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Home > English > NEWS AND ANALYSIS > Whither the Tunisian Citizen’s Revolt?

Whither the Tunisian Citizen’s Revolt?

Tuesday 5 February 2013, by Stuart Schaar

It would be foolish to expect smooth transitions after the mass revolts in some Arab countries. One will see unexpected events, the emergence of new forces and weakened states in places where dictators ruled. This is inevitable since new forces have not consolidated power and learned how to re-establish effective new states. With the economies in a shambles, job creation - a major popular demand - has had to be put on hold, thereby making an expectant population ever more frustrated and angry. Tunisia has become a mass society, ready to be mobilised. It is waiting for leaders to emerge who can rally electoral majorities and rule effectively.

Mass revolts and revolutions usually produce initial confusion and chaos. Just think of the Russian revolution: the British historian Orlando Figes concluded from his innovative research that it was miraculous that the Bolsheviks survived and succeeded in consolidating their state after being on the brink of collapse in the years immediately following the 1917 upheaval.1 Any student of the French Revolution knows how events there devoured leaders and ultimately produced a series of class wars.2 The Chinese upheaval ended in the Cultural Revolution, which turned the society on its head. Few in positions of authority escaped.3 In other words, we should expect instability as revolts and revolutions play themselves out.

It would be foolish to expect smooth transitions after a mass revolt of Arab citizens. It will take several years, perhaps decades, before we see new political orders emerge.4 In the meantime we will see unexpected events and new forces attempting to influence the post-revolt period. Likewise, we should expect to find weakened states in places where dictators ruled. This is inevitable, since the institutions and main individuals that ran the dictatorships have been broken, exiled, or imprisoned, and new forces have not consolidated enough power and learned how to re-establish effective new states. With economies in a shambles because of the fall in tourism and the drying up of local and foreign investment, job creation, a major popular demand, has had to be put on hold, thereby making an expectant population ever more frustrated and angry. Tunisia has become a mass society, ready to be mobilised.5 It is waiting for leaders to emerge who can rally electoral majorities and rule effectively.

The present Tunisian executive, the Troika, exhibit their inexperience and erraticism too frequently. The president of the country, Moncef Marzouki, who I first met in 1976, has always been a mercurial personality, flitting from one issue to another without defining long range strategies. Once installed in Carthage’s palace as interim president he began making one junket after another to foreign capitals, representing Tunisia overseas, to the point that many people complained about his spending too much scarce money on frivolous voyages. Stunned by the criticism, he abruptly cancelled a planned trip to Brazil, ostensibly to save government funds. During the summer of 2012 a prominent member of his party, The Congress for the Republic, and a member of the National Assembly criticised Marzouki, saying that the president needed psychiatric treatment. At a party congress a few weeks later that parliamentarian was purged from the party along with some 30 other members.

Similarly, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, the president of the Assembly and another member of the ruling Troika, saw large numbers from his party, Ettakatol, quit in disgust over the authoritarian manner in which their party chief made decisions without consulting with them. The weight of ex-Presidents Habib Bourguiba’s and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorial legacies in leadership style remain to confound democratic urges of the larger population. With splintering parties both secular leaders within the Troika had considerably weakened their base of support, meaning that they had little flexibility and manoeuvrability in dealing with the main power in the country, the Islamist Party, al-Nahda.

Job Creation

Symptomatic of the disarray at the apex of power is how the new rulers have handled the all important task of job creation. During the national election campaign of October 2011 candidates for the top posts in the state promised to immediately create between 100 and 400,000 new jobs. I was in Tunisia then and listened in disbelief, knowing all too well that they would not succeed in doing so. Under the transitional government of Béji Caïd el-Sebsi, a new institution was formed for job creation headed by a very competent economist who assembled qualified individuals to work with him to create 42,000 jobs. The goal seemed realistic and even then the shortage of investment capital and the difficulty of adding jobs to an already bloated bureaucracy made the task difficult. However, as soon as the al-Nahda Islamist-dominated government took over following the October 2011 elections, the transitional institution for job creation was disbanded and a new commission was established, which had to start from zero. I imagine that the old rules of favouritism were still operating, which meant that the leaders of al-Nahda wanted to create jobs specifically for their followers, thereby stymieing the entire process.

