Why Tunisia’s Arab Spring is in Turmoil

On Friday, tens of thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to protest the shocking assassination of leftist, secular politician Chokri Belaid earlier this week. He had been the leader of a small opposition party and had been an outspoken critic both of the ruling al-Nahda Party and of the neighborhood militias that sprung up during the revolution of 2011 and many of which have never been demobilized.

Friday was marked by a general strike called for by the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers (French acronym UGTT), the first in 35 years. (During the January, 2011, revolution, the UGTT was relatively timid and only called for a 2-hour work stoppage at one point).

One reason the UGTT called the general strike is that the religious right ruling party, al-Nahda, has since the revolution made a strong partnership with the private Tunisian business sector, and has been unsympathetic toward, and sometimes has repressed, workers’ strikes and movements.

In response to this week’s crisis, al-Nahda Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali proposed the formation of a government of national unity, in which he would appoint apolitical technocrats to major cabinet posts instead of prominent fundamentalist al-Nahda politicians. But the next day, his party’s central committee objected to this plan.

Belaid’s assassination was the most visible and prominent evidence of Tunisia’s class polarization. It is three-way, with workers and intellectuals of the left opposing the new government’s Neoliberal tendencies; with middle and upper classes tied to the old secular state and its institutions afraid of fundamentalism and privatization; and with the fundamentalists promoting private businessmen.

But the murder of Belaid also points to widespread security problems in the wake of the fall of the dictatorial regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali two years ago. The security problems derive from three quarters: simple criminal gangs, unruly neighborhood militias, and militant Salafi fundamentalists who act as Ku Klux Klan-style vigilantes against secularists. All three problems derive from the inability of the current government to reconstitute the security forces after the revolution. Tunisia’s some 80,000 secret police were largely disbanded, and the ordinary police are poorly paid and lacking in morale, feeling that people unfairly blame them for policing during the dictatorship. The military is small (35,000 men in a country of 10.5 million) and apolitical and has not played a significant role in civil security issues.

In turn, the incompetence of the ruling al-Nahda government in restoring security is in part structural. The government is full of people who were harassed by the police and unjustly jailed during the old regime, and restoring power to the police is probably not high on their agenda.

The other problem is the way the outcome of the October 23, 2011 parliamentary elections was handled. The Muslim, religious al-Nahda party only got about 37% of the seats. Secular, leftist and center-left parties made up the rest. Moncef Marzouki, leader of the Congress for the Republic party (center-left), went into coalition with al-Nahda and with the small Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties of Mustapha Ben Jaafar. Marzouki became president and Ben Jaafar became Speaker of the parliament. But the prime ministership went to Hamadi Jebali, and old-time fundamentalist, who formed a cabinet that largely was drawn from al-Nahda, the religious right. The three of them are called the ‘troika’ in Tunisia.

Marzouki is erratic and quirky, and ineffectual. Parliament doesn’t function all that well, and Ben Jaafar’s party only got 20 seats, so he isn’t powerful. Jebali and his fundamentalist cabinet have thrown their weight around even though they essentially head a minority government. Tunisian middle classes are often not just secular but militantly Voltaire-like, and they hate al-Nahda and its government.

The security problem posed by the hard line fundamentalist Salafis, who go around physically assaulting people and disrupting cultural events they don’t approve of, has generally been soft-pedaled by al-Nahda. Its leaders typically won’t condemn them outright, and talk about secular ‘provocations’ to the violence, thus blaming the victim.

The secularists go further. When I was in Tunisia last May, secularists repeatedly alleged to me that al-Nahda secretly runs the Salafis as enforcers for their own party, putting them up to their extreme actions. (In September, Salafis were bused by someone to an outer suburb of Tunis where the US embassy is located, and they attacked it).

In some ways, al-Nahda has itself to blame for the polarization and suspicion. It should have put more leftists in the cabinet (reflecting their weight in parliament), and it should have dealt more firmly with the Salafis and neighborhood militias.

