CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition
“Here is the image, here is the gesture: a clear gesture that contains many other gestures”. [1]
“If Ben Ali had been a little smarter, he would have remembered what Bourguiba said: ‘One must not starve nor sate the inhabitants of Sidi Bouzid’.” [2]

1The Tunisian revolution represents unlooked-for new terrain for the political scientist, one which is not too distant and in which the mobilizations [3] inherent to emergent political crises can be observed; it also permits an investigation of the texture of revolutionary processes. The existing literature on the subject of revolutions is largely focused on institutional changes engendered by the transfer of sovereignty and legitimacy. It tends to somewhat overlook analyses of the protest dynamics which breed and orient these changes; or documented reviews of revolutionary configurations, coalitions and interactions. [4] In the case of the “Arab Spring”, this impression was bolstered by the results of the different elections provoked by revolutionary processes in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, and which were marked in 2011 by the success of political Islam in its various guises. A similar and equally prevalent approach attempts to isolate a series of structural and macro-sociological factors in order to explain how people are moved to take part in protest action. The epistemological and methodological measures formulated by the vast numbers of studies on social movements over the last thirty years go out of the window when one tries to account for revolutionary commitment. This has been demonstrated by the central role allocated to Mohamed Bouazizi’s actions in the majority of studies, along with the concept that “peaceful” and “spontaneous”; protests preceded more organized activities led by political groups. [5] This spontaneous and rather spasmodic interpretation of collective action [6] is even more significant because the actors concerned seem to confirm it when speaking about themselves, as seen in the case of this young unemployed man who participated in the first demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid:


“Every night, the whole neighborhood would get riled up. People were angry, upset that Mohamed Bouazizi’s rights hadn’t been respected, that a policewoman, Faïda Hamdi, had slapped him in the face. I was coming home from work at that time and I was told that ‘some guy set himself on fire in front of the governor’s office, they transferred him to Sfax or Sousse’… Ever since then, protests have raged on in front of the governor’s office. Some people from the opposition came and took pictures, and all of a sudden, Facebook was part of the picture. Photos and videos circulated everywhere. Then everything took off really quickly, especially in the Al-Khadra projects. Because they’re projects, it’s a neighborhood where things are really horrible. People are starving to death, so they had nothing to lose. The young people would say, ‘I can do that, [rise up], maybe this will make things change’. You see, [it looks like] they’re living, but they’re not living. [They said to themselves] ‘If I do this, [I get involved] I don’t give a fuck, I’ve got nothing to lose, nothing’s happening in my life anyways’.” [7]

3I propose examining the origins of the revolutionary process in Tunisia and consequently moving away from the hold of the media and the academic tendency to focus on the results of these breaks in allegiance, [8] rather than on how series of events are ordered in space and time. In response to such globalizing interpretations, it is important to recall, as did Timothy Tackett when analyzing 1789, that it “may be useful to shift the principal thrust of inquiry away from the broad analysis of the origins of the French Revolution in general, and to focus rather on the Revolutionary experience of the specific individuals who took part in and embodied that Revolution”. [9] From this point of view, this article follows Charles Kurzman in making his case for “anti-explanations”, which he defines as “an attempt to understand the experience of the revolution in all its anomalous diversity and confusion, and to abandon the mirage of retroactive predictability. Anti-explanation begins by comparing the lived experiences of the event with the main explanations offered by studies of revolution”. [10] The emphasis placed on lived revolutionary experiences does not mean ignoring or underestimating the role played by the structural dimensions of mobilizations, their organization or material infrastructures, but rather giving the event back its social and temporal thickness, by paying “attention to those long-term change processes that condition the prospects and social structural bases of mobilization, as well as the shorter-term temporal dynamics that shape the unfolding of an active protest or revolutionary cycle”. For, by “ignoring other temporal rhythms students of social movements and revolutions have painted an incomplete and overly deterministic portrait of popular contention”. [11]

4With regard to Tunisia, the first important temporal rhythm was shaped by what I propose calling the first revolutionary situation. [12] This incorporates the 28 days between 17 December 2010 at roughly 11:30am – the moment when a series of local and national protests spread outwards from Sidi Bouzid and its environs – and 14 January 2011, at 5:30pm, when the president of the Republic, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. [13] Sectoral protests, workplace demands and socialmovements did not stop – far fromit – after 14 January, nor even after the election of a constituent assembly on 23 October 2011. We are therefore investigating ongoing political events and crises. But does this mean that social scientists should be forbidden from focusing on these moments and places of structural uncertainty where no durable institutional outcome exists; in short, from acting as the socio-historians of what seems to be the beginning of an as-of-yet unfinished turning point? [14] In moving from “causes to the event”, [15] as Abbott says, such scholars may allow themselves to formulate a thorny research question: how to understand and describe the series of protests that led to the regime’s downfall, in a national and international context characterized simultaneously by great uncertainty [16] and a latent but enduring conflict between legality and legitimacy?

5The unpredictable nature of these movements does not mean that they appeared in a social and political vacuum. It is true that the mobilization against the regime which followed Bouazizi’s desperate act marked one of the ruptures in the protest cycle, which, as is often the case with revolutions and social movements, “leads to a major expansion of the number and variety of organizations seeking change, of the programs for change they offer, and of public demonstrations, meetings, and incidents of disorder”. [17] Nevertheless, much like the Hautefaye drama of the late nineteenth century described by Alain Corbin, we may say, mutatis mutandis, that the first revolutionary situation that took shape in Sidi Bouzid on 17 December 2010 “is not an eruption, an unexpected fissure which allows for primitive forces to be unleashed. Because of its goals and the form of its development, if not by its excesses, [it] follows the logic of previous behaviors”. [18] What structures and networks – underground, sleeper, or hidden to varying degrees – did they make use of, which practical and discursive modes of protest were invented or reused, what kind of resources were drawn on to enable fear to “change sides” and become a mobilizing force? Beyond the sentiment of “frustration” (relative or absolute) felt by many Tunisians, the more general question is knowing how groups, politicized in different ways and engaging independently in protests against an authoritarian regime, were able to “break the silence” together for a certain length of time, to “reverse the feeling of fear”, to abandon party loyalty and move towards political expression, all while facing repression and surveillance operated by a state that had hitherto been considered unshakeable. It is thus less a matter of identifying the causes of social discontent than thinking about the way protest processes endow some but not all of these causes with rebellious enthusiasm, all without predicting the end or the result of the mobilization. [19]

6Drawing on the results of an ethnographic study conducted during 2011 in the region of Sidi Bouzid (see the methodological appendix), this article will first show that the street, as a public space which was gradually and completely conquered and then occupied by protestors, simultaneously represents the framework, the stakes and the main resource of the movement. [20] I will then examine the practical devices of the transgressive politicization of the event and of desectorization, [21] while studying the relationship between the protest elites, whose formation precedes the protest movements, and the social groups that are generally kept away from such events. Finally, I will analyze the modes of action which were specific to this first revolutionary situation by considering the respective roles of political and trade union activists and militant networks in this process, while emphasizing the key importance of contingent factors.

The street as site of protest

7Around 11:30am on 17 December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, following an altercation with municipal police officers and a complete stonewalling by the governor, a young fruit vendor by the name of Tareq Mohamed Bouazizi, nicknamed Basbus, poured paint thinner all over himself on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, in front of the governor’s mansion (Photograph 1) and set himself on fire. The protests, marches, sit-ins, gatherings and clashes with the forces of law and order that ensued in Sidi Bouzid and its environs did not emerge ex nihilo: they were the end product of small, daily acts of defiance conducted by the penniless against the legal authorities throughout the past decade, and which escalated in the immediately preceding period. These acts were not all explicitly political but did nevertheless engender a certain politicization of the streets: they embody what Asef Bayat has termed “social nonmovements”. These phenomena, widespread though occurring in different forms and to varying degrees throughout the Arab-Muslim world, have helped since the 1990s to make “the Arab street” a hotspot of non-institutional but nonetheless very real political expression. As Bayat has remarked, “the Arab street has been neither ‘irrational’ nor ‘dead’, but it is undergoing a major transformation caused by both old constraints and new opportunities brought about by global restructuring. As a means and mode of expression, the Arab street may be shifting, but the collective grievance that it conveys remains”. [22] The politicization of the streets is in some ways the flipside of the depoliticization of the public sphere sought by the authoritarian state, which provokes and encourages what may be termed a “private politicization”: “the state’s attempt to ‘depoliticize’ social bonds produces exactly the opposite effect than the one desired; namely, the ‘overpoliticization’ of the private sphere and its conflicts”. [23] This phenomenon of private politicization has also been observed by Béatrice Hibou, who remarks that “the negation of pluralism and otherness prevents serious reflection on the access to citizenship and its exercise, allowing Tunisians to be ‘subjects’ or ‘individuals’ but never ‘citizens’, according to the formula generally accepted by the Tunisian opposition […] In Tunisia, opposition, criticism, dissension, disagreement and anger all exist, of course, but they are forbidden in the public sphere and thus limited to a forced privatization […]”. [24]

