Tunisian revolution did not come out of nowhere

Published on Pambazuka News, by Sadri Khiari, May 26, 2011.  (This interview was conducted by Béatrice Hibou. It was first published in Politique africaine no. 121, March 2011. The translation is by Stefan Kipfer).

Béatrice Hibou speaks to France-based Tunisian dissident and intellectual Sadri Khiari about the roots of the Tunisian revolution and why no-one saw it coming … //

  • … But no matter how active they were, political organizations and resistance groups represented an extremely small fringe of the population. In part because of repression, their marginality was frequently but wrongly interpreted as a sign indicating the absence of effective opposition against Ben Ali’s regime. I could also evoke this suspect ideological representation of Tunisians as docile and peaceful, with a penchant for reform and negotiation. This form of culturalism is congruent with the tourist imaginary that confuses the professional servility of the elevator attendant with an almost natural tendency to prefer reconciliation to conflict. While I cannot elaborate further on this point, I would like to finish by pointing to the tendency of numerous researchers to focus only on structures, institutions and other mechanisms of power without taking into account the forms of resistance they provoke. Politics, understood as relations of force, is thus emptied of its content and Tunisian history appears condemned to eternal inertia.

BÉATRICE HIBOU: Did this appearance of stability only exist in the eyes of foreigners? Why did the domestic opposition not see the revolts coming?

  • SADRI KHIARI: Indeed, even in Tunisia, the explosive political situation was hardly recognized by observers, even those engaged in one resistance movement or another. Or, to be more precise, if a large-scale spontaneous revolt similar to the bread riot of 1984 was considered possible, this revolt was not expected to take on an explicitly political dimension, let alone lead to the downfall of the President of the Republic. Outside a few far left groups like the Communist Workers’ Party of Tunisia (Parti communiste des ouvriers tunisiens (PCOT)) directed by Hamma Hammami, or a personality like the former leader of the Tunisian human rights league, Moncef Marzouki, the prospect of large popular mobilization did not figure prominently in the strategic horizon of oppositional forces. In this light, it is significant that in 2008, during the revolt in the mining basin of the Gafsa region, the decisive moment I will come back to later, most opposition forces stayed quiet for a number of weeksbefore demonstrating timid support. This support was meant to underline the severity of the social situation and the urgent need to pass reforms rather than to widen the realm of popular contestation.
  • One could develop a sociological analysis of the parties and associations in question and note the degree to which their cadres belonged to relatively privileged sectors of Tunisian society, but such an approach, while not without pertinence, would ignore other equally important factors like the long history of political militancy of many of these cadres. For example, a number of Tunisian opposition leaders began their long trajectory in political groups whose revolutionary ambitions and attempts to appeal to the people had been systematically dashed. Also, the models of radical rupture to which they subscribed in the past collapsed or turned out to be ineffective when the myth of soft ‘democratic transition’ based on negotiations between certain fractions of power and ‘reasonable’ currents of the opposition started to spread.I also need to underline that the Tunisian opposition, isolated and persecuted, was forced to seek support outside the country in the hope of exercising pressure on the regime. One of the perverse effects of this political choice was that strategies of lobbying for human rights became substitutes for attempts to change the relations of force in Tunisia. These are only a few dimensions of the problem but, in any event, it is clear that just as the signs of a political crisis were difficult to miss even for those without a sociological microscope, spontaneous or organized forms of mobilizing the disadvantaged strata of the population were not part of the political equation for most Tunisian opposition forces.

BÉATRICE HIBOU: Despite these signs of mobilization, the regime appeared solidly in place …

  • SADRI KHIARI: It is true that this may seem paradoxical. Allow me to use this opportunity to remind you of the fragile foundations that allowed Ben Ali to stay in power during a considerable twenty-three years. The success of the coup d’état on November 7, 1987, can be explained above all by the profound decomposition of the top layers of power within Habib Bourguiba’s state. This was a crisis of succession prolonged and intensified by another crisis: the growing inadequacy of the sociopolitical pact put in place after independence in 1956 and the emergence of new social realities. Widely contested, the hegemony of the Destour movement was transformed into simple authority resting much more on coercion and clientelistic mechanisms than on consent, to use a Gramscian concept. Examples of this transformation were the alignment with power of the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT) in 1985 and the ferocious repression of the Ennahdha party (political Islam) in the months preceding Ben
  • Ali’s coup. Ben Ali moved into the Palais de Carthage, the presidential residence, while those ‘at the top’ appeared ‘incapable of governing as before’ and ‘those at the bottom,’ which were in ascendancy since the 1970s, suffered a grave defeat with the repression of their two principal forms of expression, the UGTT and Ennahdha.
  • Thin as a sheet of rolling paper, Ben Ali’s legitimacy rested for a few months on the illusion that he was going to annul Bourguiba’s last years and reform the regime by incorporating the different social and political forces. An apparent ‘trade union reconciliation,’ a democratic opening administered in homeopathic doses, and tolerance for the activities of the Ennahdha movement allowed him to neutralize opposition. The latter became more virulent toward the end of 1989, and then the Gulf War started. Ben Ali refused to participate in the anti-Iraqi military coalition and thus won momentary popularity; he managed to garner the support of certain elements of the democratic opposition while the leadership of Ennahdha was divided between pro- and anti-Saddam factions. The police apparatus was then set in motion, benefiting from the crisis of Ennahdha. Already begun before the Gulf War, the dismantling of the party accelerated and took a rare form of violence, particularly between1991 and 1994. The slogan ‘no freedom for the enemies of freedom’ allowed Ben Ali to benefit from a decade of passive complicity on the part of the overwhelming majority of the Tunisian democratic movement, and, until his downfall, the major Western powers. In lockstep with the repression of Ennahdha, the most combative trade union tendencies as well as all forms of democratic protest were brutally silenced.
  • This brief reminder of the first years of the Ben Ali regime is important, it seems to me, to understand some of the underlying reasons why Ben Ali was able to install authoritarian rule despite his notable incapacity to build a new moral legitimacy and a renewed social compromise. I will refrain from describing the mechanisms of repression, restriction, and control put in place in the 1990s to compensate for the lack of legitimacy of the regime. I must however add that the mafia-like practices at the highest levels of power – arbitrary police and administrative rule, generalized clientelism and corruption – contributed to a sense, widely shared among all social strata, that power was an incarnation of authority without moral standing. Ben Ali’s regime was thus fundamentally different from Bourguiba’s. In fact, the morality of Bourguiba as ‘supreme combattant’ (combatant supréme) was never questioned, not even when Bourguiba’s rule was most contested. Everyone knew about the privileges the top layers of the bureaucracy claimed for themselves, but, unlike with Ben Ali, the system itself was never identified as one that functioned essentially to allow a morally corrupt family network to enrich itself illegally and claim absolute power.

BÉATRICE HIBOU: But how and since when did this perception of immorality spread? … (full long interview text and Notes 1 – 5).

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