Tunis: Both young and old congregated on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis on January 19, 2021. The poster signs were varied, and so were the slogans, calling for a government response to socioeconomic precarities, calling for dignity, calling for the current political regime to resign.
The protestors faced a line of policemen, dressed in black, with their shields and batons, and cans of teargas. Ten years ago, it was here, in Tunisia, that the spark of the uprising that came to be called the Arab Spring was lit. Ten years ago, it was here that a popular resistance made an authoritarian regime fall.
I think continuously of farmers protesting in India as I join my Tunisian friends at protests in Tunis since the start of this year. Is it not that many stories of resistance begin with farms, as farmers are forced to the margins?
From villages to cities: A history of protests
The story of the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world gets told as follows: on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after his vegetable cart was confiscated by the police, leading to protests that spread all over the country till Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the then-president of Tunisia, fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011 after being in power for 23 years.
The story comes with a start and an end. But what this misses out is the complex history of this uprising, which is a history of long resistance from the margins. To see the 2011 Arab Spring as an isolated event is to erase what has been and remains a continuous struggle, so much of which looks similar in Tunisia, in Egypt, in India and elsewhere.
Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa that witnessed massive uprisings against authoritarian rule in 2011 have a history of protests coming from those whose socioeconomic conditions have been deteriorating since the preceding decade or earlier. Economic liberalisation policies, much like the proposed privatisation of the agricultural sector in India, marginalised further those who were already at the geographical, economic, and political margins in the region.
In Tunisia, a prolonged labour resistance was organised by mine workers in Gafsa (southwest Tunisia) in 2008 along with unemployed youth. In 2010, protests were organised by farmers in Sidi Bouzid (central Tunisia) to make demands similar to many being made by farmers in India currently – access to drinking and irrigation water, and state support especially in relation to indebtedness.
Similar protests were taking place in Egypt between 2008 until the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, protests in response to increasing food prices (especially bread), depressed salaries, drinking water shortages, among others. In Yemen, sit-ins and demonstrations were being organised since 2007 by Yemenis in the south to protest centralisation of government in the north as well as socioeconomic marginalisation. These protests and other forms of resistance movements helped pave the road to the Arab Spring.
For example, many of the networks formed during previous protests were mobilised during the uprisings that led to the fall of the regime in Tunisia. Khaled Tahri, a key figure of the 2011 protests in Mazzouna (a rural town in the Sidi Bouzid governorate in central Tunisia) recounted to me that the local branches of labour unions (like the local branches of Tunisian General Labour Union) were mobilised even when their national bodies had made no explicit statements calling for protests.
The Arab Spring
Mohamed Bouazizi’s story of desperation and self-immolation came to symbolise increasingly precarious economic conditions and the failure on the part of the state to respond to them, as well as the increase in police violence and government corruption. His act sparked protests around Tunisia, resulting in the fleeing of Ben Ali.
Mass protests, inspired by the protests in Tunisia, were also organised in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Morocco during 2011. Key issues motivating these protests were the same: authoritarian rule, unemployment, and deteriorating economic conditions.
In some cases, those in power proposed symbolic reforms (like in the case of Morocco), or sought complete and violent repression of any form of opposition. The latter is the case of Syria under the rule of Bashar el-Assad, and this violent repression and ensuing civil war continue till today.
In Tunisia, the democratic transition has been marked by increasing polarisation between the Islamist parties and secular parties. Ennahda (described as a “moderate Islamist party”) came to power after winning most seats in the elections in October 2011; it was banned and barred from politics under Ben Ali.
After the departure of Ben Ali, the economic and social questions should have been the priorities of the new government that formed post-2011. Rather, as scholar Hamza Meddeb points out, the Islamist-secularist cleavages monopolised the debates. The marginalisation of those at the economic, geographical, and political peripheries continues.
The continuum to the present
Tunisia has been celebrated as the “model” to democratic transition in the region. So why is it that people are still on the street, protesting? While the revolution of 2011 brought the end of dictatorship in Tunisia and created a space for free expression, Tunisians I meet at protests in Tunis tell me that much of the political and social structures remain the same. The marginalisation of those at the peripheries, especially those in the rural centres and south of Tunisia, continues. With politicians more concerned about responding to the Islamist-secularist polarisation, it is not surprising that Tunisians feel like their concerns remain unheard.