The Weakened State

A few years ago, the late Eric Hobsbawm, the famous Marxist historian, when discussing Serbian events at a Columbia University faculty seminar, contended that a weak state was better than no state.6 I would go further and argue that strong states are needed to preserve order and guarantee individual liberties. Without a strong central authority, chaos ensues. Parts of the Arab world which have experienced citizens’ revolts, and not necessarily social revolutions, have seen their states severely weakened and are paying the price of having new inexperienced and inadequately trained police forces, armies reticent to engage in crowd control, and tramway agents incapable of collecting transport fees from a belligerent population. The state faces expectant people with very high demands who want immediate jobs, benefits, and redress of all sorts following political upheavals. In consequence many jacqueries in small interior towns have broken out leading to the burning of police stations and municipalities, the local symbols of the county’s ineffective state.

More noticeable have been the acts of small numbers of Salafists, who have been empowered by the electoral victories of Islamists across the Arab world. Needing their votes in forthcoming elections, Islamists in power have tolerated outrageous acts of the bearded few who have begun to intimidate vulnerable sectors of the post-revolt societies, especially university students, professors, and administrators at the University of Tunis7 women without headscarves and known feminists, artists, film-makers, homosexuals, prostitutes, and clients of bars.

Yet, there are signs that in Tunisia most of the population does not tolerate extremism of any kind. With a deeply engrained tradition of pragmatism under the country’s founding president, Habib Bourguiba, most Tunisians reject dogmatism.8 For example, when some Salafists attempted to impose their imams on community mosques they were met with resistance. Some communities, such as Damani near El Kef close to the Algerian frontier, in the summer of 2012 chased out of town a busload of Salafists travelling from the northern Tunisian city of Jendouba hoping to install a new imam in Damani’s principal mosque. They ended up fleeing on their bus after having been beaten up by hostile local men. Other Salafist attacks on bars and houses of ill repute were met by angry customers who fought back and chased away the intruders. All these transgressions occurred in the sight of the national police who did little to stop the moral crusaders, but the population acted with a sense of civic responsibility and took matters in their own hands.9

The Salafists have had more success in enforcing cultural codes and have imposed themselves in some small interior towns, such as Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the revolt, which remains destitute and forgotten by the weakened state. During last summer in 2012 an art exhibit in La Marsa, an upscale suburb of Tunis, provoked Salafi wrath. A group of them trashed the show and forced the government to put in place a three-day curfew. Before that the showing of the Tunisian film Neither Allah Nor Master led to attacks on the Africa hotel theatre, one of the nicest venues to watch films in downtown Tunis, leading the owner of the movie house to close the theatre permanently.10 More serious were the Salafist attacks against the US embassy in the suburb of Soukra, on the road to Carthage and Sidi Bou Said, and the American School, near the embassy, which caters to expatriate families and wealthy Tunisians. This happened in reaction to the horrible film parody about the Prophet Muhammad made by an Egyptian Coptic Christian American citizen and placed on YouTube. The relatively new embassy complex is built as a fortress, making it very difficult to penetrate. Even so, those attacking the structure ran circles around the Tunisian forces of order who looked more like the hysterically funny silent film era Keystone Cops than a well-disciplined corps trained in crowd control. The attackers burned part of the embassy while another group of Salafists broke into and destroyed the American School in Tunis, pillaging computers and other office equipment before torching the building, rendering it unusable.


All these abrupt turnabouts, confusion among the top leadership, and mass frustrations with the slow pace of paybacks for revolting and overthrowing the old regime, have not helped to stabilise the situation. If anything, the introduction of free electoral politics has given extremists the new possibility of expressing themselves and attempting to enforce new moral standards. Yet, the more unstable the situation, the more Tunisian civil society will turn against the present government and will look for alternative leadership. After all, the population has overcome its fear of those in power, have found a new dignity in collective action, and have asserted its right to express itself freely. In the shadows stands the transitional leader, the octogenarian Béji Caïd el Sebsi, who has attempted to patch together a wide coalition of old Bourguibists, and former members of Ben Ali’s party, the RCD, who held minor positions but who know how to organise a state. If he fails to marshal an electoral coalition, there are others on the sideline willing to jump into the fray and establish a third way. There are many middle class property owners in the country who want nothing more than stability and a chance to reinvigorate the economy so that they once again can enrich themselves.11 They might just be successful in the next elections and we might see the beginnings of more orderly transition to a new Tunisia. The country has many talented people who know how to get things done. They are waiting for their talents to be marshalled and be put to work.12 Whatever happens, we have to remember that the post-revolt transition will be rocky and filled with surprises. After having watched Tunisian developments for more than half a century, I am convinced that the Tunisians will sort out their problems and re-establish a working state. But it will take time to accomplish.13


[For background see two of my writings on the Tunisian revolt: “Epilogue”, and “Arab Dictatorship under Fire in the New Information Age” in Marvin Gettleman and Stuart Schaar (ed.), The Middle East and Islamic World Reader (third ed.), (New York: Grove Press), 2012, pp 353-57 and 378-81; “Democracy Triumphs in Tunisia’s First Free Elections”, EPW, Vol XLVI, No 47. This article was earlier published on the website (]

1 Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (Penguin Books), 1998.

