CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition


Everything bursts forth everywhere at once. Was it foreseen? Yes. Was it prepared? No. Whence comes it? [...] And then on the right bank, the left bank, on the quays, on the boulevards, in the Latin country, in the quarter of the Halles, panting men, artisans, students, members of sections read proclamations and shouted:To arms!broke street lanterns, unharnessed carriages, unpaved the streets, broke in the doors of houses, uprooted trees, rummaged cellars, rolled out hogsheads, heaped up paving-stones, rough slabs, furniture and planks, and made barricades.
Of what is revolt composed? Of nothing and of everything. Of an electricity disengaged, little by little, of a flame suddenly darting forth, of a wandering force, of a passing breath. This breath encounters heads which speak, brains which dream, souls which suffer, passions which burn, wretchedness which howls, and bears them away.” [1]

2Beginning in the month of January in 2008, which saw massive demonstrations sweep through the mining region of Gafsa in the south-west of Tunisia, there was an unprecedented [2] increase in the number of collective protest actions in the impoverished regions of the country’s so-called “interior”. These movements were rooted in individual historical realities particular to them; they were linked to the local socio-economic conditions and clientelist equilibrium – in particular the redistributive capacity of the former state-party. [3] Any attempt here to faithfully reproduce the logical development of the build-up to these events would be tantamount to teleological bias: such an attempt would, in other words, run the risk of linking a given series of events to an inevitable outcome, i.e. the flight of the president on 14 January 2011 and the subsequent end of the Ben Ali regime. [4] To avoid this analytical pitfall, we must make a deliberate choice of heuristic temporalities, in order to understand the revolutionary process as it happened in Tunisia. Rather than seeking to locate “where and when it all began” – and risk backtracking through history ad infinitum without yielding any convincing results – we should instead seek to analyse processes of political radicalisation by carefully selecting pertinent historical and geographical focal points.

3One of the most frequently selected “pertinent” focal points in this respect is the “democratic opposition” narrative, referring to the dynamic of opposition to Ben Ali that emerged at the end of the 1990s, spearheaded by the political classes and civil society organisations. [5] The organisation of protest demonstrations during the World Summit on the Information Society held by the United Nations in Tunis in 2005, [6] featuring a “cyber-dissident avant-garde”, [7] constitutes an important moment in this narrative. But the hypothesis of radical political change initiated by the opposition parties and an “independent civil society” is hardly very convincing, given that these elitist organisations lacked political clout (attracting only a narrow audience in a hyper-controlled public space) and a social base. [8] The strength of the multisectoral mobilisations [9] during the winter of 2011 lay above all else in the very absence of any unified leadership, command structure, or coordination. [10] The “revolutionary” [11] engagements were above all those of casual labourers and unemployed young people – qualified or not – and of the hustlers [débrouillards] [12] of the “Ben Ali generation”; these were not card-carrying activists of any party whatsoever, and they often paid for their revolutionary zeal with their lives. Middle-class Tunisians from the urban centre also took part, fed up with a regime that had veered off course towards extortionism, and with the “philistinism” [inculture] of the “cliques” in power. [13]

4The “democratic opposition” narrative thus constitutes an insufficient explanation of Tunisia’s path to revolution. However, it should not be deduced from this that a spontaneous movement existed: we should not be led to believe in “immaculate contestation”. In this article, in order to provide a detailed analysis of the perceptions and choices of the individuals and groups who were involved in this popular uprising – which was as intense as it was fleeting – we focus on two nodal situations: on the one hand, involvement in the collective protests which had proliferated since 2008 in Tunisia’s “interior”; and on the other hand, the subversive behaviour and sometimes ambivalent forms of resistance that had developed over the preceding years throughout different categories of the population, and – under certain conditions – had gradually turned into a challenge to the regime. This process-based analysis eschews monocausal structuralist explanations of how revolutions come to be, focusing instead on the generative conditions for engagement. Adopting a comprehensive approach, I seek here to reconstruct the successive steps of the revolutionary process as they happened, rather than the initial causes of the “Revolution”.

