Earlier this month, protests erupted in Tunisia against austerity measures that were presented in the wake of recent IMF reforms and lingering poor economic conditions. The protests were met with mass arrests, leading some to draw comparisons to the Ben Ali regime and contributing to a continued narrative of pessimism surrounding Tunisia’s turbulent path toward democracy.
There are two ways the current situation in Tunisia can be approached. One is to argue that the dominance of neoliberal policies and their oppressive consequences are as alive in Tunisia today as they were under Ben Ali. The narrative that Tunisians continue to fight the same battles is not without merit. Wages are stagnant, unemployment is high, basic consumer prices soar, and the IMF restructuring has continued to enrich the elites at the expense of the middle and lower classes. These conditions have not only have constrained the democratization process, but may also provide conditions for radicalization or a return to authoritarianism under the promise of economic security. In spite of this, the Tunisian public’s ability to organize against the economic structure now ubiquitous to the region remains unique, and shows no signs of letting up.
If we examine these continued protests through the lens of social movement theory, we can see that Tunisia remains exceptional when compared to its Arab counterparts. Two particular theories are pertinent in this case. First, Opportunity Structure Theory, which asks us to look at three key elements: 1) the openness of the political system; 2) the stability of elite alignments; 3) the state’s capacity for repression. Essentially, this framework examines to what extent power is effectively concentrated and coordinated between elites, and to what degree they can effectively advance their interests with violence. Resource mobilization theory asks us to consider structure in a different light. This framework asks to what extent the factors that define the protest movement itself are conducive to spreading its message and instigating collective action. This approach tends to focus on positive variables such as financial resources, human assets, and organizational structures, as well as negative variables such as socio-ethnic cleavages, regime cooptation, and activist fatigue.
Take Egypt for example, where both the opportunity structure that created a space for the uprisings and the conditions that allowed the protest movement to mobilize resources have all but disappeared. The seemingly infinite power of the security services meant that, regardless of protesters’ ability to mobilize, reform would and could only occur to the extent that the military and police allowed. Like nearly every major Egyptian political development since Nasser, the revolution occurred with the permission of the military, and stalled when that permission was revoked. In retrospect, the military feigned support for a reform movement in order to buy time to consolidate power while gauging whether it could advance its interests with President Mohamad Morsi in office. When it deemed this to be impossible, he was overthrown in a coup in 2013. Since then, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s repressive tactics have all but ended overt contentious politics. Mass incarcerations of activists and journalists, severe limitations on civil liberties, and martial law make the costs of contention too high for all but the most courageous Egyptians.
From a resource mobilization standpoint, the momentum of the Egyptian uprisings relied on a complex network of alliances, or at the very least uneasy cooperation, between secular and Islamist actors. These networks and alliances began to dissolve long before the military made its grab at power. This is perhaps best evinced by the unwillingness of the Morsi government to share power or negotiate a policy vision with its secular revolutionary counterparts, and exemplifies how a movement can break down even in the absence of an undesirable opportunity structure.
Let’s return to Tunisia, where contrasts abound. From an opportunity structure perspective, the Tunisian public has a much weaker security apparatus to contend with. While recent mass arrests have drawn many comparisons to authoritarian tactics, their scope pales in relation to the Egyptian case, and there are few indications that they have been successful in actually quelling dissent. Moreover, with power having been peacefully transferred at the parliamentary level multiple times in recent years, no group of political elites appears capable of monopolizing state violence to advance its ideological or political agenda. This bears resemblance to the favorable conditions of the 2011 protests, where the military’s neutrality was key in ensuring that the protest movement could play out without a violent crackdown. The once weak military has seen its position significantly improve, as retired military officers command significant influence in civil society, leaving little incentive to partake in a violent anti-democratic crackdown. In short, the diffusion of power and lack of concentrated repressive capabilities make the current opportunity structure in Tunisia highly favorable to contentious politics relative to the rest of the Arab region. The contrast with the Egyptian case becomes even more defined when we examine the coalitions and organizational dynamics of the protest movement itself.
As evinced by the recent protests, the cross-class coalitions that comprised the 2011 uprising still very much exist. The ability of the disenfranchised urban working class in the north to align their protest activities with their compatriots in the rural south speaks to the widespread appeal of a form of cooperative dissent that is less defined by the secular versus religious divide that restricts contentious politics in much of the region. The subsequent coordination and support between the parliamentary opposition, the ever-important labor organizations, and other civil society actors illustrates a political environment where resources, both material and abstract, can be marshaled openly without fear of retaliation.
It is still very much a stretch to call Tunisia’s democratization complete, and an equal stretch to make normative statements about progress. Nevertheless, Tunisia’s resilient civil society and ability to organize protest movements that transcend the cleavages that often define other Arab polities is noteworthy. Seven years later, this pattern can no longer be called the Arab Spring and its effects, it must be called Tunisian political culture. The fact that “nothing has changed” in Tunisia since 2011 seems to cut both ways. While painful economic realities have not vanished, nor have the political conditions that provide for continued acts of widespread contentious politics.
Jérémie Langlois is an independent researcher based out of Washington D.C. focusing on Arab Social Movements, particularly in Jordan, Palestine, and North Africa. His past work has included a fieldwork study on activist groups in Amman, and he was responsible for authoring the French version of the Election Network for the Arab Region’s report on the 2016 Jordanian Parliamentary elections. Langlois is a graduate of Fordham University, where he received a B.A. in Political Science and Middle East Studies. Prior to that, he lived and studied in Cairo, Egypt. Currently, he works for Mayer Brown LLP’s Global Mobility and Migration practice group.