, based on a real story about a woman who was raped by a police officer and the insults and humiliation she faced when she sought to file a complaint. While this story might sound exceptional, sexual harassment from police is a daily ordeal for Tunisian women.
Ahmed Tlili, the aforementioned Tunisian militant, also notes that the Nahdha party used its power in parliament to obtain a foothold in all the other institutions of society. This helped the Islamic Party to propagate conservative ideology through schools, cultural centers, media. Issues such as opposition to abortion, for example, had never been discussed before the revolution, but now are gaining considerable exposure. When the radical left have tried to assert new ideas, these have been “elitist and very bourgeois,” out of touch with the working class and the poor, or, when they have gained traction, police have used religious arguments to justify repressing the left in general and female activists in particular.
The entire south and northwest regions of Tunisia are socially and politically marginalized, along with all the working class neighborhoods. Heythem Guesmi points out that this marginalization is similar to the process of colonization itself. He references an untranslated book by Sghaier Salhi titled Internal Colonialism and Unequal Development, explaining that this marginalization is the result of centuries of exploitation of the resource-rich interior regions, dating back to the 13th century. This created a network of “upper class families” that are still ruling today.
Economic opportunities are only available to the upper class; the unemployment rate in Tunisia has reached 35%. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified this gap: it has been reported that 70,000 people have lost their jobs. These numbers do not account for the black market in Tunisia, which is where most people work—local markets, food trucks, tailor shops, construction work, and the like.
The gulf in opportunities and rights extends to vital sectors. Public schools are closed, while private schools have the resources to teach online; public hospitals have reached capacity, while private hospitals are accessible to those with wealth; even art has become exclusive to rich people in private gatherings, while theater and music venues are closed. At the same time that the economic crisis has given the government an excuse to impose higher taxes on the working class, cutting social welfare programs, it has not stopped them from offering tax evasion schemes to the upper class, such as “In 2020, no taxes are imposed on yacht owners.”
Two Tunisian men are currently facing 30 years in jail for smoking marijuana in a public place. Consuming or possessing marijuana carries a sentence of up to 5 years, plus 10 to 20 years more in the case of smoking in a public place. The number of years is subject to the judge’s interpretation. These laws were originally created in 1992, when the brother-in-law of then-dictator Ben Ali was arrested in France for being involved in a drug smuggling network. That scandal put Ben Ali under international pressure—so he created a law (law 52 of the penal code) to imprison all consumers of marijuana as well as hard drugs.
The new government adjusted this law under pressure from the public, shifting the sentencing to between zero and five years but leaving the interpretation of it up to the judge. This intensifies class discrimination; we all know that a bourgeois person will never go to jail for smoking marijuana. Protesters are demanding that this law be abolished.
Heythem Guesmi argues that fundamentalist Islamists have been successful in recruiting so many volunteers because they have been embedded in marginalized communities, in local cafés, mosques, and poor universities, while the “traditional” left has remained elitist and bourgeois, promoting a reformist understanding of democracy. In some ways, these fundamentalists have more in common with the left than the liberals do, as they have fought the police, the state, and American imperialism. The disagreement, of course, regards the goals of the movement and the tools with which to fight. Unfortunately, under the last ten years of democracy in Tunisia, they have been more successful in building their movement and imposing their hegemony than the left, because they knew how to connect with marginalized communities.
In Tunisia, there is a widespread identity crisis. This drives people to leave the country, legally or illegally, because they do not feel attached to it, or else to turn to ISIS, who provided them with an identity in the form of fundamentalist Islamism. Most people lack a feeling of belonging, as they have been marginalized—with the exception of the upper class, who have plenty of reasons to be grateful to the state.
Language itself presents another challenge that today’s left must grapple with. Philosophical texts and history books—and even articles about international movements—either do not appear in Arabic at all or appear only in bad translations, and certainly not in the Tunisian dialect. Heythem has been working on a podcast that aims at popularizing concepts and struggles in the Tunisian dialect, including class struggle, imperialism, identity, and the like. While his podcast is not creating a new philosophy, he notices that he receives a lot of support and interest not only from elitists and comrades but also from so-called “normal” people.
Rosa Luxembourg argued that the role of militants, activists, and the left in general is to provide the means for struggle and to offer solidarity to the masses instead of “thinking in their place.” A party that speaks for the workers, “representing” them—for example in parliaments—and acting instead of them will become an instrument of the counterrevolution.
It is no secret that the Tunisian economy is in crisis. The International Monetary Fund plays an important role in this, as it is refusing to give loans to Tunisia. Under global capitalism, the IMF plays the role of a global guarantor for international banks and foreign investment. Although the IMF loans are usually small and insufficient, the IMF made two agreements with Tunisia in 2013 and 2016 that haven’t been applied.
Last month, the IMF threatened to refuse loans to Tunisia if these agreements are not applied. The stipulations include decreasing the salaries of public sector employees, firing a certain percentage of them, creating a committee under the supervision of the IMF to manage the public sector, and privatizing the national electricity, water, and telecom companies. Tunisia has already privatized the phosphates company, tobacco, and the few oil fields that exist in the south.
These agreements with the IMF have received the approval of Hichem Mechichi, the de facto head of the government, and the disapproval of president Kais Saeid. We can interpret this disagreement as political jockeying to determine who will stay in power. If the dispute is not resolved, it might cause the parliament to dissolve and force another election. According to Nadhmi Boughamoura, a Tunisian militant, this is one of the reasons that police have been so brutally violent these past months. The Islamic party has been afraid that they could meet the same fate that the Islamic party did in Egypt in 2013; consequently, they have been building an infrastructure that is integrated into the interior ministry, the juridical system, and the military, preparing for any insurrection or revolution against them and the current government. They also have been trying to develop the legal framework to form an armed militia that is exclusive to the Islamic party.