Al-Nahda politicians have also sometimes deployed fiery rhetoric against secularists like Belaid.

Belaid was a critic of the neighborhood militias, of the Salafis and of al-Nahda. But his widow fingered al-Nahda as behind his murder, and this charge is widely believed in the tony neighborhoods of LaMarsa and other nothern suburbs.

If you really did believe that al-Nahda has dictatorial tendencies and has secret assassination cells, it would be alarming to have it be your government, hence the big demonstrations on Friday. But that conspiracy theory is only the expression of bigger class conflicts and anxieties. Tunisia is roiled not just by a religion/secular divide but by a Religious Right vs. Workers and peasants divide, with many middle class intellectuals siding with the latter. That is why the protests took place in hardscrabble rural towns as well as in downtown Tunis. Rural Tunisia is relatively religious, but it is also disproportionately unemployed, and al-Nahda has yet to do much for them. Indeed, where they have tried to strike and protest on labor issues, it has put them down (in a way it seems uninterested in putting down violent Salafis).

As usual, a lot of pundits are looking to use the instability in Tunisia to indict the Arab Spring. But the divisions and the structural problems in the country were largely produced by the old dictatorship, which could no longer deal with them by state coercion. Tunisia is wracked by that new phenomenon, of open political struggle. The country needs to rework it into peaceful civil politics if it is to go ahead, but the struggle itself is salutary. The old Tunisia of 80,000 secret police spying on citizens’ every word and the criminalization of political speech is gone, and good riddance. People who want that back for the sake of ‘stability’ are being unrealistic; it is what produced the instability, because it was untenable in the long run.

21 Responses

  1. It’s morning on Earth. People get up, open the shutters on their houses and shops, bake the bread, pluck the chickens, wash their children’s faces and hands, and go about their day-to-day. Over time, that ordinariness creates the wealth that makes the overlay, the largely predatory overlay, of “civilization,” possible, with all the face-to-face chatter and jostling, and seems to tend to eventually, even after horrible, hate-engendering conflicts, to eventually produce a tolerable level of “slack:” that variable tolerance of differences, the shrugging off of petty and larger corruption, the ebb and flow of fellow-feeling that makes community and over centuries has even most of the Irish on the same page. For the time being. In a condition of felt legitimacy and stability, or meta-legitimacy and meta-stability, that being “the behavior of certain physical systems that can exist in long lived states that are less stable than the system’s most stable state.”

    Seems like the trick is always figuring out how to keep those whose skills lie in self-advancement, by sharp dealing, promotion of conflict, aggravation of differences, plain old random or planned violence, and the ability to organize for and promote their cause, or just obscure death wishes, from nudging the gyroscope against its bearings, sending it off in some precessed quantum direction that can’t be anticipated by our limited Newtonian understandings.

    And of course the Game field is now worldwide, with lots of players who don’t walk in the streets and have to greet the neighbors every day. Possible moves in the Game: Give these guys or those guys weapons and training? Bring this or that “leader” to this or that capital to give him or her encouragement or creds, and send him or her back, reinforced? Foment this or that bit of mass violence? Put out this or that “policy” cover for this or that stratagem that serves interests unrelated, except via the network of string theory maybe, to that person pulling the laundry out on one of the many lines that link the tenements? While some people, cursed with the larger empathy and a wider view of what keeps the species going, day to day, promote reading programs or microloans or jirgas or the other ligatures that can tie people, with their limbic systems ever on alert for pleasure, pain or power, together in ways that promote social homeostasis.

