Those Who Dwell Amongst the Rocks: an Extremely Brief History of the Tunisian Revolution

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Tunisian soldiers serving as gendarmes. Photograph by Habib M’henni, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.


Tunisia has received honorable mention in the international press as one of the few ‘’success stories’’ of the Arab spring. Yet it seems the major conflict of interest that has divided Tunisia, is between the Western interests who hoped to adopt Arab Spring revolutions, and the actual intentions, dreams and immense optimism of the Tunisian people, and particularly of the young. A push for regime change, aided by either the French or the American military and their European allies and investors, sought to welcome a new order with a more deregulated economy, open entirely to the market and to foreign investment. Dictators like Libyan Muamar Ghaddaffi, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Assad had presented their regimes as protective welfare states; whereas the revived Islamist parties in the region showed they mostly favoured de-regulation of the old state apparatus, despite their having enjoyed much support from the poor and the exploited.

News of Tunisia’s revolts, ousting the Benali regime in 2010, was immediately followed by a tumultuous period of post-dictatorship and unrest: that which is universally referred to as ‘’transition’’ Forces of popular rage had involved many groups in Tunisian society, wielded ecstatically together in uprising. Most important among these, were the passionate and often well-educated youth of the working and middle classes, often faced with chronic unemployment, unable to emigrate easily to Europe, and beset by the claustrophobia of living in a small police state led by the Benali family and their “Mauve party’ of decadent, and stupid authoritarian bullies. The crowds vying to usurp back their stolen power, included supporters of workers’ unions, political parties of the Left and of the religious Right with participants of all ages. Their assemblies were at times a chaotic pandemic, despite the organizational efforts by clandestine and forbidden political parties that had lived as underground networks even before Benali’s coup replaced the previous dictator Habib Bourghuiba. (the most legendary example is the lefist Workers’ Party leader Hamma Hammami, who at times had lived hidden in sewers and basements until he emerged to lead the communist insurgency in 2010. Unsurprising then, that Hamma Hammami’s life and loves became the stuff of popular legend among Tunisian high-school students of the generation born under the fearsome Benali.) A change in the geopolitical and imperial sphere suggested there would not be any more cold-war Western support for Benali’s regime (once a much-favoured client state for both France and the United States’ foreign policy)—allowing the ragtag social movements to commit the first popular overthrow of a dictator in the 21st century Arab world.

After the ousting of Zine el-Abidine Benali, there reigned a general, euphoric chaos in the crowds. Any Tunisian taking part in a crowd was suddenly an activist, self-declared, all constantly tested the limits of this mysterious concept of freedom they had heard so much about. The crowds stood outside of the major institutes of power, such as the Supreme Court or the “Casbah’’ —where they awaited the rulings by judges of former political prisoners and the policemen who had offended their rights. They chanted the lines from the poet Abulqaseem El Chebbi which include the verse “Those who do not wish to climb the mountain, shall dwell amongst the rocks” Chebbi was a poet who, like the patriot-poets of many countries under domination during the era was committed to the quest for national independence. (Adam Miciewicz, poet and liberator of Poland, or Jose Martí, poet and rebel-leader for the cause of Cuban Independence, come to mind as possible comparisons to Chebbi)

Chebbi formed part of the Tunisian DesTour party in the early 20th century and even fought as a guerrilla. His poem became an anthem of all the Arab uprisings that broke loose in 2010-2011. The militant verse, in places, sounds oddly Protestant though romantic: those who are indolent in the struggle for liberty, those who will not climb the mountain can do as they please, but are warned they will be abandoned to live amongst the rocks (not necessarily like those who inhabit rock-dwellings in the extreme South of the country, in Tataouine overlooking the Sahara.)

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During the most recent revolts, fire-lit lines from Chebbi competed amongst the crowds with chanted prayers of the Quran. Quranic quotes about resilience were mouthed by those supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and related movements, distant from the left and yet as relevant in the steps towards overthrowing Benali, the surprised ruler who fled to Saudi Arabia. Despite his notoriety, hated by the Muslim Brotherhood as a secular oppressor, Benali was welcomed to live out his exile in Saudi Arabia, the main supporter of the ISIL/Daesh militias today, which include many Tunisians, North Africans and European children of North African immigrants among their ranks.

