The myth of Tunisia’s exceptionalism

The popular idea of Tunisia being a post-Arab Spring ‘success story’ is quite harmful.

Tunis protest
Tunisian protesters clash with riot police during demonstrations against rising prices and tax increases, in Tunis, Tunisia January 12, 2018 [Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

Tunisia celebrated the seventh anniversary of the downfall of its former dictatorship with protests. For two weeks now, people have been demonstrating in impoverished towns like Tebourba and Ettadhamon, near the capital, Tunis, and towns like Kasserine in the mid-west, Sakiet Sidi Youssef in the north-west, and Sidi Bouzid in the south, where the revolution started in 2010.

Since the Tunisian uprising brought down Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, a series of demonstrations have marked the anniversary of the revolution. And it is likely that they will grow into more substantial and violent unrest.

Despite continuing popular protests and obvious signs of the rebirth of the Tunisian police state, international media continues to cover Tunisia as a relative success story. 

The peaceful transition from the despotic regime of Ben Ali towards a participatory democracy with organised and active political parties, the drafting of a new constitution, and the competitive 2014 elections have been hailed as the ultimate proof of the “exceptionalism” of Tunisia and its transitional model.

What is central to these narratives is a rather superficial comparison between the relative peacefulness of Tunisia’s transition and the state disintegration in Libya, Syria and Yemen. After all, having an example of a “successful revolution” can always provide a glimpse of hope and optimism especially in these dystopian times. But this framing of the democratic transition in Tunisia since 2011 dismisses a dismal reality.    

The construction and consolidation of the idea of “Tunisian exceptionalism” support the fetishisation of Tunisia’s democracy as a political commodity. In turn, this process of fetishisation enables neoliberal political campaigns and interventions to be implemented while it denies the possibility of establishing radical democratic frameworks and policies. 

During Ben Ali’s era, exceptional improvements in women’s rights and the implementation of dogmatic secularism were used to promote the “impressive accomplishments” of the regime and hide its widespread and systematic human rights violations such the persecution of political opponents and abuse of government critics. France and the EU were complicit in promoting the “successes” of Ben Ali’s regime and establishing Tunisia as “a pillar of stability and peace” despite a deteriorating social and political reality.

Under the current government, the Tunisian political and social elite has exploited this same idea and pushed coercive policies designed to maintain the socioeconomic status quo under the excuse of ensuring economic survival and political stability. More radical changes and demands have been portrayed as dangerous to the stability and progress of the country.

The ongoing protests, for example, erupted after the Tunisian government implemented austerity measures that caused commodity prices to go up dramatically. These policies, pushed onto the government by neoliberal institutions like the International Monetary Fund, fall in line with the ones Ben Ali’s regime implemented. It was these very policies that led to the mass impoverishment of the Tunisian population and ultimately a pervasive popular malaise.  

And it was under the cover of facilitating the democratic transition to “a new Tunisia” that the ruling majority passed a corruption amnesty bill in September 2017. The law grants amnesty to officials accused of corruption during the autocratic rule of Ben Ali. It signalled a failure of political reformism and a hostile democratic backslide.  

The idea of maintaining the internationally celebrated status of the “Arab Spring exception” has also given the Tunisian authorities an excuse to not only prevent the much-needed reform of the interior ministry and the security apparatus but also bring back securitisation policies of the Ben Ali era.

A bill that could allow security forces to use even more violent means on the public is still under consideration in the Tunisian parliament. The “Repression of attacks against armed forces” bill, if voted in, will grant members of the security apparatus immunity from prosecution if they use lethal force and will prohibit criticism of the police force.  

Again, international institutions and media, especially in Europe, continue to promote the exceptional status of Tunisia as a stable country in an unstable region and to overlook the social and political malaise behind the episodic unrest.

This time, the launching of an LGBT radio station and radical proposals that will grant women equal inheritance rights and allow them to marry outside the Muslim faith are used to maintain the idea of “Tunisian exceptionalism”. While these political decisions can be seen as revolutionary, they reflect an artificial top-down approach to the issue of women’s rights and suffer from the absence of a genuine and healthy public debate. What remains then is the desired circulation of shining headlines in Western media on Tunisia’s “special status”.

“Tunisian exceptionalism”, this logic goes, must be maintained through peace and stability; any demands for radical change are seen as dangerous and disruptive. Hence, when the latest wave of protests erupted, the Tunisian political elite called for unity and peaceful demonstrations and reminded Tunisians how we are being perceived abroad. The angry protestors were portrayed as a threat to the “success story”. 

The more serious problem here is that the rhetorical use of the “Tunisian exceptionalism” has been a rather successful strategy. For many Tunisians who have long been conditioned to believe in a Western (neo)liberal view of the world and of themselves, the exceptionalism narrative makes sense. This double consciousness of always viewing oneself through the eyes of Western media has made many Tunisians believe in the perceived urgency of maintaining the Tunisian “success story”. As a result, they have chosen to ignore the reality of a stolen revolution that they live in.  

During the demonstrations, the criminalisation of the protesters found a receptive audience in Tunisia because pro-government pundits in international and local media have polarised popular opinion, setting Tunisia’s success story against criticism from the civil society.

Deepening socioeconomic problems and increased repression have fuelled a toxic relationship between Tunisia’s youth and its ruling elite that is built on cynicism, confrontation, and excessive violence. The rhetorical question in the Fech Nestanaw (What Are We waiting for?) movement’s name speaks to the widespread idea that a corrective second revolution is urgently needed. 

Tunisia’s exceptionalism is a myth. Its logic is unsustainable. Long-standing structural issues and the gradual return to a hegemonic ruling elite challenges the forced legitimisation of a failing political leadership. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.