Revolution as a carnival

The disenfranchised in Tunisia can do nothing but watch as their revolution slips into a state of carnival.

Tunisians are marking today as the two year anniversary since the overthrow of Ben Ali, though problems remain [AFP]

A bit more than two years ago, dictator Ben Ali departed Tunis to never return. As he departed, the people returned.

The world would never be the same again: The Arab Spring is born and so is a sense of carnivalesque a la Mikhail Bakhtin.

Tunisia’s revolution initiated not only a genre of protest across an Arab-Spring-to-be geography, but within months from the departure of Ben Ali, this “protest-genre” travelled across a vast terrain of Arab sub-cultures and sites of struggle. It stressed one thing: From Sanaa to Tunis, despite diversity, there is a unifying cultural filter that allows one to easily read, assimilate, and apply all kinds of cues transferred from Tunisia to vast Arab cultural spectrums of protest and transition.

Between January 14 and 25, the date when Egyptians first began to hoard and stage for the largest revolutionary carnival ever, Tunisia enjoyed a moment of rarity, the uniqueness of revolutionary inventiveness unprecedented in postcolonial contemporary Arab history.

It only took one moment that made millions of eyes well with tears: A lonesome Tunisian screaming in the still of night in the middle of the Bourguiba Boulevard, the first Arab public square to force an Arab dictator’s premature fall from grace and escape.

Ya twensa, Ben Ali hrab,” (Oh Tunisians, Ben Ali has fled) he shouted in the middle of the night, defying a curfew and stunning Arabs everywhere. They shared his shock and disbelief at the swift escape of strongman Ben Ali. It remains by far the most watched moment of the revolution’s aftermath.

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It was a powerful piece of therapeutic speech-genre, and, also, a solo act of political theatre, which introduced the Maghreb (West) to the Mashreq (East), two sides of the Arab Middle East. More importantly, it introduced a lone cry of long-endured injustice, and thirst for freedom.

By the time Egypt’s glorious revolution was in full swing, the boundaries between stage (protest) and performance were blurred considerably, as Bahrainis, Syrians and Yemenis added to the spectacle. Cascades of peoples were opened up – adding to the enormity of the moment – not only politically, but also in the scope of protest that ultimately forced Mubarak and Ali Abdallah Al-Salih out, and led to the defeat of another in Libya.

Morally, these “protest-carnivals” summoned communal solidarity – in the public displays of sit-ins, street prayers, street-like choirs, open-air dancing and singing. The people were at once performers and spectators, and combined in the creation of multi-vocal critical mass followed by tipping-point potency.

The resulting situation approximated a dynamic and people-owned space animated by aspirations of freedom, and largely, sustained by equality as protesters shed secondary identities and blended into a unique display of one-ness as re-imagined free and equal people.

Two years on…

Such carnivalesque ethos has largely dissipated in Tunisia. However, despite trepidation, faith in the revolution has not faded. It is trust in politicians that has faded. All politicians.

Tunisia right now is trying to find the right balance in order to tame the “revolution” or “rationalise” it. Yet, the publics, mostly the country’s youth, who engineered the revolution have retreated to their locales, staging mini revolutions in protest at similar marginalisation, injustice and lack of government response that was previously experienced under Ben Ali. The difference is that today they can speak freely and protest without too much of a hindrance in most areas – barring Bourguiba Boulevard.

Youth in towns such as Gafsa, Benguerdane, Metlaoui, Kasserine, Tala or Sidi Bouzid can see no horizon, and unemployment is not decreasing two years into the revolution.

Why? There are eight main reasons:

1. Government/Troika

The government has made a huge mistake by not including technocrats and competencies from outside the governing political parties. The fact the troika (Ennahda, Republican Party Congress (CPR), and Ettakatol) is no longer driven by team-agendas and spirit has aggravated performance as well as legitimacy with several ministries under-performing (Transport and Interior Ministers being the best performers).