Tunisia’s revolts of 2010 claimed the lives of between 300 and 340, killed by the military and snipers—these mostly unarmed protestors, whether or not they were religious qualified as shaheedeen, martyrs. In the Central and Southern provinces, some of the young men resisting Benali’s gendarmerie and snipers were ruthlessly burnt alive while hiding in mosques that were firebombed by the army. Such a desperate tactic, used on a mosque, effectively pronounced the end of any obedience to the RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally, the single party of Benali and his predecessor Bourghuiba) Now in 2015, one of the scandals affecting Tunisian society is the high rate of recruits to ISIS/Daesh who came from these regions. It is a disheartening national trauma for the Tunisians, who would have wanted to express solidarity with the Syrians and Iraqis. (Many youths in the South-Central region who were part of the Islamist groups and who witnessed the Syrian tragedy on television and through the internet—simplified as another secular oppressor, Assad, former ally of Benali, brutally cracking down on his own people—convinced them to join Libyan, Algerian and European Islamists in the self-righteousness of armed misions, supported then by Al Qaeda and by none other than US Secretary of State John Kerry to attempt a violent overthrow of Bashar al-Assad.)

Transition’s Carnival and Foes

During the Tunisian 2011-2013 period of transition, the crowds and political parties were pitted against counterinsurgency, consisting of the many intricate structures of political police and the remnants of the Benali regime. The religious right wing, the Ennahda or “Dawn” party won the first elections by a landslide, out of the more than 70 political parties that had suddenly risen into existence during the period of tumult during and after the revolt. Ennahda had strong roots in the rural Centre and South of the country, where many of the poor and exploited agricultural labourers lived. Ennahda, whose party logo is a hawk in flight, channelled the historical divisions and resentments of the South against the North: most of the soldiers who fought the French in the war of independence were conscripted by Habib Bourghuiba from the countries’ rural centre and south; many pro-Bourghuiba families in the North speak better French than their Arabic and have lived in a historical delusion about independence, believing that independence was handed-over in a non-violent and bureaucratic pact of peace-making by the French, as a bloodless concession to Bourghuiba. Eventually, such cognitive dissonance worsened between the children of the resistance fighters and the ‘’Carthagineans’’ of the more affluent port-cities by the sea. Many among the elites sincerely believed no such anti-colonial war had taken place in an African former French colony, perhaps a reasurring thought given the extent of French culture they have come to identify with, regardless of how French xenophobia might disagree or frown upon the North Africans’ sentimentality.


Within the transitional or ‘’provisional inter-rim government’’ were former officials of the Mauve-party, Benali’s loyals: a scandalous state of affairs led to calls for what was called ‘’épurations’’in French, purifications or East-European-style ‘lustration’-campaigns and trials to purge the old-regime elements from all institutions except for the police (where it would have proven impossible to ‘’purify’’). Such campaigns were called for by young politicians, often of those families most affected by the police and surveillance state with its practices of psychological and physical torture. Many even called for a death penalty—yet these remained at sentimental wishes, rage sublimated in Facebook democracy. The former ‘’party families,’’ those people who wore the violet/mauve colour because it was Benali’s favourite, quickly switched their political allegiances either to the Islamist party or, less opportunistically to the Nidaa Tounes neoliberal centre-right party. This part of Tunisian society is often caricatured by the widely-beloved underground cartoonist Zeyyed, in his popular series ‘Debat-Tunisie’ as the “Ben Simpsons’’: petit-bourgeois dwellers of the ‘’posh’’ neighborhoods such as Lamarsa and Carthage in Tunis, who created an American-style consumer way of life. The very influential and real “Ben Simpsons’’ group are lampooned in the comic strip as being chameleonic and opportunistic, wearing either mauve or hijab (or a mauve hijab) if it caters to the political whims of the day; suddenly the Ben Simpons go Islamist and pray to the wrong direction, or congegrate around a giant crate of the Tunisian Celta-brand of Beer, thinking it is Mecca. Ben Simpsons’ always opportune world has generally been a happy petit-bourgeois affair, despite the many Tunisians who were imprisoned or murdered by the political police. Zeyyed’s hilarous and dirty pictures are an art form, and luckily gaining more recognition. The cartoonist expressed his being appalled at the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists (a killing spree that was also followed by the supermarket attack, during which at least one Tunisian was killed.)

