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Origins of the Tunisian Revolution

Wednesday 31 October 2012, by Messaoud Romdhani

“It wasn’t meant to happen in Tunisia,” said Robert Fisk, the famous English Journalist ironically about the revolt of January 2011 that galvanized people –mainly youth – throughout the Arab World, inspiring them to challenge the iron-fisted rules of dictators who had seemed not long ago, strongly protected by their strong police apparatus.

Nobody expected a peaceful revolution to happen in the country despite high unemployment, heavy corruption, striking regional inequities and a sclerotic regime that had always disdained calls for democracy and human rights.

But the small country (163 square kilometers) with a relatively small population (a bit more than ten million), feted for its welcoming Mediterranean beaches and European life style, has got some assets. Among them, a substantial and well-educated middle class, a resilient civil society that has been able to stand decades of repression and a long tradition of modernity; it was the first Arab country to have a constitution (1861), to ban polygamy (1956) and to legalize abortion (1973).

Also, the Labor Unions, known as the leading force during the revolt as they converted the protests, started locally, into a coordinated social movement have a long tradition of protest. In the absence of strong political parties – due mainly to repression and tyranny – the unions have played an important role in opposing the successive governments’ unpopular social, economic and political policies.

The Origins

The revolt that started in Sidi Bouzid on December 17th, 2010, was the first important protest in the 55 years of Tunisia’s independence only because of its outcome. Several minor-but nonetheless important- uprisings had preceded. Always with a common denominator: social and economic backgrounds related to the liberalization of the economy with all its negative legacies and an unbalanced economy.

In 1978, a few years after the new liberal economy was set up, prices increased, inflation mounted and public services worsened for the first time in Tunisia. The UGTT (General Union of Workers) called for a general strike. All over the country, workers and pauperized middle and lower classes demonstrated throughout the country. Finally, the army intervened and more than a hundred people were killed in the streets. Trade Union leaders were arrested, tortured and put in jail for years.

In 1984, there was the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Plan (SAP) dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with the usual “advice” to restructure the economy: austerity with the elimination of food subsidies and the gradual privatization of public sectors. The result was prompt with revolts sweeping all over the country in what was referred to as the “Bread Revolt”, where scores of young people denouncing a crippled economy and an opaque political system died.

But the most important revolt took place in the Southern Mining region of Gafsa in 2008 where the important extraction of phosphates brought nothing to the local population but unemployment (especially with the mechanization), poverty and serious environmental disasters. There, the revolt against joblessness, nepotism and unfair recruitment had lasted for six months with demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins almost daily despite repression from both the army and the police.

This time the revolt had gained some momentum. It has shown that the “Tunisian Economic Miracle”, used as an excuse for repression was but a chimera: unemployment, officially about 14 percent, could reach more than 25 percent in the south and western parts of the country.

Suffering from high unemployment, endemic poverty and poor infrastructure, the southern and western regions began to express their discontent through a series of peaceful protests. Unable to understand the legitimate demands of a daunted population, Ben Aly’s regime reacted with the usual reflexes: three young people died, more than 26 injured and scores of trade union and civil society leaders were imprisoned with heavy sentences. Another page of repression in the history of the country was turned. But this time, not without legacies.


The Tunisian Civil Society reacted in solidarity of the movement. A committee for the Support of the Mining Region was set up. It was led by lawyers, human rights activists and trade union militants. I was honored to be its spokesperson. We fixed three objectives for the supporting committee: defend the movement leaders in court, break the wall of silence that the regime tried to build around the movement and assist the prisoners’ family (mainly financially).

That’s just to say that the Tunisian Revolt of January 14th did not come out of the blue. A string of social and economic revolts had preceded. All of them led by activists; but lack ideological and political leadership.

But, who were the heroes of the 14th January 2011 revolt?

They were the internet surfing bloggers, the trade union leaders, the human rights activists, and those some 120,000 youths who had a university degree but couldn’t find access to jobs.

In fact, western governments that often tolerated Ben Ali’s repressive régime for his social and economic “achievements” often forget three major factors:

1. His tyranny went hand in hand with mass corruption, nepotism, favoritism and regionalism ;

2. Being the obedient pupil of the IMF and the World Bank, the old regime always faced popular protests when it carried adjustment plans; including elimination of price controls over essential consumer goods, opening up doors to sweeping privatization;

3. Protests, in the case of Tunisia, have always striped the different governments of political arguments, decreased their raison d’être and added momentum to those who urge their collapse.

