January 2013, Week 3


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Whither the Tunisian Citizen's Revolt?

 By Stuart Schaar

 December 13, 2013

 Published by Portside

 Mass revolts and revolutions usually produce initial
 confusion and chaos. Just think of the Russian revolution:
 the British historian Orlando Figes concluded from his
 innovative research that it was miraculous that the
 Bolsheviks survived and succeeded in consolidating their
 state after being on the brink of collapse in the years
 immediately following the 1917 upheaval.  Any student of the
 French revolution knows how events there devoured leaders
 and ultimately produced a series of class wars.  The Chinese
 upheaval ended in the Cultural Revolution, which turned the
 society on its head. Few in positions of authority escaped.
 In other words, we should expect instability as revolts and
 revolutions play themselves out.

 It would be foolish to expect smooth transitions after a
 mass revolt of Arab citizens. It will take several years,
 perhaps decades, before we see new political orders emerge.
 In the meantime we will see unexpected events and new forces
 attempting to influence the post-revolt period. Likewise, we
 should expect to find weakened states in places where
 dictators ruled. This is inevitable, since the institutions
 and main individuals that ran the dictatorships have been
 broken, exiled, or imprisoned, and new forces have not
 consolidated enough power and learned how to reestablish
 effective new states. With economies in shambles because of
 the fall in tourism and the drying up of local and foreign
 investment, job-creation, a major popular demand, has had to
 be put on hold, thereby making an expectant population ever
 more frustrated and angry. Tunisia has become a mass
 society, ready to be mobilized.  It is waiting for leaders
 to emerge who can rally electoral majorities and rule
 effectively. The present Tunisian executive, the Troika,
 exhibit their inexperience and erraticism too frequently.
 The president of the country, Dr. Moncef  Marzouki, who I
 first met in 1976, has always been a mercurial personality,
 flitting from one issue to another without defining long
 range strategies.  Once installed in Carthage's palace as
 interim president he began making one junket after another
 to foreign capitals, representing Tunisia overseas, to the
 point that many people complained about his spending too
 much scarce money on frivolous voyages. Stunned by the
 criticism, he abruptly cancelled a planned trip to Brazil,
 ostensibly to save government funds. During the summer of
 2012 a prominent member of his Party, The Congress for the
 Republic, and a member of the National Assembly criticized
 Marzouki, saying that the president needed psychiatric
 treatment. At a party congress a few weeks later that
 parliamentarian was purged from the party along with some 30
 other members.

 Similarly, Dr. Mustafa Ben Jaafar, the President of the
 Assembly and another member of the ruling Troika, saw large
 numbers from his Party, Ettakatol, quit in disgust over the
 authoritarian manner in which their party chief made
 decisions without consulting with them. The weight of ex-
 Presidents Habib Bourguiba's and Zine Abd al-Din Ben Ali's
 dictatorial legacies in leadership style remain to confound
 democratic urges of the larger population. With splintering
 parties both secular leaders within the Troika had
 considerably weakened their base of support, meaning that
 they had little flexibility and maneuverability in dealing
 with the main power in the country, the Islamist Party al-

 Symptomatic of the disarray at the apex of power is how the
 new rulers have handled the all important task of job
 creation. During the national election campaign of October
 2011 candidates for the top posts in the state promised to
 create immediately between 100-400,000 new jobs. I was in
 Tunisia then and listened in disbelief, knowing all too well
 that they would not succeed in doing so. Under the
 transitional government of Béji Caïd al-Sebsi, a new
 institution was formed for job creation headed by a very
 competent economist who assembled qualified individuals to
 work with him to create 42,000 jobs. The goal seemed
 realistic and even then the shortage of investment capital
 and the difficulty of adding jobs to an already bloated
 bureaucracy made the task difficult. However, as soon as the
 al-Nahda Islamist-dominated government took over following
 the October 2011 elections, the transitional institution for
 job creation was disbanded and a new commission was
 established, which had to start from zero. I imagine that
 the old rules of favoritism still were operating, which
 meant that the leaders of al-Nahda wanted to create jobs
 specifically for their followers, thereby stymieing the
 entire process.

 The Weakened State

 A few years ago, the late Eric Hobsbawn, the famous Marxist
 historian, when discussing Serbian events at a Columbia
 University faculty seminar that I attended, contended that a
 weak state was better than no state.  I would go further and
 argue that strong states are needed to preserve order and
 guarantee individual liberties. Without a strong central
 authority, chaos ensues. Parts of the Arab world which have
 experienced citizens' revolts, and not necessarily social
 revolutions, have seen their states severely weakened and
 are paying the price of having new inexperienced and
 inadequately trained police forces, armies reticent to
 engage in crowd control, and tramway agents incapable of
 collecting transport fees from a belligerent population. The
 state faces expectant people with very high demands who want
 immediate jobs, benefits, and redress of all sorts following
 political upheavals. In consequence many jacqueries in small
 interior towns have broken out leading to the burning of
 police stations and municipalities, the local symbols of the
 county's ineffective state.

