Who Are They and Who Are We? Aspects of the Counterrevolution in Tunisia

eL Seed, 2012.
eL Seed, 2012.

Dur­ing the Tunisian rev­o­lu­tion in Jan­u­ary 2011, my hus­band and I final­ly decid­ed on a name for our sec­ond daugh­ter, who was to be born that sum­mer. We named her Amel, which means “hope” in Ara­bic, as hope is nec­es­sary for any rev­o­lu­tion to suc­ceed. Amel met her Tunisian grand­moth­er for the first time this sum­mer, two and a half years after the rev­o­lu­tion. We spent the month of Ramadan with my husband’s fam­i­ly in Kebili, cen­tral Tunisia.

Two left­ist politi­cians were assas­si­nat­ed this year. While we were there, the sec­ond assas­si­na­tion spurred protests against Ennah­da, an Islamist par­ty which held the major­i­ty in the gov­ern­ment at that time. The gov­ern­ment has claimed that the jiha­di Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia is respon­si­ble for the assas­si­na­tions. The first assas­si­na­tion of the year, that of Chokri Belaid, occurred sev­er­al days after he crit­i­cized the deci­sion to accept a $1.78 bil­lion loan from the IMF in Feb­ru­ary. This sum­mer, Mohamed Brahi­mi was assas­si­nat­ed after denounc­ing links between Ennah­da and Nidaa Tounes, a far-right par­ty with mem­bers left over from the fall­en regime. Both Brahi­mi and Belaid were wide­ly admired for their anti-neolib­er­al posi­tions; at least a mil­lion peo­ple came out into the streets for Belaid’s funer­al.

But many on the Left lack this kind of res­o­nance with the Tunisian mass­es. At oppo­si­tion protests this sum­mer, left­ist mem­bers of the Nation­al Con­stituent Assem­bly (NCA) – most­ly from the Pop­u­lar Front, a left­ist elec­toral alliance – told me that their biggest con­cern was not neolib­er­al­ism, but Islamism. They seemed unable to reck­on with a soci­ety that sees itself as Mus­lim, with the fact that Islam is close­ly tied to a mass Tunisian iden­ti­ty, and offers a com­plex of com­forts and hopes to those liv­ing in extreme pover­ty. The mem­bers of the NCA I spoke with seemed out of touch with the peo­ple of the inte­ri­or, where I had just come from after fin­ish­ing the month of Ramadan in Kebili. They talked about free speech for artists and the free­dom to drink alco­hol. Their hope was not to gen­er­ate greater eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty in Tunisia, but to secure sec­u­lar­ism – to the degree that they were open to col­lab­o­rat­ing with Nidaa Tounes against Ennah­da.

These atti­tudes are no secret to work­ing-class Tunisians. One taxi dri­ver who drove us home from the protests said he thinks the oppo­si­tion “hates Islam.” The com­mon mis­con­cep­tion in Tunisia is that sec­u­lar­ism means athe­ism, and the Left has been unable to respond. Brahi­mi was actu­al­ly a devout Mus­lim, who had recent­ly returned from the hajj. But the Tunisian mass­es still see the oppo­si­tion as intol­er­ant of Islam, as it appears that its main polit­i­cal goal, for the moment, is to main­tain an antag­o­nism with Ennah­da at all costs.

Islamism and Liberalism

“…for the moment at least, Marx has yield­ed the his­tor­i­cal stage to Mohammed…” – Mike Davis1

Ennah­da – the biggest and most well orga­nized par­ty in Tunisia – has recent­ly agreed to resign, because of pres­sure from the oppo­si­tion. Though many on the Left in Tunisia see this as a vic­to­ry, there is gen­er­al frus­tra­tion and dis­ap­point­ment among those who vot­ed for the par­ty in the Octo­ber 2011 con­stituent assem­bly elec­tion. The party’s adher­ents claim that even though Ennah­da has been offi­cial­ly active for almost two years, it did not have enough time to imple­ment any kind of social or eco­nom­ic change, and should at least be allowed the time to fin­ish the new con­sti­tu­tion, which was about to be final­ized. Though unem­ploy­ment has con­tin­ued to rise since the rev­o­lu­tion, many Tunisians, in par­tic­u­lar those from the poor­er south­ern and inte­ri­or regions of the coun­try, had hoped that Ennah­da, pro­fess­ing reli­gious over polit­i­cal moti­va­tion, would effect change in their regions.