The fact that revolts started in the underprivileged regions reflected a striking disparity between the interior (southern and western parts of the country) and the coastal line of Tunisia, a characteristic feature that has been predominant for ages , becoming more conspicuous with Ben Ali’s regime.

South of Tunisia: 15 percent of the population on 58 percent of the territory

The coastal line: 60 percent of the population on 17 percent of the land.

Rate of poverty in the coastal line: 1.2 percent

Rate of poverty in Sidi Bouzid:12.8 percent

Unemployment in the coastal line: 5 to 10 percent

Unemployment in the western part of the country: 16 to 25 percent

(Source: study by the General Labor Union –UGTT- 2009)

Public internet access points in coastal provinces:232

Public internet access points in all in land provinces: 27

(Source: Developing an inclusive Tunisia, Zack Brisson, March 2012)

The anger against social injustice, unemployment, tyranny and mass corruption was framed by civil society militants through slogans of dignity, full employment, freedom of expression and regional equity. Slogans that reflect the thirst for democracy and social justice.

But the results of the 23rd October, 2011 elections do not reflect this urge, nor do they reward the leftist groups who were the real triggers of the movement. That’s, probably, because there is a difference between the aspiration of the elite that leads an uprising and the more complicated choice of people as to who is going to represent them. It is, also, the result of the incapacity of secular groups to penetrate the deep roots of the Tunisian society. For instance, facing widespread corruption, for the lay Tunisian, needs more preaching morals and the fear of God than establishing the law.

The Outcome of The Elections

Ennahdha, the Islamic party, absent during all the revolt, got a majority of the votes, 41 percent of the National Constituent Assembly. Many reasons, I think, were behind that result. Islam, for most people, is not just a religious belief; it is part of an identity. Neglecting this fact would lead to fatal mistakes. Laicism, when spoken about during the campaign was seen as “western atheism” rather than a separation between religion and politics. “Ennahda’s electoral victory is best understood as a reassertion of a long-marginalized Arab-Muslim identity,” says Jeffry Halverson, Islamic Studies Professor, Arizona. Also, the Islamic Party is highly skilled at reaching people and mixing preaching religion and talking politics, using mosques and undertaking a door to door campaign, giving meals at the end of Ramadan fasts, organizing weddings and circumcisions for poor families. Founded in the beginning of 1980’s, it grew up with the Iranian Revolution, but its ideology is that of Muslim Brotherhood.

Leftist and liberal groups, entered the elections dispersed, fragmented and with no visible programs. More than 100 political parties with similar societal project. Result: More than 40 percent of the votes were lost among the 1500 secular electoral lists. Worn out by years of repression and the ban of every political activity, they have been always a force of protest but never that of construction.

The Time Magazine said about the protesters during the three weeks movement, “All they know is what they don’t want.”

Not An Easy Task!!

But the task of the predominant Islamist government is not easy. It is easier to speak of Islam as a solution to the problems than to apply its principles to solve everyday governing problems, “Islamism often thrives in abstraction, but it quickly shows its weaknesses and inadequacies when it comes to the dirty details of governance,” said Halverson, above cited.

Urgent demands of social justice, regional equity and democracy have increased. Despair is often expressed in strikes, sit-ins and marches. But it is sometimes expressed in violent reactions against the government symbols. Thus, many locals of Ennadha were burned by protesters. Transitional justice is still stumbling in the first steps. Friction inside the governing coalition; but also with the still resilient civil society is becoming more and more evident as the Islamist governing majority fail to balance between their religious sensitivities and the compelling freedom of expression demands.

Violent salafists, who believe that Islam should come back to its origins, are another challenge for both the government and civil society as they have not only gained a conspicuous public presence but they have also used violence against ”blasphemy”, films, intellectuals and art exhibitions. So far, the government has shown laxity towards containing these extremist groups.


Nobody had expected the transitional process to be easy. But I believe that the project of the “islamization” of society through violence and ideology is failing. People, in many occasions, reject the salafists and force them to withdraw. Recently, Rached Ghannouchi,admitted that his Islamist Party, Ennahda, has lost popularity.

On the other hand, everyday protests try to remind the government of the –often forgotten- urgent demands of ordinary Tunisians: jobs, freedom and social justice.

Messaoud Romdhani is member of the Tunisian Forum for the Economic and Social Rights (FTDES). He is in the organizing committee of the World Social Forum-2013 to be held in Tunis from 26 to 30 March 2013.