Tunisian Social Movements: A Democratic Bulwark in an Uncertain Transition
Much of the recent analysis of Tunisia has taken on a tone of pessimism and anxiety about the fear of “authoritarian backsliding,” with some like Sarah Souli even going so far as to claim that “some of the healthier gains of the revolution—namely freedom of speech and movement... seem to have gone out the window.” It is true that nostalgia for Ben-Ali’s rule is on the rise, institutions have been slow to democratize, and the current government struggles to address massive social policy issues. Yet focusing on these factors without a sound analysis of Tunisian social movements risks producing discourse that falls into common regional tropes, thus ignoring the exceptional circumstances which have created the Tunisia's democratic project.
High school and secondary school teachers stage a demonstration demanding wage increase, early retirement and education reform in Tunis, Tunisia on 12 December 2018 [Middle East Monitor/Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency]
Scholars use three main factors to analyze social movements: political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing processes. The first two are pertinent here. For Tunisia, analyzing political opportunity chiefly involves assessing to what extent elites are active and organized enough to cause social movements to fail, either through violence or cooptation. When dissecting mobilizing structures, scholars have tended to examine how the movements themselves are able to marshal support, build coalitions, and foster the leadership necessary to succeed. A cursory analysis of protest politics in Tunisia viewed through the lens of these two factors complicates the current narrative, and paints a picture of robust networks of oppositional politics in an environment without a consolidated coalition of elites capable of suppressing them.
"The post-2011 landscape of protest politics in Tunisia has been defined by the kind of mobilizing structures conducive to sustaining influential social movements over a long period of time."
Activists in Tunisia operate within a political opportunity structure far more hospitable to oppositional politics compared to their regional counterparts, particularly regarding the role of the security forces in politics. Perhaps most importantly, the Tunisian military, whose passivity during the revolution paved the way for Ben Ali’s swift departure, has seen its interests better served in the post-2011 system. Retired military officers now wield considerable power in civil society, best exemplified by their consultative role in drafting the 2014 constitution. Therefore, it is highly unlikely they would act as spoilers to the current democratically elected regime like the Egyptian military in 2013. As for the police, while the January 2018 protests were met with arrests of over 800 protesters and security forces have recently used new anti-terror legislation to abuse their power with impunity, there is little evidence to suggest that this had any long-term impact on the ability of civil society groups to organize contentious activities. In fact, an uptick in protests in 2018 suggests the opposite.
The post-2011 landscape of protest politics in Tunisia has been defined by the kind of mobilizing structures conducive to sustaining influential social movements over a long period of time. In January 2018, nationwide anti-austerity protests featured the same cross-class and inter-regional coalitions that were key to the success of the 2011 revolution, when broad--based social media movements like “Fesh Nestannew?” (‘What are we waiting for?’) brought together unions, rural workers, and disenfranchised middle class students. Protests have continued throughout the year, staged by associations of lawyers, teachers, and miners, with 750 protests being staged in November alone.
November also featured the largest general strike since 2013 by the UGTT, Tunisia’s largest union, followed by one of the largest strikes in history organized earlier this month. December saw a new group called the Gilets Rouges announce their intentions to set up over 50 local coordinating offices around the country to revitalize the anti-austerity movement at a grassroots level. While the movement has yet to cash-in on its mobilization efforts in the form of a protest, early reporting describes a level of coordination and organization within the movement that far outshines that of the Gilets Jaunes in France.
"While Tunisia’s political and economic elites remain populated by Ben Ali insiders, protest politics still represent the networks, diversity, and strength that toppled his government."
The resilience of these coalitions is critical, given how the Ben Ali regime, broadly speaking, relied on the diverging interests of different socio-economic classes and geographic regions (north versus south) to consolidate power and prevent widespread mobilization. Compare this to Jordan, where momentum for social policy protests has been stymied by deep-rooted societal cleavages and an effective government campaign of co-opting, dividing, and de-radicalizing civil society organizations.
While Tunisia’s political and economic elites remain populated by Ben Ali insiders, protest politics still represent the networks, diversity, and strength that toppled his government. Without a watershed event or process to co-opt oppositional movements into the fold of an ambitious strongman (like Egypt's Tamarrod movement in 2013), it is difficult to imagine a total collapse of the democratic transition. In light of this, future research on Tunisia should dive deeper into the strengths, vulnerabilities, and dynamics of protest movements to test to what extent the signs of authoritarian backsliding at the institutional level are mirrored at the grassroots level.
Jérémie Langlois is an independent researcher based in Washington D.C. focusing on Middle East politics and social movements.