The January 2011 Tunisian revolution in which President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali was finally overthrown after more than two decades in office was, amongst many other things, a revolution in language.
This is perhaps to be expected given that dictatorships typically usurp language, falsify its meaning, and exercise control over what can be said and who can say it. In Tunisia, the popular revolution brought about a kind of decentring of language and democratisation of register, not least in the coining of new terms and the proliferation of satirical jokes. The stilted and pompous language of dictatorship was re-appropriated, inverted and recast for revolutionary and emancipated times.
Three years after the revolutionary protests started – sparked by the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself alight outside the government headquarters in Sidi Bouzid – it is worth examining the terms, phrases and slogans that have gained currency since then as a way of taking stock of all that has happened (and not happened) in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
An obvious place to start is the now internationally-recognised rally cry dégage, meaning ‘leave’ or ‘get out of here’. The term did not enter revolutionary lingo until 14 January (when Ben Ali stepped down) but it soon became emblematic not only in Tunisia’s revolution but also in the other Arab uprisings from Egypt to Yemen. Together with the slogan ‘The people want to bring down the regime’, dégage has been part of a popular wave whose ripples have not yet subsided. Since its spectacular success on Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, dégagism has been replicated many times since, including in small communities, factories and offices where officials have been forced out.
Over time, however, the word has lost some of its lustre, and today there is less dégagism and more realism. That is not to say that officials are not still being ejected, but it has become more difficult to oust 'legitimate' officials without resistance.
Legitimacy (shar’iyya) is another notion that has taken on new meanings since 2011 and has been used in four variations: revolutionary, electoral, popular and consensual. These are often seen in hierarchical and competing orders. At the beginning, claims to revolutionary legitimacy (shar’iyya thawriyyah) helped allow a number of measures go through which may have been illegal or inconceivable in another context. It licensed the creation of new institutions and committees to run the affairs of state and organise a transition.
In October 2011, electoral legitimacy (shar’iyya intikhabiyya) took over as the supreme value in running the country, giving the winning Islamist party al-Nahda and its allies relatively free reign. This was soon challenged too though after a year passed without the Constituent Assembly finishing the drafting of the constitution. A new window for contestation opened along with a return to the legitimacy of the street and people (shar’yya sha’biyyah). Demonstrations took place, including massive ones in August 2013.
As crisis threatened the country, key civil society organisations – including the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), Tunisia’s most powerful trade union – led the way in establishing a sense of consensual legitimacy (shar’iyya tawafuqiyyah) in the spirit of which political parties agreed a new power-sharing arrangement and road map. The outcome of this has sped up the constitutional process and most recently imposed an ‘independent’ prime minister to replace the elected one.
Looking now to the fate of old regime figures, the azlam (stooges) and fulool (remnants) have had a very revealing journey since 2011. The initial revolutionary drive led to the banning of the former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), while some key figures were arrested and some were barred from running in elections. However, this experienced cadre soon turned from being seen as a Trojan Horse to potential allies.
Some of them formed their own parties, others joined the newly-established Nidaa Tunis, while others were courted and hired by the ruling al-Nahda. Three years on, former regime loyalists have several small parties of their own, while several ministers have been set free. They are azlam no more.
The reason for this lies in the interface between the conceptions and practices of transitional justice (‘adala intiqaliyya) and the Law to Safeguard the Revolution (qanun tahsin al-thawrah). After the uprising, Tunisia became unique in assigning an entire ministry for transitional justice and human rights, run by the Islamist lawyer Samir Dilou.
At the same time, legislation was proposed that would ban those who served under Ben Ali, and even under former president Habib Bourguiba, from elected office. This was seen by many as revenge justice (‘adala intiqamiyyah) or selective justice (‘adala intiqa’iyya), and the prime minister at the time in 2011, Beji Qaid el-Sebsi, saw the proposed law as a targeted move against him. The law went through but was abandoned recently on 15 December 2013, when the long-awaited Transitional Justice Law was finally passed.
