Tunisia: the irresistible flow

Tunis, Tunisia (openDemocracy) – Out of the revolution and counter-revolution…was born the dialectical movement and counter-movement of history which bears men on its irresistible flow, like a powerful undercurrent, to which they must surrender the very moment they attempt to establish freedom on earth.” Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

Today marks five years since the start of Tunisia’s revolution. 17 December 2010 was a day like every other, except for one act that transformed it into the beginning of an extraordinary set of events.

Tunisia’s revolution and the ensuing wave of protests that swept the Arab world caught the world by surprise. Much ink has been spilt in the last five years in an attempt to piece together a genealogy of this upsurge of dissent, seeking to trace the roots of an earthquake that emerged from the fertile inner reaches of Tunisia’s rural and deprived regions. While academics debate whether the determinant factors were economic, social, political, demographic or technological, what matters for those who lived them is that these uprisings laid bare the lived experiences of the people of this region and put their demands at the heart of political events, rendering the invisible visible.

The Tunisian revolution started with the story of one man, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation lit the flame of dissent and struggle. His act would have remained an isolated act of desperate protestation at injustice, just like the tens of others who had set themselves on fire before him in similar conditions, had it not been for the acts of others who transformed it into a nation-wide call for freedom, justice and dignity.

What captures the essence of the uprisings of 2011 is that they were a moment of a reassertion of people and of politics from below. Through collective mobilisation, people created a moment so powerful that it toppled rulers and created the biggest political change in the region since decolonisation. The uprisings had no master narrative – they were a series of micronarratives produced by ordinary people. What made the scenes so inspiring was precisely this vibrant representation of all parts of society.female and male, young and old, rural and urban, poor and wealthy, religious and secular, people of all walks of life – the unemployed, farmers, factory workers, lawyers, doctors, housewives, students, doctors. This desectorialised collaborative effort created a moment in which fiction was exposed, power was redefined and existing political and analytical frameworks shattered.

The first fiction to be shattered was that of the ‘Arab exception’. These events were made more extraordinary by the fact that they unfolded in a region long considered immune to the democratic waves that had swept across other regions, led by people who, it turned out, craved freedom, dignity, and social justice as profoundly as other peoples. The slogan invented in Tunisia and which spread throughout the region was “the people wants the fall of the regime”, a cry that at once constituted and asserted the existence of one people, who had the capacity to express a collective will and who demanded to be heard. This was an inconvenient truth for some – certainly for authoritarian rulers in the region, who had repressed and depressed their people into submission, crushing resistance through coercion and cooptation.

The second shattered fiction was that of the ‘security pact’, an arrangement by which Arab societies were expected to trade freedom, political inclusion and human rights in return for security and economic growth. This was nowhere exemplified better than in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, in which the scarecrow of disorder and instability were regularly brandished to silence opponents – in the 1990s by framing government repression as a response to an ‘Islamist threat’ to state and society, and then in the 2000s shifting to the fight against terrorism, making full use of the opportunities provided by the global ‘War on Terror’.

In exchange for obedience, the regime offered an ‘economic miracle’ built on macro-economically sound policies, neoliberal reforms and ‘good governance’, a discourse that convinced most international financial institutions and foreign governments. This ‘miracle’ turned out to be a mirage based on fictitious economic data, hiding a reality of gross inequalities, pervasive corruption and economic mismanagement that created mass structural unemployment, regional disparities and economic insecurity for vast parts of society. The security pact thus failed to deliver on its own promises, putting paid to the notion that the economic could be separated from the political, and that stability and security could be viewed in isolation from a wider notion of human security and wellbeing.

The third fiction shattered by the Arab uprisings is that the fate of Arab nations is dictated by external actors and allows no possibility for autonomy or change. The past century of Arab political and intellectual discourse has been saturated with a keen awareness that decisions about this part of the world are taken somewhere far removed from its people – whether by rulers who are unrepresentative of their wishes or by global powers whose interests far outweigh the interests of the region’s 300 million inhabitants. A deep sense of humiliated fatalism and strangled sovereignty made it difficult to even imagine alternative political realities. The Arab uprisings threw macropolitics out of the window in favour of “people politics” – the politics of individual actions, grassroots mobilisation, networks and communication. The future, it turned out, was not history waiting to be written by others, but a new reality to be forged through collaborative action.

