Glimpsing the Tunisian Revolution

Tunisian activists, more than anything else, are proud of themselves for returning their country to global history, not as dependent or slave, but as empowered actor in the process of negotiating global values and institutions.

Giuseppe Caruso
24 June 2011

In February, the International Council of the World Social Forum unanimously decided to show support for activists in North Africa by organising a solidarity caravan. In April, activists from thirteen countries, hosted by the Tunisian League of Human Rights and the Union Generale de Travailleurs de Tunisie (UGTT), the largest Tunisian trade union, visited the first country to oust its dictator in the Arab spring.

The caravan aimed, on the one hand, at representing and conveying the solidarity of the organisations of the International Council of the World Social Forum and, on the other, to look, listen, record and report images and stories of the revolution and the transition that Tunisia is undergoing. In the few days of the caravan we had the chance to catch a glimpse of the complexities of the ongoing transformations and the challenges faced by the activists. In the months since the caravan, those challenges have gained further profile, confirming the perspectives that we were starting to consolidate in those days.

Some of the challenges faced by Tunisian activists are, mutatis mutandis, shared by Egypt as well and are common to the whole region as confirmed by the following meeting of the International Council, held in Paris in May 2005, which dedicated the best part of its three days of work to the revolutions in the Maghreb-Mashreq region. Activists from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine and Iraq confirmed that the four most urgent challenges faced by the revolutions are internal repression, external meddling, counterrevolution and a possible ‘Islamist threat’. This is how those challenges presented themselves to the travellers of the solidarity caravan.

Tunis: this is what democracy looks like

In Mohamed Ali Hammi square, at the headquarters of the UGTT, we were welcomed by trade unionists, women, human rights and student activists belonging to Association Tunisienne de Femme Democrates, Ligue Tunisienne pour la defence des Droits de l’Homme, Ligue des Auteur Libres, Union Generale des Etudiants Tunisiens, Associacion Tunisienne Contre la Torture, Association de Jeunes pour la Continuation de la Révolution, the Student Union and El Taller. The joint Secretary General introduced us to the vision and values of the UGTT: “UGTT’s cultural tradition is European and socialist which we influence with new blood.” While infiltrated by the state and the ruling party, the UGTT managed to keep alive, during the dictatorship, workers’ aspirations towards participatory economic democracy – key aspirations in supporting the demands of the Tunisian revolutionaries. At the same time, the UGTT is not a fully coherent body, its internal complexities, its previous relationships with the regime and its ideological differences make of it a network of ideas, people and resources that truly represents the complexities of the wider Tunisian society.

Young activists, meanwhile, the youth of the revolution, are developing visions of better futures having learned politics the hard way after decades of silencing, terror, repression, fear and hopelessness. They submit their demands to mistrusted government institutions; they confront their failure in generating economic development and political accountability; they scale up, down, sideways their demands and their strategies; they win and lose and they go back to the drawing board. They discuss, deliberate and try again. Messy as such trial and error is, complex as the shifting allegiances and alliances, chaotic as the multiplication of strategies, ideologies, ideas, visions, desires, aspirations, this is what democracy looks like from the streets of Tunisia and this is the process that promises the most inspiring outcomes.

Later, shortly after we left the UGTT headquarters, a demonstration of a few thousand people crossed our path. The demonstration filed along Avenue Bourguiba in front of the National Theatre and continued towards the Kasbah where it would settle into what became the Kasbah-3 sit-in which followed the two previous protests that demanded and obtained the change of interim governments still tainted by members of the previous regime.  After mixing and mingling with the demonstrators, café goers and passers-by on the Avenue Bourguiba returned to their passionate daily activity, political discussion. Hundreds of people, mostly men in the central section and mixed groups at the tables of the surrounding cafés discussed the topics of the day, the compromised Interior Minister, the arrogance of the current Prime Minister, the members of the former ruling party still involved in current politics, along with broader issues regarding the future of the revolution, the transition process and its goals.

The vista over the buzzing Boulevard, as it disappeared behind the bus that took us to our next meeting, was impressive. Enthusiastic citizens discussed, negotiated their differences, exchanged their experiences, disagreed vehemently, shouted their frustration and disappointments and all together gave form to visions, actions and daily practices dedicated towards the establishment of a new society. Underpinning all was the utmost joy in the discovery that talking politics was indeed fine, and pride at having conquered the right to demonstrate freely.