8For Bayat, the street is political in the sense that “the collective sensibilities, shared feelings, and public judgment of ordinary people in their day-to-day utterances and practices […] are expressed broadly in the public squares – in taxis, buses, shops, sidewalks, or more audibly in mass street demonstrations”. [25] Largely atomized, the “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” [26] is typically practiced by social groups particularly weakened by globalization and economic deregulation and which consequently have recourse to informal economies: street vendors (like Bouazizi), the unemployed and underemployed, storekeepers, the homeless, etc. For them, the streets are a space to gather, to hang out, but also to make a living and to air their grievances. The Arab street functions as a “passive network” allowing individuals to meet up, identify with each other and thus move towards collective action. The latter often takes the shape of “open and fleeting struggles without clear leadership, ideology, or structured organization”. [27] These “social non-movements”, in the sense that they lack the capacity to organize disruptions, are not merely forms of “everyday resistance” as identified by James Scott: [28] unlike the latter, social non-movements carry (most often material) demands – for jobs, housing, social benefits, etc. – and join or combine with other movements, which are better equipped with resources and have greater organizational capacities. Consequently, “theirs is not a politics of protest, but of redress, struggle for an immediate outcome through individual direct action”. [29]

9It is precisely from this point of view that, during the period between 17 December 2010 and 14 January 2011, the action of neighborhood youths – a heterogeneous category simultaneously including young college graduates, unemployed individuals with no qualifications, and those with precarious jobs as well as temporary and non-status workers – can be viewed as a struggle for individual assets which would mark their integration into consumerist society (a stable job, housing, a car, household essentials) and collective assets such as autonomy, political freedom and dignity. This is expressed by a 37-year-old house painter, married with two children and living in the Al-Khadra projects, unemployed at the time of my study, and who took part in these night-time clashes:


“Out of twelve million Tunisians, nine million of us are starving. Because the man who has a car, a grocery store, is he living, does he have anything? He has nothing! Because tomorrow he can lose everything, from one day to the next! This is why the state must help us. Projects, factories… small loans, so that people can live properly… livestock, I don’t know, something. I think solutions exist. The people working for the state, they know all this, they’ve studied it. They know which programs should be implemented. And money would shut everyone up. […] The poor young people [who participated in the revolution], today they’re completely lost. And yet they have ambition. I challenge anyone to tell me that these young people don’t have ambition. Ok, so it’s true that they drink [alcohol] and hang around… But all they want is a car, a house, to earn a living. And how [could they do that today]? Tell me, how could they?” [30]

11The street thus became a geographic framework: by day, the site of protests, [31] sit-ins and other demonstrations which challenged the authorities, and by night, a theater of urban riots, a kind of political “grey zone”. [32] However, a three-fold sociological explanation nuances this basic structure. First of all, what we call “the street” should really be pluralized. Clashes with the police often took place within disadvantaged neighborhoods (the Al-Nur projects, where Bouazizi’s family resided, but also the Awlad Bilhadi and Al-Fra’idjiyya projects to the west and the Al-Khadra and Al-’Awasi projects to the east), on both sides of the major road bisecting them; the main avenues were almost never occupied, as they were deemed as too wide and dangerous, and therefore unfit for “guerrilla”-like actions. [33] Riots and direct clashes with the forces of law and order often took place in the rioters’ neighborhoods: that is to say, in the maze of small alleyways, dead-ends and vacant lots. One of the decisive elements was the young people’s topographical and spatial mastery of the terrain – unlike the police, whose local officers were unfailingly recruited outside of the municipality where they were to work, and also unlike the Brigades d’ordre public (BOP – Public Order Brigades), anti-riot forces whose bases were situated far from Sidi Bouzid. [34] These neighborhoods simultaneously provided the terrain for violent, collective action and the space for radicalization. The general movement has been described by Bozarslan, who argues that in the Middle East and the Maghreb, “if we neglect downtown, once again abandoned to the whims of power […], then we overemphasize visible space at the neighborhood level. We thus find ourselves involved in a contradictory double process which radicalizes daily life and local relations while deradicalizing the key sites of power”. [35] In the case of Sidi Bouzid (as in other regions), in addition to strains of Islamist radicalization which appeared after 14 January 2011, [36] an explosion of juvenile delinquency was witnessed, visible in particular in the excessive consumption of alcohol and marijuana. [37]

12A second distinction shows that although the action of “neighborhood youths” was situated in the city’s projects and far from downtown, on the other hand, large demonstrations and protests took place on the main streets. While urban riots were by and large made up of disadvantaged “hustler youths”, [38] daytime demonstrations included young dropouts, but also teachers, civil servants, college students, housewives, shopkeepers, etc., all belonging to different sectors of the precarious middle classes and thus most affected by the economic crisis. [39] Consequently, demonstrations centered on the city’s main east-west artery, Habib Bourguiba Avenue, especially its large central square, [40] where all of the seats of local power can be found: the governor’s mansion (Photograph 1), the sub-prefecture, town hall, the police and national guard stations, the Agricultural Office, the Labor and Regional Development Office, the district court, the post office, Tunisie Telecom and the local offices of the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT - General Tunisian Labor Union). From this point of view, the protest cycle that began on 17 December 2010 can be seen as an individual and collective process of re-radicalization, as it were, of the place of power through the use of non-violent but powerful demonstrations, assemblies and marches.


“So how did things happen at night, these riots? The guys from the projects were on guard, even ordinary people were on guard, and they began to close down the streets at each end, to set tires on fire and insult the cops… The streets would become all grey because of the tear gas, you couldn’t see anything. We couldn’t shut down the main road, so we blocked off the side streets so the cops couldn’t get in. We would set tires on fire, as well as pieces of wood we found at construction sites. We threw rocks and provoked the police, calling them sons of wh… The regime made a mistake: they brought back the Public Order Brigades and set them up in high schools. And just in front of us [Al-Nur projects], there’s a street with middle and high schools on it…they put them inside there […] One night, the BOPs had gone back to sleep at the high school and there were a lot of cop bikes out in front. Everyone had decided upon a program for that night: they threw Molotov cocktails at them, stones… there was nothing left of the high school. So we made life really hard for the cops, they couldn’t sleep at night and all day they were busy dealing with the protests… The young people would get drunk every night and then go throw rocks and everything at the cops. This even encouraged people who didn’t drink but hated the cops. At the beginning, it started out as being against the cops as individuals, but it ended up being about challenging the authorities [as-sulta].” [41]

14Finally, a third distinction can be drawn between guerrilla movements, structured in each neighborhood on the basis of familial, friendly or neighborly ties and taking the form of defiance when faced with police forces, and, on the other hand, demonstrations against the regime, organized, initiated and/or reframed by members of the banned political parties involved in local chapters of the sole union. It is partly due to the actions of these groups that the movement was to be politicized, organized and radicalized.

Photograph 1

Main entrance to the Governor’s Mansion in Sidi Bouzid in April 2011 (site of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation)

Photograph 1

Main entrance to the Governor’s Mansion in Sidi Bouzid in April 2011 (site of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation)

The walls are covered with copies of diplomas belonging to young employed graduates from the region who started protesting in March 2011 against the “slowness” with which the provisional government was implementing economic reforms. These diplomas were then replaced by tents in July, occupied by a dozen or so activists from the Union nationale des diplomés chômeurs (UDC - National Union of Unemployed College Graduates).
© Choukri Hmed

Transgressive politicization and local desectorization

15This local revolutionary process can be understood as linking, in a largely unintentional manner, the actions of political activists and local union members with the collective rioting of neighborhoods, where the young people itching for a fight finally confronted the police. [42] The “global contingency” [43] which characterized the event was a factor in the engagement of diverse groups of people, from differentiated social spaces [44] which in normal circumstances functioned autonomously, and which were politicized to varying degrees, in different types of activities. Suddenly, and then perpetually, these groups were ready and available to rally and act together against the symbols of the regime. From this arose a kind of transgressive politicization, in the sense that the channels by which Bouazizi’s act were construed as a political problem almost immediately after its occurrence were neither institutional nor officially recognized, but linked the margins of the political system.