    We are all increasingly and mutually vulnerable, though the asymmetry of vulnerability is also increasing, to the point that the elements that control our wilder exuberances and riots in smaller spaces and locales are attenuated to the point of insensibility, leading in the recent past and still on the books to the Cold War endgame planning where the political elite goes off to their deep, well-larded bunkers, to wait out the radioactive decay and the rotting of all those bodies, or now to the little people who dress up in their suits or uniforms, kiss the wife and kids, and drive off to offices and trailers where they select and execute the day’s Hellfire targets. Because after all, day to day, that’s what the system crafted by all those crafty people, earnest and perverse, pays them to do, what keeps them and their loved ones in bread and chicken fricassee or cordon bleu.

    • Have you ever thought about relating your posts to what Juan Cole is writing about? Since any one of your comments could relate to any one of his posts, I guess the answer is no. I’d honestly love to see what you would write if you decided to stay on point for five minutes.

      • Sorry the linkage seems obscure. Just pointing out how, over time, most people left more or less alone tend to adjust to differences that were worth killing for just a short while earlier. And that a relatively few people of selfish interest and bad intent can, obviously, by playing on certain flawed bits of our design, stir up one mass insanity after another. And how what I call Players,, pursuing other selfish interests, can by giving or withholding weapons and doing destabilizations and invading and stuff, unbalance the neighborhood again and again. My guess is that would happen over time, even in places like Tunisia and Syria and even Afghanistan when Karzai takes off for Dubai or wherever, and what’s going on in Myanmar and in Egypt where the ruling juntas have discovered their over-predations and repression threaten their profits and positions.

        My thought is there’s lots of people with posthole diggers and microscopes, looking at and even seemingly mastering little bits of the panorama, but as with the blindfolded philosophers debating the nature of the elephant from knowledge gained only by handling a tail, a trunk, a tusk, a leg, there’s some virtue in broadening the focus and thinking beyond the parochial, trying to take in all the parts, so the critter is seen in full dimension. If nothing else, as a way to avoid being trampled.

        And no, I don’t begin to claim to know the whole nature of the elephant. But I’ve been stepped on and whacked by its trunk, and seen what it does to the carefully tended maize and sorhgum…

  2. A recent poll suggested that in the upcoming June presidential/parliamentary elections, both Ennada and Call of Tunisia would gain about a third of the vote. Of course, the polls are usually massive off in the post-dictatorship Arab state, however, it seems that Call of Tunisia has gained quite a bit of traction.

    It would appear that the presidential race will be a vigorous contest between Marzouki, Beji Caid Essebi, and others.

  3. “screed
    /skrēd/
    Noun

    A long speech or piece of writing, typically one regarded as tedious.” There are less pejorative definitions, of course.

    Thanks! I guess… And the above snaps another impeachment bullet into the banana clips of the full-auto guns of Bill and Joe… I wonder if the discourse would be more illuminating or civil if we were all face-to-face instead of keyboard to keyboard, picking up the non-verbal clues, having to account for impulses to comity and acquiescence and altruism, feeling the guilt of overbearing, redolent of pheromones and earnestness… Wait, wait, I know the answer to that one!

    We can do so much better, as a species. Any bets on whether we will? Any Grand Ideas on how Better might actually happen? Or is it all tactics and strategy, targeted at Others?

    • Have you ever noticed that I’ve never written a comment about you?

      I loom way too large in your consciousness, JT.

      When you have nightmares about me, what does my facial hair look like?

      • Never? link to juancole.com, link to juancole.com Not even remarks about 3 x 5 cards? Or was that Bill? You guys seem to be sort of fungible.

        My nightmares are about bland, reassuring, seemingly wise and seemingly fact-laden (if incompletely depicted) people with blog-post-sized answers for everything, with portfolios of carefully selected and crafted rationales and examples, that apologize for and justify what, in my tiny little appreciation of the world, are behaviors that threaten, not protect, my kids and grandkids, and sure seem to be part of a long repeat of other imperial slides into oblivion that always take a lot of other plain old people down too. The myth you sell, very convincingly when one accepts your postulates anyway, is that all this is “legal,” by sovereign fiat “AUMF,” and “wise,” per policy documents of the day, and run by “competent” people. All like my favorite example, the Vietnam “war,” that wonderful expensive stupid Catch-22ism based on an idiot, fraudulent notion of the world. And on the other side, the Soviet investment in Afghanistan. Among just two of the larger ones. And how about the whole tail-chase of spending a quarter, and increasing, of the world’s wealth on armaments and atavistic war games?