Kasserine: the victory over fear

The following day we visited Kasserine, the city that paid the highest price in blood to the revolution. On the outskirts, a burnt out furniture shop, a smashed police van and a wrecked service station, its windows in tatters, welcomed us. In the central square, we introduced ourselves to some of the youth who had, literally, made history. The young people we spoke to had seen their friends arrested, beaten, killed during the demonstrations or were themselves hurt and maimed by police and security force brutality. Seventy of them lost their lives, but the ruthless repression could not stop the tide of change. Today the permanent sit-in in Kasserine demands the jobs, justice and dignity that those girls and boys died for. No less. And they are prepared to fight on, they tell us unemphatically, they owe it to their legitimate aspirations and to the memory of those who died.

I had seen some of the pictures and videos before , but it was only when I saw the size of the buildings in Kasserine that I perceived the magnitude of the atrocity. Snipers shot from positions no more than five metres above street level. It was not the impersonal videogame-like killing that the word ‘snipers’ conjurs up. Those men and women from the roof could see the eyes of the girls and boys they chose to annihilate. Later that day, we were received at the local UGTT branch, in a large hall, where over a hundred people had gathered. In an intense atmosphere made hazy by the smoke of cigarettes, the pain of those events was palpable. Mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers and friends told us their losses, their suffering, their fight, their hope. Later, in a more intimate setting, we met with others who had lost loved ones and cried out for justice and with those who were tortured and demanded their rights.

I spoke to a lawyer of the Lawyers’ Union who had gone to the defence of the youth in the streets in the hottest days of the revolution. Sitting next to me, as she listened once more to the crying that could move mountains, she looked at me and told me that she understood my distress. To my left the sister of one of the youths killed in January was comforting one of us. To my right the lawyer kept talking, maybe to help us both fight our ghosts. She said, “once you see death right next to you, you fear no more”. At the beginning it was not courage, it was despair that moved the bodies of those marching against baton charges and live bullets. “Fear”, she added, “has been with us every single minute of our lives” inflicted by twenty-three years of dictatorship and exacerbated by distance and marginalisation. She tells me about the utter neglect to which the western districts were subjected for decades: “only the international press has come here, and now you.” “The Tunisians dislike us deeply, they always did, what you find round here is what the French abandoned. They do not respect us, they do not want us: thankfully there is the Algerian border so close, we get everything from there and cheaper.”

Later that day I asked a union activist, beaten up by the police, who had to spend days in hospital while the revolution was being won, how can the fear that paralyses become the fear that can’t be stopped. He told me, smiling, that “fear is a daily sentiment that has become part of mine and everyone’s life, but fear can be beaten. It is an inexplicable feeling when you face, fight and win your deepest fears.” There was no emphasis in his voice, as if he were explaining the simplest occurrence in any individual’s existence. I thought about what he’d said as the sun set over the mountains between us and Algeria.

Sidi Bouzid: new and old media

In Sidi Bouzid, where it all started, where Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself, some youth kept their distance from our meeting with the UGTT. Suspicious, they wanted us to know that the union was infiltrated, controlled, repressed. This was not the first time that young people in sit-ins in squares, far from the ears of trade union leaders, were to warn us to be vigilant to avoid being deceived. In Kasserine, a group of young unemployed with whom a few of us had stopped to discuss their demands (jobs) and their dreams (a passage to Europe), told us that they had no trust in those who wanted to use the dead girls and boys for their own political advantage. A few steps away from us, in the square of Sidi Bouzid, some of them were on hunger strike. They demanded jobs and were determined not to play ‘the politics game’.

They told us about Facebook and Al Jazeera. But while nobody denied the supportive role of new and traditional media, the consensus was that they helped but were not determining factors. Activists in Sidi Bouzid told us something else. They explained to us their sophisticated street strategy. They used cellphones to create zones of pressure and release in lightning-fast succession, to disorient the police who run around town like headless chickens. It was the knowledge of the town down to its tiniest alleyways that won the control of the city, not Facebook. No social media could have been fast enough, they stressed, or provided the strength and the courage necessary.

Ras Jdir: the value of hospitality

At the refugee camp of Ras Jdir we arrive early in the afternoon on the fourth day. The blazing sun that welcomes us makes the little market, the tents, our bus and everything else sparkle against the yellow sand and the blue sky. It is a beautiful corner of the southern Mediterranean marked by the 150,000 stories of loss that have passed through the camp since the Libyan conflict exploded and by the five thousand souls running from war and persecution without any place to go to. We met the authorities of the camp, the representatives of the Tunisian army, of IOM and UNHCR. They tell us that while the constraints are common to all refugee camps and inevitable in situations of this kind, there is something quite unique in this crisis, the hospitality of the local population. So impressive are the sentiments of hospitality and their logistical skills in distributing, before the camp was even built, food, water and blankets, that two hundred of them have become UNHCR volunteers in recognition of their work.

