The Tunisian Revolution Did Not Come Out Of Nowhere

Interview with Sadri Khiari

The Tunisian revolution has been the detonator of the wave of protests and uprisings which have spread across North Africa and the Middle East since January, 2011. Sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010, the Tunisian revolution quickly spread from the towns in the central mining and agricultural regions of the country to the coastal cities, including the capital Tunis. Mass demonstrations, riots and strikes compelled President Ben Ali to flee the country on January 14. The ultimate outcome of the still fluid revolutionary process remains undetermined. So far popular mobilization and the forces activated by them – a series of parties, associations, unions, and intellectuals now organized in a loose coordinating committee (Le comité de salut public à la tunisienne) – have succeeded in forcing the retreat and partial dissolution of the networks of repression of the Ben Ali regime, changing the composition of the interim government a number of times and implementing their demand for a constituent assembly, from which Ben Ali’s old ruling party, Le Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD) will be excluded for ten years. Governed by a new electoral law passed on April 11, elections for this assembly are scheduled for July 24.

Sadri Khiari is a Tunisian dissident now living in France, where he is a leading intellectual of Le Parti des Indigènes de la République (PIR), an anti-racist political party founded in 2010. He has published a number of books on Tunisia – Tunisie, le délitement de la cité – coercition, consentement, résistances (Paris: Karthala, 2003) and on the post-colonial situation in France [Pour une politique de la racaille (Paris: Textuel, 2006); La contre-révolution coloniale en France (Paris: La Fabrique, 2008), and Sainte Caroline contre Tariq Ramadan (Paris: La Revanche, 2011)].

Béatrice Hibou (BH): What is your interpretation of the Tunisian events?

Sadri Khiari (SK): One can explain a popular revolution as little as one can anticipate its beginning. It appears as a break in the normal course of things, an abrupt acceleration of political temporality, a historical rupture that expresses itself by the surging crowds that insert themselves into the centres of power in order to brutally push aside those who are supposed to lead and represent them. The popular revolution can thus be identified in the exceptional moment when politics dispenses with its mediations; direct democracy becomes reality, raw, tumultuous and alive. On the occasion of recent developments in Tunisia, numerous commentators remembered Lenin’s famous formula: ‘a revolutionary period is characterized by the inability of those at the top to rule and govern in the old way and the stubborn refusal of those below to be governed in the old way.’ From this point of view, the revolution is the instant when the conflict between those ‘at the top’ and those ‘below’ reaches a boiling point.

The Tunisian revolution is no exception in this regard. Mohamed Bouazizi’s tragic suicide represented this breaking point. But the strategist of Russia’s October Revolution spoke of a ‘revolutionary period,’ not of revolution. He recalled the period of uncertainty when the conflict rages on but is not yet settled, when the relations of force are unstable and open up a horizon of multiple possibilities without guarantees. In Tunisia, the powerful popular mobilization that forced Ben Ali to take to his heels is a revolution, a moment in a revolutionary period which is obviously not over yet today. In ‘the land of Jasmin,’ the pot was about to boil over. The question that imposes itself is the following: why did we not see that the revolution was imminent?

BH: If one cannot explain the revolution, can one nevertheless explain why no one saw it coming, or, to put it differently, why the situation before the revolts was explosive?

SK: If there was one country in the Arab world that appeared sheltered from revolutionary influence, it was Tunisia. Saturated with publicity about the peaceful tranquility of a Tunisia destined to produce sand and parasols, and a few golden-skinned waiters as well, European public opinion could not possibly imagine this country as the site of dramatic political conflicts. Tunisia seemed to be a country without history. This tourist imaginary did not necessarily determine all of the political, intellectual and media spheres, in which there was general confidence in the ‘stability’ of Tunisia. However, the blindness of these spheres undoubtedly grew out of a measure of self-delusion. One only sees what one wants to see and what one wants to show to others. Determined to support the regime of President Ben Ali, the big powers (U.S., France, the E.U.) and the international financial institutions never stopped promoting a discourse of Tunisian ‘stability’: proper levels of growth and satisfactory macro-economic equilibrium; slow but sure integration into the world market; the formation of a ‘middle class’ destined to play the role of social shock absorber; reasonable and peace-loving foreign policy; and, finally, a democratic transition, albeit one slowed by a lack of ‘transparency’ in ‘governance’ and hampered by the imperative of maintaining security against the ‘threat of Islam.’ In other words, the only potential of political destabilization was detected where it did not exist: in Islamic fundamentalism.