        Time for us to really grow up, not just put on suits and uniforms and claim to be doing really serious grown-up stuff, and spending billions asymmetrically and stupidly to gratify Generals’ and politicians’ egos and enrich a predatory and destructive few. Like the Egyptian and Iranian militaries, and our own, so thoroughly enmeshed in and draining their respective cultures.

        Not to worry, though, Joe, all the money and momentum are on the side you stand up so comfortingly for. Too bad for the rest of us. ‘Cuz after all, EEEK! Terraists! Threat! AUMF! Hellfire!

        And again, why so much effort, day after day, to convince everyone who reads in these pages of the Rightness and Wisdom and Inevitability of Hellfire and Forever War? What are the national interests in play, again?

  4. Great analysis!

    Most of the Western media is loath to talk about class conflict, which was exacerbated by Ben Ali’s economic liberalization. Most of the benefits went to Ben Ali’s family and wealthy business partners.

    The US became comfortable with the Muslim Brotherhood, precisely because some of its leaders (at least in Egypt) are wealthy businessmen. It was hoped that they could form a stable religious/plutocrat alliance, much like a Republican/Fundamentalist Christian alliance on steroids.

    The problems with that policy are now evident in Tunisia, and I expect that Mursi in Egypt will have his hands full, too. I expect a wave of assassinations of union leaders and an exodus of intellectuals.

  5. I’d read your post earlier and waited too long, JohnH got there first. I’d underline his point about how the focus of the Western media — and in this context that might be better formulated as “the bourgeois press,” really — on religious conflicts mirrors the dulling of class conflict reporting in the West. Tunisia becomes another instance of arbitrary religion-driven turmoil instead of another instance of the rich maintaining their exploitative positions against workers and peasants. (It’s hard to write that without apologizing for sounding dogmatic, but it fits.)

    I hope you’re encouraged to draw out this dimension in future pieces, particularly on Egypt, where the role of the trade unions in Mubarak’s downfall has been terribly minimized.

  6. Chokri Belaid’s funeral was attended by over one million persons; police clashed with protestors. He was buried yesterday.

    Belaid, notably, served as part of the legal defense team for Saddam Hussein.

    His killing was was denounced across the globe – even by the Muslim Brotherhood.

  7. Steven
    Beji Caid Essibssi is not allowed to be president he’s too old for the position according to the old constitution (and i don’t think it would change with the new one).
    i like the analysis to some extent
    however what wasn’t mentioned here is that there is another theory for Mr Belaid’s assassination, which is mentioning Baji Caid Essibssi, with some exterior help, as the person who planned the assassination in order to get the county in a situation of chaos and push the actual government to resign.

  8. Isn’t it unusual in Muslim countries for the religious right – when it exists as a distinct political force – to be aligned with the business class?

    • Actually it is quite common. Khomeini was funded by the old business class (the bazaaris). AK Party in Turkey in many ways represented the Anatolian private businessmen.

      Because the secular state in the Middle East was often socialist or at least etatist, it owned much of the economy, and oppositional Muslim fundamentalists therefore were driven to become small private businessmen so as to be able to operate outside state structures.

      • Arab socialism under Nasser called for government controlling the means of production – industry as well as banking. The Baathists movements in Syria and Iraq were ideologically similar. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq targeted the wealthiest families for property confiscation. Arab socialism called for emancipation of women but also a certain degreee of respect for religion.

        As a result, the Islamic fundamentalists of these nations tended to poitically unite with business interests.