But instead of pro­mot­ing social jus­tice, polit­i­cal Islam in Tunisia appears to have act­ed more in the ser­vice of impe­ri­al­ism, and this has led to wide­spread dis­ap­point­ment. Eco­nom­ic lib­er­al­ism, along with democ­ra­cy and Islamism, is one of the three main tenets of the party’s ide­ol­o­gy. After the rev­o­lu­tion, Ennah­da was grant­ed per­mis­sion to form an offi­cial polit­i­cal par­ty.2 The move­ment, found­ed in 1981 on the mod­el of Egypt’s Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, dis­tin­guish­es itself by aspir­ing to be a “mod­er­ate par­ty” which advo­cates democ­ra­cy and dia­logue with the West. It was banned under the dic­ta­tor Zine el Abidine Ben Ali when it start­ed to gain pop­u­lar­i­ty in the ear­ly 1990s. After the Djer­ba syn­a­gogue bomb­ing in April of 2002, the anti-ter­ror­ist law of 2003 came into effect, pun­ish­ing any acts seen as “dis­turb­ing pub­lic order.” This meant any protest or oppo­si­tion move­ment would be treat­ed as ter­ror­ism. Mem­bers of the par­ty were bru­tal­ly repressed. Some 35,000 men and 1,500 women were detained and tor­tured in the name of nation­al secu­ri­ty dur­ing Ben Ali’s reign, from 1987 until the rev­o­lu­tion.

After the rev­o­lu­tion, many Tunisians feared that Ben Ali’s hat­ed regime would tip­toe its way back into pow­er. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Tra­bel­si, came from a fam­i­ly long known for their abuse of pow­er and their monop­oly of wealth – they had con­fis­cat­ed the pos­ses­sions of fac­to­ry and busi­ness own­ers, farm­ers, and oth­ers, and forcibly took bank loans that they nev­er paid back. It was not cer­tain that a for­mal change in regime would under­mine the posi­tion of the Tra­bel­si fam­i­ly, often thought to be the real dic­ta­tors. By vot­ing for Ennah­da, once a clear oppo­nent of the Ben Ali Regime, many hoped to secure a future that was also free from its lin­ger­ing influ­ences, the Tra­bel­si fam­i­ly in par­tic­u­lar.

Though there is spec­u­la­tion that Ennah­da is fund­ed by a polit­i­cal or eco­nom­ic elite, the main fig­ures of the move­ment – such as the head of the par­ty, Rachid Ghanouchi, who comes from the less devel­oped south­ern region of Tunisia – are more often seen as rep­re­sent­ing the mass­es, in con­trast to the sec­u­lar polit­i­cal elite who come most­ly from the North. The word “Ennah­da” means “awak­en­ing” or “renais­sance” and refers to the “Arab Enlight­en­ment” of the late 19th cen­tu­ry. Out of this move­ment came Islamism. Though the word is pejo­ra­tive­ly used in the West­ern media as an equiv­a­lent to polit­i­cal Islam in its many forms, Islamism, in its orig­i­nal mean­ing, was a mobi­liza­tion of the Islam­ic faith and its dis­cur­sive tra­di­tion as a resource for polit­i­cal expres­sion and social jus­tice – with the capac­i­ty to be an oppo­si­tion­al force to impe­ri­al­ism. Pri­or to Islamism’s full artic­u­la­tion as a polit­i­cal pro­gram in the 20th cen­tu­ry, Mus­lim fig­ures such as Amadou Bam­ba of Sene­gal, among oth­ers in Africa, were an essen­tial anti-colo­nial force.

