The merciless violence on display by a part of the population of Sfax against sub-Saharan migrants is managing to achieve what so many analyses had failed: that is, to debunk the myth of Tunisia as “the only successful Arab revolution.”
This is a myth that has misrepresented the reality of the democratic process undertaken by the North African country after its Jasmine Revolution, which broke out in December 2010 after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a market seller from Sidi Bouzid, deep in Tunisia’s hinterland. He had killed himself after yet another abuse at the hands of the police, in a symbolic and desperate attempt to wrest the monopoly on violence from those in power.
From Tunisia, the revolt spread to North Africa, the Gulf, the Levant. And Tunisia would end up being the setting for an apparent democratization process which was cast as a success story.
It was such a story, at least in part. One recalls the celebration of that success at the 2015 Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, with the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the “Quartet” of Tunisia’s institutions: the historic UGTT trade union, the industrialists’ association, the League of Human Rights and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.
In stark contrast to its neighboring countries, which have remained trapped in counterrevolutions and civil wars since 2011, Tunisia has notched achievement after achievement, both small and of major importance: free elections, one of the most secular and progressive constitutions in the Arab world, family law reform, gender equality, civil marriage.
But the success narrative was built on the “liberal shorthand” that sees elections and civil rights as the ultimate expression of an inherently democratic system. This narrative excludes the key demand put forward by the Jasmine Revolution: socio-economic justice and equality and an end to the political-economic authoritarianism of the state.
That kind of democracy was never achieved in Tunisia. The pyramidal structure of society is intact, in no way affected by the windfall of billions of dollars that rained down on Tunis from the West, the EU, the US, the IMF.
Now the windfall has dried up, leaving behind inflation, unemployment, shortages of food, medicine and fuel, and the exclusion of the poorer hinterlands, with the coastal areas swallowing up infrastructure investments for the benefit of international tourism.
Long before we did, the Tunisians realized that democracy had never really arrived. They expressed their disillusionment in many ways, which seem contradictory on a superficial look: a significant number joined the ranks of Islamist movements which offered them wages (Tunisians are the most represented nationality among ISIS’s foreign fighters); others chose emigration to Europe, while others protested in the streets.
Over the years, the strikes, clashes with police and union activism trying to secure public services and living wages have never stopped, across the whole country: in Tunis, Kasserine, Jebeniana, Sidi Bouzid, Mornag.
The people wanted their “Spring”: what they got instead was outside-facing austerity and internal authoritarianism.
A third IMF loan, worth $1.9 billion, depends on Tunis saying yes to a package of measures that will bring more pain and suffering: cutting subsidies on bread and fuel (with a cascading impact on the prices of other goods), radical cuts in the number of civil servants and their salaries, restructuring state-owned companies (i.e. privatization), raising VAT, devaluing the currency to attract foreign investment. This is hardly the path towards social justice – as Egypt, Morocco or Jordan can testify.
On the internal front, hard-won freedoms have been gradually shrunk, as they often are, with the authorities invoking the specter of terrorism: since 2015, Tunisia has been under a state of emergency, with the overt goal of narrowing the public space for dissent, until the culmination of this process with President Saied’s institutional coup.
“Spring” has not come, stifled by the lethal symbiosis of authoritarianism and neoliberalism. In Tunisia, this is on display in the form of the lights and skyscrapers lining the waterfront, the touristic streets and cafes on every corner, the neoliberal hallucination sweeping the misery of the Tunisian people under the rug. Today, their rage is being diverted into a war between the poor: until recently, the people of Sfax used to take to the streets against the political elite, but now they’re doing so to drive out migrants, intoxicated by the racist and nationalist rhetoric broadcast from Tunis.
This is the country of the failed spring, of the myth of “democracy” that pits civil rights against social rights, and of the facade of “stability” in the service of the defense of Europe: both a bulwark against terrorism and Brussels’ outsourced border.
But what kind of stability can grow from the soil of poverty?
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