ISCI is a cross-disciplinary research centre working to further our understanding of state crime: organisational deviance violating human rights

The Second Anniversary of the Arab Spring


14 January 2013 marks two years since the most important uprising in Tunisia’s modern history. On the eve of this celebrated anniversary, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party, wrote that “Tunisians are for the first time the true protagonists of their history, and are engaged in an experience that will be a model for democracy in the region” [1]. He presents Tunisia as a unique example, within the “Arab world”, of judicious political compromise, unity, and liberal democratic progressiveness. “The governing coalition of secularist and Islamist parties is now in its second year. Despite their differences, these parties have clearly demonstrated the possibility of reconciliation, co-operation and partnership between moderate Islamists and moderate secularists, an important model for the Arab world”.

Having been a French protectorate for over 70 years, Tunisia and its political framework were redefined by Independence from French colonial rule in 1956. Since then Tunisia has lived through two regimes: under the liberationist leader, Bourguiba, and under the more overtly dictatorial Ben Ali. Throughout these periods oppositional politics in Tunisia has been hard-fought – opposition movements have been as adaptive in resisting state criminality as they have been rigorously subjugated by state apparatuses.

In 1961 Frantz Fanon wrote, from Tunisia, “the colonial world is a world cut into two …The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not how or where” [2]. After of the inconsequence of colonised subjecthood, as Fanon understands it, Tunisians would attempt to secure a range of political goods. Most obviously, a multi-party electoral system would ensure the participation of Islamic politics – a politics deeply held by many politically active men and women. Most pressingly, oppositional politics had to fight to withstand Tunisian police, who meted out systemic torture practices on the streets and in police stations, and brutalised those who opposed the regime.

Following street protests against decades of state repression and the endogenous corruption of the ruling elite, the January 2011 uprising was heralded as something revolutionary.

And indeed many developments since January 2011 suggest revolutionary change: newly elected bodies, domestic trials (albeit flawed), enactment of interim laws, constitutional revision, and a forthcoming general election. However these are transitional ambitions yet to be realised.

In the main, analysis and commentary on Tunisian political discourse strain against the meanings, real and imagined, of “moderate Islamist” rule. Ghannouchi, as his statements above suggest, speaks a language of diplomatic inclusiveness, presumably in an attempt to quell the vagaries of Islamist rule in Tunisia today. (By doing so, tellingly, Ghannouchi has incurred the suspicion of all sides.)

“Moderate Islam”, in this sense, is the shibboleth that has secured loans from the World Bank and African Development Bank to Tunisia of $500 million each. In addition, 68 million Euros have been pledged from EU, the key aim of which being to “improve the business climate and competitiveness of the economy”.

Yet the focus on Tunisia’s apparent “democratic transition”, and the degree to which this transition chimes with Western principles beyond those of the global market economy, is distracting.

On the second anniversary of the 2011 uprising, the situation of many Tunisians remains precarious, unjust, eclipsed.

17 percent of the population – a figure that gets higher among young people – is unemployed, only a slight improvement on 2011’s figure, 19 percent. In November 2012 in Siliana, a rural town around 70 miles southwest of Tunis, local union leaders called a general strike in concert with residents, who demonstrated to demand jobs and the removal of their governor, Ahmed Mahoubi, a member of the ruling Ennahda party. Rallies spiralled into street attacks between protestors and police, the latter firing tear gas and birdshot (canisters of lead or rubber pellets) as young men threw stones and blocked the streets by burning debris.

Even a cursory examination of post-2011 events suggests that the oppositional politics of Tunisia’s disenfranchised classes cannot be said to have come to rest on 14 January 2011. The rise of Salafist protest and politics; federal labour strikes; the “Ekbess” movement; the emergence of the so-called Popular Leagues for the “protection of the revolution”; the protests of The Union for Unemployed Graduates (UDC) – these all gainsay the more simplistic narratives of the Arab Spring as a successful turn to Western democratic principles.

And what of the legacy and continued forms of state criminality in Tunisia? ISCI’s ESRC-funded project, Resisting State Crime: A Study of Civil Society, is an ongoing attempt to engage with actors with a long history of political activism in Tunisia. The aim of this study is to understand – in its complex significance and development – the role of civil society in resisting historical state crimes in Tunisia. And it is clear that the full meanings of historical and persistent state criminality in Tunisia are still being conceptualised and understood, despite the easy definitions proffered by commentators.

In May 1968 Michel Foucault was not on the streets on Paris. He was living as a teacher in Tunis. Before the events in France, Foucault wrote of “student agitations of incredible violence” in Tunis [3].  Beginning in March 1968, Tunisian students would be engulfed in “strikes, boycotting of classes, and arrests”, taking place “one after another for the entire year”. Foucault records that “the police entered the university and attacked many students, injuring them and throwing them into jail”. The events would lead Foucault to re-conceptualise theoretical Marxism:

In Tunisia everyone was drawn into Marxism with radical violence and intensity and with a staggeringly powerful thrust … During those upheavals I was profoundly struck and amazed by those young men and women who exposed themselves to serious risks for the simple fact of having written or distributed a leaflet, or for having incited others to go on strike. Such actions were enough to place at risk one’s life, one’s freedom, and one’s body.

Like Foucault, many onlookers from the global North were “profoundly struck and amazed” by the events two years ago in Tunis. In 1968 Foucault would ask himself “what was it that was being questioned everywhere?” His answer was that “the dissatisfaction came from the way in which a kind of permanent oppression in daily life was being put into effect by the state or by other institutions and oppressive groups”.

Yet Foucault’s experiences in Tunisia would also make him realise how insidious and diffuse, how traumatic and socially embedded, such state criminality was: it was a force “exercised within the social body through extremely different channels, forms, and institutions”.

The legacies of state crime in post-2011 Tunisia are themselves an ongoing concern as the county marks an important date in its history. The realities and portrayals of historical state crimes in Tunisia themselves demand careful research.



[2] Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1963.

[3] Michel Foucault, Remarks on Marx, 1991.