16The majority of the protests that took place in Sidi Bouzid, Regueb, Menzel Bouzayane, Souk Jedid, Sidi Ali Ben Aoun and Meknassy during this first revolutionary situation were organized – on the ground or at a distance – by local members of the country’s sole national union, largely primary and secondary school teachers with extreme left-wing leanings, whether these be of Arab nationalist inspiration (Nasserites and Baathists) or Trotskyists. This is because, until December 2010, the local chapters of the UGTT [45] in the Sidi Bouzid governorate, much as in the rest of the country, functioned as a sort of “melting pot” primarily composed of civil servants, in particular secondary-school teachers. [46] Unlike the union’s national leadership, which was largely in cahoots with the regime and which acted as a provisional negotiator with the latter during the first revolutionary situation (as it had already done during a number of previous social and political crises), for the local union chapters this was not their first mobilization under Ben Ali. In 2009, following the Israeli attacks on Gaza, union activists had organized protests and “solidarity caravans” for the Palestinian people. These protests were mainly joined by middle and high school students, with whom educators were directly in contact. [47] Given the Tunisian government’s rather conciliatory attitude towards Israel, these protests already presented an important challenge to the authorities. Moreover, throughout 2008 UGTT activists continued to organize, support and contribute to the “coal miners” movement which had started in Redeyef, about 100 kilometers from Sidi Bouzid. The initial demands regarding jobs and the management of the Gafsa Phosphate Company gradually escalated into protests against Ben Ali’s regime. [48] The “coal miners’ movement” or the “Redeyef uprising” (“intifadat ar-Rdayyaf”), described by most of the union leaders interviewed as “an aborted revolution” or “the building blocks of 2010”, constituted a bank of activist experiences and representations which were to be particularly useful two years later. Indeed, at the end of 2010, following the escalating repression in reaction to the increasingly radicalized protests and clashes in Sidi Bouzid, the network of local UGTT chapters throughout the governorate took the initiative of opening up new fronts in neighboring towns such as Menzel Bouzayane and Regueb. Their goal was not only to prevent a bloodbath but also to avoid making “2008’s mistakes”: in other words, to stop the movement from being surrounded and geographically confined by the forces of law and order.


“A few days after 17 December, every day we would get frantic phone calls from our comrades in Sidi Bouzid telling us: ‘Do something in your neighborhood, rise up, because otherwise here we’re all going to die’. We organized stuff with people from the union, those who were used to protesting under Ben Ali, and we started to mobilize people throughout Menzel Bouzayane, especially young people that we already knew from previous mobilizations. We all agreed that in order to get the police’s attention and distract them from Sidi Bouzid, we had to attack. So some young people told us that they would support us if we could cover them while they attacked the national guard station. And this is what happened on 24 December, we had a really big protest on the main avenue and the station was attacked and burnt to the ground. [Silence] Two young guys lost their lives, shot dead.” [49]

18In January 2011, the Secretary-General of the national union for secondary education, Sami Al Tahiri, confirmed that “when we saw that repression was being focused on Sidi Bouzid, and that a lot of police officers had come from Tunis to provide back-up, we [decided] to diversify the fronts and [we organized] demonstrations in other regions”. [50]

19Concomitantly, certain UGTT leaders have admitted to immediately trying to politicize Bouazizi’s suicide; in other words, to give general appeal to what may have otherwise seemed to be an individual form of protest, to “publically demonstrate the political nature of the suffering endured” by this sort of “violence against oneself”. [51] “We told ourselves that we absolutely had to politicize this act.” [52] Without necessarily having to give credence to this strategic vision proclaimed after the fact by particularly politicized individuals and those used to speaking in public, let us note that the politicization of Bouazizi’s act was also facilitated by the fact that a number of similarly desperate acts took place throughout 2010 in Sidi Bouzid and elsewhere. Young single men, street vendors or otherwise precariously employed individuals set themselves on fire in front of public buildings after being humiliated by representatives of the authorities. This was the case in Monastir (on the east coast) in March and August 2010, as well as in Bousalem (north-east) and in Metlaoui (100 kilometers south-west from Sidi Bouzid) during the summer. [53] The same scenario had already occurred in Sidi Bouzid in mid-December, and a few months before Bouazizi, [54] the city had seen several high-school students publicly attempt suicide by electrocution. Bouazizi’s act was therefore not “the straw that broke the camel’s back” as was alleged by many commentators, experts and journalists, but rather the first component of an event designed to stir the emotions of activists and the local population. [55] First of all, the young fruit vendor was far from being unknown in his city: his highly popular stall was particularly well-situated between the governor’s mansion, the taxi station and the Grand Mosque; this is precisely why Bouazizi was regularly bothered by the police, as he was on 17 December 2010. Some of his friends, university professors, large retailers and also political activists and members of the UGTT used his suicide to generate an event. One of his distant cousins, a member of the Progressive Democratic Party (considered until 2010 as the most radical of the parties tolerated by the regime), a law school graduate and now the owner of a small grocery store a few meters from the governor’s mansion, was immediately alerted and filmed the entire scene on his cell phone; [56] he then transmitted the video to an Al-Jazeera journalist that he was acquainted with from past activism. [57] At the same time, a history teacher who was a self-professed “Facebook-addict since 2007”, [58] as well as a member of the UGTT and an Arab nationalist, took on the responsibility of broadcasting the video all over the internet via social networks. [59] The secretary-general of the national secondary school teachers’ union of the UGTT in Sidi Bouzid confirms this:


“We immediately called upon the people to consider this act not as a suicide, but as a true political assassination. Bouazizi should be seen as one of the regime’s victims.”

21Not only were those accompanying Bouazizi to Sfax hospital on the afternoon of 17 December UGTT leaders, but the following day saw the creation, at the urging of local union activists, of a special committee to monitor Bouazizi’s case and investigate the social and economic dimensions it revealed. According to its founders, the role of this committee was to “monitor events and call upon the authorities to enter into dialogue with representatives of civil society in order to find solutions to the city’s social problems”.

22Ali Zarii, a member of the UGTT’s executive board in Sidi Bouzid as well as its information officer was interviewed on the phone by Habib Al Ghribi, a Tunisian journalist from Al-Jazeera on the night of 18 December 2010:


“There were violent clashes between citizens and the police. But what are important to us are the real causes of this situation and these problems. It all stems from the fact that this region is completely devoid of economic infrastructures for employment. In Sidi Bouzid, there are thousands of unemployed people. As a consequence, there is this depression, this despair, these behaviors, the predominance of nearby cities like Sfax. Indeed, Sidi Bouzid’s youth is living through a depression. This depression, this despair, we must address it economically.”
Habibi Al-Ghribi:Following the events, a committee was created, let’s talk about concrete things. What is its role and do you have a direct interlocutor?
“The committee has a two-fold role. First of all, monitoring the events and supporting our young people. Secondly, inciting the region’s leaders to address economic and employment issues. In this perspective, at the UGTT we conducted a study to solve these problems, specifically, the creation of an economic infrastructure to give jobs to our young people, and consequently reduce problems and reduce the number of interventions by the forces of law and order. The police are not the solution.”
Habib Al-Ghribi:Have you drawn up a list of grievances for the authorities and are you hopeful that these events will not just be treated like the coal mining case?
“We’re very hopeful. We haven’t yet presented a list of detailed items to the regional authorities. We will do this in the next few days, in collaboration with all sectors of civil society, as well as Tunis’ central trade union. We will present this list. With regard to meeting our demands, this will depend on a lot of elements, but we will push the authorities, the state, to address this economic aspect.” [60]

24Despite what the comments made by members of the UGTT may lead us to believe, the connection between the socio-economic situation and the political order of things would not only be made by members of the trade union, and relationships between inner-city youth and union activists would not be free of conflict and mutual apprehension. In fact, on the day of the immolation and those following it, demonstrations assembled in front of the main entrance to the governor’s mansion. The existence of the committee and its composition were the object of much virulent criticism from activists opposed to the “bureaucratic line” taken by the union (in other words, its complicity with the regime) and who condemned an action “which sought to anesthetize the people”. [61] As far as I am aware, Mannoubia, Mohamed Bouazizi’s mother, was the only woman to speak publicly in front of the governor’s mansion, screaming “my son set himself on fire!” (“Rahu wildi tahrag!”). Concomitantly, Bouazizi’s friends and relatives as well as members of opposition political parties and local union leaders [62] took turns to condemn the actions of “the state” (“ad-dawla”) and of the “governor” (“al-wali”), and asked to be seen by “those in charge” (“al-mas’ulin”). [63] The national anthem was sung, and young people tried to enter the governor’s mansion by force. One man yelled: “They have destroyed us, we Hamamma!” [64] In a very tense atmosphere, still in front of the governor’s mansion, a lawyer well-known for his radical positions vis-à-vis the regime “addresse[d] a message to the governor and the police” (“and to the President of the Republic!” could be heard in the crowd) in the name of “the protestors” (“al-mu’tasimun”), [65] demanding the right to “a life of dignity” (“hayat karima”) and “enough to live”. This lawyer was applauded by a crowd of hundreds, both men and women, under the haggard eyes of the anti-riot troops stationed behind the gates. Here and there, voices could be heard protesting against “the hairdresser” (“al-hajjama”, or Ben Ali’s wife Leïla Trabelsi), while others tried to pacify the overexcited crowd ceaselessly insulting the governor and the police. It was not long before clashes with the forces of order erupted and tear gas was deployed, following the stones and Molotov cocktails thrown at the governor’s mansion and police vehicles by groups of young men. Very rapidly, political leaders were singled out by the protestors: as early as the afternoon of 18 December a car belonging to the party in power was burned by protestors (with no union involvement) in front of the local Ralliement Constitutionnelle Démocratique (RCD - Constitutional Democratic Rally) [66] headquarters and then raised as a trophy (Figure 1). Barricades were erected all over the place by groups of youths using stones, traffic signs and fences. Tires and trashcans were burned in the streets, while calls to “strike the authorities” (“al-hakim”), insults against the police and chants of “Allahu akbar” multiplied. [67] These scenes were filmed on digital cameras or cellphones and then uploaded to Facebook. [68] The following day, back-up was sent to the city and the police proceeded to arrest dozens of protestors who refused to leave. To the dismay of the authorities, these arrests merely fanned the flamers of protest further, bringing together groups that did not typically encounter one other much, if at all. As early as 19 December, lawyers backing UGTT activists – acting independently, without orders from the Bar Council [69] – demanded the release of those arrested. They organized a protest in the name of “We want, we want our prisoners’ freedom!” (“shaddin, shaddin, fi-sarah al-mu’taqlin!”), where they were joined by local residents, as well as neighbors or relatives of the so-called suspects. With this demonstration, different groups found various ways to express their bitterness towards a state they deemed to be corrupt, hostile to freedom and incapable of guaranteeing them “a life of dignity” (one of the demonstrations’ leitmotifs). The coming together of these heterogeneous social groups was permitted and facilitated by contingent factors as well as by previous activist experiences which determined and shaped their modes of action.

