Tunisia: a counterrevolutionary moment?

By IndepthAfrica
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Feb 11th, 2013
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A general strike was called yesterday, there are ongoing protests across the country and calls for the military to enter into the political arena in a more robust way.

The tragic assassination of leftist politician and human rights defender Chokri Belaid in Tunis is one of a series of incidents of political violence to hit the country in recent months. Belaid’s assassination has left the nation reeling, and the political scene more polarized than ever. With a general strike called yesterday by the country’s largest labour union, ongoing protests across the country, including one organised by the ruling An Nahda party today, and calls for the military, which already has looming presence in post-revolution Tunisia as a result of the ongoing state of emergency, to enter into the political arena in a more robust way, the heady days of post-revolution unity seem a long way away.

Though the specific narrative of events varies from person to person, depending on factors like political loyalty and geographical location, it seems there is one thing that most agree: that these are the acts of counterrevolutionaries. Divergence exists not regarding if, but who.

The who remains an important piece of the puzzle and, in the name of justice and long-term stability, must eventually be resolved. Allegations run the gamut, with fingers pointing in every direction from the allegedly An Nahda-linked Leagues to Protect the Revolution, to remnants of the ancien regime seeking to foment unrest and derail constituent assembly discussions over an ‘exclusion law’, which would target former regime members. There are those also who accuse external, both regional and international, forces of interfering out of fear of the precedent that could be set by a successful Islamist government in the region.

For its part, an increasingly divided An Nahda has denied any complicity and has promised to commence a full investigation into the accusations.

The meaning of counterrevolution: not a ‘reverse’ but rather a revolution’s ‘opposite’

That a counterrevolutionary moment may be emerging in Tunisia should not come as a surprise. History is full of examples of the reversal, or at least attempted reversal, of revolutions due to the machinations of both internal and external actors who struggle to come to terms with the reality of the new order and fear its potential spread.

Of course history is also replete with examples of resistance to such reversal, leading many to view revolution not as a finished event, but rather an ongoing process. As Egyptian activist Omar Ali put it in relation to the Egyptian experience, we are ‘learn[ing] that the revolution is a continuous process of mass participation, social reorganization and awareness.’

One of the most well-known examples of counterrevolution is that of the pro-monarchy forces that opposed the 1789 French Revolution. In the words of one of the movement’s leading protagonists, Joseph de Maistre, the revolution was a ‘great national crime of an antireligious and antisocial insurrection crowned by a regicide’.

What concerned the French counterrevolutionaries most was the threat posed to the social and political order by this radical new form of governance and related conception of citizenship. The call for a counter-revolution, to their eyes, was not a call for a ‘revolution in the opposite direction’, but rather a desire for the ‘opposite of a revolution’ (le contraire de la Révolution). If one considers that structural change is at the heart of revolution, then it is a return of the status quo ante that is its opposite.

In this sense, it seems apt to call what is happening now in Tunisia a counterrevolutionary, though by no means uncontested, moment. This is demonstrated by a re-emergence of the practices of the status quo ante, marked by excessive use of state violence. The heavy-handed police response to the peaceful protesters mourning Belaid’s death in downtown Tunis, was yet another reminder that old habits die hard.

Bleak reminders of the past also include the (re)emergence of polarizing discourses such as that of the poorly defined ‘Islamist threat’. Rather than clarifying legitimate national security concerns, such as the emergence of armed groups that threaten the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, so that they may be adequately addressed, this discourse may further confound and hence hinder these efforts. In addition, through the rights violating practices that such a discourse has the potential to produce, as with the Ben Ali era 2003 anti-terror laws,  it may paradoxically exacerbate, rather than alleviate, unresolved social tensions that understandably worry many Tunisians.

Think back to the original aims of the revolution. A helpful reminder can be found in the documentary ‘Degage’ by Tunisian director Mohamed Zran. In this exhilarating ethnographic visual study of how the (mostly young) revolutionaries liberated public space from Ben Ali’s police state, one is reminded that, at its heart, the revolution was a struggle for social and economic justice as well as opening the political sphere to meaningful societal participation.

Behind the grievances expressed by revolutionaries was their frustration with longstanding structural issues. These included the government’s distorted budget priorities, with too much money invested in repressive security apparatuses and a diminishing amount in infrastructure and social goods such as healthcare, education, as well as job creation based on merit, not nepotism. In addition to this state neglect were restrictive labour policies and a suffocated public sphere, which distorted wealth concentration and widened the developmental gap between coastal areas and the interior.