2 See Georges Rudé, The French Revolution: Its Causes, Its History, and Its Legacy After 200 Years (New York: Grove Press), 1994.

3 See John Schrecker, The Chinese Revolution in Historical Perspective (2nd ed.), (Westport, CT: Praeger), 2004.

4 For a long-term view of the Tunisian revolt, see Gilbert Achcar, “The Bouazizi Spark: The Beginning of a Long Revolutionary Process”, Al-Akhbar English, 10 January 2012, at A lecture delivered at Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia on 18 December 2011.

5 William Kornhauser, Politics of Mass Society (London: Routledge), 2010. Kornhauser, originally writing in the late 1950s, argued that mass societies have weak intermediary structures between the masses and the state making them vulnerable to authoritarian/totalitarian control, but also this condition makes these societies available for mobilisation for defined ends. Jack A Goldstone, who has written extensively on comparative revolutions, concludes that in the Arab world “Large unemployed and underemployed youth populations are vulnerable to radicalisation and recruitment to insurgent movements”. “The New Population Bomb: Large Cohorts of Educated, Unemployed Youth”, The Key Reporter (Phi Beta Kappa Magazine), Spring 2011: 6.

6 Hobsbawm was commenting on his book The Age of Empires: A History of the World, 1914-91 (New York: Vintage Books), 1996.

7 According to the dean of the faculty of Manouba, Habib Khaznadar, the Salafists had four demands: the right to wear veils; a room in which to pray; the end of co-ed education, and female professors for women students. See Stéphane Kovacs, “Tunisie: Heurts entre salafistes et laïques”, Le Figaro, 5 December 2011.

8 For a review of Bourguiba’s heritage, see Michel Camau and Vincent Geisser (ed.), Habib Bourguiba: La trace et l’heritage (Aix-en-Provence: Karthala), 2004.

9 See Abdou Filali Ansari, “State, Society and Creed: Reflections on the Maghreb” in Amyn B Sojoo (ed.), Civil Society in the Muslim World: Contemporary Perspectives (London and New York: I B Tauris), 2002, pp 294-318 for a discussion of the role of civil society in acting as an independent force in the Maghreb.

10 Les Blogs: Regards croisés, 29 June 2011 in partnership with Tribune de Genève.

11 For a comparative view, see Seyyid Vali Reza Nasr, The Rise of Islamic Capitalism: Why the New Muslim Middle Class Is the Key to Defeating Extremism (New York: The Free Press), 2011.

12 “The energy, dynamism and intelligence of the younger generation in the Arab world has been unleashed, after being dammed up by a system which treated them with contempt, and which concentrated power in the hands of a much older generation. Seemingly out of nowhere, young people in the Arab world have gained a confidence, an assurance, and a courage that have made fearsome police state regimes that once looked invincible tremble”. Rachid Khalidi, “Preliminary Historical Observations on the Arab Revolutions of 2011”, Jadaliyya, 21 March 2011, 1-2.

13 For a more pessimistic view than mine of Tunisia’s present and future see Ann Wolf and Raphaël Lefèvre, “Revolution Under Threat: The Challenges of the ‘Tunisian Model’”, The Journal of North African Studies, Vol 17, No 3, June 2012: 559-63. Madawi Al-Rashed, when reviewing Jean-Pierre Filiu’s book, The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising (London: Hurst), 2011, criticises the author for not attempting to see the Arab revolts through “The Prism of longue durée Historical Process”. “A History Still in the Making”, Times Higher Education, 29 September 2011, 60.

Stuart Schaar ( is Professor Emeritus (Middle East and North African History), Brooklyn College, City University of New York and now lives and teaches in Rabat, Morocco. His next book, co-edited with Mohsine el Ahmadi of the University of Marrakech, The Rise of the Arab Citizen and Change in the Middle East (Interlink Publishers) will be published in 2013.