Coincidentally, while we were introduced to the hospitality of the people of southern Tunisia, the Italian Prime Minister and his delegation met their Tunisian counterparts in Tunis to discuss an agreement on the migrant crisis which involved shutting down Italy and Europe and sending back the thousands of deluded migrants who thought hospitality was one of the values of a continent that likes to preach its cosmopolitan ideals to the world. If those migrants knew that in Italy a debate rages on the extent to which the boats that carry them, in which they risk their lives and die by the dozens, can be shot at to prevent their landing on national shores!

We roam around the camp, moving from one side to the other to meet with different people. We meet a football player from the Ivory Coast, a group of Nigerians forgotten by their government, and some citizens from Chad and Niger who wonder why all the others are coming and going and they are still there. Later we are told that the availability of funds to repatriate those whose governments are not providing flights is limited and that their processing time is longer than anyone would desire. At least they know they will make it home at some point. For the two thousand Somali currently at the camp, there is nowhere to go, though UNHCR is starting a process to assess their requests of asylum.

At night we stop at a family run restaurant. We share songs, some dance, we eat excellent food and we stare at the sea metres away from our table. At the end the Italian contingent of the delegation can’t find a better way to thank the hosts than sing Bella Ciao and to our surprise not only hand-claps followed our tune but versions of Bella Ciao in many languages. Every activist in the world, someone said, knows the song of the partisan who died for freedom. In Tunisia those words have a special resonance.

Representing the Tunisian revolution

Driving across the whole length and breadth of Tunisia, life rolled over us at a very fast pace, too fast to be able to take stock. With some distance, images crystallise into coherent tales and tales suggest meanings, inspire analyses, suggest answers to questions and raise questions to answers trying to portrait the building of a new Tunisia.

Tunisian activists, more than anything else, feel proud for returning their country to global history not as dependent or slave, but as empowered actor in the process of negotiating global values and institutions. One activist in Regueb said, “we welcome relationships with western partners”, but, “an equal relationship, not one based on charity” with activists, intellectuals and NGO members, rather than with governments. He envisaged a horizontal collaboration to build a cosmopolitan project from the ground up, defined while walking alongside each other, rather than based on a-priori, a-historical projections of conviviality, morality and human nature.

At times, it was possible to feel that it was all so clear and simple. Jobs, is what all demanded, and dignity. Dignity and work, though, became more complex tags when unpacked. Justice was added to the initial demands and retribution for the repression, the killings, the torture. Then, development and equality. And emancipation. Emancipations, in fact. It is only by freeing themselves from the many slaveries that bind them that the youth of Tunisia aim at achieving their goals, jobs, dignity, justice, development, democracy. It is for freedom that so many of them lost their lives.

Freedom from the dictator, from oppressive and exploitative political and economic systems, from ideological hegemonies, from shrewd political manipulations, from the embodiments of class, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality. They talk also of civil and political rights as immediate demands and the rule of law, new fair and transparent electoral laws, institutional openness, right to form political parties and to demonstrate, a responsive government and human rights sensitive police. They demand “a job and a normal life”, as the youth in the central square of Kasserine told me.

Some suggested that decades of regional segregation and economic and political privileges have generated profound social and human inequalities. One consequence of these imbalances, say some of our Tunisian interlocutors, is that the youth in the most deprived areas are easier to manipulate and subject to launching themselves into unrealistic and unsophisticated political actions, like the hunger strike demanding immediate jobs for all unemployed - the chances of success of which are nil and beyond the actual will of local and national authorities. Others observed that the revolution has to avoid reproducing among allies the marginalisation and the elitism of the wider society.

In Tunis a member of the student union told us that they were struggling to ignite a “deep social transition” aimed at ushering in “a world devoid of capitalism and classism”. He added, “we revolted against an economic pattern because we want Tunisia for all Tunisians”. Seeing many western activists in his audience he added a message for those who are anxious about the prevalence of religion in the new Tunisian society: “as far as religious ideologies are concerned, we say that we won against Ben Ali and we shall win against all dictatorships and totalitarianisms”. While the range of demands, discourses and ideological frames is so broad and differentiated, so too are the political and pragmatic approaches to change.

