The start of it all: an anti-government demonstration in Tunis on 18th January 2011, a few days after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile following 23 years of tyrannical rule. © Samuel Aranda, Panos images

What happened to the Arab Spring?

A decade ago, a fruit-seller in Tunisia set himself alight, and before long dictators were falling like dominoes. Only in the place where it all began has a new democracy endured—but so have many of the problems it was meant to fix
December 8, 2020

One day in October, a cluster of mask-wearing, poster-waving protesters gathered in front of the white-domed Tunisian parliament building to object to a decree that could have normalised political interference in the media. Mahdi Jlassi, the president of the journalists’ union, criticised the bill, claiming that the lack of transparency about who financed the Tunisian media was a threat to the security of the country as well as to freedom of expression. “We are not going to accept chaos,” he told me.

“And so? What about Fox and Murdoch?” retorted Said Ferjani, an MP whose Islamist party, Ennahda, is dominant in parliament and was supporting the bill. But under that pressure, the decree was in due course withdrawn.

In a separate protest happening at the same time inside the building, Abir Moussi, the leader of the Free Destourian Party, was staging a sit-in about violence against women parliamentarians, hoping to disrupt the assembly’s proceedings. Moussi, an increasingly popular figure in Tunisia, is an apologist for the old dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted a decade ago in the first stirring of what came to be known as the Arab Spring. 

Chaos is one way of describing the Tunisian political scene—or is it freedom? It could be both. All the debate and disagreement is a far cry from the country of 10 years ago, when every shop and state building was adorned with the portrait of Ben Ali, who would imprison and harass opponents while carrying elections with a claimed 90 per cent of the vote. 

Tunisia’s tumult is one of the more peaceful manifestations of the instability that has consumed the Middle East and North Africa since popular movements rose up against authoritarian regimes a decade ago. The Arab Spring began here in December 2010 when fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in protest at poor living conditions and daily humiliation, soon sparking mass protests not just in Tunisia but across the region. People took to the streets, and previously immoveable dictators were ousted. Tunisia has since held free and fair elections, and been spared from the wars, repression and massacres that have engulfed other Arab countries. 

In Egypt, dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011 only to be replaced, after a brief brush with elected Islamism, with an even more brutal leader, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, in a military coup two years later. Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has been embroiled in civil war between rival authorities in the east and the west, fuelled by international powers. Syria has been terrorised by Islamic State, foreign military intervention and by President Bashar al-Assad, who used chemical weapons on his own people to cling on to power. Yemenis revolted for dignity but have been left with anything but, as a war that has left more than 100,000 dead grinds on, leaving two thirds of the population reliant on food aid. 

But perhaps it is premature to assume that everything is lost. In prison under Italian fascism in 1930, Antonio Gramsci wrote of crisis as a sort of purgatory between a crumbling system and one that is yet to appear. The interim, he wrote, is a time of monsters.

“The mobilisations of 2010-2011 inaugurated a long cycle of instability, it was a real earthquake in the region and it is not finished,” said Olfa Lamloum, a political scientist based in Tunis. “We have seen that with the second wave of revolutions and mobilisations in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, which was stopped by Covid. The situation is a chiaroscuro of revolution and counter-revolution.” 

Tunisia’s tumult led to more than 1,600 protests in autumn 2020. Security forces stand by in the smaller town of Sbeitla. © MOHAMED ZARROUKI/AFP via Getty Images Tunisia’s tumult led to more than 1,600 protests in autumn 2020. Security forces stand by in the smaller town of Sbeitla. © MOHAMED ZARROUKI/AFP via Getty Images

Tunisia’s tumult led to more than 1,600 protests in autumn 2020. Security forces stand by in the smaller town of Sbeitla. © MOHAMED ZARROUKI/AFP via Getty Images

In Tunisia itself, the initial elation and solidarity soon enough gave way to division: two leftist leaders were assassinated in 2013. “It was a political crime and Tunisians said ‘we don’t want that,’” remembers Aziz Krichen, a sociologist, who was an adviser to the former president Moncef Marzouki, an ex-human rights activist who headed the state during the rocky first two years of Tunisia’s democratic transition. “We’ve seen very few deaths. We advance by arguing and shouting.”

