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Five years after the Tunisian revolution, political frustration doesn’t diminish progress

- January 14, 2016
A protester wearing a Tunisian flag, makes his way past closed shops in the Casbah toward sporadic gunfire in Tunis, Tunisia, on Feb. 26, 2011. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

It was only half a decade ago that Tunisia dramatically ruptured with its dictatorial past. The self-immolation of a young produce seller in the country’s impoverished interior brought to the fore decades of simmering dissent, culminating in the surprise departure of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who had ruled for 23 consecutive years. Memories of a massive, nation-wide revolutionary movement — images of state violence against protesters, of young Tunisians passionately ripping down an omnipresent public cult of personality, of emotional cries calling for the departure of the dictator, of thousands pouring into the streets of Tunis on Jan. 14, 2011 — stir emotions to this day.

As Tunisia celebrates its fifth anniversary of the revolution, nostalgia for the euphoria of those moments are coupled with currents of discontent and frustration. Such complex and ambiguous feelings about the revolution and its aftermath are important markers for where Tunisia stands today. Yet discordant sentiments should not overshadow the courage and aspirations of this radically transformative moment in Tunisia’s history.

Today’s Tunisia is a far cry from that of late 2010. Public expressions of citizen demands and new political actors have transformed a previously tightly controlled political space and represent a radical rupture from country’s dictatorial past. Jan. 14, 2011 shook an entire system with ideals that reverberated across the region, fundamentally changing the rules of the political game in Tunisia and beyond. It is this moment that Tunisians are celebrating and commemorating today.

Tunisia’s 2010-2011 revolutionary movement was a volcanic reaction to decades of heavy political and social repression against dissenters, human-rights activists and workers, who developed a collective yearning for a just and inclusive political and economic order. However, progress toward implementing the “just order” imagined during the dark Ben Ali years has been jarred by spectacular fits and starts. The international spotlight remains fixed on Tunisia, though the country’s process is often viewed through different lenses.

Many highlight Tunisia as a success story. Its first election cycle opened the political system to an Ennahda-led coalition of parties, which drafted a celebrated democratic constitution. The second election marked the first defeat of an incumbent Islamist government but also saw its first successful transition of power. The state’s progress has been internationally celebrated with the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize and its place among the Forbes top-10 list of start-up friendly countries.

Other observers have focused on negative developments, including the assassination of two leftist politicians, ongoing attacks against security forces, the horrific acts committed against tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis and a beach resort in Sousse, the subsequent government crackdown, including arbitrary arrests, and increasing fears of the criminalization of public expression and protest. Moreover, Nidaa Tounes, the ruling party that won the 2014 legislative elections, is collapsing under the weight of infighting, with massive defection among its deputies and members of its political bureau.

While both optimists and pessimists have good reasons for their outlook, analysts’ extensive focus on political achievements indicative of liberal democratic consolidation, or the linking of devastating events to a “reversal of democracy,” have not only painted a limited and minimalist picture of where Tunisia stands today but have also influenced public opinion. Juxtaposing moments of success with trends of failure, has resulted in an emphasis of an epistemology of absence — the idea that something fundamental is missing in Tunisia, which needs rapid reform, particularly along economic and security lines, to continue on its democratic track. Most devastatingly, the reform-focused emphasis based on absence and inadequacy, has contributed to popular sentiments of frustration with the post-revolutionary governments and potentially dangerous calls to bring the old order back.

Warnings of an unstable political transition have reinforced these sentiments and have called into question the revolutionary movement, its aspirations, dreams, courage, and most importantly, the fundamental achievements of Tunisians in the last five years. More profoundly, such doubts might explain the tacit acceptance by some of the return of former Ben Ali regime elements into politics, the economy and public life.

The fifth anniversary of the Tunisian revolution provides a moment to reflect and rethink the political trajectory of how a revolution is institutionalized and to separate the very real euphoria of a revolutionary movement from various forms of discontent with post-revolutionary governance.

The most notable achievement of Tunisia’s Jan. 14, 2011 revolution — one that astonishingly seems to have been forgotten — is the space for political critique, assembly and speech that the revolution carved and has protected. In only five years, public debate in Tunisia has been marked by contentious and open discussions about previously taboo topics, including religion and political orders, rule of law, stability vs. reform, gay rights, national consensus and political compromise, artistic expression, and the meaning of revolution and a democratic polity. It is the revolution that has made such discourse possible.

Today, Tunisia is celebrating first and foremost a rupture from dictatorship and the dreams and aspiration that have flourished with that political opening. While the last five years have been marked by exemplary political achievements, Tunisians continue to grapple with the legacy of the old regime and the still-open wounds that it created. In the fall, a proposed economic reconciliation bill to grant amnesty to former regime figures stirred public debate and gave rise to a movement called Manich Msameh (I will not forgive). Such public reactions indicate that, despite important institutional advances toward transitional justice via law and the establishment of a Truth Commission, the political and economic abuses of Tunisia’s dictatorial past continue to loom in the near memory. Not all Tunisians are willing to sacrifice consensual stability for social peace and public forgiveness.

Such sentiments have been perhaps most successfully addressed through artistic production that confronts citizens with a painful past. Films, such as “Sira’a” (Conflict) recount the political persecution, imprisonment and torture of Islamists, trade unionists and leftists. “Yalan bou el fosfate” (Cursed is the Phospate) shows the 2008 rebellion in the mineral-rich Gafsa region. Meanwhile, the film “Dicta Shot” and the National Museum of the State Security System, opened November 2015, lend insight into the workings of the former regime’s security apparatus. At the museum, former political prisoners lead guided tours, recounting their stories of persecution, imprisonment and torture. Screened across Tunisia the evening before the anniversary, Leyla Bouzid’s film, “A peine j’ouvre les yeux” (I Can Hardly Open My Eyes), tells the story of young musicians pushing the boundaries of the permissible through lyrics and poetry just months before the revolution. Endeavors like these continuously remind Tunisians of the open wounds still to be healed that transcend the high politics of parties, commissions and elections.

The 2011 revolution fundamentally changed the rules of the political game in Tunisia, and while it remains a source of contention and conflict, this achievement is irreversible. As painful testimonies and artistic representations remind us, today, unlike in 2010, Tunisians can publicly debate and disagree on their new political order. Tunisia is celebrating the anniversary of the end of silence: the irreversible effects of a revolution that has opened space for the outpouring of ideas, political ideologies, criticisms of policy and politicians, commentary and free speech. Public political space has changed radically from a controlled and repressive dictatorship to a significantly more open pitch on which a battle of ideas can be loudly debated. Rather than foretelling any democratic demise, the ongoing struggle between Tunisia’s past and future embodies the spirit of its revolution.

Laryssa Chomiak is a political scientist and author of an upcoming book on the politics of dissent under Ben Ali’s Tunisia. Her work has appeared as book chapters and journal articles in Middle East Law and Governance, The Journal of North African Studies, Portal 9 and Middle East Report. This piece is the first in a series of reflections on the Arab uprisings after five years.