In con­trast, post-colo­nial Islamist fig­ures, though influ­en­tial, have been more involved in cul­ture than in eco­nom­ic change. While Sayyid Qutb – a lead­ing mem­ber of the ear­ly years of Egypt’s Mus­lim Broth­er­hood who became rad­i­cal­ized after per­se­cu­tion under Nasser’s regime – vague­ly attacked cap­i­tal­ism and impe­ri­al­ism, he was far more out­spo­ken against “West­ern val­ues.”3 Though espous­ing democ­ra­cy and dia­logue with the west, Ennah­da repeats sim­i­lar social and cul­tur­al argu­ments – par­tic­u­lar­ly against greed and indi­vid­u­al­ism, and the pover­ty that is seen as result­ing from these val­ues. How­ev­er, due to its com­mit­ment to neolib­er­al poli­cies, the move­ment can­not effect the kind of con­crete social or eco­nom­ic change that would be con­sis­tent with the val­ues it espous­es. The influ­en­tial Islam­ic schol­ar Tariq Ramadan, grand­son of Mus­lim Broth­er­hood founder Has­san al-Ban­na, is not alone in call­ing for a move “beyond Islamism.” Ramadan claims that state and impe­r­i­al inter­ven­tions have turned Islamism into a reac­tionary force, dis­tant from its orig­i­nal claim to social jus­tice.

Eco­nom­ic poli­cies under the Ennah­da major­i­ty coali­tion gov­ern­ment have been even more neolib­er­al than those of the pre­vi­ous lead­er­ship. The first bread riots under Habib Bourghi­ba, first pres­i­dent of inde­pen­dent Tunisia, were in response to a 100% hike in the price of bread, just after the IMF imple­ment­ed their ini­tial struc­tur­al adjust­ment pro­gram in Tunisia in the 1980s. Bourghi­ba ini­tial­ly respond­ed with vio­lence. But after 50 pro­test­ers were killed, he refused to adhere to the cut in food sub­si­dies that had been a con­di­tion of the loan agree­ment. Bourghi­ba was then removed by a blood­less coup, and Gen­er­al Zine el Abidine Ben Ali took pow­er in 1987. He was firm­ly aligned with Wash­ing­ton: Wik­iLeaks doc­u­ments show that the US was well aware of the cor­rup­tion and tor­ture under Ben Ali’s regime, but chose to turn a blind eye because of his loy­al­ty toward lib­er­al­ism and his harsh main­te­nance of secu­ri­ty in the region. After sev­er­al months in office, he signed an agree­ment with the IMF, wip­ing out much of the country’s agri­cul­ture and indus­try while gen­er­at­ing an econ­o­my heav­i­ly depen­dent on imports, and cre­at­ing a cheap labor haven for the EU. The IMF called Tunisia “an eco­nom­ic mir­a­cle,” and as recent­ly as 2010 the World Eco­nom­ic Forum praised Tunisia as “the most com­pet­i­tive econ­o­my in Africa.”

The Most Competitive Economy in Africa

The self-immo­la­tion of work­ers like Mohamed Bouaz­izi and Abdesslem Trimech, among oth­ers, who had been forced to labor in the infor­mal sec­tor, shows that the mir­a­cle of this com­pet­i­tive econ­o­my did not trick­le down. Their dis­con­tent reached a mass scale dur­ing the days of the rev­o­lu­tion. More­over, just after the rev­o­lu­tion, 24,500 des­per­ate Tunisian nation­als land­ed on the small Ital­ian island of Lampe­dusa, risk­ing their lives to enter into Europe ille­gal­ly in search of work. The major­i­ty were from cen­tral and south­ern Tunisia, where the gov­ern­ment spends lit­tle on devel­op­ment, focus­ing its efforts in the tourist des­ti­na­tions of the north­ern and coastal regions.

Yet it is the cen­tral and south­ern regions that have the vast major­i­ty of resources in Tunisia. Many con­sid­er the true begin­ning of the rev­o­lu­tion to be the six-month long 2008 revolt in the region of Gafsa, against the work­ing con­di­tions, pol­lu­tion, unem­ploy­ment, and under­de­vel­op­ment imposed by the gov­ern­ment-owned phos­phate indus­try.4 Phos­phate is a high­ly sought-after resource, and some sci­en­tists spec­u­late that its reserves could be deplet­ed in the next 50 years. Tunisia is the fifth largest phos­phate-pro­duc­ing nation in the world. Accord­ing to a US Eco­log­i­cal Sur­vey, phos­phate exports net the Gafsa Phos­phate Com­pa­ny (CPG) five mil­lion USD a day or more.