Politics and practices of change

The debates on practices of change revolve around approaches including transitional justice, workers struggles, revolutionary democratic fronts, insurgent practices, civil disobedience, and representative politics.

The student union member said, “We want to have a political party for the working class”: it would be one of the 60 registered political parties in Tunisia. Such blossoming of political parties witnesses the renewed hope of Tunisians in representative politics and the great differentiation that followed swiftly on from the victory against Ben Ali. A women’s rights and union activist commented that the best way to pursue a democratic and energetic struggle is to, “create a progressive democratic front to avoid the return of despotism and defend mutual respect and the principles of the revolution.”

While the confidence in the democratic system is widespread, some activists highlight how democratic processes need to rest on strong foundations. The presence of many elements of the former regime, in the districts, regions and indeed in ministries, professional and even sports organisations calls for vigilance. A rather more insurgent strategy of change is articulated by some in the left and among the youth and, some suggest, among religious activists.

An activist in Tunis expressed in the following way her take on change and practices of transformation, “we are for the internationalisation of the revolutions to fight against savage capitalism”. Another woman suggested transitional justice, and another still suggested a combination of long term healing processes with constitutional developments and representative politics. The crucial role of women has been recently acknowledged by the Supreme Council for the Defence of the Revolution which has adopted, on the 11th of April, the law on the election of the constituent assembly: its article 16 established the principle of gender parity in all lists that will be presented for these elections. The importance of this achievement can’t be overstated. As all women’s associations noted, it is a unique opportunity for Tunisia and sets an inspiring example for the entire region.

Some, mentioning the experiences of transition in Spain, Portugal, Chile and East Europe suggest transitional justice is a longer, more complex and more sophisticated way to deal with prolonged injustice under an authoritarian regime that has used abuse, intimidation, harassment, torture and corruption to define relationships of power and the distribution of resources. Justice and dignity, democracy and accountability, are regarded as processes whose timing and developments are slow, hardly predictable and involve a wealth of actors whose influence exceeds often the national and the regional boundaries. In the elegant conference hall where practitioners, academics, civil society activists met, welcomed by the education minister of the current caretaker government, mention is made repeatedly of the epochal changes sparked by the Tunisian Revolution and the difficult tasks ahead.

The challenges ahead

The multiplicity of demands, actors and practices is perceived by some as political and strategic fragmentation and a potentially damning weakness. Moreover, news has been circulating that foreign intelligence services are entering the country to meddle in the transition process, as a trade union member warned the audience in Tunis. Islamism’s growing influence and assertiveness not only concerns western commentators and governments, it also concerns Tunisians worried that currently minority forces might highjack the revolution. As a human rights activist told me: “I can understand why western people keep asking about the risk of Islamization: I live with them and I’m scared by them. I can only imagine how scared people must be who do not know how these people think and act”. A leader of the UGTT remarked, at the meeting in Tunis, that, “Tunisia is no Pakistan and in no way will it become like Iran. We have a tradition of living in democracy and we know that mosques are places of worship not politics. We are secular and we believe in the rule of law.”

But Islamism is not the only challenge. As many activists said, though the dictator has been chased away, it remains to transform the dictatorship. The people who represented Ben Ali’s power in society are still in their positions as governors, judges, university deans and rectors, even as union leaders. Those networks of power are still not only firmly in control of their positions but closely connected and resisting the changes ushered in by the institutionalisation of the revolutionary efforts. They work in the dark, plot, resist and they could launch a full-fledged counter-revolution.

There are also internal challenges to the revolutionary movement. There exist tensions between those who want to go back to normality and those who want to fight for the achievement of a larger set of aspirations. Now that the main enemy has been defeated, differences have space to flourish. Ideological, political, identity, class differences are developing at times in tension with each other and while many consider this a wealth of creativity to be fostered, others consider such fragmentation a challenge to the same survival of the revolution.

The negotiation of Tunisia’s internal differences, religious, political, cultural, social and of identity may provide unique contributions to the global recipe for an emancipated cosmopolitan future. Such an understanding of collaborative learning and building of shared visions across boundaries, calls for solidarity on the basis of a multiplicity of articulations of democracy rather than a support to an uncritical reproduction of a reified (eminently colonial) model of democracy which is not based on true recognition, does not support autonomy and self-determination (of individuals and communities) and eventually creates dependence and breeds resentment, conflict and violence. 

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