Contingency, protest history and modes of action

25Desectorization and the transgressive politicization of the suicidal gesture were also made possible by contingent factors which, on the one hand, allowed for the mobilization of different segments of the population that could participate in collective action (some of whom already had experience of previous protest activity) and, on the other hand, the reuse of modes of action likely to encourage and sustain momentum in the mid-term.

26Two temporal factors created conditions favorable to “interrelated contingencies – [in other words] a linkchain of events in which the outcome of one link became an important initial condition for another”. [70] Firstly, Saturday 18 December – the day after Bouazizi’s suicide attempt – was Sidi Bouzid’s weekly market day. As the largest market in the region and the second-largest in the country, it regularly brings thousands of customers, most of whom come with their families, [71] to within a few hundred meters of the governor’s mansion and the main taxi station: precisely where this incident took place. The market thus represented an invaluable resource for activists, as it allowed for the rapid circulation of information and rumors throughout this relatively modest-sized agricultural town. Much like the Hautefaye fair, scene of the Baron de Monéys’ murder on 16 August 1870, the temporary gathering created by the market “expands the space of verbal exchange; [it] distracts from the somewhat oppressive closeness of the village community, where everyone knows each other. Hence information that goes beyond the context of neighborly relations can be transmitted and debated”. [72] Secondly, this same Saturday was also the first day of school vacation, which meant that a large number of college students returned home to their families – Sidi Bouzid only possessing one institution of higher education – but also that thousands of middle and high school students were now free to join the movement. The last day of classes before winter break was used by a number of activists to encourage students to participate in an afternoon protest. [73] Local UGTT leaders and activists who met in an ad hoc committee parallel and simultaneous to the first one discreetly instigated protests in which several debuted the slogan that would come to achieve national success: “Jobs are our right, you band of thieves” (At-tashghil itsihqaq ya ‘isabat as-surraq”). First pronounced during the protest of 18 December, the slogan was then picked up the following day on activist sites such as Nawaat (Figure 1), thanks to already-established connections between certain activists and the blogger community in Tunisia and abroad. [74] Therefore, we must conclude that the connection between social and political demands was made at the very beginning of this narrative, in the immediate aftermath of the self-immolation and during the very first protests it sparked in the city. It has been suggested that several local UGTT leaders were behind the rumor that described Bouazizi as an “unemployed college graduate”. This rumor, perpetuated in order to allow the greatest number and variety of people to identify with the martyr, operated perfectly at the national and international level – at least until 30 December 2010. That evening, during a television show devoted to Sidi Bouzid on Nessma TV, Bouazizi’s sister confirmed that he had achieved “a 7th year level” in secondary school, or in other words a baccalaureate. [75] An unprecedented event in Tunisia, the show played a decisive role in the revolutionary process, as viewers saw it as an additional sign of the regime’s weakness and an opportunity to act. [76]

Figure 1

Image posted on Nawaat 19 December 2010

Figure 1

Image posted on Nawaat 19 December 2010

The badly-damaged vehicle being pushed by protestors belongs to the local RCD and symbolizes the slogan: “Jobs are our rights, you band of thieves”, written in Arabic on top of “Sidi Bouzid”. In the top left, there is an ironic inscription: “Global Year of Youth”, an official celebration of Ben Ali’s regime in 2010.

27The tactics of mobilization used throughout this first revolutionary situation were in large part inherited from previous protest movements and seasoned UGTT activists, a majority of whom had attended university during the 1980s and thus lived through the repression of the student movement (led mainly by the UGET, the General Union of Tunisian Students, but also the General Tunisian Union of Students, the UGTE, [77] with Islamic leanings) under Bourguiba and immediately after Ben Ali’s “bloodless coup d’état” in 1987. [78] This is the sentiment expressed by this 40-something doctor, a father of two, an activist affiliated with the Islamist party Ennahda and a member of the Local Council for the Protection of the Revolution in Sidi Bouzid (a sort of public safety committee created after 14 January 2011):


“We’re the children of 1985, we were university or high school students under Bourguiba, we were political – because Bourguiba, even if he was a dictator, at least there was a little room for freedom, you could be a nationalist, or a socialist… lots of different options. There was a political life, a very rich one! A young 16 year-old, at the time he could say ‘I’ve got a political idea, I’m going to take political action’. Under Ben Ali, obviously, that wasn’t possible. There was no [public] political activity. A political conscience, that, yes of course. The young students who became politically active under Bourguiba, well under Ben Ali, they shut their mouths, but they kept their convictions, their books. Young activists continued to be political, but it was in the shadows. But they remained active! Their wives, they politicized them, their kids too. My kids are political! They can analyze any political situation or event! For example, when they see the Palestinian President [Mahmoud Abbas], they say ‘traitor’. Do you understand? Their whole lives, they’ve heard their father say ‘what a traitor, that foreign agent’… When we saw Ben Ali on TV, we’d call him the ‘donkey’ (‘al-bhim’)!” [79]

29Contingency also played a role at a different level, insofar as the reuse of previous protest strategies, which moved out of the shadows into the light of day as more and more of the local population got involved, only took shape and gained meaning in the specific context of 2010. On the one hand, some trade union networks had been able to create ties outside of the education world shortly before this and thus to lay the groundwork for the desectorization which started to take place locally as early as 17 December 2010 (without, however, consciously deciding upon this strategy ex ante). During the course of 2010, a movement of small farmers protesting against expropriations resulting from their excessive indebtedness organized themselves in Sidi Bouzid and Regueb (in the former town, Bouazizi was himself implicated; his family owns a plot of land in the latter). Not only did union leaders financially support these farmers, they also helped them to organize a relatively important sit-in in front of the governor’s mansion. Earlier, during the 2006 Libyan war or, as we have seen, during Israel’s attacks on Gaza in 2009, extreme left-wing educators took their students for a “field trip” in the streets of Sidi Bouzid and other neighboring towns. In addition to a few scattered protests, caravans of solidarity with Gaza and medicine fund-raising efforts were organized, thus mobilizing residents “who were not in the habit of protesting”. [80] In particular, students organized by their teachers formed human chains that spelt out slogans such as “Gaza” or “Anger” (Photograph 2). Such performances would also be repeated in 2010 –2011 in high schools upon return from vacation and adapted to the Tunisian situation (“No to murder”). These images were particularly well suited for circulation via social networks (Photograph 3).

30Moreover, UGTT leaders and key activists had “learnt one of the lessons” [81] of the coal miners’ movement in 2008: they would avoid appearing at the head of demonstrations, try not to be singled out and repressed, but also “establish solid relationships” between union members, lawyers and the population at large in order to break with the geographic isolation which their predecessors foresaw. These different elements, connected by the neighborhood youth’s mastery of urban spaces, encouraged the transmission of know-how deemed to be “strategic” from activists to groups who were just discovering repression: how to mitigate the effects of tear gas, spare public buildings, break apart sidewalks, build barricades and predict the reactions of the forces of law and order.

