How the West hollowed out the Tunisian revolution

In the Western discourse, the Tunisian revolutionary experience has been systematically reduced to a success or a failure.

Tunisians chant slogans as they gather at Mohamed Bouazizi Square in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2020, during commemorations of the 10th anniversary of Bouazizi's self-immolation [Fethi Belaid/AFP]

Today is the tenth anniversary of the Tunisian uprising which toppled the authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and marked the start of the so-called “Arab Spring”. During the past decade, this date has been a favourite occasion for many Western journalists and academics to weigh in on the state of Tunisian revolutionary activity.

After a brief celebration of the Tunisian uprising as historical and exceptional in the immediate aftermath of Ben Ali’s downfall, a tendency emerged to frame the Tunisian democracy-building process as chaotic, disillusioning, and hopeless.

A cursory look at headlines demonstrates that this year the Western media has not disappointed. “‘He ruined us’: 10 years on, Tunisians curse man who sparked the Arab Spring” – one article in the Guardian claims; “After Arab Spring, a decade of upheaval and lost hopes” – another one in The Associated Press concludes.

This lack of nuance with which the Tunisian revolution has been viewed in the West has followed a well-trodden, infamously prejudiced, Orientalist trajectory.

First, there is the Western obsession with the reductionist foundation myth of the Arab Spring: the self-immolation of a marginalised man, Mohamed Bouazizi, which triggered a wave of anger and toppled Arab dictatorships like “dominoes”. Special attention is paid to details like his occupation, “fruit seller”, his precarious financial situation, and a slap on the face he allegedly received from a female municipal worker and which supposedly led to his decision to set himself on fire.

The mise en scène of this random event constructed in the Western media has conceptualised the outbreak of the Arab uprisings not as a logical reaction to despotism and natural drive for freedom and democracy, but as a product of perceived Arab irrationality and impulsiveness.

Behind the false myth of an Arab man unable to stomach public confrontation with an empowered woman lies a long series of protests and acts of civil disobedience in Tunisia and across the region.

For example, just three years before Ben Ali was toppled, mass protests broke out in Redeyef, a phosphate-mining town in Tunisia’s southwest, against the corrupt practices of the state-owned Compagnie des Phosphates de Gafsa (CPG). Workers launched organised sit-ins and were joined by local youth, trade unionists and ordinary citizens. The demonstrations continued for months and were brutally suppressed by the security apparatus. In the following months until December 2010, there were also a number of self-immolations and publicised suicides.

What happened to Bouazizi was tragic and for many Tunisians, he is a heroic figure. However, his self-immolation turned into the “spark” of the “Arab Spring” not because of its unique circumstances but because it coincided with the end of a long “Arab Winter” of discontent.

Second, Western media and scholarship have reduced the Tunisian revolution to a story of success or failure. Early on, the West insisted on labelling Tunisia as a “success story”, setting the Tunisian revolution apart from the other uprisings in the Arab world. But this emphasis on Tunisian exceptionalism has done little to further the demands and goals of the Tunisian revolution and has done much to validate the tired trope that Arabs are not ready for democracy.

This insistence on comparing and contrasting the Tunisian revolution with that of Egypt, Algeria or any other country in the region demonstrates the inability of the West to overcome its enduring Orientalist assumptions. It refuses to recognise the self-evident fact that the historical, social, cultural, and economic differences between Arab countries have resulted in different revolutionary experiences.

As social and political unrest returned to the streets of Tunisia, some Western observers flipped their discourse dramatically, announcing an “Arab Winter” and the death of revolutionary aspirations. While Western academia still holds on to the trite argument that Arab nationalism and political Islamism caused the “collapse” of Arab revolutions, the Western media, on the other hand, has developed a peculiar obsession with stories of disillusionment and hopelessness among the Tunisians and their ambivalence towards the events of 2011.

Almost all news reports on the 10th anniversary of the Tunisian revolution rehearse the same take: the Tunisian people are now dissatisfied with their revolution and consider it a “curse”.

What these news reports often have in common is the little attention they pay to the opinions of local experts and analysts. Such nuanced and informed perspectives about the political and social reality in Tunisia are either blatantly dismissed or buried among the many negative testimonies of disgruntled Tunisians.

It is important, of course, to give the opportunity to those disenchanted with the current outcomes of the Tunisian revolution to voice their concerns. However, promoting only such testimonies at the expense of nuanced analyses reinforces the distorted idea that the Tunisian democracy is failing and all Tunisians are now cynical and hopeless.

This tendency to reduce the Tunisian revolution to either a success or a failure hollows it out and ignores how Tunisians have understood and experienced it. It disregards and in this always undermines the long process of change in the economic, social, and political sectors that any democracy-building experiment entails.

Contrary to what the Western discourse maintains, Tunisians have learned lessons from the successes and failures of the 2011 uprising which have matured into a deeper appreciation of their revolutionary experience and a better awareness of the need for a permanent revolution.

For many Tunisians, the revolutionary forces that launched the 2011 uprising have permanently and profoundly transformed their collective political agency. The legacy of their revolution is the deep and renewed faith in their ability to rise against injustice and resist exploitation. Despite some disenchantment due to the worsening economic conditions, Tunisians still believe in the power of protests, strikes, and – to a lesser extent – voting to change their reality. Temporary apathy does not necessarily translate to total hopelessness.

Rather than seeing the revolution as an exceptional and singular event, many Tunisians have grown aware that to radically change their reality means they will have to permanently stay in trouble.

Two recent events which have been largely underreported in the Western media serve as examples of the everyday manifestation of Tunisia’s permanent revolution.

In October, a youth-led citizens movement dubbed “hasebhom” (hold them accountable) backed by human rights activists and organisations, such as the Tunisian Association for the Defense of Individual Liberties, successfully rallied against a draft law known as “Repression of attacks against the armed forces” bill. It contains provisions which exempt police officers and security forces from criminal liability when lethal force is used. The movement managed to force the parliament to postpone consideration of the draft law.

Then in mid-December, for the first time in Tunisia’s recent history, the Supreme Judicial Council suspended a top magistrate. Taieb Rached, the first president of the Court of Cassation, the highest-ranking judge in the judiciary, was removed from his job and his immunity lifted so he could be investigated for alleged financial corruption and terrorism. This decision would likely boost public trust in the judiciary and the positive role it can play in the Tunisian revolution.

The Western media and academia may have hollowed out the Tunisian revolution with their reductionist discourses but for Tunisians, the revolutionary experience continues. Defying the vocabulary of exceptionalism, the many economic challenges and the counterrevolutionary setbacks, the Tunisians are carrying on with their revolutionary struggle for change.

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