One key challenge in Tunisia is the unequal division of economic and political resources, which are centralised around Tunis (capital) and the coastal regions of Sousse and Monastir. The central and southern parts of Tunisia (which include Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid, major sites of historical and contemporary resistance movements) remain marginalised in terms of development of economic and social infrastructure. While this unequal development of the country has been around since before the 2011 revolution, the policies that perpetuate this inequality remain to date.
As I travel around Tunisia, this difference is clear. Police populate town squares, roads, and public spaces of areas that are imagined as ‘disobedient’ in the public imagination, be they are in suburban spaces of Tunis or cities and towns in south and central Tunisia, like Kasserine.
In Kasserine, the negligence of public infrastructure is clear from the garbage that remains unpicked around the city, as Amel, a 29-year-old resident points out to me. Symbolic of the negligence is also the empty train tracks that cut through the city that haven’t seen trains for years, Amel adds.
Small and big-scale protests have been around since January 14, 2021, the day which marked the 10-year anniversary of the fall of the Ben Ali regime but which also coincided with the first day of a four-day lockdown.
Many Tunisians have wondered about the possible political goal of this lockdown, in addition to the explicit pandemic-related reasons. Those who join these protests have called for work, for freedom, for dignity and respect. The increasing police violence, visible at the sites of the protests, has led to a call for the fall of the police state and of the governing regime itself.
From Tunisia to India: Social structures in crisis
Like in the Arab world, farmer protests in India point to a global trend – socioeconomic structures in crisis. The pandemic-related crisis is leading to the widening of social inequalities, because it has led to the loss of incomes for those whose work cannot be undertaken remotely or by following due safety protocols. This affects those in informal labour markets, like vegetable sellers or street restaurant owners, disproportionately.
In Tunisia, unemployment affects disproportionally those in the marginalised regions of Tunisia and those who are young (around 37% of those aged 15-24 in the labour force were unemployed in 2020). But there is also what scholar Larbi Sadiki calls “human estrangement” – the “loss of agency and the potential for self-regeneration qua worthiness, identity, and belonging”.
While demonstrations continue to remain visible in the daytime, looting and vandalism were strategies used by young men in popular neighbourhoods around Tunisia during the period that marked the lockdown and the 10-year anniversary. Some of the sites chosen for looting, like supermarkets, indicate that hunger might be one of the motivating factors behind these acts.
Stories of desperation, like those coming from Tunisia, are familiar in India as well. Farmer suicides are acts of desperation similar to self-immolations we continue to witness in Tunisia and elsewhere. Farmers’ suicides in India are one of the highest in the world; in 2019, 28 people dependent on farming died every day by suicide. At the same time, agriculture remains the largest employer, with around half of India’s workforce employed in it either directly or indirectly.
This desperation leads, among others, to protests which are suppressed by the governments by resorting to police violence. During the protests that took place in response to increasing economic precarity since the start of this year in Tunis, more than 1,600 people have been arrested, including around 600 minors. Like in the case of the farmer protests in India, protests in the region are also sites of violence, with the use of tear gas and batons to disperse protestors.
The road ahead
The persisting social and economic inequalities can no longer be ignored, especially in the light of the pandemic. These inequalities share much with what we see around the world – gender and class-based inequalities, racial and caste-based marginalisation, increasing unemployment and precarity, and the narrowing of the state-funded welfare.
As scholar Nadia Marzouki writes, much of the study of the Middle East and North Africa region has a “culturalist fascination with the question of the compatibility between Islam and democracy”, hindering a reflection on the socioeconomic structures that lead to persistent inequalities.
What we also see around the world is the use of political discourse that delegitimises the concerns of those who are marginalised. For example, recent protests in Tunis and its suburbs that witnessed looting and vandalism were delegitimised by the government and its media apparatus by referring to its mostly-young male population as ‘rioters’ rather than protestors.
Suhasini Haidar points to a similar trend in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called “activists a “jamaat”, protestors as “parasites”.
What remains clear is that free elections don’t suffice to make a democracy. Democracy works when concerns of those most marginalised are heard, and when these concerns are used to frame concrete policies that reduce precarity and open up equal opportunities, and when people feel that they can live freely and with dignity.