Sign that reads “We would love to live in our country” during a protest in Tunis on June 12, 2021. Photo by Ali Zemzmi.
This essay was produced in collaboration with the Resistance Studies Initiative.
On the tenth anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution on January 14, 2021, a wave of unrest engulfed the country. Both the government and the media focused on the question whether the demonstrations were “peaceful” or not, emphasizing a sharp distinction between legitimate, “peaceful” daytime protests and unwarranted night-time riots. As one resident of Tunis said of the recent protests: “These aren’t protests, it’s young people who are coming from nearby neighborhoods to rob and entertain themselves.”
Such unrest is actually commonplace in Tunisia, especially around the yearly commemorations celebrating Ben Ali’s departure on January 14, 2011. So, why are the government and media now placing such an emphasis on riots? A closer look at the occurrence of riots alongside peaceful protests during the 2011 Tunisian Revolution helps us answer this question and also gives us insight into the ways that discourses of nonviolent protest and rioting play out across the world.
The so-called Arab Spring across West Asia and North Africa is widely recalled as a set of peaceful, nonviolent uprisings and revolutions. Even in Syria and Yemen, the initial resistance is remembered as nonviolent and often juxtaposed to the brutal armed conflicts that followed. There is much to be learned from the nonviolent resistance processes of these uprisings, however, the interplay between nonviolent and violent resistance should not be overlooked. Recent research analyses the significance of rioting during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution while my own research identifies similar processes during the 2011 Tunisian Revolution.
Direct physical confrontation with security forces was an important element in the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. In the early days, clashes with security forces, especially in the interior regions of Tunisia, liberated spaces like university campuses and residential areas of towns and cities for unarmed occupations. The occupations overstretched the police and made it difficult for them to operate.
Rioters destroyed and raided police stations, ruling party infrastructure and government offices. People were justifiably angry and focused that anger on symbols of the regime. Corruption was a particularly acute source of popular anger. As Nader, a Tunisian political organizer in Gafsa, explained; “We set fire in all the police stations. We take the government there. The palace of finance. We find drugs. We find gold, we find a lot of money from when you pay tax there. It’s the money of the people and it goes back to the people.”
The Tunisian Revolution is rather erroneously referred to as a “youth” revolution. In fact, participants were of all ages across society. In many locations, clashes with the police were central to collective action, drawing in different kinds of people. Noman, a political organizer in Regueb, noted to me that: “The students of the Lycee Haddad in Regueb started clashing with the police from 2pm until 7pm, so all day they were fighting…[Then] from the 3rd of January, fights started nightly and daily: students during the day, and the unemployed during the night.”
Since 2011, Tunisia’s main political parties have shown little willingness to deal with the issues that underlie the revolution. This began immediately following Ben Ali’s departure on January 14, when individuals in the ruling RCD party managed to maintain their power and positions. Political parties that were newly legalized or returning from exile played their role in this as well, channeling grassroots dissent and organization into institutionalized “reform” processes and dissipating the momentum from below. After decades in the wilderness, rival political parties saw the post-Ben Ali era as their opportunity for political power. One Tunisian academic explained how political parties “came to the scene without any experience because of [the] dictatorship, but with…their ideologies, like thirty years old, forty years old, believing this is their moment now; ‘we waited too long, it’s now or never.’”
In the last decade, there have been few concrete government actions to provide work and dignity. The main political parties have been more concerned with stoking conflict based on exaggerated social divisions between “Islamist” and “secular” camps, which serves as a facade and a distraction while they strengthen their own cross-party elite control over institutions. At the international level, the imposition of neoliberal economic reforms on Tunisia has endured. Ben Ali’s regime welcomed these reforms, while at the same time facilitating corruption and exacerbating Tunisians’ daily struggle by removing subsidies and narrowing economic opportunity. Structural adjustment policies in Tunisia continue to squeeze public services, living costs and job prospects into the present.
The disenfranchisement of young people in the wake of the revolution has further entrenched marginalization and discontent. The 2014 election of a former Ben Ali regime associate, Beji Caid Essebsi, as president at the age of 88 exemplified the establishment as an out-of-touch gerontocracy. In an interview, Ayoub, a member of the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET) remarked: “the political elite who are ruling this country…are, you know, an elite of the oldest people, the old-fashioned elite.”
Organizations such as the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which once provided a safety valve of dissent for the Ben Ali regime, spurned youth involvement in post-revolution politics. In 2011, Ayoub was already an experienced student union organizer and activist, yet he recalls that after Ben Ali was ousted, he was told by “leftist leaders” of the UGTT “not to confuse his law education with the reality on the ground.” In 2015, the student union’s former vice-president told me that: “The government marginalizes us…even political parties and opposition marginalized their youth power.” However, local UGTT chapters and the Union of Unemployed Graduates are supporting youth as they now occupy production facilities to demand work and opportunities.
In January 2021, riots began taking place in the most deprived areas of Tunis — the same areas that rose up to doom the regime in 2011. These protesters are simultaneously confronting the disinterest of the institutionalized political system as well as violent repression. Many of these unemployed people express resistance while being horizontal and decentralized in their manner of organization. Feminist Henda Chennaoui recently explained how “the unstructured nature of the movement” is part of an increasingly visible intersectionality of mobilization in Tunisia.
The rioting that Tunisia saw in January has glaring and deep-rooted political and economic causes, however the protesters have been dismissed as misguided youth. For example, Al Jazeera has reported that “the youths clashing with riot police after dark in poor districts of Tunisian cities “have voiced few clear political aims.” Their suggestion that protester demands are not clearly articulated mirrors the Tunisian government’s own efforts at characterizing the violence as mindless destruction.
Meanwhile, young people believe they have nothing to lose through their actions. This was also a common refrain among those who recall the 2011 revolution. “If we let these people carry on with this style of living,” one activist told me, referring to the Ben Ali regime, “there is no other way than [us] dying at the end of the road.” Given the parallels with the nature of the 2011 resistance to Ben Ali’s regime, it may be that the combination of rioting and protests is what really disconcerts the Tunisian government.
Many academic studies suggest that “violent flanks” in nonviolent movements are counterproductive. Yet, in the Tunisian Revolution, the relationship of violent and nonviolent activities was not so clear cut. There were many factors at play, including the popular outrage at the regime’s violence itself. Many Tunisians viewed protesters’ violence as simple self-defense, paling in comparison to the violence of the state.
But riotous calls for dignity and justice cannot be dismissed. After ten years, outrage and exasperation over Tunisia’s economic malaise and other issues have not diminished. Rather than arguing about “violent” or “nonviolent” manifestations of despondency, the focus should be on resolving the political and economic marginalization in Tunisia. Otherwise, the unrest — in whatever form it takes — will only continue.