Between Two Third Ways

“When the new cannot emerge and the old cannot die, then we are living in the time of monsters”

–Antonio Gramsci

The two largest parties in Tunisia are both variations of “Third Way’’ rhetoric: post-political parlances, often expressed in moralistic and slightly utopian terms, seeking out the ‘’third way’’ alternative route between capitalism and Soviet era socialism. On the right, the Islamists—led by Rached Gannouchi and other former political prisoners—and in the “extreme center,” Nidaa Tounes, party of technocrats, post-politics and neoliberal solutions, is led by current president Essebsi, a former official of Tunisia’s first, founding dictatorship. Between the religious and secularist “Third Way’’ parties, there seemed to be one rising party that achieved a stunning popular upswing during the years of 2013, only to be met with repression: the Tunisian left, politically embodied in the unions and in the “Movement of Democrats and Patriots’’ the Red Party whose daring spokesmen Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi would soon be assassinated.

Shortly after entering office in October 2011, Ennahda began to disappoint the laborers in the South, who were promised workers’ rights and higher wages but were instead punished with the illegalization and dissolution of the unions (a betrayal similar to Erdogan’s sudden turn against the striking miners in Turkey.)

As political Islam and the once-romanticized Muslim Brotherhood party lost the broken heart of its supporters, the radical left grew in regions like Sidi Bouzid, where descendants of Touareg nomads lived in the conditions of sweltering poverty that first made the revolts explode with Mohammed Bouazzizzi’s public self-incineration. Much of Ennahda’s opposition demanded that Ennahda and its leaders take measures against the Salafi extremists who were wreaking havoc in Tunisia. Ennahda was the Muslim party which promoted itself as moderate and whose politicians, many of them former political prisoners, compared themselves to European Christian-Democrats, despite their being a variation of moderate and puritan-extremist believers within the party. (Erdogan, who up until recently enjoyed a more positive image as a ‘’lenient’’ religionist, was also a model for the Tunisian Islamists.) Salafists, mostly gangs of young bearded men who were formerly social outcasts and ridiculed as losers in Tunisian society, began to vandalize traditional Sufi and Berber graves and to attack artists and art galleries, such as the attack on the Printemps des Arts festival exhibition that resulted in a fire in 2012 in the Palais Abdelleya galleries in Tunis.

But an embarassed religious establishment decided it was the popularity of the Left which needed to be punished. First on the hit-lists were Chokri Belaid—a charismatic and secular leftist and a lawyer for civil liberties—and Mohamed Brahmi, a socialist who said he practiced his belief within his home, ruling out all political Islam as a viable path for the 21st century. Brahmi and Belaid were personalities who animated and rallied the loyalty of the lower classes towards the left and away from both Ennahda and more extremist forms of Muslim Brotherhood Islamism. They were both assassinated by young Salafis, leaving the country in shock and in mourning, and laying the path for the attacks on the Bardo museum (the museum that houses the antiquities of Carthage.) Even during the attacks on art galleries and the demand by offended religious people to have the right to censor and persecute Tunisian painters, Belaid had legally represented the animation film based Maryam Satrapi’s Persepolis against government detractors in court—though defending Persepolis was only one small aspect of the political activities that would sentence him.

Rights of the Poor, Women’s Rights Vs. Christian Neoliberalism and Chastity

The Tunisian rejection of market-power and regulation defended by Ennahda, revealed that for modern Islamism, the Koranic guide to the economy is precisely the aspect of Mohammed that was closest to an entrepreneur. Mohammed defended the right to make profit from trade as moral. Islamism and market-fundamentalism, thanks to the Saudi Arabian influence, has shown itself as a continuum in Tunisia. The rejection of Ennnahda’s attempts at de-regulation led to some of the most interesting protests—from the point of view of the cause of the Arab woman—in 2013: protests erupted in Tunisia when Ennahda officials threatened to remove the state healthcare coverage for women’s abortions.

Abortion of unwanted pregnancies is legally available in famously progressive Tunisia, and the operation covered by the state medical programs. Popular discontent was directed at how the “austerity-measure’’ would lead to the advantage for women of wealthy families, whereas a poorer woman would be unable to access the right to abort. The motion by a religious party, threatening not to illegalize abortion, but to stop state funding for the operation, let to a fascinating outbreak of public resistance showing how neoliberal economics inevitably leads to enforcing conservatism, even in Muslim countries in Africa.

The protests epitomized the goal of Arab participants in the revolts to have their uprisings on their own terms, and not stolen away by the global neoliberal market, as Western military and financial interests that inevitably found an unlikely ally in the Islamist religious right in the struggle to control the outcomes of the revolts.

