A decade after the 2010 eruption of Tunisia’s revolution, which led to the overthrow of a 23-year-old one-party regime, Tunisians are still unable to translate their political achievements into social and economic gains. This December 17, on the ten-year anniversary of the day of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation and coined by Sidi Bouzidians as “the true Revolution Day”—as opposed to the officially-recognized date of January 14—Tunisians continue to face the same public disenchantment and disparity between its different regions as they did ten years ago. To add to the frustration, a few weeks before this tenth anniversary, the President of the Assembly of the Representatives and co-founder of the Ennahdha Movement Rached Ghannouchi hired Mohamed Gheriani, the last Secretary General of Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally (DCR), to his cabinet in charge of reconciliation, raising serious questions about the country’s future political trajectory.
Still, the political and civic structures of the 2010s are no longer the same; the country witnessed a boom in political plurality following the end of DCR rule, with the establishment of dozens of parties and thousands of civil society organizations (CSOs). However, this came as a double-edged sword once the product exceeded the demand, affecting the credibility and ability of all of these competing structures to mobilize a drained and impoverished population. And despite adopted plans for decentralization, local state-authorities still have no major role in making decisions for their regions.
As inspiring as Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” was, it failed to revolutionize the mechanisms of organizing on a large scale. As a young man from Sidi Bouzid myself before 2010, the word “politics” only meant Ben Ali’s regime and the DRC. Everything orbited around the party: the municipality, the schools—even the boy scouts and the youth center. Success in life for most of my peers was intertwined with conforming to the structures around that orbit. For many like myself, it was not until moving to the capital Tunis for college that we discovered the power of collective opposition.
It was only within the walls of Tunisian universities where one could hear and see others freely expressing their anger and opposition to “the ruling family” of the Trabelsis and to Ben Ali’s policies. Up until then this was unheard of beyond universities in a police state ruled with fire and fury, especially in poorer interior regions. This new, more open environment was empowering to many students like myself at the time, to take their first step into activism through artistic expression, volunteering, and student unionism.
For university students of my generation, the revolt of the Tunisian people in December 2010 was an event that empowered us to expand the scope of our civic engagement. At that time, a group of students convening from multiple interior regions of the country established I Watch, the first watchdog organization in the history of the country with the objective to fight corruption, for which I served as Secretary. The new generation of post-revolution Tunisian civil society had its genesis and raison d’etre determined within a revolutionary setting. While many organizations predating the revolution were either populated by pro-regime puppets or shelters for persecuted political opposition, this new wave of Tunisian CSOs was led by technocrats: home-grown university graduates and executives, some of them returning from overseas with study and work experience.
The methods and tactics for advancing the demands of these CSOs were quite unconventional, borrowing elements of pop culture, embedded within their structured and formal advocacy work. Such was the story of the Manish Msamah (“I won’t forgive”) campaign; in response to a controversial reconciliation bill introduced by the Ennahdha and Nida-Tounes-led government, Tunisia witnessed the inception of a politically-heterogenous youth-led social movement that resisted attempts to thwart transitional justice. Protestors chanted “Manish Msameh” during their demonstrations, and it was consequently adopted as the name for the campaign. In view of the predominantly-leftist politicized base, Manish Msameh was unsuccessful in distancing itself from opposition parties, operating as a pawn. As a consequence, the movement diminished soon after the adoption of the Reconciliation Act, ending an enthusiastic experience many hoped would lead to the establishment of a youth-led political movement.
Nonetheless, especially given the economic hardship throughout democratic transition, not all Tunisians have bought into this type of organizing. While the old and new structures of civil society—including the UGTT, the country’s largest labor union—were battling the centralized government in the capital, the disenchanted and continuously-disenfranchised youth of the south had their eyes on more radical ways to gain the attention of the decision makers in Tunis. In 2017, a group of protestors in Tataouine (the largest governorate in the South) declared a sit-in and occupied the major valve and pump station for oil extraction of Kamour.
The Kamour Movement came as an escalation to a preceding online campaign called “Ween el petrol?” (Where is the petrol?). However, this movement did not limit itself to online slogans or protests in front of the iconic Municipal Theatre of Habib Bourguiba Avenue to demand the state’s transparency in handling natural resources, as many had done before. This movement did not just oppose the status quo, but it also made specific demands with the aim of addressing the region’s chronic unemployment. The demand was for a fair share of the region’s oil and gas revenues and an investment of 20 percent of these revenues in Tataouine. With a record budget deficit of 12 percent of GDP in 2020, the idea of negotiating with the protesters who had crippled the means of production became the center of controversy among those who did not the state to capitulate to such tactics.
At a time when broad sections of Tunisian society feel disappointed with the outcome of the 2010 uprising, and despite political gridlock and economic hardship due to the pandemic, Tunisia remains the only democracy in the Arab world. Certainly, my generation used the element of surprise and the rising social media platforms to organize and mobilize on a national level in 2010; yet these elements alone may be no longer as effective. This new wave of resistance that is now forming in places like the Kamour has learned from the mistakes of the previous generation and kept its focus on the outcome.
Sidi Bouzid was the birthplace of an uprising that created the needed epistemological rupture for Tunisia’s civil society to shift from a disguised opposition to one of blunt advocacy and contribution to the political process. It’s no wonder that the sole Nobel prize in the country’s history was awarded in 2015 to four non-governmental organizations, the National Dialogue Quartet, in acknowledgment of their “contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” Yet this Tunis-centered dynamic is no longer capable of containing the social-justice demands: Tunisia has entered a decentralization process after the adoption of the 26 January 2014 constitution, and so did resistance movements. Despite limited gains, post-revolution civil society played a strategic role in safeguarding the electoral process and ensuring the democratic transition in the last decade. Entering the second decade after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, relevance will require reimagined tactics.
This article was published as part of TIMEP’s “Ten Years On: Organizing in the MENA region” project.