Photograph 2

Human chain: “Anger”, Bourguiba Pioneer School, Tunis, January 2009

Photograph 2

Human chain: “Anger”, Bourguiba Pioneer School, Tunis, January 2009

Source: Mounir Salloum, private archives
Photograph 3

Human chain: “No to Murder”, Preparatory School for Engineers, Tunis, 10 January 2011

Photograph 3

Human chain: “No to Murder”, Preparatory School for Engineers, Tunis, 10 January 2011

Source: Mounir Salloum, private archives


“Since the number of protestors just kept increasing, the police’s mistake was badly handling the situation. Because the tear gas made some people flee and caused a lot of mayhem. So union members like me, we taught the young people and protestors how to protect themselves against tear gas (‘krumujan’). These people didn’t even know what tear gas was, they had only seen it on TV, never in real life. I personally taught these young people how they had to send the tear gas bomb back at the police, and that, the police hadn’t predicted. I must say that there were also a number of natural factors that were against the forces of order and in our favor, because when they attacked us with gas, well, the wind blew the gas right back in their faces, because in the winter, the dominant wind in Sidi Bouzid is a westerly wind and we were coming from the west (from the Al-Nur projects).” [82]
“I remember that we distributed little vials of perfume so that people could sniff them when there was tear gas thrown, it’s a technique that I learned at university [in the 1980s in Sfax]. We came with lots of bottles of milk for those who fainted.” [83]

32Young people from all the different projects – Al-Nur, Awlad Bilhadi, Al-Fra’idjiyya and Al-Khadra – would meet in the city’s cafés during the afternoon to decide on the evening’s plans: which neighborhood they would target and what weapons they would use (burning tires, throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails, insults, etc.). Come night-time, phone calls and text messages allowed them to quickly cover a lot of ground, especially since these individuals knew the geography and the inhabitants of these neighborhoods well.


“In order to avoid violent clashes with the police, the young people changed tactics and created zones of tension in different parts of the city. The rebellion had to become mobile.” [84]
“Young people would get together and decide on a course of action, quickly, like at 7 o’clock at night, we would burn tires at the intersection of this road and that road. Young people of all ages, 17 years old, or married like me, with or without kids. Personally, I didn’t even think about [whether or not to get involved].” [85]

34The longevity of this “mobile revolution” – whose playful and provocative aspects are revealed in testimonies gathered a few months later – was carefully coordinated with the daytime activities and thus caught off-guard the unofficial local surveillance units, affiliated with the RCD, as well as the anti-riot troops (despite the fact that these were massively present in the city and its environs). The former, allied with various leaders from dozens of the party’s cells criss-crossing Sidi Bouzid, organized demonstrations in support of Ben Ali, for example on the night of 13 January – the eve of his flight – following the president’s speech on television wherein he announced an end to repression, his stepping down from power in 2014, an end to press censorship and a drop in the prices of staple goods. These demonstrations provoked deep dismay in the hearts of activists and neighborhood participants. This father, who had never protested before December 2010 and does not belong to any party, remembers the situation with tears in his eyes:


“We all listened to this horrible speech. We told ourselves, ‘It’s not possible, people can’t possibly believe this stuff’. We heard the RCD’s boats and the surveillance planes (‘al-qwwada’), honking in the streets and then I told myself, ‘It’s over. The people have been tricked. We’re fucked.’ Then I pulled myself together. I told myself that whatever, I would go outside and we’ll see what happens, I would never be able to live under Ben Ali, with the RCD, corruption and everything, after the deaths of all our martyrs. And too bad if I was alone. So I went out into the street and headed towards the main avenue and there… [pause, he sobs] there I think was the most beautiful day of my life, the day I will always remember. I found myself surrounded by people who had thought the same things as me and come to the same conclusion. We found each other, in disbelief, in front of all the others [RCD activists] and thank God, there were a thousand times more of us. We had won, and another night of fighting was about to start.” [86]

36The fact that, at the beginning, the forces of law and order had presumably received orders not to shoot real bullets at the crowd, realistically encouraged more individuals to participate and discover that they were protestors, rioters, or a little bit of both. Unlike in nearby cities such as Regueb, Meknassy and Menzel Bouzayane, there were no fatal shootings in Sidi Bouzid during this entire period. This is not to suggest that clashes were not at times incredibly violent and grueling for those involved. The relatively intense use of tear gas bombs shocked the local population, who by and large was not familiar with this form of repression and who discovered, during the course of the events, that the gas used was out of date or had been designed for “neutralizing wild animals”. [87] Gunshots caused a significant number of people to be wounded, including small children. Similarly, police brutality showed no restraint towards women: in Menzel Bouzayane, following a demonstration on 24 December and the arson attack on a national guard station, anti-riot police entered into homes at random, destroying everything inside and brutalizing the predominantly female inhabitants. [88] The repression that rained upon inhabitants and activists indiscriminately thus contributed to the movement’s radicalization and prompted its spread to surrounding cities, then neighboring provinces such as Kasserine, before finally reaching the popular suburbs of the country’s capital at the beginning of 2011.

37* * *

38In this article, I have tried to establish the basis for a specific narrative that remains to be written: the ethnography of local processes of desectorization and the transformability of political circumstances. As this article was written while the outcome of the Tunisian revolution was still unknown, it was essential not to reiterate the mistakes and contradictions of spontaneous sociology when it attempts to account for the conditions in which crises are born, individuals and groups are mobilized, a regime falls or an event takes shape. As we have shown, only empirical research can allow us to go beyond the “enigmatic aspect” of what many analysts have described as the “sudden onset of a series of explosions amid populations that had already weathered so many others”. [89] The main advantage of this approach resides in studying in vivo and in situ “the contingent and unpredictable nature of the Revolution – and perhaps of all major historical movements”. [90] Reconsidering, as I have done here, the demonstrations and protest movements initially confined to the city and region of Sidi Bouzid has first and foremost allowed us to go beyond the treacherous opposition between the “spontaneity” and the “organization” of a movement, an opposition which still unfortunately undermines much scholarship. Spontaneity, if this term must be used, means that social groups who become mobilized do what their members have always done, with means and within a context which nonetheless change, and alter their perceptions, and thus feed into a process of alignment. [91] Secondly, this perspective led me to pose anew questions regarding causality, the respective roles of structural dimensions, activist networks, previous protest experiences and contingency. For “taking into account the randomness, the fortuitous nature of an event or of a series of events does not signify capitulating before history or social science, and the unpredictable nature of this revolutionary outbreak can also be assumed”. [92] Thirdly, what was at stake was showing what rules governed the transformation of configurations of actors and groups, but also under what constraints and in what spatio-temporal contexts these transformations can crystalize and acquire meaning. We thus discover just how much what we call a revolution is “neither […] purely an accident, the product of random circumstances, nor […] an absolutely necessity whose form and timing are logically inscribed into its very causes”. [93] As an event embedded within social, political and cognitive structures, it nevertheless provokes a breakdown in intelligibility whose rationale we need to reconstruct and whose differential effects must be measured. For good reason: “the moments before and after an event preserve their own temporal quality and, in the long term, can never be completely reduced to the event’s conditions. Each event gives birth simultaneously to both more and less than what was contained in its initial circumstances: hence, its newness surprises us every time. In short, we must further nuance the opposition between events and structures or rituals”. [94]

39Nuancing this opposition remains of course doubly partial. Firstly, because desectorization was not only local, but also national; and secondly, because it did not come to an end with the president’s flight from the country. In fact, desectorization rapidly accelerated after 27 December 2010, on the occasion of a demonstration organized in Tunis in front of the national UGTT headquarters and which relayed the social and political demands formulated in Sidi Bouzid and mobilized new social groups. Between 8 and 10 January 2011, violent clashes between police forces and protestors caused dozens of deaths and many more wounded in Kasserine and Thala, two centre-west cities about 100 kilometers from Sidi Bouzid. The president of the Republic intervened directly in the media several times to condemn the “extremist conspiracy” and to promise the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs. The protest movement’s official recognition by the highest authority of the state, coupled with the escalation of repression, met with opposition from union headquarters, whose executive board had gradually been breaking away from the regime. The union headquarters organized general strikes between 12 and 14 January in different cities around the country; the last one, in Tunis, involved hundreds of thousands of protestors and concluded with the president’s decision to temporarily leave the country for Saudi Arabia. But desectorization did not come to an end with his flight, quite to the contrary: protests against the provisional government composed of Ben Ali’s former ministers cropped up in the “interior” regions and inaugurated a second revolutionary situation (the so-called “Kasbah” movements). Both political and social demands – calls for jobs, the right to dignity and the dismissal of former elites from the RCD – continued to punctuate Tunisian political life, including after elections for the National Constituent Assembly were held, thus ushering in a new relationship to politics and new protest movements. [95], [96].

