Protests in Tunisia highlight contested narratives of 2011 revolution

Protests in Tunisia highlight contested narratives of 2011 revolution

In-depth: Tunisia's recent protests were triggered by tax increases, but they highlight the deep, unresolved issues that led to the 2011 revolution, writes Anna Boots.
8 min read
16 January, 2018
Tunisia's protests on the seventh anniversary of its revolution highlight immense unresolved issues [AFP]
A wave of emotions flooded through the crowds that gathered on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis on Sunday, the seventh anniversary of the overthrow of former dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali. 

Demonstrators affiliated with the protest movements Fesh Nestannew ["What are we waiting for?"] and Manish Msamah ["I will not forgive"] kept up a drumbeat of criticism against tax increases - the 2018 Finance Law, in effect from January 1, has sparked anti-government protests across the country. 

Alongside the protesters, many families with young children came out primarily to celebrate the historic date. They took in musical acts and waved Tunisian flags in jubilation and pride over the revolution's legacy.

For some, the memory of Ben Ali's overthrow is still cause for celebration, despite current economic woes. But the majority of the crowd, it seemed, were there to spectate: filling the pavements and cafés that line the avenue, taking in what was anticipated by many to be a day of heightened tension at the end of a turbulent week. 

While the atmosphere on Habib Bourguiba Avenue remained relatively peaceful on Sunday, violent clashes did break out between police and protesters in the capital's Ettadhamen and Kram neighbourhoods. The police and security presence was heavy throughout the whole city, contributing to a somewhat foreboding atmosphere for Tunisians who had come out to exercise the freedoms of speech and expression that they gained in the 2011 revolution. 

The Tunisian dinar hit a record low last Monday, trading at 3.011 against the euro

The struggle for economic justice continues

Large-scale protests began to spread across the country early last week, as people took to the streets, angry at the tax increases that came with the new budget as well as continued frustration with the high cost of living. For Tunisians who are already struggling to afford basic necessities, the new taxes, combined with the government's continued inability to control inflation, represent a breaking point.

The Tunisian dinar hit a record low last Monday, trading at 3.011 against the euro. Economists expect its value to continue to drop in coming months. The record low value of the dinar coincided with the first - and so far only - fatality of the demonstrations: the death of 45-year-old Khomsi el-Yerfeni in Tebourba, a town 20 miles west of Tunis, on Monday night. 

Amid frustration over economic conditions, it has become common among some Tunisians to express a sense of regret for the revolution - a sentiment that was formerly considered taboo.

"It was not even a revolution," insists Walid, a 40-year-old taxi driver in Tunis, "but a coup d’état." This intentionally provocative terminology has also become a popular refrain among some working class Tunisians, who say that they feel as marginalised by the new government as they did under Ben Ali.

"I love this country, but it's for the rich - there's so much richness here, but it's being stolen from us."

Widespread public anger over economic injustices is not a new story in Tunisia.

Many will remember that it was the self-immolation of a frustrated fruit vendor, driven to despair over corruption and difficult economic conditions, that acted as a catalyst for protests that led to Ben Ali's overthrow just over a month later. While Tunisia's current economic crisis is clearly linked to instability that followed the revolution, the reality is that many of Tunisia's economic challenges predate it.

Hearing nostalgia for pre-revolution Tunisia frustrates 25-year-old Tunisian activist Mounib Baccari. Baccari, like many young people, was inspired by the revolution and took advantage of the new freedoms to engage deeply with activism for migrants' rights - one of the main problems he saw facing Tunisian society.

Baccari speaks with a deep reverence for the importance of the freedoms gained since the revolution, and doesn't see the economic problems as inherently tied to the current government.

"The reality," he says, "is that we had all of these same problems before the revolution, but Ben Ali's government was really, really, good at covering them up. These problems aren't new - we’re just talking about them more openly now."

Protests have been met with a strong police presence,leading to increased tensions on the streets [Getty]

The Manish Msamah movement, one of the groups that has organised protests this week, formed in autumn in response to the passage of a highly unpopular law that grants amnesty to many members of Tunisia's elite who were found to be corrupt in the investigations by the Truth and Dignity Commission in the aftermath of the revolution.