This type of discourse was carried widely by the big international media outlets and a good number of commentators and social scientists. It was not only a result of self-interested complacency vis-à-vis the Tunisian regime. It was also helped along by elitist, bureaucratic and state-centred ways of understanding society. There was little interest in observing the real development of public opinion among the disadvantaged strata of the Tunisian population; their (occasionally spectacular) forms of resistance garnered no, or very little, attention. All that analysts took into account were the attempts of organized oppositional forces to act in the ‘rational’ sphere of politics, even as they were either not officially recognized or severely repressed.

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.

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

SK: 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 weeks before 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.

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

SK: 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 administred 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 between 1991 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 suprême) 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.

BH: But how and since when did this perception of immorality spread?

SK: In this case, too, the important moment was in the early 2000s, when illegal diversion of goods, a racket of corruption involving major enterprises, and suspicious accumulation of wealth became more widely known in the guise of satirical comments denouncing the nepotism of the ‘families’ around Ben Ali. This rumour, which was impossible to verify then, spread with ease because it was common knowledge that the various representatives of the Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD)[1], the bureaucracy or the police had few scruples when it came to profiting from their positions of power. Quite often, the intricate links between the networks of power, money and delinquency (such as smuggling rings in the border regions) were there for everyone to see.

To illustrate, I think back to the revolt in the Gafsa region cities in 2008. This popular movement, which lasted six months, began in the small town of Redeyef and spread to the principal mining centres in the region before hitting a wall of repression. Importantly for my purposes, this revolt took off when a local job recruitment process was circumvented by company directors, administrative branches of the state and local representatives of the trade union. Of course, unemployment was a key background condition of the revolt but what sparked and amplified anger to such an extent were the practices of the regime, which were perceived to be contrary to social morality.

In the same vein, I have to mention also, and perhaps above all, the growing role of Leïla Ben Ali, a power- and money-hungry woman considered of low moral standards. Even more than the President himself, this woman symbolized the moral corruption of the system. Tunisians blamed the regime of Ben Ali for his immorality more than his authoritarianism. To put it differently, the regime not only lacked moral authority, it was perceived to be an authority without morals. An authority without moral standing is a form of power that imposes itself on society; it is seen as external to it, so to speak, and whoever possesses it is considered an usurpor driven by his personal interests, which he is willing to satisfy by any means possible. One does not criticize him for inadequate or unjust policies but for threatening society’s moral foundation. One does not dismiss him, one brings him to justice. The perception of Ben Ali’s power as an authority without morals is undoubtedly key to grasp some of the particularities of the Tunisian revolution, and the widespread consensus that supported it.

BH: Contrary to what many observers presupposed, ‘the social question’ was not the primary factor in the movement for you.

SK: This is indeed an important point. In my opinion, a strictly socio-economic analysis of the Tunisian revolution is incapable of discerning its deep dynamic. It is true that the movement began in the most deprived regions of the country and social demands were formulated from the beginning (often by groups of politicized militants and trade unions). These demands, important as they were, were not at the heart of the process which led to the departure of the President. The same is true for the question of democracy. Any Tunisian dissident with a degree of experience can testify to the difficulty of translating the concerns of disadvantaged populations into the normative language of democracy, that of parties and civil rights groups. When this language is taken up at a mass scale, one needs to ask oneself what kind of expectations it corresponds to. Neither the socio-economic nor the democratic explanation (nor a combination of the two) suffices to explain the degree to which this sentiment against Ben Ali is shared across social cleavages. To understand this consensus, one needs to make use of a notion that is difficult to define and is often neglected, yet is at the heart of numerous currents of revolt: dignity.

I noted earlier that Ben Ali, his wife and those close to them were perceived to embody the moral corruption of the regime. I now need to add that each Tunisian was forced to be complicit with corruption to a certain degree. This phenomenon led to a form of collective and individual self-degradation. The system of repression and surveillance developed by Ben Ali thus led to a sentiment of indignity as much, if not more so, as fear. Multiple compromises, different ways of paying allegiance to power, even active participation in its networks (all of which were often necessary to find a job, get promoted, open a business, get administrative matters resolved, or simply avoid everyday problems) produced frustrations, humiliations, and feelings of disrespect for oneself and others in all social classes.