Though the work­ers in phos­phate mines who revolt­ed in 2008 were ask­ing for safer work­ing con­di­tions and high­er wages, the dri­ving force of the revolt were the unem­ployed. The region is known for ten­sion and vio­lence between employed fam­i­lies on the one hand, and on the oth­er, fam­i­lies who feel they are locked out of any kind of employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ty because of cor­rup­tion and crony­ism. In 2008, a group of unem­ployed cit­i­zens decid­ed to occu­py the pow­er gen­er­a­tor of the CPG. The police tried to evac­u­ate the pro­test­ers with tear gas. When they switched on the pow­er sup­ply, many were elec­tro­cut­ed, and one pro­test­er died.

The pol­lu­tion from the phos­phate fac­to­ries in Gabes and the mines in Gafsa are thought to be caus­ing high lev­els of dis­ease in the area. Since the rev­o­lu­tion, con­tin­u­ous protests have par­a­lyzed phos­phate pro­duc­tion. Shale gas has also been dis­cov­ered in cen­tral Tunisia. In July of this year, the Euro­pean Bank for Recon­struc­tion and Devel­op­ment (EBRD) signed a $60 mil­lion loan to Ser­i­nus Ener­gy to devel­op four oil and gas fields. Ser­i­nus Ener­gy is the new name of Kul­czyk Oil Ven­tures, owned by the rich­est man in Poland. The process of releas­ing shale gas, bet­ter known as “frack­ing,” is said by crit­ics to intro­duce waste into the envi­ron­ment and water sup­plies, which could have dis­as­trous con­se­quences in a coun­try like Tunisia, which faces a seri­ous scarci­ty of water giv­en that more than 40% of its land falls under the ter­ri­to­ry of the Sahara. And if these ven­tures fol­low the mod­el of the CPG, it is like­ly that they will have lit­tle impact on the devel­op­ment of the area, and will instead ben­e­fit multi­na­tion­als and the devel­op­ment of tourist coastal regions.

The IMF’s man­ag­ing direc­tor Chris­tine Lagarde famous­ly claimed that for the rev­o­lu­tion to suc­ceed, the “Arab awak­en­ing must entail a pri­vate sec­tor awak­en­ing.” Iron­i­cal­ly, “the awak­en­ing” was in many ways specif­i­cal­ly against IMF poli­cies that had already been imple­ment­ed. Many have point­ed to the con­nec­tion between Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immo­la­tion and the val­ue added tax (VAT), a con­sump­tion tax often pushed by IMF dik­tats. Crit­ics con­sid­er this type of tax­a­tion to be regres­sive, requir­ing the poor to pay a high­er per­cent­age of their income than the rich.5 There is pres­sure for the police to bring the infor­mal sec­tor into the tax net, and because Bouaz­izi was a fruit ven­dor who did not pay tax­es, he was harassed and pub­licly humil­i­at­ed by the police­woman who slapped him, over­turned his cart, and con­fis­cat­ed his goods. He had bor­rowed $200 the night before to buy the pro­duce. Such infor­mal economies are rife in Africa, since the poor have been exclud­ed from for­mal employ­ment, but those in the infor­mal sec­tor are not quite unem­ployed – they also work, but with­out the pro­tec­tion of labor laws.

The elim­i­na­tion of fuel sub­si­dies is one of many oth­er prob­lem­at­ic aspects of the loan accept­ed by Ennah­da. This mea­sure will even­tu­al­ly raise the costs of trans­porta­tion, and there­fore mar­ket prices in gen­er­al. Tunisian taxi dri­vers already attempt­ed to orga­nize a nation­wide strike in March of this year, when fuel went up 63 cents per liter. In West Africa, the elim­i­na­tion of fuel sub­si­dies result­ed in the Occu­py Nige­ria move­ment, just after Nigeria’s pres­i­dent Good­luck Jonathan was vis­it­ed by Chris­tine Lagarde in Jan­u­ary of 2012. After the fuel sub­si­dies were removed, the peo­ple mobi­lized, inspired by the Tunisian rev­o­lu­tion of 2011. The result was the paral­y­sis of a coun­try of more than 160 mil­lion peo­ple, and the return of most of the fuel sub­sidy, though the pres­i­dent still threat­ens to take these gains away today. While Nige­ria is also a coun­try with extreme reli­gious ten­sion, these polit­i­cal actions, and the involve­ment of mas­sive num­bers, were able to over­come these divi­sions and bring about actu­al eco­nom­ic change. This type of real change has yet to result from the Tunisian rev­o­lu­tion.