The Islamist Prime Minister’s confidence in his party’s partners from Ettakatol and the CPR has reached a nadir. Moreover, the PM, naturally a modest individual, does not seem to be keen on hanging on to the post. To resign before the passing of the constitution would be a huge blow to Ennahda, already under pressure from civil society, troika partners, its own members, and newly-created political coalitions to admit defeat in the management of government. His Cabinet itself is not harmonious, and the PM’s voice is not always heard.

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2. Post-government

Neither the incumbent Prime Minister, Hammad Jebali, nor Moncef Marzouki, the President, for instance, seems to have ironed out their differences. Disagreements now outweigh agreements on how to steer the ship of government and deliver goods expected by Tunisians – including agreeing on a clear transition schedule. Jebali also seems to champion the idea – not supported by Ennahda’s Shura Council – that all those holding government posts, including the president and the house speaker, should resign from office in the phase of transition after a new constitution is agreed upon.

3. Who rules?

The Prime Minister may be disheartened by possible interference in his work by his own Ennahda Party, of which he is a leading member. It is not clear how much of this interference, if any, may derive directly from Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader. Something to keep a close eye on is whether Mohamed ben Salem, with strong endorsement by Ghannouchi, will emerge as a future deputy Prime Minister. The name of Abdellatif Makki is also on the horizon as a competitor for replacing Jebali when he decides to leave. At a time of internal jockeying for power within Ennahda, Makki  may not stand a chance if not endorsed by the right people.

4. Ennahda

Ennahda itself needs to order its house and end unnecessary rivalry and damage to its standing if it is to retain its comfortable electoral lead in the next parliamentary elections, which may be held later this year or in early 2014. Ennahda must level with its supporters and members and clear or confirm rumours that Ghannouchi may stand for the presidency in the future.

Also, Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem (wrongly smeared by a campaign which may have been orchestrated by one of the Ennahda ruling partners) has become a bone of contention: Ettakatol and CPR, amongst others who may join some kind of unity government, want him out as a possible condition for going ahead with a reshuffle, now postponed to a later date. The ministry held by Dr Abdessalem, Ghannouchi’s son-in-law, is highly coveted by a number of political parties.

5. Constitution

This should be prioritised as the main focus of the Constituent Assembly and the governing political parties, now down-sized by defections and withdrawals, leaving Mustafa bin Ja’afar, house speaker, and Marzouki, the president, with little or no numerical support in parliament. April has been fixed as a possible date for getting the constitution framed. This is the legal framework for launching a proper transition and without it, neither participation nor contestation can be expected to be orderly and timely.

6. Good governance

This is the ministry that should have been created, yet no political party had it as a key objective of Tunisia’s democratic reconstruction. Such a ministry would be equipped to guide democratic reconstruction and link democracy and governance determinants to both local experiences and specificity and global benchmarks. These should address poverty alleviation, sustainable development, social justice, local governance, regional development, transparency, government effectiveness, rule of law, and equal distribution of power and opportunities.

7. Regional development

This is a hot item on the agenda of good governance that calls for urgent attention. Bourguiba floated this idea in the 1970s and 1980s and was never managed properly. The idea sill has merit today, and the challenge for the government – even once the legal framework for democratic reconstruction is finally in place – will remain on how to level the playing field and engineer development and create jobs in the disadvantaged regions in the centre and the south.

8. A committee of goodwill and wisdom

More than ever before, and in the second anniversary of the revolution, Tunisia is crying for altruistic civic power and disinterested parties to act as facilitators – wise communicators with high standing, impartiality, and civic kudos to facilitate dialogue at a time when political rhetoric has descended to gutter level.

In the second anniversary of its revolution, Tunisia deserves a better deal than has been the case thus far since January 14, 2011. Revolutionary change calls for boldness and moral courage to measure up to the challenges ahead. How difficult can it be for people like Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi, and others, to abandon their narrow individual aspirations, rise above the partisan fray, and help, along with other like-minded figures of high standing and community service, to root for Tunisia?

This mental, moral and attitudinal seed is needed so that Tunisia’s revolution, which liberated a whole nation, is in turn unshackled from fatigue and finds soil apt for germination.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).