According to Nadhmi, agreeing to the IMF plan would be a suicidal for Tunisia economically and socially. More privatization will cause more exploitation, destroying the health care system and what little social welfare infrastructure currently exists. He says, “[Opposing] the corruption of the existing parties is urgent but not enough; the movement has to be anti-global capitalism by building radically new socio-economic structures.”
A Global Struggle
Rather than understanding this situation as a matter of local problems facing a small country, we see it in a global context, for all struggles are connected in a globalized world. To fight in one place is to fight everywhere. It follows that we need an international solidarity.
In the preface of her book Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici—a radical feminist from the autonomist Marxist and anarchist tradition—recalls when she was a professor in Nigeria:
“The Nigerian government engaged in negotiations with the IMF and the World Bank. The declared purpose of the program was to make Nigeria competitive on the international market. But it was soon apparent that [it] aimed at destroying the last vestiges of communal property and community relations. There were attacks on communal lands and a decisive intervention by the State (instigated by World Bank) in the reproduction of the work force: to regulate procreations rates, and reduce the size of a population that was deemed too demanding and undisciplined from the viewpoint of its prospected insertion in the global economy… I also witnessed the fueling of a misogynist campaign denouncing women’s vanity and excessive demands.”
“In Nigeria, I realized that the struggle against structural adjustment stretches back to the origin of capitalism in 16th-century Europe and America.”
The Tunisian revolution has been reformist. Today, the chief fear we see in the streets is that history will repeat itself with the cooption of demands for radical change, reducing them to reformism. The only way to protect these demands is through an internationalist movement. Today, more than ever, we need an internationalist movement in order to foster a consciousness of all the struggles everywhere and fight capitalism.
“The Wrong Generation” is a young Tunisian anarchist and anti-fascist collective who are breaking with the orthodox left. They don’t want a party system, they don’t want a leader or a spokesperson; they want a radical change. One of the mottos they have popularized is “Tahet zliz fama takriz” (there’s anger under the ground)—either inspired by the Tunisian poet Abou El Kacem Chebbi, who fought against colonization, addressing the French colonizers with the slogan “Beware, there’s fire under the ash!” or else by the motto of the May 1968 uprising in France, “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Beneath the paving stones, the beach!”)
Maryam Mnaouar, a Tunisian militant during the Ben Ali regime and a lawyer who defends protestors pro bono, has been ordered by the head of the government to halt all the activities of her group “The Tunisian Party” for a month. As oppressive as this sounds, this is a sign of the government fearing her voice and the increased support she is getting.
Nadhmi Boughamoura, who was part of the left student union and currently involved with the communist organization “Struggle,” is now working with protesters to organize under one coalition.
Nadhmi noted that this is the first time we are witnessing a coalition between communists, soccer fans, left student union members, peasants, and anarchists. Nadhmi points out that the month of January has always been symbolic in Tunisia: the Bread Uprising of 1984, the Mining Basin uprising of 2008, and the 2011 revolution all took place in January. Nadhmi noted, however, with a more pessimistic tone, that one of the challenges we need to address is how to take advantage of this revolutionary spirit and not let it die away as it did after those previous upheavals. This new coalition’s chief demands are to abolish police oppression and reject the impositions of the IMF, an organization that protects global capitalism and exploits not only Tunisia but all the African countries.
The left has yet to be sufficiently organized; we need to cultivate better strategies to overthrow the government and make radical changes. Today, the groups “Wrong Generation” and “Struggle” are leading with unorthodox strategies, while the old left parties are absent due to their traditional ways of organizing and leading and their lack of understanding of the dynamics that the new generation is introducing.
Across the 50 years that followed the independence of Tunisia, two dictators ruled the country, crushing any hope of insurrection. During the ten years following the revolution, people invested a lot of trust in the electoral system, hoping that a fair and just election could create an egalitarian society. Yet these very different systems have produced the same result.
Get in Touch with Tunisian Rebels
The anti-fascist group Wrong Generation has a Facebook page here.
You can hear Heythem Guesmi’s podcast here.
The campaign that has emerged during these last protests, “the people’s program against the elite’s program,” has a Facebook page here. You can read a translation the demands of the campaign here.
- inhiyez.com/—an independent media project addressing poverty, the working class, and the oppressed in general.
- Inkyfada—Multilingual news in the region
Nawaat—A multilingual news site
For example, the art group “Ahel el Kahef” (“Caveman”). The name is inspired from a Surah in the Quran entitled Alkahef. They were artists who tried to foster the relationship between the people and their country, streets, public places and labor on the basis of Tunisian belonging, in a time when there was a clear identity crisis. They said “Mohamed Bouazizi is the first plastic artist in Tunisia.” Another anarchist group that participated in the uprising of 2011 was the Disobedience Movement, which called on the people in rebellion to carry out occupations, general strikes, and widespread social disobedience. The Disobedience Movement held that the self-organization of rebellious people for revolutionary action, breaking with bureaucratic and hierarchical parties and unions, presented the only revolutionary path. ↩
France never wanted to give up its colonies; this is illustrated by President Emmanuel Macron’s recent refusal to apologize for French brutality and exploitation in North Africa. But by the 1950s, France had to choose its battles. Rebels in Algeria had established a sophisticated armed guerilla group, the FLN. Because Algeria had valuable natural resources and a much larger French community based in Oran and Alger, France concentrated on holding on to Algeria, arranging a Tunision transition to independence in which the new government would continue to support French interests. Ben Ali maintained this relationship, so for 50 years, French control of the market in Tunisia was assured—it was only in 2011 that it came to be threatened. ↩