This splintering of the fictions that had sustained decades of dictatorship has opened up an intense struggle in the Arab world. Every revolution splits society into those who embrace change and those who find change deeply threatening. As Hannah Arendt noted, “counter-revolution…has always remained bound to revolution as reaction is bound to action”. We see the reassertion of authoritarian rule across the region, supported by regional and global resources, as the feloul (remnants of the old regime) have staged a comeback that has proven far more organised, ruthless and well-resourced than expected.

The deep vortex of violence into which the Arab world has descended in recent years is a result of this intense struggle between revolution and counter-revolution, in which every instrument of war is put to use. We have witnessed the use of every trick in the counter-revolutionary rulebook, starting with the centuries-old “divide-and-rule” technique of fragmenting society into groups and sub-groups, selectively arming or privileging certain groups or sub-groups and persecuting others. The activation of ethnic and sectarian identities as markers of economic or social privilege and marginalization has been deftly deployed by authoritarian rulers across the Arab political landscape, from Yemen and Egypt, through to Syria and Iraq.

Alongside these traditional techniques, we see the more cutting-edge tactics exemplified by sophisticated political and media propaganda designed to attack the foundations of support for democratic change. These campaigns construct and propagate an image of the revolution as a pestilence that has brought only instability, violence and malaise. The revolution is blamed for every ill in society from unemployment and poverty to disorder, littering and congestion.

No mention is made of the causes of these problems, which existed long before the revolution. Instead, an incessant onslaught of rumours, misinformation and complaints is unleashed on the population, in a daily campaign of psychological warfare. It seeks to destroy any belief ordinary people have in the possibility of change. More dangerously, it seeks to destroy any belief people have in themselves, blaming them for daring to rise up to challenge the status quo, and for having the arrogance to believe they could have a say in governing their own affairs. The aim of the counter-revolution campaign is to make clear to people that they only have one choice – between dictatorship, security and stability on one hand, and democracy, chaos and terror on the other. The rise of extremist groups such as ISIS plays perfectly into this narrative, emerging as a product of the counter-revolution and a driver of it.

However, while we may be in the counter-revolutionary moment, it is too early to declare its victory quite yet. While today we find ourselves debating whether or not those moments in 2011 were truly ‘revolutions’, they have undoubtedly created revolutionaries – ordinary people who may not have been politically engaged before the uprisings but who are now sensitised to the repressive system of authoritarian power and who are resisting it through their own forms of political agency, individually or collectively, by word or deed, in the real and online worlds. The uprisings have given birth to a generation of young people born under dictatorship who witnessed a crack in the authoritarian wall split open and caught a glimpse of the other side.

Image Source: Magharebia, Flickr, Creative Commons 110123 Thousands rally against Tunisia interim government 07

Image Source: Magharebia, Flickr, Creative Commons
110123 Thousands rally against Tunisia interim government 07

The challenge we face now is how to reconstruct the collective voice that emerged during the Arab uprisings. Despite the diversity of visions, this collective voice did converge on shared goals – political accountability, a say for the people in electing their rulers, fighting corruption, putting public resources and institutions at the service of the public and not a narrow circle of families and clans.

The challenge is how to build and sustain strong social movements that can keep alive the key demands of the revolutions. Such movements are desperately needed to maintain the push for change through the long dark days of struggle ahead. They have a vital role even once dictatorial regimes are overthrown, in order to push for the dismantling of repressive authoritarian structures that continue to monopolise control over society and resist all reform.

While the five year anniversary of the spark of the Arab uprisings will inevitably unleash a wave of analyses, explanations and lamentations about the shape that events have taken, it is simply too early to assess changes or predict outcomes. What is certain is uncertainty – that the status quo of the region, built on fictions of stability without human rights and growth without economic inclusion, has been shattered.

It is not ordinary people who made the choice to unleash the forces of sectarianism, violence and chaos. Their cries of “silmiyya, silmiyya” [“peaceful, peaceful”) on the streets were drowned out by the best response their regimes knew – coercion through violence and terror. It was the choice of authoritarian regimes of the region who, for the most part, resisted reform for decades and seek to prevent change, at whatever cost. While we may well be faced with cycles of repression, contestation and democratisation in the region, change must begin somewhere. And so “the dialectical movement and counter-movement of history is set in motion.

This report prepared by INTISSAR KHERIGI  for openDemocracy.