Tunisia has been hailed as the ‘model’ for the Arab revolutions because of the speed with which the revolution was institutionalized, with elections, deemed largely ‘free and fair’, held in October 2011 resulting in the formerly outlawed and heavily repressed moderate Islamist party An Nahda winning a majority (42%) of seats. This was followed by the formation of a coalition government with two secular, centre-left parties. However, beyond the praise and glory, and even before the current crisis, which threatens to paralyse the transitional process, post-Ben Ali Tunisia was struggling to realize the aims of the revolution, on both political and socio-economic levels.

Beyond political violence, political and socio-economic obstacles

Though almost no one would deny that political liberties have increased exponentially in the two years that followed the revolution, there are, as many international and local human rights organisations have pointed out, still many areas that require improvement. In particular, in relation to freedom of expression and political pluralism. Obstacles to the development and functioning of an open and democratic polity include the lack of institutional reform of key ministries, most importantly the judiciary and interior, which have resulted in a continuation of many of the illiberal practices of the old authoritarian state.

On the socio-economic level, though they have by no means dismantled the economic paradigm of the former regime, the ruling ‘Troika’ have nonetheless made some positive advances towards redressing the pathologies associated with neoliberal authoritarianism, as demonstrated in its  spending priorities for the 2013 State Budget. Government spending is due to increase over the next year by 4.9 %, much of it going to programmes that seek to reduce regional disparities and stimulate job creation.

The government was also recently praised by the head of the International Labor Organization (ILO) for signing a ‘landmark’ ‘social contract’ with union and employer representatives, which he said would pave the way ‘for improvements in areas such as labour legislation and industrial relations, employment policies, vocational training and education, social protection, as well as balanced regional development.’

However, with average unemployment rates at 18% nationwide, and unemployment among graduates almost twice as high, reflecting the lack of highly skilled jobs available, and with a  large percentage of the population in temporary, or ‘precarious’ employment, it is not surprising that protests, sit-ins and labour unrest have become an almost daily reality across the country.

The An Nahda-led government’s scorecard in relation to the development of the country’s new constitution has also been mixed. Though they have been criticised for slow progress and a failure to consult a broad enough spectrum of political and technical competences, they have also acted pragmatically at times and, as a recent New York Times article pointed out,  ‘circumscribed the role of Islamic law, allowing Tunisia to avoid the arguments over basic legal matters that have led to protracted unrest in Egypt’.

It goes without saying that the Government is not entirely blameless in regards to the increasing polarization of the political environment, in which a dynamic of political violence has been set in motion. It certainly should be questioned over allegations by Belaid’s wife that his pleas for security protection over the past few months were denied by the government. There have been similar allegations that the public meetings and rallies of opposition parties have received inadequate security protection.

These are serious allegations that must be investigated. Whether it is the Minister of Interior himself or people lower down the ranks in the ministry who are to blame for this lack of security, the success of the democratic transition hinges on the creation of a secure political environment in which all legal parties are able to operate in a context free of fear.

Resisting the counterrevolutionary moment: the Tunisian revolution continues

In the midst of the current conflict over what sort of political formulation will follow the current political crisis, one should also bear in mind the numerous historical firsts that the Tunisian case presents: the first democratically elected Islamist government to head a North African state, the first government anywhere, as far as I am aware, to have eight former political prisoners heading ministries, ditto regarding the creation of a Ministry for Human Rights and Transitional Justice.

One should also consider the international and regional contexts the government of this small, and relatively resource-poor, country has had to contend with. This includes a world economic crisis, uprisings, protracted conflicts and foreign intervention on or near their borders, the attempts of various governments, international and nongovernmental bodies and organizations with mixed motives and intentions to influence the outcome of the post-revolution economic and political processes. Not to mention numerous disgruntled individuals within Tunisia’s borders who were perfectly happy with the way things were under the ancien regime. As a result, it is not surprising that, while recognising their numerous shortcomings, many have nonetheless praised the government’s efforts.

Yet regardless of their views on the Nahda led-government  – whether glass half full or glass half empty – most Tunisians agree on one thing: that the country is experiencing a counterrevolutionary moment. Though this development threatens to postpone the realisation of the revolution’s aims, as with other obstacles encountered along the way, it appears that Tunisian society remains mobilised and more determined than ever to resist a return to the status quo ante.

Corinna Mullin is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Tunis as well as a Research Associate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

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