Secularists vs. Islamists

“Reli­gious suf­fer­ing is, at one and the same time, the expres­sion of real suf­fer­ing and a protest against real suf­fer­ing.” – Karl Marx

Polit­i­cal Islam is often more than will­ing to sup­port the neolib­er­al sta­tus quo, focus­ing its rhetoric more on cul­ture and moral val­ues than eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy.6 This makes polit­i­cal Islam an ide­al part­ner for impe­ri­al­ism: its focus on appar­ent cul­tur­al and moral antag­o­nisms draws mass atten­tion away from the under­ly­ing eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion, while also giv­ing West­ern pow­ers a spec­tac­u­lar adver­sary, which can be used to jus­ti­fy their con­tin­ued con­trol of the resources and bor­ders of the region.7

Con­trary to one Ori­en­tal­ist claim that pol­i­tics and Islam have always been inter­twined, sec­u­lar­ism and mod­ern­iza­tion have pre­dom­i­nat­ed for at least two cen­turies in var­i­ous Mus­lim major­i­ty regions.8 It is only recent­ly that a cer­tain kind of polit­i­cal Islam has emerged, in coop­er­a­tion with the near­ly unin­ter­rupt­ed impe­r­i­al inter­ven­tion that has fol­lowed for­mal decol­o­niza­tion in North Africa and the Mid­dle East. After the mujahideen defeat­ed the USSR in 1989, vio­lent and reac­tionary Islamism gained legit­i­ma­cy. As neolib­er­al poli­cies hit Africa and the Mid­dle East, and states were no longer able to meet social wel­fare needs, Islamist char­i­ty groups fund­ed large­ly by Sau­di petrodol­lars have offered some relief to the poor. Under West­ern-backed regimes, where peo­ple have suf­fered from eco­nom­ic neglect and vio­lent repres­sion for decades, reli­gion has been both a com­fort and a type of protest.

The elite, on the oth­er hand, now call for mod­ern­iza­tion and sec­u­lar­iza­tion. Though the real antag­o­nism here is one of class, this polar­iza­tion between Islamists and sec­u­lar­ists has blocked mobi­liza­tions against inequal­i­ty in Tunisia. The sec­u­lar­ist fix­a­tion with Islamist cul­ture has drawn atten­tion away from unequal region­al devel­op­ment, unem­ploy­ment, sub­sidy removals, tax­a­tion, resource extrac­tion, and the envi­ron­ment. The root of these prob­lems is not Islam or even Islamism, but the eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ties and depen­den­cies estab­lished by the pres­sures of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism. Islamism has both opposed and col­lab­o­rat­ed with neolib­er­al­ism – and the sec­u­lar­ist insis­tence on trac­ing all prob­lems to cul­ture is real­ly just a mir­ror of Islamism itself.

What appears to be a polar­iza­tion between sec­u­lar­ists and Islamists could be bet­ter under­stood along the lines of class con­flict. The real­i­ty of class antag­o­nism is con­ve­nient­ly used by Ennah­da to bol­ster sup­port and dis­cour­age oppo­si­tion. One extreme­ly pop­u­lar Face­book video, pub­lished on an offi­cial Ennah­da page dur­ing Ramadan, shows images of the cur­rent oppo­si­tion protests in the cap­i­tal Tunis, includ­ing mem­bers of the NCA who with­drew in protest of the Ennah­da major­i­ty gov­ern­ment. The women in the video are often beam­ing, beau­ti­ful, smok­ing and scant­i­ly dressed. The pro­test­ers appear to be bliss­ful­ly con­tent, eat­ing huge quan­ti­ties of food, such as French pas­tries and Amer­i­can pies, which are unavail­able to the major­i­ty of Tunisians. They use expen­sive tech­nol­o­gy, and smoke and drink as if they were at a par­ty. They look con­fi­dent and smug. Along­side these images we hear Cheikh Imam, an Egypt­ian folk singer famous for his songs about the poor and work­ing class of Egypt. While the images amount to a typ­i­cal Islamist moral cri­tique of the behav­ior of the pro­test­ers, the song’s lyrics evoke class.