The country enacted a new constitution in 2014 and a Nobel Peace Prize for its National Dialogue Quartet (a group of civil society organisations) was awarded the following year. But as living conditions worsen and the government fails to deliver on the revolution’s economic demands, many
Tunisians are tired of shouting without being heard. Cynicism is common. Lower numbers of voters turn out with each election. I’ve heard it said numerous times: “they let us open our mouths, but they put their hands over their ears.”

Clipping a young man’s hair at a barber shop in a suburb north of Tunis, Kamel Ghribi, 35, couldn’t care less about the goings-on inside parliament. “State? There is a state? It is everyone for himself, the government doesn’t do anything.” The customer that he was grooming nodded in agreement. Since reopening after a three-month Covid lockdown, the barbers has had half its usual clients. During lockdown, the government offered a monthly payment of 200 Tunisian dinars (£55) but many, including Ghribi, didn’t receive it. 

The pandemic has deepened an existing social crisis in Tunisia. Since the revolution, Ghribi has had less money to spend even as prices have rocketed; he also has fewer friends to speak to—they have all hargou or “burned”: that is, migrated to Europe via the Mediterranean crossing.
“Only the politicians benefitted from the revolution, not the people,” he said. 

The barber shop sits on the high street of working-class Ettadhamen, one of the main arenas of confrontation between protesters and police in January 2011. The police fired bullets and used so much tear gas that it seeped through closed doors, recalls Emna, a 64-year-old shopkeeper who barricaded herself in her shop with her husband, while protesters set the police station down the road alight.  

Lokman Radadi, 31, was among the first who went out to confront Ben Ali’s police. As he threw rocks, he was shot. The bullet exploded in his leg after passing through the neck of a friend, who died from his wounds. Radadi’s right leg is now shorter than his left one. As part of the transitional justice process set up after the revolution, 204 lawsuits—including Radadi’s—are at long last being heard by special courts. His mother’s case is also being heard. She was stripped naked, hung by her feet and beaten in the Ministry of Interior building. Her husband, a member of the Islamist movement Ennahda, was tortured to death under the old regime. 

It wouldn’t happen today, and yet Radadi feels bitter. The politicians “leave you in a constant state of expectancy, this vague hope is everywhere,” he said. “No hopes have been realised: I want the offenders to be punished, the truth to be revealed.” Moreover, while “people wanted to work” in 2011, “there is more unemployment than before.”

Since the creation of the special courts two years ago, all 204 cases remain under examination. “There has not been any political support since their creation,” said Khayem Chemli of Avocats Sans Frontières in Tunis. “There are attempts to raze them down and cancel them with project laws and there is a quasi-boycott from the security forces to come to the tribunals. They just don’t show up.” 

Political blockages to transitional justice—presided over by the Truth and Dignity Commission—set in from 2014. Governing in coalition with the Islamist Ennahda was Nidaa Tounes, a secular party that mixed progressives and old regime figures (the partnership was somewhat unexpected since this party was created to oppose Ennahda). Its leader, until his death in 2019, was the aged Beji Caid Essebsi, who also served as Tunisia’s President for the last five years of his life. He never officially acknowledged the Commission’s final report, which included accusations against Essebsi himself from his time as director of national security and minister of the interior in the 1960s. The Ministry of the Interior still hasn’t made its archives available. 

[su_pullquote]“Even the term ‘revolution’ is not popular, because it has brought people nothing, as they see it”[/su_pullquote]

The parliamentary coalition of the unlikely partners began to firm up as early as 2013, just two years into the revolution, and it did succeed in lowering the tension between the Islamist and secularist camps. At the time, Tunisians’ vision of their own country was coloured by Islamist revolution and military counter-coup in Egypt. Tunisians did not want to see anything similar at home. Although praised internationally at the time and perhaps preferable to a showdown, this uneasy political truce “is the origin of many ills we are living today,” said Selim Kharrat, President of the parliamentary watchdog Al Bawsala. “This famous consensus favoured the status quo and saw a regression, notably on transitional justice, due to the passing of a law on national reconciliation,” he said, referring to a 2017 amnesty for civil servants who were accused of corruption under the old regime. Though democratically elected, Nidaa Tounes included many with questions to answer relating to the old regime, and it wasn’t in Ennahda’s interest to pursue cases against its partner in government.

