Tunis, Tunisia – Spring has come late to the Arab world this year. This can be seen clearly in Tunisia, home to the Revolution of January 14, 2011, an event widely understood to be the great success story of the “Arab Spring”. Whereas war and violence have split countries such as Libya and Syria, and a creeping authoritarianism characterises post-revolutionary life in Egypt, Tunisia enjoyed a relatively smooth passage to freedom. This comforts observers in Europe and the United States, who see “mission accomplished” in Tunisia. But a year after popular demonstrations swept the old regime from power, cracks have emerged in the revolutionary edifice.
What brought these cracks into view is, oddly enough, the weather. This year, Tunisia suffered its worst winter in living memory. In the mountains near the Algerian border, up to 80cm of snow fell in the first week of February. The snowfall cut off electricity, water and gas to thousands, and opened a long and claustrophobic period of dark and cold for ill-equipped towns such as Aïn Draham and Sakiet Sidi Youssef.
Historically, Mediterranean Africa has been dominated by geography and climate, which have marked this region with catastrophic droughts, floods and earthquakes. Such was the importance of these natural forces that the great French historian, Fernand Braudel, made them the main characters for his massive history of the Mediterranean world, a book that famously showed how events could be considered froth on the waves of the deep currents of history.
But the historian was only giving voice to what rulers across North Africa have long known: their most important constituency is the “rain vote”. In the best years, winter rains replenish reservoirs and irrigate pastures, winter wheat, olive and orange trees. In bad years, the rains come too heavy, too cold, or not at all.
Thus when the rain vote comes in favourably, it ensures abundance and low prices in the marketplace, and, with them, satisfied consumers who reward their leaders with political quietism, even support.
So a year after Tunisia’s new beginning, it is as if the weather itself had cast a vote against the revolution. The cold had “imposed its dictatorship”, but this dictatorship was felt unevenly. Unlike the political authoritarianism of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the ill effects of winter have not been shared equally by all Tunisian citizens.
Those who live in the inland rural regions have suffered the most. Like the people of Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution began, their lives are marked by extreme economic precariousness and outright poverty. And their insecurity has increased, as prices for basic foodstuffs soar in a wave of inflation that has swept across the region this spring, hitting the working poor hard. And they are the lucky ones: 800,000 are unemployed in this country of only 10.5 million.
Like the other catastrophes and near misses that have recently marked the world’s economy, the causes behind this rise in prices are complex to the point of mystery. But the rain vote is ready to put a face on the problem and blame those who enrich themselves on the hunger of others, such as profiteers, food traffickers and a government which has little to offer in the way of solutions.
A social crisis threatens Tunisia, as the gap grows between those who have benefited from the revolution and those who have not. The winners are concentrated in the upper and middle urban classes – lawyers, professors, entrepreneurs – who now enjoy economic and political liberty, while the working classes have seen little improvement in their daily lives.
A reliable barometer of this social crisis are the “Harragas” who debark in small fishing boats for Europe. Their name comes from the Arabic word for “burners”, and they “burn” everything – papers, frontiers and their bridges back home. Having little hope that meaningful change will come from the ballot box, they take to the sea.
“Tunisia has no future in Tunisia,” President Moncef Marzouki recently said, in a poorly worded call for regional co-operation which resonated unfavourably with the Harragas. More than 30,000 have fled the country since January 14, 2011, and clandestine Tunisian emigrants are appearing now in Algeria, a country that faces its own acute problems of unemployment and poverty.
Thus winter brought into clear relief a basic social fact of Tunisia’s Arab Spring: the revolution of January 14, made in the name of people seeking dignity in the face of social misery, risks leaving most of them behind.
It is significant to recall winter’s work, now that the snow is gone and Tunisia moves into year two of its revolution. Since elections last October put the Islamist Ennahda party at the forefront of the provisional government, debates have centred on the relationship between politics and Islam, such as the question whether the new constitution will enshrine Sharia as the ultimate source of the law.
These debates have spilled out into the street, pitting secularists against those who wish to see the new Tunisia embrace an exclusive Arab-Islamic identity. Thus, we have the images from Manouba University, where the struggle of the “Munaqqabat”, or women who want to wear the full Islamic veil (niqab) to class, recently escalated into a dramatic rooftop battle between student militants under the black flag of the Salafi movement and the red flag of the Tunisian state.
The stakes of these struggles over national identity are high for Tunisia and the Middle East, and the fact that they are unfolding with no small amount of physical violence is a cause of concern. But these issues were not at the origin of the revolution, and they are in many ways a distraction from the sort of deep structural problems Tunisia faces over the long-term. The battle for social dignity that brought people into the streets after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi has not been won.
Benjamin Claude Brower is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin. His first book A Desert Named Peace: The Violence of French Empire in the Algerian Sahara, 1844-1902 (2009) tells the story of colonial violence in 19th-century Algeria. He is currently working on a second book, entitled The Colonial Hajj, 1798-1962, which explores the history of pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places made by Muslims subject to French colonial rule.