5Descriptions of a “revolutionary moment” suggest that everyone moves as a single collective subject. Effectively, as the popular uprising spread throughout the Tunisian territory and reached Tunis during the second week of January 2011 – with the loyalty of the army dissipating and the hesitant but decisive “entrée en scène” of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) [14] – unanimity prevailed among the population. A great number of groups poured into “the street” and dictated the political agenda, toppling successive national governments, chasing down the representatives of local authorities, police and supporters of the RCD party, and occupying and expanding a public space whose existence was previously prohibited. [15] Nevertheless, such forms of engagement were plural. They appeared at different moments, via different routes, and involved actors that did not share the same social outlook, nor the same relationship to authority. In order to study these forms of anti-regime engagement during the revolutionary moment, this article will analyse the multiple pathways evident in particular case studies: contrasting individuals or peer groups who, over the course of events, became “revolutionary”.

6The revolutionary process can be understood by investigating relationships between experiences of resistance and protest [16] that are not necessarily connected spatially, and which are often quite separate from one another temporally. In this article, I will scrutinise the ambivalence inherent in these trajectories, documenting the changes of direction, the accelerations and the bifurcations that characterise the path towards active protest. I will take into account the specific places and sequences of the protest, as well as the predominant modes of action employed by its protagonists. The misunderstandings, the information transmitted and distorted, the rumours, and their appropriation as modes of denunciation embedded within particular social situations, together created a moment – ephemeral, to be sure – in which social groups with differing interests and even diametrically opposed socio-economic positions “tipped the balance” and began to rally behind the same battle cry: “Ben Ali, out!” [Ben Ali dégage]. [17]

The ordeals of protest in Tunisia’s “interior”

7Whereas no systematic causal connection can be made between economic conditions and protest movements in Tunisia, it must be noted that the latter are characterised by a double cleavage that is at once socio-territorial and generational. A political and economic geography of the country illustrates that the map of socio-economic disparities can be cleanly superimposed onto the “protest map” of recent years. Powerful demonstrations erupted in the impoverished areas of the south-western Gafsa mining region in 2008, in southeastern Ben Guerdane in August of 2010, and in the agricultural region of Sidi Bouzid as well as Kasserine and Thala in the centre-west of the country in December of 2010. These movements drew back the veil on what had been masked by the Tunisia of the “economic miracle”: [18] regional disparities and the socio-economic marginalisation of large sections of the population, excluded from the labour market and consequently deprived of any social security protection.

8These protest movements were led by an unorganised sub-proletariat and by young people lacking any kind of social or political capital. The life stories of the men and women who were the driving force of the protest movements were mostly analogous to those of any average unemployed person in Tunisia, or of anyone working in a degrading and harsh job, be they workers in precarious employment in the subcontracting companies of the phosphate industry; smugglers from Ben Guerdane struggling against the hazards of a survival economy hindered by customs controls; female labourers in the agricultural sector of the centre-west; the overwhelming numbers of graduate workers in precarious jobs in the call centres of big cities; or “the neighbourhood boys” hanging around cafés and condemned to the economy of the daily hustle…

The dynamics of contentious engagement in the Gafsa mining region

9On the 6 January 2008, a day after the winners of a competitive recruitment drive by the Gafsa Phosphates Company (CPG) had been announced, [19] the residents from the villages and cities of the key mining areas in this south-western region of Tunisia began to mobilise on a massive scale, carrying out a series of actions that were met with brutal repression throughout the six months of protest. A huge number of unemployed people (whether graduates or not) and their families were united in denouncing the nepotist manner in which the CPG positions had been awarded.