While the pardons were meant to stimulate Tunisia's struggling economy by encouraging wealthy Tunisians to return to the country to reinvest in Tunisia, it felt like a slap in the face to many ordinary Tunisians, and a betrayal of the principles of the revolution. 

The vast majority of the participants in protests throughout the past week have conducted themselves lawfully and peacefully

Balancing security with constitutional rights

The responses of Tunisian police and security forces to peaceful demonstrators throughout the past week has drawn international criticism. While a small minority of the participants did take advantage of the chaos to loot, vandalise, or steal, the vast majority of the participants in protests throughout the past week have conducted themselves lawfully and peacefully.

Last week, Amnesty International expressed concern over the large numbers of protesters - the count stood at almost 800 on Friday - who were being arrested around the country, warning "Tunisian security forces must refrain from using excessive force and end their use of intimidation tactics against peaceful demonstrators".

For many Tunisians, the heavy-handed security response to peaceful demonstration is eerily reminiscent of conditions under Ben Ali's police state.

Many Tunisians are frustrated with the current government's prioritisation of security above other concerns, such as their constitutionally protected rights to freedom of expression and speech.

The International Crisis Group published a report last week warning of an increasingly authoritarian approach being used by the Tunisian government, headed by octogenarian President Beji Caid Essebsi. Essebsi is the founder of Nida Tounes, the nationalist party that governs Tunisia in a delicate alliance with Ennahdha, the Islamist party.

In November 2017, Essebsi announced that a state of emergency originally implemented in 2015 would be extended for another four months. The emergency measures were originally enacted in response to a series of millitant attacks that destabilised the country and took a devastating toll on tourism.

While security is an important goal for Tunisia, particularly because of its proximity to Libya, many now fear the emergency measures are being used to grant a dangerous amount of control to the central government and to Essebsi himself, at a moment when much of the population feels decentralisation of power should be the government's goal.

Revolutions take years. What people forget is that we are still in this one - it’s still going on

A revolution's contested legacy

Never in the seven years since the so-called "Jasmine Revolution" of 2011 has its legacy felt so contested. Among those participating in the protests, some say that their goal is to revive the revolutionary spirit of 2011 and the energy of the first few years that followed it.

The post-revolutionary moment had its own political crises, but it also saw the flourishing of civil society groups and a new commitment to civic engagement and activism - a moment than many now look back on with nostalgia. Fearing creeping complacency, these protesters want to remind the government of its responsibility to uphold the principles of the revolution, and to remind the public that democracy requires sustained citizen participation and vigilance.

There are also those who claim to have lost hope entirely in the current government and feel disengaged from politics. Others continue to encourage patience and perseverance.

At a meeting of anti-racism activists in the Bardo neighbourhood of Tunis on Sunday afternoon, Fares Mosbah optimistically urged patience, reminding his friends, family, and colleagues that "revolutions take years. What people forget is that we are still in this one - it's still going on".

Philosophical and intellectual critiques of the revolution and the events of the past week are, of course, as diverse and varied as Tunisians themselves. But two commonalities can be seen in responses across the political spectrum:

The first is an acknowledgment of complexity, the second is a perspective on recent events that considers them as part of the longue durée of Tunisian history.

In the past seven years alone, Tunisians have lived through the peaceful overthrow of a dictator, six different governments, a Nobel Peace Prize for the civil society groups that fashioned a historic political compromise, three major militant attacks, a transitional justice process, and now, an ongoing economic crisis.

Given this recent history, reflections on the revolution are many things, but rarely are they unequivocal. Most citizens, like Tunis-based civil society activist Saadia Mosbah (Fares' mother), acknowledge the very real hardships of life for many Tunisians at the same time that they revere the freedoms that were gained in 2011.

"Life has become much more difficult. It’'s worse than before," Mosbah acknowledges. "We lost a lot. But we gained the freedom to speak out."

Baccari, the 25-year-old migration activist, on the other hand, insists that life is incomparably better now that it was before.

"If the revolution didn’t happen, I would have left this country,”" he states, matter-of-factly. Still, he says, referring to the economic problems, "now it's depressing, because I don't know what the solution is".

Anna Boots is a Master's student at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, where she studies civil society activism for migrants' rights in post-revolutionary Tunisia. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Morocco in 2014-2015, and speaks English, French, and Arabic.