Methodological appendix

40The field survey took place over the course of 2011 during four different visits in April, July, September and December, primarily in the city of Sidi Bouzid proper, in Menzel Bouzayane (60 km away), Regueb (37 km) and Sidi Ali Ben Aoun (55 km). Trying to understand the desectorization process based on the lived experiences of individuals and groups meant that I had to focus on local observation and explore the consequences and regional scope of Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide attempt, identified by many as the phenomenon that set off the Tunisian revolution and the “Arab Spring”. On the one hand, a local scale seemed the most appropriate for diachronically outlining interactions between activist groups, the forces of law and order, administrations, political groups and union members and leaders, as well as the space-time of the protests, thus being able to sociologize “the strength of the event”. [97] On the other hand, the small number of field studies conducted on Tunisia’s revolutionary and political transition have been confined to the capital, and quite often to francophone elites and/or activists, thus de facto excluding an analysis of the key actors of the revolutionary process and relegating them to the sidelines as enigmatic or minor players. [98] Moreover, one of the major advantages of doing research in the field resides in the ability to modify and update a certain number of conflicts and rivalries regarding the definition of a “revolution” and events that are appropriate for symbolizing it. Consequently, while political organizations, the provisional government and the media have collectively referred to the “14 January 2011 Revolution”, identifying the event as the demonstration which took place in front of the Ministry of the Interior on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis and marking this date in official history, [99] Sidi Bouzid’s population and activists commonly speak of the “17 December 2010 Revolution”. The “First Festival Commemorating the Revolution of 17 December” took place in Sidi Bouzid on the 16-19 December 2011, precisely to rectify this “historical error”. [100]

41Until the end of December 2010, protests began in and were largely confined to the city and region of Sidi Bouzid. In addition, this governorate saw the first victims of repression: Menzel Bouzayane’s demonstration on 24 December killed one and wounded dozens of others. It thus seemed essential to me to study the “other Tunisia”, which is often referred to as the “interior” and seen by coastal inhabitants as a region of “archaism, darkness, poverty, insecurity, conflict, division, tribalism and selfishness”. [101] The enclave of Sidi Bouzid is marked by rural, agricultural activity (the region produces 30% of all Tunisia’s fruits and vegetables, as well as half of the nation’s dairy production) [102] and, unlike neighboring Gafsa, by an absence of industrial activity. The administrative center of the region is in reality a small town of about 40,000 inhabitants, set back from the coast (260km from Tunis; 150km from Sfax, the country’s second-largest city) as well as the main transit routes. It is one of Tunisia’s poorest provinces and suffers from high rates of illiteracy (35% of the population), unemployment (especially among young college graduates) and emigration. [103] Sidi Bouzid’s inhabitants, like Kasserine’s (pop. 76,000) and more generally, those hailing from what the capital’s residents called the “08” regions (in reference to the north-west telephone area code) or “KJB” (Kasserine, Jendouba, Béja) are subject to marked social contempt. Associated with nomadic populations, which are thought to be lawless, the vast majority of people living in the country’s western provinces occupy the bottom rung of the social ladder.

42In total, I completed about 60 interviews, some of which were repeated, with the inhabitants of neighborhoods or towns that were particularly involved in the rebellion, with union activists (local UGTT leaders, essentially from the primary and secondary school base union), with members of political parties (extreme left-wing, Arab nationalist, Ennahda), as well as former leaders of the RCD (the party previously in power), representatives from the central state and members of Comités locaux de protection de la révolution(CLPR - local committees for the protection of the revolution), formed after 14 January 2011. These interviews, all conducted in dialectical Arabic, addressed individuals’ activities from 17 December 2010, their degree of politicization, their political socialization, and, if applicable, their activist history, their interpretation of the events and their understanding of the current situation, both locally and nationally. In addition, the interviews were supplemented by the observation of a dozen or so protests, demonstrations, sit-ins against the provisional government, local CLPR sessions, meetings organized by political parties during the election campaign and events commemorating the Revolution. Finally, I also analyzed videos about mobilizations in Sidi Bouzid and its environs which were posted between 17 December and 14 January on the main Tunisian opposition website, Nawaat.