 More noticeable have been the acts of small numbers of
 Salafists, who have been empowered by the electoral
 victories of Islamists across the Arab world. Needing their
 votes in forthcoming elections, Islamists in power have
 tolerated outrageous acts of the bearded few who have begun
 to intimidate vulnerable sectors of the post-revolt
 societies, especially university students, professors, and
 administrators at the University of Tunis - women without
 head scarves and known feminists, artists, film makers,
 homosexuals, prostitutes, and clients of bars.

 Yet, there are signs that in Tunisia most of the population
 does not tolerate extremism of any kind.  With a deeply
 engrained tradition of pragmatism under the country's
 founding President, Habib Bourguiba, most Tunisians reject
 dogmatism. For example, when some Salafists attempted to
 impose their Imams on community mosques they were met with
 resistance. Some communities, such as Damani near El Kef
 close to the Algerian frontier in the summer of 2012 chased
 out of town a bus load of Salafists traveling from the
 northern Tunisian city of Jendouba hoping to install a new
 Imam in Damani's principal mosque. They ended up fleeing on
 their bus after having been beaten up by hostile local men.
 Other Salafist attacks on bars and houses of ill repute were
 met by angry customers who fought back and chased away the
 intruders. All these transgressions occurred in the sight of
 the national police who did little to stop the moral
 crusaders, but the population acted with a sense of civic
 responsibility and took matters in their own hands.

 The Salafists have had more success in enforcing cultural
 codes and have imposed themselves in some small interior
 towns, such as Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the revolt, which
 remains destitute and forgotten by the weakened state.
 During last summer in 2012 an art exhibit in La Marsa, an
 up-scale suburb of Tunis, provoked Salafi wrath. A group of
 them trashed the show and forced the government to put in
 place a three day curfew. Before that the showing of the
 Tunisian film "Neither Allah nor Master" led to attacks on
 the Africa hotel theatre, one of the nicest venues to watch
 films in downtown Tunis, leading the owner of the movie
 house to close the theatre permanently.  More serious were
 the Salafist attacks against the US embassy in the suburb of
 Soukra, on the road to Carthage and Sidi Bou Said and the
 American school, near the Embassy, which caters to
 expatriate families and wealthy Tunisians providing
 education from Kindergarten to the 12th grade. This happened
 in reaction to the horrible film parody about the Prophet
 Muhammad made by an Egyptian Coptic Christian American
 citizen and placed on You Tube. The relatively new embassy
 complex is built as a fortress, making it very difficult to
 penetrate. Even so, those attacking the structure ran
 circles around the Tunisian forces of order who looked more
 like the hysterically funny silent film era Keystone Cops
 than a well disciplined corps trained in crowd control. The
 attackers burned part of the embassy while another group of
 Salafists broke into and destroyed the American School in
 Tunis, pillaging computers and other office equipment before
 torching the building, rendering it unusable.


 All these abrupt turnabouts, confusion among the top
 leadership, and mass frustrations with the slow pace of pay
 backs for revolting and overthrowing the old regime, have
 not helped to stabilize the situation. If anything, the
 introduction of free electoral politics has given extremists
 the new possibility of expressing themselves and attempting
 to enforce new moral standards. Yet, the more unstable the
 situation, the more Tunisian civil society will turn against
 the present government and will look for alternative
 leadership. After all, the population has overcome its fear
 of those in power, have found a new dignity in collective
 action, and have asserted their right to express themselves
 freely. In the shadows stands the transitional leader, the
 octogenarian Béji Caïd el-Sebsi, who has attempted to patch
 together a wide coalition of old Bourguibists, and former
 members of Ben Ali's party, the RCD, who held minor
 positions but who know how to organize a state. If he fails
 to marshal an electoral coalition, there are others on the
 sideline willing to jump into the fray and establish a third
 way. There are many middle class property owners in the
 country who want nothing more than stability and a chance to
 reinvigorate the economy so that they once again can enrich
 themselves.   They might just be successful in the next
 elections and we might see the beginnings of more orderly
 transition to a new Tunisia. The country has many talented
 people who know how to get things done. They are waiting for
 their talents to be marshaled and be put to work.  Whatever
 happens, we have to remember that the post-revolt transition
 will be rocky and filled with surprises. After having
 watched Tunisian developments for more than half a century,
 I am convinced that the Tunisians will sort out their
 problems and reestablish a working state. But it will take
 time to accomplish.


