The Tunisian revolution had a very convulsed 11th anniversary earlier this year. January 14, which marks the 2011 departure of Tunisia’s longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, could not be celebrated in a democratic environment as it had been during the previous decade. On July 25, 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced the suspension of parliament and has been ruling by decree since then, in a move that can only be described as a coup.
Saied has not only attacked the democratic pillars of the post-2011 system, but also the revolutionary narrative underpinning it. It is in this context that one can understand his decision to move the anniversary of the revolution to December 17 – the date on which Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation initiated a string of protests that eventually put an end to Ben Ali’s rule.
As Tunisian journalist Fadil Aliriza aptly explains, for Saied, January 14 “is not the highpoint of the revolution but rather the beginning of its neutering and cooptation by a political elite who sacrificed the head to maintain as much of the old regime as possible.”
“Understanding Revolutions” could not have been published at a better time.
Azmi Bishara’s latest book, “Understanding Revolutions: Opening Acts in Tunisia,” could not have been published at a better time. When the democratic gains brought by the revolution are more at risk than ever before, it is essential to understand how they were achieved in the first place.
Bishara, who holds the position of General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, has produced a much-needed reappraisal of the path to the Tunisian revolution and its consequences. Bishara’s book on Tunisia is the first of a trilogy that will also cover the Arab Spring in Syria and Egypt.
When reading Bishara’s first volume, it is difficult to avoid thinking that some of the elements that made Ben Ali’s downfall possible – while avoiding a civil war — will need to be revisited in order for Saied’s authoritarianism to be successfully countered.
The book provides a detailed historical background of Tunisia as an independent state, paying special attention to instances of popular protest during the Bourguiba and Ben Ali eras.
Habib Bourguiba, who led his country into independence from France in 1956, soon installed a despotic regime. Still, this old guard “was more concerned with power than money.” Ben Ali would follow an equally authoritarian path upon taking power in a coup in 1987, with the difference that Ben Ali and his extended family also enriched themselves to unprecedented levels.
Although Bishara’s chapter on key political parties and other civil society organizations before 2011 is written in an excessively encyclopedic style, the historical overview is very useful in contextualizing the rest of the book.
The historical overview is very useful in contextualizing the rest of the book.
Bishara argues that the key factors behind a successful transition to democracy in Tunisia are threefold: the will of the country’s elites to compromise, the Tunisian military’s lack of political ambition, and the lesser geopolitical importance of Tunisia when compared to other countries, such as Egypt.
In this sense, Bishara’s approach favorably compares to Safwan Masri’s book, “Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly,” which too often falls into the thesis of Tunisia’s exceptionalism. This is a dangerous myth that implies the Tunisian experience cannot easily be replicated in the rest of the Arab world.
[Tunisia Needs a ‘Marshall Plan’ to Rescue its Threatened Democracy]
[President Saied’s ‘Coup’ Puts Tunisian Democracy in Crisis]
While Masri writes that “there is something unique and special about Tunisia that is missing in the rest of the Arab world,” Bishara argues that there is “no contradiction between Tunisian specificity and broader Arab causes, or between Tunisian national identity and Arab identity.”
“Understanding Revolutions: Opening Acts in Tunisia” contains a day-by-day account of the events that moved the North African country, in the author’s words, “from uprising to revolution.” Bishara puts special emphasis on the peripheral geographies of the protests that dominated the last days of 2010 in Tunisia.
The book contains a day-by-day account of the events that moved the North African country “from uprising to revolution.”
Long before people took to the streets in Tunis, the neglected central and southern governorates had already erupted in protests. One of the mechanisms that transmitted the initial revolutionary fervor to the better-off northern and northeastern provinces offers a glimpse into the regional inequalities that dominate modern Tunisia.
The central governorate of Sidi Bouzid, where protests first arose, has an inadequate healthcare infrastructure. Thus, when the security forces left many locals injured, they had to be taken to other areas of the country by their families. Many injured civilians ended up in the northeastern city of Sfax, which ultimately worked against the government-imposed media blackout on the violence inflicted on the demonstrators by the police. When the second-largest urban center of Tunisia finally joined the uprising, the Ben Ali regime took a hard blow.
Bishara believes it profoundly consequential that, prior to 2011, the different Tunisian opposition groups had “drawn up a scheme of how the country should be ruled after authoritarianism.” Such a consensus greatly facilitated the introduction of a new democratic system.
In the current context, the parties and civil society organizations that oppose Saied’s power grab might need to reach a similar understanding. As of now, the opposition appears to be fragmented, and neither the European Union nor the United States has vocally condemned the authoritarian drift in Tunisian politics.
Saied can only be stopped “internally by a coalition of democratic forces, and externally by international pressure from democratic countries.”
However, there is no denying Bishara’s conclusions. Saied can only be stopped “internally by a coalition of democratic forces, and externally by international pressure from democratic countries.”
In short, “Understanding Revolutions: Opening Acts in Tunisia” is an essential work that offers its readers an opportunity to better comprehend Tunisia’s recent history and envision what its future needs to look like in order for democracy to succeed.
 Bishara, Azmi. Understanding Revolutions: Opening Acts in Tunisia (London: I.B. Tauris, 2021), p. 64
 Masri, Safwan M. Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), p. XX
 Bishara, Understanding Revolutions, p. 63
 Ibid., p. 259.
 Ibid., p. 288