  • [1]
    Javier Cercas, Anatomie d’un instant (Paris: Actes Sud, 2010), 8.
  • [2]
    Interview with Mourad Achraf, high school student, 18 years old, Menzel Bouzayane, 22 April 2011. The names of all the persons interviewed have been changed to protect their anonymity.
  • [3]
    Hélène Combes, Choukri Hmed, Lilian Mathieu, Johanna Siméant, Isabelle Sommier, “Observer les mobilisations. Retour sur les ficelles du métier de sociologue des mouvements sociaux”, Politix, 93, 2011, 7-27.
  • [4]
    Charles Tilly, Les révolutions européennes, 1492-1992 (Paris: Seuil, 1994), 43. In 1985, François Chazel likewise lamented “the lack of sufficient, if any, attention paid to revolutionary processes” found in the major studies in the field, adding that “it is certainly in this vein that there is the most work to be done and the most progress to be made”. François Chazel, “Les ruptures révolutionnaires”, in Madeleine Grawitz, Jean Leca (eds), Traité de science politique (Paris: PUF, vol. 2, 1985), 646, author’s emphasis. See also Michel Dobry’s recent overview “Le politique dans ses états critiques: retour sur quelques aspects de l’hypothèse de continuité”, in Marc Bessin, Claire Bidart, Michel Grossetti, (eds), Bifurcations. Les sciences sociales face aux ruptures et à l’évènement (Paris: La Découverte, 2010), 64-88.
  • [5]
    Different versions of the spontaneity creed can be found in the following works: Hamit Bozarslan, “Réflexions sur les configurations révolutionnaires tunisienne et égyptienne”, Mouvements, 66, 2011, 11-21 (13-14); Jean-Pierre Filiu, La Révolution arabe. Dix leçons sur le soulèvement démocratique (Paris: Fayard, 2011), 35 and 92; Ted Robert Gurr, “Introduction to the fortieth anniversary paperback edition of Why Men Rebel”, in Why Men Rebel (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2011), ix-xix; Béatrice Hibou, “Tunisie. Économie politique et morale d’un mouvement social”, Politique africaine, 121, 2011, 5-22; Pierre Vermeren, “Préface inédite”, in Maghreb, les origines de la révolution démocratique (Paris: Fayard, 2011), i-xviii.
  • [6]
    E. P. Thompson formed a particularly pertinent critique of this monocausal explanation for collective, popular action, which more broadly implies a “spasmodic vision of popular history”, at the expense, in fact, of everything that should be described, understood and explained. E. P. Thompson, “L’économie morale de la foule dans l’Angleterre du 18e siècle”, in Florence Gauthier, Guy-Robert Ikni et al., La guerre du blé au 18e siècle (Montreuil: La Passion, 1989), 31-92.
  • [7]
    Interview with Hani Samsar, 37 years old, Sidi Bouzid, 10 April 2011.
  • [8]
    Boris Gobille, “Mai-Juin 68: crise du consentement et ruptures d’allégeance”, in Dominique Damamme, Boris Gobille, Frédérique Matonti, Bernard Pudal (eds), Mai-Juin 68 (Paris: L’Atelier, 2008), 15-31.
  • [9]
    Timothy Tackett, Par la volonté du peuple. Comment les députés de 1789 sont devenus révolutionnaires (Paris: Albin Michel, 2nd edn, 1997), 15.
  • [10]
    Charles Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 5-6.
  • [11]
    Doug McAdam, William H. Sewell Jr., “It’s about time: temporality in the study of social movements and revolutions”, in Ronald Aminzade et al., Silence and Voice in the Study of Contentious Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 89-125 (100).
  • [12]
    Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (New York: Random House, 1978).
  • [13]
    For a tentative but well-documented account of this “day”, cf. Pierre Puchot, La révolution confisquée. Enquête sur la transition démocratique en Tunisie (Paris: Sindbad, 2012), 21-66.
  • [14]
    On the subject, let us recall that “neither the beginning nor the end of a turning point can be defined until the whole turning point has passed, since it is the arrival and establishment of a new trajectory […] that defines the turning point itself”. Andrew Abbott, Time Matters. On Theory and Method (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), 250.
  • [15]
    A. Abbott, Time Matters, 183.
  • [16]
    Specifically on the role played by uncertainty in the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011, see Laurent Jeanpierre’s interesting analysis in “Points d’inflexion des révoltes arabes”, Les Temps modernes, 664, 2011, 63-84.
  • [17]
    D. McAdam, W. H. Sewell Jr., “It’s about time”, 98.
  • [18]
    Alain Corbin, Le village des cannibales (Paris: Aubier, 1990), 55.
  • [19]
    “Just because [the] revolution has its causes does not mean that its history can be reduced to that of its causes”. François Furet, Penser la Révolution française (Paris: Gallimard, Folio Histoire, 1978), 44.
  • [20]
    Choukri Hmed, “Des mouvements sociaux ‘sur une tête d’épingle’? Le rôle de l’espace physique dans le processus contestataire à partir de l’exemple des mobilisations dans les foyers de travailleurs migrants”, Politix, 84, 2008, 145-65.
  • [21]
    Michel Dobry, Sociologie des crises politiques. La dynamique des mobilisations multisectorielles (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 3rd edn, 2009), 126ff.
  • [22]
    Asef Bayat, Life as Politics. How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 220.
  • [23]
    Lahouari Addi cited by H. Bozarslan, “Réflexions sur les configurations révolutionnaires tunisienne et égyptienne”, 53
  • [24]
    Béatrice Hibou, La force de l’obéissance. Économie politique de la répression en Tunisie (Paris: La Découverte, 2006, 250-1.
  • [25]
    A. Bayat, Life As Politics, 212.
  • [26]
    A. Bayat, Life As Politics, 43-65.
  • [27]
    A. Bayat, Life As Politics, 56.
  • [28]
    James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak. Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1985); La domination et les arts de la résistance (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2008 [1st US edition: 1992]).
  • [29]
    A. Bayat, Life As Politics, 59.
  • [30]
    Interview with Hani Samsar (see above).
  • [31]
    “Street demonstrations, understood as any ‘momentary occupation of an open public or private space by several persons, and which directly or indirectly entails the expression of political opinions’, take place on the same terrain as processional, religious, corporate or celebratory marches, this domain also being that of insurrection, riots and assembly”. Olivier Fillieule, Danièle Tartakowsky, La manifestation (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2008), 11-12.
  • [32]
    Javier Auyero, Matthew Mahler, “Relations occultes et fondements de la violence collective”, Politix, 93, 2011, 115-39.
  • [33]
    Collective interviews, Al-Nur projects, 23 July 2011.
  • [34]
    Interview with Walid Abdesselem, Director of the Governor’s Cabinet in Sidi Bouzid, 23 April 2011.
  • [35]
    H. Bozarslan, Sociologie politique du Moyen-Orient, 76.
  • [36]
    Since this date, and especially since October 2011, there has been a clear increase in the city of small groups with Salafist leanings that “hold” a mosque on the outskirts of town, south of the Al-Nur projects, and which regularly organize more or less violent protests (field notes, July, September and December 2011).
  • [37]
    Field notes concurred in Kébili, Bizerte and Sidi Bouzid, July 2011.
  • [38]
    Hamza Meddeb, “L’ambivalence de la course à ‘el khobza’. Obéir et se révolter en Tunisie”, Politique africaine, 121, 2011, 35-51.
  • [39]
    Interview with Moez Talbi, high school history teacher, member of the local UGTT chapter, 48 years old, Sidi Bouzid, 20 April 2011.
  • [40]
    This square, next to the governor’s mansion in front of which Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, was named in honor of the revolution’s first martyr in January, before losing this name at the end of April 2011 when the Bouazizi family moved to a well-off suburb north of Tunis. For many inhabitants of Sidi Bouzid and activists in particular, this move was seen as a betrayal. See Isabelle Mandraud, “Le calvaire de la famille Bouazizi”, Le Monde, 7 April 2011.
  • [41]
    Interview with Ismaël Hidouri, college graduate with a management degree, unemployed, 24 years old, Sidi Bouzid, 23 April 2011.
  • [42]
    Interview with Ismaël Hidouri, Sidi Bouzid, 21 April 2011.
  • [43]
    William H. Sewell, “Trois temporalités: vers une sociologie événementielle”, in M. Bessin, C. Bidart, M. Grossetti (eds), Bifurcations, 109-46 (131).
  • [44]
    According to Michel Dobry, “complex systems” are during normal times “broken down into multiple social scenes, ‘fields’ or autonomous sectors, these being highly institutionalized and endowed with their own social logic: in other words, they tend to be self-referential and to deviate from the logic of other sectors” (M. Dobry, “Le politique dans ses états critiques”, 79).
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    On the role of Tunisia’s only national union in the country’s social history, cf. Michel Camau and Vincent Geisser, Le syndrome autoritaire. Politique en Tunisie de Bourguiba à Ben Ali (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2003). On the UGTT’s role after Ben Ali’s downfall, see in particular Héla Yousfi, “Ce syndicat qui incarne l’opposition tunisienne”, Le Monde diplomatique, 704, November 2012, 17-18.
  • [46]
    The departments of education, the postal service, telecommunications and health have traditionally been the bastions of protest activity within the UGTT, to the extent that some researchers believe in “two UGTTs”. Larbi Chouikha, Vincent Geisser, “Retour sur la révolte du bassin minier. Les cinq leçons politiques d’un conflit social inédit”, L’Année du Maghreb, 6 (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2010), 415-26.
  • [47]
    Interview with Lotfi Sinaoui, unemployed, no education, member of Sidi Bouzid’s Local Council for the Protection of the Revolution, 27 years old, Sidi Bouzid, 24 April 2011.
  • [48]
    Amin Allal, “Réformes néolibérales, clientélismes et protestations en situation autoritaire. Les mouvements contestataires dans le bassin minier de Gafsa (2008)”, Politique africaine, 117, 2010, 107-25; L. Chouikha, V. Geisser, “Retour sur la révolte du bassin minier”. See also the article by Amin Allal in this volume.
  • [49]
    Interview with Mohamed Ameur, member of the local chapter of primary school teachers (UGTT), 47 years old, Menzel Bouzayane, 22 April 2011.
  • [50]
    International Crisis Group, “Soulèvements populaires en Afrique du nord et au Moyen-Orient (IV): la voie tunisienne”, Rapport Afrique du nord/Moyen-Orient, 106, 2011, 4.
  • [51]
    Olivier Grojean, “Violences contre soi”, in Olivier Fillieule, Lilian Mathieu, Cécile Péchu (eds), Dictionnaire des mouvements sociaux (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2009), 564-70 (566).
  • [52]
    Interview with Mounir Salloum, Secretary-General of the local UGTT chapter for primary education in Menzel Bouzayane, primary school inspector, 49 years old, Menzel Bouzayane, 21 April 2011.
  • [53]
    In Bousalem alone, almost ten different suicides were attempted by electrocution during the summer of 2010, involving men between 30 and 40 years old (according to Moez El Bey, a journalist with Radio Kalima). The burn care unit in Ben Arous (a suburb south of Tunis) recorded almost 280 self-immolation attempts nationally between January and October 2010, or 12% of all patients admitted (Lazhar Mejri, Ath-Thawra at-tunisiyya 17 disambar 2010 fi jadaliyyat al-taharrur wa-l ihtiwa’, Tunis, self-published in Arabic in 2011, 63 [The Tunisian Revolution of 17 December 2010: A Dialectics of Liberation and Channeling]).
  • [54]
    Interview with Amor Ben Hamida, high-school history teacher, blogger, UGTT activist, 53 years old, Sidi Bouzid, 18 September 2011.
  • [55]
    After Bouazizi, public suicide attempts proliferated in Sidi Bouzid. The most famous example is Houcine Néji’s electrocution on 22 December 2010 in front of the delegation’s offices, just a hundred meters or so from the governor’s mansion. Suicide attempts by electrocution have become somewhat commonplace since this date (field notes, April, July and September 2011).
  • [56]
    In 2010, 92% of Tunisians had cell phones (Institut national de la statistique [National Institute of Statistics], Enquête nationale sur la population et l’emploi [National Survey on Population and Employment], Tunis, 2010, 36, <>).
  • [57]
    Interview with Ali Abbassi, 38 years old, Sidi Bouzid, 17 September 2011.
  • [58]
    Interview with Amor Ben Hamida.
  • [59]
    For studies that attempt to sociologize the use of social networks and the internet in the context of the Tunisian revolution and activist movements, see Michaël Béchir Ayari, “Non, les révolutions tunisienne et égyptienne ne sont pas des ‘révolutions 2.0’”, Mouvements, 66(2), 2011, 56-61; Romain Lecomte, “Internet et la reconfiguration de l’espace public tunisien: le rôle de la diaspora”, tic&société, 3(1-2), 2009, <>.
  • [60]
    “Al-Hasad al-Magharibi” TV show, Al Jazeera, 18 December 2010. On the role played by Al Jazeera during the “Arab spring”, see Claire-Gabrielle Talon, Al Jazeera. Liberté d’expression et pétromonarchie (Paris: PUF, 2011).
  • [61]
    Khaled Aouainyya, lawyer at the court of appeals, 38 years old, during a demonstration in front of Sidi Bouzid’s city council, 18 December 2010 (<>, accessed on 18 August 2011).
  • [62]
    See the videos posted on Nawaat on 18 December: and <>, accessed 3 January 2011.
  • [63]
    Although Mannoubia Bouazizi spoke in dialectical Arabic, the other speakers largely expressed themselves in middle Arabic. From this we can deduce that most of the videos posted on the site, which became increasingly nationally and internationally popular as events unfolded, were posted by individuals with high levels of education.
  • [64]
    See the video posted on YouTube which shows the first demonstration which took place around Bouazizi’s fruit and vegetable stall, after his self-immolation: <>, accessed 2 April 2011.
  • [65]
    The term mu’tasim derives from the root [’sm], meaning prohibition or interdiction, and literally signifies “one who prevents”. In middle Arabic, the term more generally describes the participant of a sit-in or protest. This epithet has become incredibly popular in Tunisia ever since 14 January 2011.
  • [66]
  • [67]
  • [68]
    In 2010, 17.5% of the population had access to an internet connection (source: Institut national de la statistique, Enquête nationale sur la population et l’emploi, 36). As of February 2011, more than 20% of the Tunisian population (or almost 2.2 million people) used Facebook. This percentage is one of the highest in Africa and the Arab world (source: <>, accessed on 31 March 2011).
  • [69]
    Éric Gobe, “Les avocats dans la Tunisie de Ben Ali: économie politique d’une profession juridique”, Droit et société, 79, 2011, 733-57.
  • [70]
    Mark R. Beissinger, “Mechanisms of Maidan: the structure of contingency in the making of the Orange Revolution”, Mobilization, 16(1), 2011, 23-43 (26).
  • [71]
    Field notes, April and July 2011.
  • [72]
    A. Corbin, Le village des cannibales, 77.
  • [73]
    Interview with Ali Yousfi, educator, member of the UGTT and an activist for the Front démocratique pour le travail et les libertés [Democratic Front for Work and Freedom], 52 years old, Sidi Bouzid, 22 July 2011.
  • [74]
    Interview with Slim Hmidane, university professor and blogger, 38 years old, Tunis, 19 September 2011.
  • [75]
    Special edition on Sidi Bouzid which included Nessma journalists as well as Tunisian human rights activists.
  • [76]
    Doug McAdam, Sydney Tarrow, Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  • [77]
    Adel Thabti, Al-Ittihad al-’Amm al-Tunusi lit-Talaba. Khalfiyyat at-Ta’sis wa Ma’alat al-Masar [The General Tunisian Union of Students. The origins of its creation and its future paths.] (Tunis: MIP, 2011) (in Arabic).
  • [78]
    On this period, see among others Michaël Béchir Ayari, “S’engager en régime autoritaire. Gauchistes et islamistes dans la Tunisie indépendante”, doctoral thesis in political science, Aix-en-Provence, Institut d’études politiques [Institute of Political Studies], 2009.
  • [79]
    Interview with Rafiq Mosbah, 43 years old, Sidi Bouzid, 20 April 2011.
  • [80]
    Interview with Abdelhaq Mimouni, Sidi Bouzid, 21 April 2011.
  • [81]
    Interview with Mohamed Ameur, cited.
  • [82]
    Interview with Moez Talbi.
  • [83]
    Interview with Mohamed Ameur.
  • [84]
    A lawyer in Sidi Bouzid interviewed in February 2011 by members of the Council of the World Social Forums composed of 34 trade unionists, representatives of non-profit organizations, activist and political leaders (notably Cedetim, FIDH, Les Verts Europe écologie, LDH, ATMF) and journalists. (<>).
  • [85]
    Interview with Hani Samsar.
  • [86]
    Interview with Amor Nsiri, house painter, 56 years old, Al-Nur projects, Sidi Bouzid, 24 September 2011.
  • [87]
    Interviews with Hani Samsar and Abdelhaq Mimouni.
  • [88]
    Private videos taken by Mounir Salloum.
  • [89]
    Frédéric Charillon, “Les bouleversements arabes: leçons, espoirs et interrogations”, Questions internationales, 53, 2012, 8-17 (10).
  • [90]
    Timothy Tackett, Le roi s’enfuit. Varennes et l’origine de la Terreur (Paris: La Découverte, 2004), 155.
  • [91]
    Ivan Ermakoff, Ruling Oneself Out. A Theory of Collective Abdications (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); and “Theory of practice, rational choice and historical change”, Theory and Society, 39, 2010, 527-53.
  • [92]
    Jocelyne Dakhlia, Tunisie. Le pays sans bruit (Arles: Actes Sud, 2011), 88-9.
  • [93]
    Roger Chartier, Les origines culturelles de la Révolution française (Paris: Seuil, 1990), 205.
  • [94]
    Alban Bensa, Éric Fassin, “Les sciences sociales face à l’événement”, Terrain, 38, 2002, 5-20.
  • [95]
    Choukri Hmed, “‘Si le peuple un jour aspire à vivre, le destin se doit de répondre’. Apprendre à devenir révolutionnaire en Tunisie”, Les Temps modernes, 664, 2011, 4-20.
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    The research which forms the basis of this article was made possible by the support of the Université de Paris-Dauphine and the IRISSO (UMR 7170). In particular, I would like to thank my friend and colleague Hèla Yousfi, an expert in the field of Tunisian politics and social movements, as well as Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, Assia Boutaleb, Michel Camau, Michel Dobry, Olivier Fillieule, Kevin Geay, Laurent Jeanpierre, Abir Kréfa, Johanna Siméant and the anonymous reviewers of this journal for their comments on previous versions of this text.
  • [97]
    Stéphane Latté, “La ‘force de l’événement’ est-elle un artefact? Les mobilisations de victimes au prisme des théories événementielles de l’action collective”, Revue française de science politique, 62(3), 2012, 409-32.
  • [98]
    This comment is not limited to Tunisia in 2011 but can be made about transitological studies in general, which, in the case of the Middle East, not only focus on macro-sociological or institutional processes, but also tend to ignore local contexts. Joel Beinin, Frédéric Vairel (eds), Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 7. Certain documentaries made about the Tunisian Revolution have also adopted this perspective, for example Mourad Bencheikh’s Plus jamais peur (2011).
  • [99]
    One of Tunis’ central squares, a few hundred meters from the Ministry of the Interior on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, which was named for the 7 November 1987 (the coup d’état which put Ben Ali in power), was renamed 14 January 2011 Square a few weeks after the regime fell. The 14 January also became a national holiday (“Celebration of the Revolution and Youth”) as of 17 March 2011.
  • [100]
    Interview with Mongi Abbas, member of the Festival’s organizing committee, Sidi Bouzid, 16 and 17 December 2011.
  • [101]
    B. Hibou, La force de l’obéissance, 248.
  • [102]
    Data provided by the Agence de promotion de l’industrie et de l’innovation (Agency for Innovation and the Promotion of Industry [Tunis]): <>, accessed 22 May 2011.
  • [103]
    According to a ranking established in 2010 by the Union des diplômés chômeurs (Union of Unemployed College Graduates) and cited in the weekly magazine Jeune Afrique, “the city of Sidi Bouzid holds […] the national record for the number of college graduates who are unemployed: 8,000 individuals, which is much greater than Kasserine (6,000), Jendouba (5,500), Mednine (5,000) and Siliana (4,000)” (Cherif Ouazani, “Sidi Bouzid, cent jours après”, Jeune Afrique, 2623-2624, 2011, 58). A survey conducted on a cohort of 4,763 higher education graduates in 2004, a year and a half later and then three years later, showed, among other things, that three years after obtaining their degrees, 29% of young people aged 18 to 29 were unemployed. Young people from the Sidi Bouzid region were generally 1.31 times more likely to be unemployed three years after getting their degree than residents of Tunis (Tunisia’s Ministry of Employment and Youth Integration (Tunisia) and the World Bank’s The Dynamics of Employment and Adequacy of Training Among University Graduates, 2009, 11 and 73).

