The Middle East Channel

Inside Tunisia’s Post-Revolutionary Protests

Three years have passed since the mythologized self-immolation of Tunisian produce vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. Several weeks ago, Tunisians commemorated Bouazizi with dueling demonstrations in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid — one "official" festival planned by the Ennahda government and a second insurgent event organized by the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) alongside other civil society ...


Three years have passed since the mythologized self-immolation of Tunisian produce vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. Several weeks ago, Tunisians commemorated Bouazizi with dueling demonstrations in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid — one "official" festival planned by the Ennahda government and a second insurgent event organized by the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) alongside other civil society groups and left parties. Reports of the two groups rallying blocks away from one another on the anniversary of Bouzizi’s death capture perfectly the spirit of division in post-revolutionary Tunisia. 

With an interim prime minister appointed and the country’s constitutional process back on track, what motivated these dueling protest blocs? During the onset of Tunisia’s recent political crisis in August 2013, I surveyed some 600 demonstrators for and against the Ennahda government over a 10-day period of competing protests akin to those in Sidi Bouzid in December 2013. Respondents on both sides answered a range of questions about their political activities, ideological commitments and policy preferences, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Similarities and differences in these indicators across protest groups tell us much about the nature of political contestation in Tunisia on the societal level — about who protests, on what side, and for what reasons. In aggregate, they shed light on the deep roots of the political crisis that has plagued Tunisia since August.

Pro- and anti-Ennahda protesters were respectively three and four times more likely than the general population to have protested during the 2011 revolution, a statistic suggesting that today’s rival demonstrations represent a fragmentation of the revolutionary coalition that deposed President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali nearly three years ago. Of the pro-government protesters, 73 percent voted for the current government in the 2011 National Constituent Assembly (NCA) elections, compared with 13 percent of anti-government protesters. Both protest groups reported significantly higher than national average education levels, union membership, voter turnout, and civic organization membership — characteristics consistent with high levels of political engagement.

Asked to identify their most important reason for protesting, some 35 percent of anti-government demonstrators indicated government failure to provide general security. The second largest block, at 29 percent, disliked living under an Islamist majority party and wanted to see a secular government installed in Tunis. Another 16 percent noted poor management of the economy, and 17 percent opposed the constitution writing process. Taking into consideration the "culprit" identified, anti-government protesters appeared split into two blocks: those specifically opposed to the Islamic character and recent machinations of the Ennahda party, and those concerned more with the corrupt and generally inept nature of governance in Tunisia — problems that certainly preceded, and are likely to outlast, Ennahda.

Such evidence begs the question: Was Tunisia’s political crisis about Ennahda or was it about the ancièn state continuing to govern badly? Are Tunisia’s transitional problems ideological or institutional? Unsurprisingly, the answer is both.

On the one hand, Tunisia’s secular-Islamist divide is among the deepest in the region. Asked to evaluate the statement "religion is a private matter, and should be separate from government," 92 percent of pro-government protesters chose "disagree" or "strongly disagree," while 99 percent of anti-government demonstrators chose "agree" or "strongly agree." Extreme polarization around the question of Islam in government is deeply rooted in the Tunisian state-building experience. For nearly 60 years following independence, the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes cultivated a class of hyper-secularist Tunisians, many of whom now view Ennahda’s self-proclaimed "moderate" character as a smokescreen for creeping Islamization of the Tunisian state and society. Secularists interviewed at protests charged Ennahda with failure to discipline the country’s Salafist fringe and claimed that Tunisia’s legacy of cosmopolitanism — its liberal dress codes and exemplary gender equality legislation — are under threat. Islamists countered that they are simply a majority. Imprisoned and exiled under the Ben Ali regime, Ennahda’s leadership moved quickly to mobilize grassroots Islamists in the wake of the revolution, and their supporters argued that such success shouldn’t be punished simply because it contradicts the self-image of Tunisian liberals.

Tunisia’s endemic economic and security problems, however, cannot be reduced to an ideological conflict surrounding the role of Islam in government. Ideology aside, the quality of everyday governance has stagnated since 2011. Anti-state violence in the periphery has become more frequent, and rumors abound of National Guard complicity in smuggling on the borders. Garbage collectors in Tunis have been striking for living wages intermittently since the revolution; Tunisians complain about trash proliferation in formerly pristine neighborhoods. Poverty remains rampant in Tunisia’s southern and inland towns, areas profoundly marginalized by the neoliberal growth strategies of the Ben Ali years. Unemployment of university graduates has reached 33 percent.

Anti-government activists in conversation framed these problems as proof of Ennahda’s incompetence, while government supporters blamed members of the "old regime" still in government. Both camps are, to a certain extent, right — while Tunisia’s new electoral and legislative institutions are reasonably functional and democratic, its bureaucracies, security forces, banks, provisional agencies, and local governorates are not. Ennahda inherited a corrupt, autocratic state running deeply unpopular policies, and accomplished relatively little in the way of reform. In my survey, perceptions of governance quality in the area of economic management played almost as important a "sorting" role between protest groups as views about religion and government — 90 percent of anti-Ennahda protesters agreed that Tunisia’s economy is worse than before the revolution, compared with only 13 percent of pro-Ennahda demonstrators.

Concern among protesters over economic performance is mirrored by recent national opinion polls, in which majorities of Tunisians cited unemployment and the financial crisis as the most important problems facing the country. Yet Tunisians in both camps remain divided over what direction the country’s socioeconomic policies should take. Both pro- and anti-government demonstrators in my survey spread evenly over the question of whether "the state should tax wealthy Tunisians more in order to expand social programs." Both pro- and anti-Ennahda groups contained citizens from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and occupations, from manual laborers to civil servants to the unemployed. The adage associating wealth with secularity and poverty with Islamism in Tunisia is not borne out by the facts on the ground.

On the societal level, Tunisia’s protracted political stalemate has been both a crisis of identity and a factor of institutional transition. Like most first post-revolutionary governments, the outgoing Ennahda government suffered both from its own missteps and from the failures of an old state reforming too slowly.

The greatest cause for optimism remains in the resilient non-violence of its competing political factions. Notably, while my team administered the survey in Tunis, Egyptian security forces were battling citizens at Rabaa al-Adawiya with live ammunition. In Tunisia, demonstrators and police remained peaceful at the protests we surveyed. Both demonstrations were full of children and women, who made up more than 30 percent of participants in both groups. Leaders from Ennahda and the opposition set an example by sitting together — even when the progress of their talks seemed null. The interim government must honor this commitment to negotiation over score settling as it presides over the next stage in the long-winded process of post-revolutionary reform.

Chantal Berman is a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University. Follow her on twitter: @ChantalBerman. Berman’s research was supported in part by a Travel-Research-Engagement grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science. This essay is part of a special series on Islam in a Changing Middle East supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.

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