Sayida Ounissi, an Ennahda MP, admitted that they “really messed up transitional justice.” Unlike many others in her party, the 33-year-old is too young to have experienced the prison and torture of the past. The older generation in her party, she said, took consensus “too far” because they had internalised accusations thrown at them like “you are not Tunisians, you are the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, you do not belong to this country.” 

This failure, she believes, has shaped how the political landscape is organised—in particular, it paved the way for the rise of two very different newcomers on the political scene during the 2019 election: the reactionary Islamist Dignity Coalition which bristles at Ennahda’s compromises with old regime figures, and the authoritarian-nostalgic Free Destourian Party, which advocates for the eradication of Islamists. Leader Abir Moussi may put herself at the helm of protests about women’s rights today, but just under a decade ago—right after the revolution—she was a lawyer for the party of the old regime, and she continues to regard the uprising as a foreign import. 

One of Moussi’s campaign issues is, Ounissi explained, opposing the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission: “Abir Moussi comes and says ‘This is nonsense! This hold-up that we call transitional justice!’ It’s her bread and butter.” The fact she is leading in nationwide polls illustrates the extent of general disenchantment with the current situation and the profound obstacles still in the way of Tunisians committed to drawing a clear line under the past. 

Meanwhile, activists struggle to mobilise support for the process. “We do petitions, and no one signs them. We did one in May, I knew it wouldn’t work,” said Halim Meddeb, a lawyer and civil society activist. “Even the term ‘revolution’ is not popular because it has brought people nothing—as they see it,” he said, even though he doesn’t agree. However, after years of active opposition to Ben Ali’s regime, Meddeb now chooses not to vote. He wondered whether the relative stability in Tunisia has allowed an enervating stasis: “We had running water, we didn’t have electricity outages—but it was not good for change.”

As the results for the 2019 parliamentary elections came in last November, I was in a café with Nader Mathlouthi, 34, an engineer, not far from the Islamist Ennahda Party bureau in his neighbourhood Kram West. A few cheers could be heard from the open windows as it came out top. But Ennahda’s victory was not comprehensive; it won only 20 per cent of the total vote, compared to 37 per cent in 2011.

Regime apologist Abir Moussi addresses a protest in Tunis. © © Chokri Mahjoub/ZUMA Wire/Shutterstock Regime apologist Abir Moussi addresses a protest in Tunis. © © Chokri Mahjoub/ZUMA Wire/Shutterstock

Regime apologist Abir Moussi addresses a protest in Tunis. © Chokri Mahjoub/ZUMA Wire/Shutterstock

Mathlouthi’s was one of the votes they lost: “We thought that [Ennahda] would make the system fall but they kept it in place and quickly integrated into it,” he told me that day, after he and many friends had voted for the harder-line Dignity Coalition, in the hope that the new Islamist/nationalist party—which campaigned on an anti-old-regime ticket—would “bring back the slogans of the revolution and give us sovereignty over our resources. They are against the system and against the mafia that runs the country—they will clean it all up.” 

The elections could be read as a popular revolt against the admittedly messy efforts at compromise by Tunisia’s first cohort of democratic leaders. After Nidaa Tounes splintered and Ennahda slipped back, momentum began to shift towards zealous forces on both sides, such as Free Destourian and the Dignity Coalition. The latter are part of a new rising class of “anti-system” politicians. The biggest winner of 2019 was President Kais Saied, a socially conservative law professor with no ties to any party. Despite his robotic demeanour, he won 73 per cent of the vote against Nabil Karoui, a secular businessman accused of corruption. 

Saied’s image as a “man of the people” was reinforced by his regular visits to his local cafe in the working-class Mnihla district—for a time, he refused to leave the area to move into the presidential palace. 