Who Are They and Who Are We?
by Cheikh Imam9

They are the princes and sul­tans
They are the hous­es and cars
They are the care­ful­ly cho­sen women
Con­sumer ani­mals.
They are busy fill­ing their guts
Guess, guess, think.
Look who is eat­ing the oth­er.
They are the scenes with music
Their work is par­ties and pol­i­tics.
Of course their brains are box­es.

But the bless­ing is in the streets.

Guess, guess, think.
Look who is trick­ing who.
Look who is gov­ern­ing who.

They wear the lat­est fash­ion
We live sev­en in a room.
They eat chick­en and pigeons.
We are sick of beans.

They take air­planes
We die in bus­es.
Their life is a beau­ti­ful sun.
They are a dif­fer­ent class than us.

Won­der, think, oh Abbel­he­di [lis­ten­er]
This song is about you.
When the peo­ple stand up and say:
Us or them in this life.

Guess, guess, think.
Look who will beat the oth­er.

The uneasy jux­ta­po­si­tion between the song and the images shows that the divi­sion hin­der­ing the rev­o­lu­tion is based on class, and not reli­gion. The peo­ple involved in the spon­ta­neous, grass­roots Tunisian rev­o­lu­tion of 2011 demand­ed dig­ni­ty, lib­er­ty and social jus­tice (“kara­ma, houria, adala wata­nia” was the pop­u­lar chant). Reli­gious demands were not an ini­tial aspect of the rev­o­lu­tion. Yet since the rev­o­lu­tion, social dis­con­tent has ulti­mate­ly not been expressed in the lan­guage of class, but in a reach­ing towards Islam. Both Islamist and sec­u­lar­ist elites have col­lab­o­rat­ed with neolib­er­al­ism and impe­ri­al­ism; but only Islam has pro­vid­ed a lan­guage with which the pop­u­lar mass­es of Tunisia can express their dis­con­tent, per­haps par­tial­ly due to the com­mit­ment to social jus­tice that Islamism has claimed in the past. If the Left hopes to over­come its divi­sion from the Tunisian mass­es, it will have to over­come the debate over val­ues and open­ly oppose both Islamist and sec­u­lar neolib­er­al­ism; it will have to turn its atten­tion to the class antag­o­nism, which even now is the true dri­ving force of pop­u­lar dis­con­tent.


  1. Plan­et of Slums,” New Left Review 26, March-April 2004 

  2. Much of the fol­low­ing his­tor­i­cal account draws from Mnas­ri Chamseddine’s “Tunisia: the People’s Rev­o­lu­tion,” Inter­na­tion­al Social­ism, 2011, as well as Corin­na Mulin and Ian Patel’s “Polit­i­cal vio­lence and the efforts to sal­vage Tunisia’s rev­o­lu­tion,” Al Jazeera, August 2013. 

  3. See Sayyid Qutb, Mile­stones, espe­cial­ly chap­ter 7. 

  4. For more infor­ma­tion on the phos­phate indus­try, see Kouichi Shi­rayana­gi, “Pho­tos from Mid­hi­la the Gov­ern­ment Does Not Want You to See,” Tunisialive, 2011. 

  5. The Tax Jus­tice Net­work pro­vides an excel­lent intro­duc­tion to the asso­ci­at­ed prob­lems of cap­i­tal flight, tax eva­sion, tax avoid­ance and tax com­pe­ti­tion. 

  6. See an excel­lent dis­cus­sion of this in Deepa Kumar’s “Polit­i­cal Islam: A Marx­ist Analy­sis,” Inter­na­tion­al Social­ist Review, 2011. 

  7. For more on this see Tariq Ali, “Between Past and Future,” New Left Review, 2013. 

  8. For exam­ple, Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Mus­lim Rage,” The Atlantic, 1990; see once again Kumar, “Polit­i­cal Islam.” 

  9. Author’s trans­la­tion. 

Author of the article

is a graduate student at UC Davis.