In Tunisia, power substituted institutionalized contempt for intersubjective and institutional recognition, which are necessary for all forms of ethical hegemony. The degrading of the collective self-image of Tunisians compounded the sense of degradation of each individual. The hero of the revolution, the young Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire, may have provoked such a widespread sense of identification not because he lived in misery but because he was purposely humiliated by a municipal bureaucrat who slapped him in the face after confiscating his merchandise. The revolt that followed in the wake of his act of desperation can in this sense be interpreted as carrying forward a demand for social recognition that everyone knew could not be satisfied by the regime and, in fact, required the ouster of Ben Ali as the architect of generalized indignity. Although various slogans chanted during the protests revealed concerns with democracy and economic matters, the Tunisian revolution expressed above all a will to recover a sense of individual and collective self-respect.

BH: You recently wrote Tunisie: Le délitement de la cité. Coercition, consentement, résistance (Paris: Karthala, 2003). Was the revolution made possible by a disruption in the equilibrium that existed between these three components (coercion, consent and resistance)?

SK: Contrary to superficial representations, Tunisia was not an inert and rather contented society. Only in non-revolutionary periods does there exist a more or less forceful integration of people into mechanisms of domination. But one has to admit that this integration, real as it often is, does not exclude insubordination. Docility, even collaboration, is itself mixed with a lack of discipline, transgression, or direct or masked forms of resistance, which remain hidden most of the time because they are individual or do not take the classic forms of protest or political action. If numerous Tunisians asked themselves every day ‘how to profit from the system,’ many, often the same ones, asked themselves also how to slip through the net and escape requests for collaboration, if not reject the machinery of power. These were the people who withstood the pressures to join the RCD and its satellite organizations, who ‘forgot’ to donate to the one of compulsory solidarity funds (Fonds de solidarité nationale, police raffles etc.), who refused to go through the mandatory intermediaries for the purposes of career advancement, or those who struggled to circumvent censorship on the web, those who stayed at home during RCD ceremonies or on election day, those in the office, at home or with friends who reported the latest jokes or rumours about the real or supposed depravities of the ruling ‘families,’ those who built networks of solidarity among family, in neighbourhoods and regions, the youth who risked clandestine emigration or the others who confronted the police in the stadia. Evasion, subterfuge, individual rebellion, and all the molecular forms of sedition that go along with authoritarian regimes continuously increased during the last years of the Ben Ali regime. To grasp this reality of everyday resistance, it was enough, methodologically speaking, to exhibit more empathy for ‘those below’ and show less fascination with power and its operations.

By the way, like individual rebellion, collective forms of resistance rarely made it onto the observers’ radar. Even though it did not grow in a linear fashion and faced much repression, more or less organized collective resistance has developed for at least ten years. Between 1999 and 2001, after a decade of repression and disarray, the democracy movement in Tunisia reinvigorated itself. The first sign of this was the founding of the Conseil national des libertés en Tunisie in December 1998, which was followed very quickly by the constitution of other independent organizations, the revival of the Tunisian Human Rights League, journalist Taoufik Ben Brik’s hunger strike (which was widely reported in France), lawyer activism (the importance of which the mobilizations of the last few weeks have demonstrated), stirrings within the judiciary, the increased resolve of two of the legal opposition parties (PDP[2] and Ettajdid[3]) as new parties like the CPR[4] or the FDTL[5] emerged and PCOT and Ennahdha tried to restructure themselves.

These initiatives were covered in Tunisia by the Arab media such as Al-Jazeera and stimulated other forms of resistance. They remained largely confined to the traditional sphere of protest and failed to attract new generations of activists. Although the powerlessness of the opposition and the weakness of their influence over the population were often subject to ironic comments, the small margin of manoeuvre these forms of opposition managed to eke out since 1999 despite persecution and repression have undoubtedly helped to spread critical information among a growing public opinion. They also facilitated efforts to build spaces and networks of resistance, which, despite their intermittent and muddled character, were not without efficacy (as their participation in various mobilizations, including those at the beginning of the revolution, demonstrated).