Meanwhile, some longtime Ennahda members are despondent. “People voted for Ennahda as a reaction, it was the main enemy of Ben Ali and they had the idea that Ennahda were pious people,” said Lotfi Zitoun, who was still among the leaders of the party when we spoke, but has since moved towards leaving its ranks. “As soon as they got to know Ennahda, they saw that Ennahda has no programme for Tunisia, that they lie and do things that are not allowed by religion, like any politician.” He added that his party returned to religious discourse in the last election, after officially separating preaching from politics in 2016. “This kind of behaviour reinforces the idea that Ennahda is not a party of principles, not sincere,” he said, choosing not to reply when I asked if he shared this view.

Ever since the revolution, the central battle in Tunisian politics has often been framed as Islamism vs secularism, but in truth this ceased to be the animating struggle when the two camps formed their parliamentary alliance.
In the 2019 presidential race, the businessman Karoui spoke of the “Islamist threat” as he raced against Saied, but it did not gain traction. The overwhelming majority saw the core conflict not as Islam vs modernity, but honesty vs corruption. “The main demands of the Tunisians are social and economic, there is no time to argue about identity questions,” said Kharrat, of Al Bawsala, the parliamentary watchdog. This kind of “polarisation contributes to making the atmosphere a bit tense, but it is not the centre of
the debate.”

During the swearing in of the new independent Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi this September, an MP presented him with a book, Internal Colonialism and Uneven Development. The author, Salhi Sghaier, doubts that the new PM will read it: “I don’t think he has read a book in the last 15 years, except maybe the code of something, the code of agriculture… but not a book.” 

It is a pity. This historian was one of the earlier voices to raise the issue of Tunisia’s rentier economy, whereby a dozen or so families have a hold over all the business opportunities. “People would make fun of me, they would say I exaggerate, that I see conspiracies everywhere,” he said. Now though, it is debated on television and Sghaier gets calls from politicians to ask for guidance. “We cut off the head, and a bit more,” he said, referring to Ben Ali being deposed, “but for the socio-economic questions, nothing has been done” because those in power “neutralise” anything that seeks real change. Consequently, said Sghaier, “we create institutions that don’t work.” 

[su_pullquote]“In the 2019 presidential race, the overwhelming majority saw the core conflict not as Islam vs modernity, but honesty vs corruption”[/su_pullquote]

After 14th January 2011, a few of Ben Ali’s family members went to prison, but most businessmen only became more powerful. The corruption that characterised the dictatorship is unchecked. In 2017, Ben Ali’s nephew, Imed Trabelsi, who was jailed in 2011, gave a live-stream testimony from his cell during a public hearing on corruption, in which he said: “There was a revolution, but nothing has changed to my knowledge. I have my sources and the same system [of corruption] is still operational.” And, as viewed from the streets, the need to mobilise continues. More than 1,600 protests—spontaneous and organised—took place in Tunisia this autumn. Faith in politicians keeps on dropping. 

Looking across the Arab world, the political scientist Lamloum reflected: “We are still in a phase of political composition and recomposition, which will last for years.” And indeed, renewed protests in 2019 in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq resulted in prime ministers and presidents being pushed out. Now, due to Covid-19, these countries face even more unemployment and poverty, and—as Lamloum pointed out—nobody can say where the pandemic will lead. In some places, movements have petered out under lockdown, but protests have taken place during the pandemic in war-torn Libya and repressive Egypt. 

But it was Tunisia that was the birthplace of the uprisings that swept the region, and—as of today—it is the only one of the countries that deposed its dictator that resembles a democracy. While the people of Tunisia are not oppressed by military rule or ravaged by conflict, they are still afflicted by the corruption and poverty that prompted the revolution in the first place. The rage is still there; now tinged with hopelessness. There are new democratic channels to express that discontent. But they are viewed as less and less useful. I got back in touch with a few of the enthusiastic voters I met a year ago. Souha Boughanmi, a law student who was initially an avid defender of the then-new President Kais Saied, said she has stopped following politics: “We understand nothing except for Covid right now.” Mathlouthi, with whom I watched the 2019 election, no longer supports anyone, not even the party he voted for a year ago, because “no one has kept their promises, [they] work for their own interests.” He still hopes for something he calls revolution.