10Gafsa is a mining region in which the agricultural sector has been seriously imperilled, due in large part to high levels of aridity, to meagre rainfall and to the use of water by the CPG’s processing facilities. Hence, most of the economic activity in the region is centred on the phosphate mines. The villages, especially those in the east, exhibit high rates of poverty, as do the region’s mining towns. The unemployment rate in the Gafsa region [or Governorate, to borrow the term used by the Tunisian administration] is, according to the official figures, one of the highest in the country: it is estimated to be twice that of the national average. Since the mid-1980s, neoliberal reforms of the CPG – in particular those undertaken to obtain World Bank loans – have meant a decline in the company’s regional hiring. The CPG, which is one of the biggest phosphate producers in the world, has virtually stopped all forms of recruitment, and has eliminated 10,000 jobs over the same period, the equivalent of two thirds of the total number of positions. In this region, where the Company constitutes one of the rare stepping-stones for those who aspire to enter the labour force, unemployment – especially “youth” unemployment – has subsequently intensified. [20]

11Those who mobilised in 2008 were first and foremost young men fighting to obtain a job. [21] The demands made by those excluded from the system of production found an echo in those of the casual workers and contracted workers with stable, well-paid positions within the CPG. The unemployed often live under the same roof as the envied contracted workers, as well as with the casual or seasonal workers. For this reason, such struggles relate to the improvement of the material conditions of entire households. The women were also therefore at the forefront of the demonstrations. Whereas female activists from political parties or associations were few and far between, the wives and widows of workers and phosphate miners, young female graduates without work, high-school girls, grassroots union members, and the mothers and grandmothers of imprisoned activists were constantly present during the mobilisations at Gafsa, Oum El Araies, Mdhila, Métlaoui and Redeyef.

12Within the public imaginary of those in the Gafsa region, the CPG figures as the sole alternative to poverty. According to the protestors, the CPG had an obligation to pay its debt towards numerous worker families, a debt accumulated during the years in which the smooth functioning of the company “ate away at their lives”. “The CPG has to give something back and give our children jobs”, [22] said one mother, who had come to support her son who was at a protest camp at Oum El Araies. The slogans of the 2008 protestors were aimed at the regional-level boss of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). At the time, Ziad was one of the leaders of the protest movements in his city, Oum El Araies, one of the four miner towns. This young 30-year old man was one of a few dozen activists to have participated in secret discussions, starting in 2006, aiming to create and coordinate the Association of Unemployed Graduates in the Gafsa region. At the time, he said:


“As far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t care less about Ben Ali, I don’t even know him. This guy on the other hand [the boss of the UGTT], he’s the mafioso. It’s because of him that we’re here.” [23]

14The boss of the union embodied the injustice and the inevitability which the jobless youth of the region were fighting. Effectively, this “big man” – both Member of Parliament for the RCD and boss of the factories subcontracting for the CPG – had himself awarded the prized positions at the CPG. He was the leader of a network of clientelist exchanges, from which these “youths” were entirely excluded and he alone symbolised the corruption in question, the feeling of “déclassement”. [24] This was felt all the more keenly for the fact that the jobs at his subcontracting factories were considerably less secure than those at the CPG.

15During the first two months of protest, the movement was led neither by political opposition organisations, by “independent civil society”, nor by the UGTT. In January, the magnitude of the uprising had reached considerable proportions; in mining cities, public space was occupied by thousands of protestors. Barricades and burnt tires marked the urban areas of Métlaoui, which the police fought hard to recapture. In the surrounding villages, the revolt sometimes involved every single inhabitant, who came out to express their discontent following the imprisonment of the neighbourhood “youths”. In Redeyef, the leaders’ speeches were made in the street, addressing a considerable audience. [25] Over the course of these two months, the protests brought together union dissidents; high-schoolers; unemployed graduates and their families calling upon the authorities to give their children work; parents there to call for the freedom of the hundreds of detainees… Significantly, the RCD party leaders had failed to mobilise all together and all at once to quash the protesting households. This retreat can be attributed to the struggles taking place at the heart of the regional union and of the political elite. For a while some local leaders of the RCD sat idly by, taking advantage of the situation as an expedient means to rid themselves of rivals who had become targets of the protestors’ wrath.