  9. Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose suicide sparked the Arab Spring, was a poor businessman who was mistreated by government bureaucrats. What would his politics be today if he were alive? The officials who harassed him are likely nervous about the fundamentalists. Hopefully, Bouazizi would have the sense to know that neo-liberalism usually means simply changing who is favored by and using the state.

  10. A few remarks concerning J. Cole’s analysis

    1) The current pro-business policies in Tunisia are a legacy of the former regime, the chief achievement of which is the liberalisation of small scale contractor enterprises in all business sectors (catering, security, civil engineering, communication, call centers, tailoring, import/export etc), thus boosting job creation but lowering wages as sector-wide negotiations led by UGTT were negated. Ennahdha was actually forced to reverse a lot of the “liberal” framework of the former regime. Ennahdha is certainly no left wing, in terms of economic policy, but it is no more liberal than the former regime. Claiming that Ennahdha implemented hypothetical “liberal” policies is giving it too much credit. It has implemented next to nothing in terms of economic reform, liberal or otherwise.

    2) The 3-fold stratification of (i) leftist pro-workers, (ii) middle class seculars and (iii) liberal islamists is inaccurate for two reasons a) The UGTT base are largely apolitical and are mainly concerned with improving wages and working conditions. Despite the huge number of UGTT members (half a million in 2010), left-wing parties are still marginal in the tunisian political spectrum. The real issue with UGTT is its leadership, which had been bribed and co-opted by the former regime, and is currently actively agitating in the anti-revolutionary camp. b) Granted, a large portion of the middle class are seculars and have voted against Ennahdha but this is not because Ennahda are planning to privatise public companies. The issue is that middle class seculars, including the ones who are committed muslims, are used to a western lifestyle and are worried about Ennahdha plans regarding re-islamisation of the society.

    3) Ennahdha won 37% of the seats and that’s because the voting system was a bespoke proportional representation, as opposed to majority rule. The voting system was designed by the seculars. In a majority rule system Ennahda would have easily won 50%+. And there in lies the main problem. Had the Ennahda been allowed a clear majority, as it should have been, laws would have fast tracked, and the constitution would have been adopted by now. Granted the constitution would have had an islamic flavour but it would mostly have been rhetorical and cosmetic as opposed to a Saudi style theocracy. The seculars, knowing fully well they are a minority in the country, have created the current unstable parliament.

    4) The seculars have been labelled democrats, progressive, modernist and so on, but are nothing of the sort. Tunisian political parties, Ennahdha included, have no government culture and none of them offers a credible government platform, as a matter of fact some of the platforms are beyond ludicrous. Suffices to say that the party that came second after Ennahda in the elections won its place via a program based on 5 points, with literally no details whatsoever. The 5 point program included free healthcare for all and a 200 DT (about €100) guaranteed job seekers allowance. That was the entire platform, 5 points. Tunisia is still a totally centralised country, run on soviet style 5-year plans. Governing in Tunisia essentially means authoritarian unitary executive, rather than creative and resourceful strategic planning . Thus the divide is not between knowledgeable secular democrats and archaic fundamentalist islamists. The real divide is between pro-liberty and pro-revolutionary forces versus the remnants of the old regime trying to hang on to their privileges and trying to avoid being brought up to justice. The “huge” number of alleged demonstrators on Friday means nothing. One can get someone to march and shout ( and engage in trouble if need be) all day long for a mere €10 in Tunisia and there is a large number of moneyed businessmen in the anti-revolutionary camp.

    5) Ennahdha are not fundamentalists by any measure. They are lightweight islamists at best. One can still buy alcohol in supermarkets in any time of day in Tunisia, not a single bar license was revoked, licensed brothels are still in business (literally), polygamy is still banned, the east coast clubbing scene still resembles an Ibiza style hedonistic camp in the summer, and one can even buy pork meat in many supermarkets. In comparison, the “liberals” in Libya deem a nation-wide alcohol ban as a fundamental law in the country.

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