Other actions which come under transitional justice include some reparation – though this has largely been selective and mostly benefited members of al-Nahda who were imprisoned under Ben Ali – and a general amnesty law for all political prisoners. The latter, which led to the release of more than 500 remaining prisoners, seems to have been rushed and has been accused of contributing directly to the rise in militancy in recent years.
Indeed, several people who were arrested or are currently wanted for acts of violence, including the killing of the leftist leaders Chokri Belaid on 6 February, 2013, and Mohamed Brahmi on 25 July, 2013, were released from jail in that amnesty. These two dramatic killings marked a turning point in Tunisian political violence, leading to a rising climate of fear, and caused two governments to fall or, more precisely, to change. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali left his position in February to be replaced by Minister of the Interior Ali Laarayedh, while the latter was driven from office in December to make way for an 'independent' prime minister.
While Tunisia has in fact seen five governments in the past three years, it has only had two presidents. The first was put in place in accordance with the old constitution after Ben Ali fell; the second, current president Moncef Marzouki, came to office through a deal with the ruling al-Nahda after the 2011 elections, when he was chosen to take office by the National Constituent Assembly.
The radical change from an all-powerful president in Ben Ali and the charismatic and iconic Bourguiba before him was bound to create a perception that the aura of the presidential office had been lost. But no-one had quite bargained for a figure such as Marzouki. Seen as impulsive, wry and light, if not frivolous, he has become the butt of jokes, is regularly made fun of in comedy shows, and has been nicknamed tartur (clown). This is as much a comment on his demeanour as it is on his status as president, a position with far fewer powers now that the bulk of responsibilities has been moved to the office of prime minister.
Paradoxical as it may seem given the importance of young people in Tunisia's revolution, the median age of its top politicians has increased over the last three years. This can be explained by the return in force of Bourguiba’s lieutenants, who were marginalised under Ben Ali but are still relatively trusted, and the fact that many political parties are led by older 'historical' figures.
After the revolution, the youth found themselves on the margins of the political process, although some have found themselves in protest lines again, while others have been attracted by Salafi movements. In January 2011, an elderly man proclaimed, “We grew old awaiting this historic moment"; today, Tunisia’s young may feel they are now the ones growing old as they await the benefits from a revolution they began.
However, while the youth have been relegated to the sidelines, women have stepped in. Tunisians often proclaim Nisa biladi nisa’un wa nisf (‘the women of my country are women and a half’), a line taken from a poem by Sghaier Awlad Ahmed, and praise the women who have been prominent in Tunisia’s public life over the last 50 years and who took an active part in the resistance to Ben Ali.
In the October 2011 elections, partly thanks to parity in electoral lists, a large number of women gained seats, including the position of Deputy President of the Assembly. Several major organisations are also now led by women, including the Journalists Association, Magistrates Association, the Union of Industry and Commerce and National Television.
Perceived threats against women’s rights in post-revolution Tunisia have also galvanised women like never before and propelled their voices into the public sphere. The revolution has also brought about – or brought to the public – a new type of woman activist: the veiled Islamist woman, a phenomenon to contend with.
Three years into the revolution, Tunisia has changed in important ways. The direction of this change is still not clear, though it is hard to deny that important gains have been made. Chief among these are: greater freedom of the press and association; demystification of political power and of politicians; and the loss of a political culture based on a personality cult. Another achievement has been the consolidation of civil society and the unprecedented coming together of unlikely bedfellows, such as with the UGTT and employers' association managing national dialogue and mediating between conflicting political parties. There have also been some less hopeful changes, however, such as the incursion of political violence into public life; an atomised political scene; and the growth of “Islamic” identity politics.
Three years on, Bouazizi’s story has been rewritten a number of times but, as a new photo of his grave shows, he has receded back to his former neglect, just like his hometown Sidi Bouzid. The economy has deteriorated but the economic model remains unchanged.
From a wider perspective, Tunisia has decidedly shifted from being romantic tale to a tricky testing ground for transnational political Islam, the global market economy, and progressive politics. At this stage, none of these sides can claim victory. However, no side has been defeated either.
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