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 Davis 1

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 Imam 9

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.