This ethnographic study, conducted in the region of Sidi Bouzid – the birthplace of the Tunisian Revolution of 2010-2011 – demonstrates that, contrary to most analyses, we cannot talk of the “spontaneity” of the revolutionary movement nor, conversely, bind it strictly to structural and exogenous “causes”. Interviews with the protagonists emphasise instead the presence of abeyance networks formed by political activists and trade unionists, closely interwoven with local mobilisations of less politicised groups that are mobilised partly because of contingent factors. The article describes the conditions and the practices of politicisation and of the de-sectoring processes, which result in heterogeneous social groups engaging in political action and, ultimately, in the challenging of the regime.

Choukri Hmed
Choukri Hmed is an Assistant Professor in political science at the Université Paris-Dauphine and a researcher at the Institut de recherche interdisciplinaire en sciences sociales (IRISSO - Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Social Sciences, UMR CNRS 7170). He recently co-edited “Observer les mobilisations” a special issue for Politix, 24(93), 2011 and has also published: “Les mouvements sociaux et la politisation de l’argent public”, in Philippe Bezes, Alexandre Siné (eds), Gouverner (par) les finances publiques (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2011), 225 –62; (with S. Laurens) “Résistances à l’institutionnalisation”, in Jacques Lagroye, Michel Offerlé (eds), Sociologie de l’institution (Paris: Belin, 2011), 131 –48; and (with Hélène Combes, Lilian Mathieu, Johanna Siméant, Isabelle Sommier) “Observer les mobilisations. Retour sur les ficelles du métier de sociologue des mouvements sociaux”, Politix, 24(93), 2011, 9 –27. His research interests include the socio-history of immigration in France and the sociology of social movements (Université Paris-Dauphine, IRISSO, Bureau P 411, place du Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, 75775 Paris Cedex 16,
Translated from French by 
Sarah-Louise Raillard
Uploaded on on 03/03/2014
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