It is also important to underline how in the last few years, political dissidence via internet networks emerged and rapidly expanded together with the generalization of cellphone usage. In spite of the sophistication of control and censorship, these new tools of communication also made it easier to spread information, create networks and virtual organizational forms which also became vectors of democratic contestation, particularly among youth. Also important to mention is the formation of a radical Islamic scene that broke with the Ennahdha party and rejected the regime’s policies in its own way.

BH: You speak about a social movement but you only mention political parties!

SK: Be patient, I am getting there. To this awakening of the democracy movement, one has to add the reconstitution of what one can call, for the lack of a better term, social movements, which are difficult to grasp given the scarcity and inaccessibility of information. It seems to me that social forms of resistance reemerged in two phases. Revolts by students and the unemployed in various cities in the early 2000s, organized strikes in the public sector and private sector enterprises, wildcat strikes and other forms of protest (particularly in the textile and tourist sectors) were expressions of change compared to the preceding decade. This renewal manifested itself in particularly striking ways since 2008 in the long struggle of inhabitants in the mining region of Gafsa that began to spread before being brutally repressed. This was undoubtedly the major turning point. Since then, Tunisia witnessed other, more limited, protest movements in Skhira, Feriana, Jebeniana, and, in the summer of 2010, in Ben Guerdane, as in many small towns in the most disadvantaged regions in the country. In the end, there was Sidi Bouzid and we all know the rest. Despite their sporadic character, weak if not inexistent media coverage, repression, defeat and the lame compromises that resulted from them, and despite the apparent lack of links between them, the social movements Tunisia witnessed in the last decade helped foment an atmosphere laden with protest, an accumulation of experiences and the construction of informal activist networks of which the Tunisian revolution is a product.

This schematic representation of social mobilization would be even more incomplete if I did not mention the struggles within the UGTT against the bureaucratic grip of its secretary general, Abdessalam Jrad, and against the trade union central’s subservience to power. These struggles allowed the most militant labour activists to gain influence in certain sectors (postal service, education etc.) and in the local and regional branches of the labour movement. This made it possible for the UGTT to play a more important role in the revolution against the stated positions of the Secretary General, particularly in the last week of mobilization. As we know, the board (Commission administrative) of the UGTT ended up supporting the popular demands and the general strikes that proved decisive in setting in motion the revolutionary process, notably in Tunis and Sfax.

BH: Is it already possible to detect the lines of force in future developments?

SK: Alhough the departure of Ben Ali was likely organized by a few leaders of the RCD and their foreign ‘advisers,’ there is no doubt that this scenario was only considered under the pressure of popular mobilization. The latter was also strong enough to force the departure of the RCD ministers in the first transition government after the President’s escape and, more recently, the resignation of the Prime Minister and other members of government. While the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the revolutionary mobilizations in Libya have shown that the impact of the Tunisian revolution goes much beyond the Tunisian border, it is too early to evaluate the magnitude of internal political upheaval.

It seems clear to me, however, that a satisfactory understanding of current developments is not possible without questioning the modes of analysis that have shaped perspectives on Tunisia. More sustained attention needs to be given to the ‘politics from below,’ non-institutionalized forms of resistance, and, more generally, the more or less subterranean dynamics at work within the different layers of the population. Finally, and without wanting to unduly isolate and rank each of the multiple factors that have determined the popular explosion in Tunisia (growing economic difficulties, the weight of authoritarianism etc.), it appears pertinent that analyses of political processes and protest movements pay more careful attention to that intangible need for recognition and dignity.

This interview was conducted by Béatrice Hibou. It was first published in Politique africaine no. 121 – March 2011. The translation is by Stefan Kipfer.


Bourguiba’s old Parti socialiste destourien, which was taken over by the Ben Ali regime.

Parti démocratique progressiste led by Ahmed Néjib Chebbi, a lawyer and now a member of government.

The new name of the Tunisian Communist Party after it opened its ranks to democratic and secular oppositional currents.

Congrès pour la république, a non-recognized party founded in 2001 by Moncef Marzouki, the former president of the Tunisian Human Rights League (Ligue tunisienne des droits de l’homme).

Forum démocratique pour le travail et les libertés, a legal party founded in 1994 by Mustapha Ben Jafaar, a former leader of the Mouvement des democrates socialistes, which split off from Bourguiba’s party. The FDTL is a member of the Socialist International.