The ‘’Arab Spring’’ Began in Iraq 2003

Arguably, the very first “Arab Spring’’ transformation was not Tunis January 2010: it was Iraq 2003, as Bush-II and the NeoConservatives announced their liberation of Iraq from its secular regime, a dictatorship that committed innumerable crimes while also providing a welfare state and a controlled economy, comforting its people in a security provided by the oil. Saddam and Ghaddaffi both kept much of the national resources and institutes under a nationalized economy, not giving in to foreign demands they remained patriotic militarists. Benali did this to a much lesser extent, as his dynasty was less ideologically committed and flirted with the new economic fashions of neoliberalism, as well as trying to keep up the image of the old authoritarian ways of Habib Bourghuiba. Tunisia’s first ruler after independence, Bourghuiba appointed Benali as his gendarme, then as prime minister, and was overthrown by his own appointee in the so-called “Jasmine revolution’’, a military coup d’etat in November 1987. In a comical manner, the Western media coverage of the Tunisian revolt named the 2011 popular uprisings after the “Jasmine revolution’’, the coup waged by the overthrown authoritarian.

The ruthless assassinations of Belaid and Brahmi are wounds still deeply felt in the Tunisian society that has undergone a wave of paralysis and timidity after having lost some of the most courageous and vocal fighters for the small nation’s sovereignty in an increasingly fragmented and alienated North African and Middle Eastern region.

What would have materialized as the single “success-story” (to use a typically capitalist phrase) among the countries of the Arab revolts of 2011, was prevented with the coordinated killings of those politicians. The left had regained the respect of the labouring classes and the unemployed. Until 2012, the communist parties were not taken as seriously among the Tunisian majority, as the political left was associated with a fashion of the 1970s and the identity politics of middle class intellectuals who drenched in nostalgia for that era. In the shadow of Ennahda’s disappointment of the desires of its working class supporters, the left began to impress, to shine and bedazzle the people who it claimed represent—the ‘’proletariat’’—for the first time, instead of being satisfied with the enthusiasm of Tunis cosmopolitan intellectuals. Individuals such as Belaid and Brahmi, were those mostly likely to secure the revolution by the Tunisians, on their terms—and not Saudi Arabia’s or Qatar’s; not according to the plans of the United States. The dream was of securing the Tunisian revolution by playing, neither by the rules of Sarkozy nor those of Francois Hollande: the ‘’lone success story’’ of the Arab revolts in Tunisia needed to be according the general, pluralistic will of the Tunisians towards an independent, post-authoritarian democracy. But with the anti-political assassinations—an act of ‘’politicide’’—this dream again stood subverted, as it was subverted in each and every case of the “Arab spring’s’’ concert of the disillusioned, from Tripoli to Aleppo.

Today, under president Essebsi, the political structures of the Nidaa Tounes party use the rhetoric of counter-terrorism and “security”. The Essebsi government has re-established many of the old, authoritarian surveillance structures, and the system of provincial deputies that was dismantled for having been staples of the Benali regime. Essebsi himself was part of Bourghuiba’s circle and feeds on the still-extant sentimental love many Tunisians have for Habib Bourghuiba, “the Modernizer,’’ a megalomaniacal dictator who appointed Benali as prime minister, and whose program for modernization of Tunisia involved the eradication of the Touareg bedouin ways of life in the South. The small North African country, has long lived in fear of the Algerian scenario of civil war’s unlimited terrorism. Benali could always trust the people’s fear of a situation far worse than dictatorship, which is civil war, as happened next-door in Algeria. With the reminiscent and nightmarish examples of Syria and Libya, the fear has returned, and the politics of fear in Arab countries often leads the people to trust a Leviathan-like dictator or authoritarian power who disciplines and who nannies, even by torture and surveillance, should the fear loom sufficiently large.

Arturo Desimone (Aruba, 1984) is an Aruban-Argentine writer, poet and visual artist. His articles on politics previously appeared in  CounterPunch, DemocraciaAbiertaBerfrois UKDiem25news and elsewhere. Author of the poetry collection Mare Nostrum/Costa Nostra (Hesterglock 2019) and the bilingual book “La Amada de Túnez” which  appeared in Argentina during the pandemic, he has performed at international poetry festivals in Granada, Nicaragua, Buenos Aires and Havana.