 For background see two of my writings on the Tunisian
 revolt: "Epilogue," and "Arab Dictatorship Under Fire in the
 New Information Age," in Marvin Gettleman and Stuart Schaar,
 eds., The Middle East and Islamic World Reader (third ed.,
 New York: Grove Press, 2012), pp. 353-357 and 378-381;
 "Democracy Triumphs in Tunisia's First Free Elections," The
 Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai, India), Vol. XLVI,

 *  Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian
 Revolution, 1891-1924 (Penguin Books, 1998).

 *  See Georges Rude, The French Revolution: Its Causes, Its
 History, and Its Legacy After 200 Years (New York: Grove
 Press, 1994).

 *  See John Schrecker, The Chinese Revolution in Historical
 Perspective (2nd ed., Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004).

 *  For a long term view of the Tunisian revolt, see Gilbert
 Achcar, "The Bouazizi Spark: The Beginning of a Long
 Revolutionary Process," alakhbar english, January 10, 2012,
 at english.al-akhbar.com/print/3232. A lecture delivered at
 Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia on December 18, 2011.

 *  William Kornhauser, Politics of Mass Society (London:
 Routledge, 2010). Kornhauser, originally writing in the late
 1950s, argued that mass societies have weak intermediary
 structures between the masses and the state making them
 vulnerable to authoritarian/totalitarian control, but also
 this condition makes these societies available for
 mobilization for defined ends. Jack A. Goldstone, who has
 written extensively on comparative revolutions, concludes
 that in the Arab world "Large unemployed and underemployed
 youth populations are vulnerable to radicalization and
 recruitment to insurgent movements." "The New Population
 Bomb: Large Cohorts of Educated, Unemployed Youth," The Key
 Reporter (Phi Beta Kappa Magazine), Spring 2011:6.

 *  Hobsbawn was commenting on his book The Age of Empires: A
 History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage Books,

 *  According to the dean of the faculty of Manouba, Habib
 Khaznadar, the Salafists had four demands: the right to wear
 veils; a room in which to pray; the end of co-ed education,
 and female professors for women students. See Stephane
 Kovacs, "Tunisie: Heurts entre salafistes et laïques," Le
 Figaro, December 5, 2011.

 *  For a review of Bourguiba's heritage, see Michel Camau
 and Vincent Geisser, eds., Habib Bourguiba: La trace et
 l'heritage (Aix-en-Provence: Karthala, 2004).

 *  See Abdou Filali Ansari, State, Society and Creed:
 Reflections on the Maghreb," in Amyn B. Sojoo, ed., Civil
 Society in the Muslim World: Contemporary Perspectives
 (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002), pp. 294-318 for a
 discussion of the role of civil society in acting as an
 independent force in the Maghreb.

 *  Les Blogs: Regards croisés, June 29, 2011 in partnership
 with Tribune de Genève.

 *  For a comparative view, see Seyyid Vali Reza Nasr, The
 Rise of Islamic Capitalism: Why the New Muslim Middle Class
 Is the Key to Defeating Extremism (New York: The Free Press,

 *  "The energy, dynamism and intelligence of the younger
 generation in the Arab world has been unleashed, after being
 dammed up by a system which treated them with contempt, and
 which concentrated power in the hands of a much older
 generation. Seemingly out of nowhere, young people in the
 Arab world have gained a confidence, an assurance, and a
 courage that have made fearsome police state regimes that
 once looked invincible tremble." Rachid Khalidi,
 "Preliminary Historical Observations on the Arab Revolutions
 of 2011," Jadaliyya, March 21, 2011:1-2.

 *  For a more pessimistic view than mine of Tunisia's
 present and future see Ann Wolf and Raphaël Lefèvre,
 "Revolution Under Threat: the Challenges of the `Tunisian
 Model'" The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 17, No.
 3, June 2012: 559-563. Madawi Al-Rashed, when reviewing
 Jean-Pierre Filiu's book, The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons
 from the Democratic Uprising (London: Hurst, 2011),
 criticizes the author for not attempting to see the Arab
 revolts through "the prism of longue durée historical
 process."  "A history still in the making," Times Higher
 Education, September 29, 2011: 60.

 [Stuart Schaar is Professor Emeritus of Middle East History
 at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He is the co-author of The Middle
 East and Islamic World Reader (New York: Grove Press, 2003).
 He is co-editor, with Prof. Mohsine El Ahmadi of Marrakech
 University, on the Creation of the Arab Citizen, to be
 published later this year by Interlink Publishers of
 Northampton, MA.]


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