16Significant levels of repression and attempts to buy off the protesting groups [26] engendered different dynamics in the four cities of the mining region. The protests in Redeyef were better organised, around local leaders from non-worker unions (disobeying their hierarchy), and therefore lasted longer, for six months. In June of 2008, however, after the arrest of the main leaders of the movement, every single one of the collective movements in the mining region ran into the ground. A well-worn procedure confirmed the cessation of protest: President Ben Ali announced major development projects for the region. And yet, scepticism lingered within different sections of the population. The main target of the protests – the “big man” occupying multiple positions – remained in place. Above all else, many protestors still felt the need to continue the struggle. Ziad, just recently out of prison in July, confided:


“Everything’s not just going to stop right there. Now, we are aware of our strength; they won’t be able to kill everyone. We’ll fight until our region’s Trabelsis and Ben Alis are all gone, and then we’ll go for the real ones themselves.”

18During the first protests in the region in December 2010, this same Ziad was heavily involved. Just like him, many of the same people who had protested in 2008 once again became active. They employed well-established modes of action – marches, sit-ins, and so on. Very quickly however, near the end of December 2010, attempts at coordinating the demonstrations were overwhelmed by multiple insurrectionary actions, which gradually broadened in scope, their slogans and actions taking aim at the police, then the authorities, the party… and the president, Ben Ali.

The proliferation of protest movements

19The movements that took place in 2010 in Ben Guerdane, on the border with Libya, constituted another important moment in the intensification of protest against Ben Ali. These collective actions were linked to the closure of the border. [27] The Ras Jdir border post, through which an entire transnational contraband economy passed every day, had been closed. This decision by the Libyan government seriously imperilled the survival economy that sustains significant portions of the population in the region. Pacifist demonstrations demanding that the border be re-opened were brutally suppressed. Every additional imprisonment and new act of police repression hardened the movement’s resolve. The protest movements reached such a pitch that the Tunisian authorities were forced to negotiate the re-opening of the border post with the Libyan authorities. By disturbing an inequitable but vital equilibrium – that of the illegal and largely corrupt economy of cross-border exchanges – the border closure produced a wave of protests that only intensified as they spread throughout diverse parts of the Ben Guerdane region.

20Four months later, in Sidi Bouzid, [28] Mohamed Bouazizi, a street fruit vendor, would go on to take his own life. For many, this gesture of self-immolation, instantly publicised, represented a sort of distillation of the indignation broadly felt throughout the country, which manifested itself in different collective actions. Bouazizi would thus become the emblematic figure of the hustler economy, so arbitrarily and violently impeded by the regime.

21While these “interior” protest movements are embedded in specific discourses and specific socio-economic relations, they nevertheless connect with one another at several points. At each instance we find: an act in which nepotism is denounced; a determination to counter the inevitability of unemployment; and a form of collective action lacking institutional coordination – or that is, in any case, at odds with the political class of the opposition and the leadership of the main union. The mobilisation dynamics and modes of action followed the same pattern: marches and sit-ins provoked harsh police repression, to which new protest movements responded. Following the first imprisonments, groups of demonstrators set off towards the police station or the headquarters of the local authorities. The first deaths provoked an intensification of the protest. In addition to exposing the difficulties met by attempts to extinguish the revolts through repression, these protest events also laid bare the cracks in the state-party’s mechanisms of containment and control. The people’s rage, however, stemmed from different causes. In short, in Gafsa it was, “give us work, quit robbing us”, while the protesting populace in Ben Guerdane were demanding “open the border, let us survive”.

22The 2008-2010 period, characterised by the spread of collective protests, was not necessarily a prequel to the engagements that took place during the revolutionary moment of 2010-2011, which were driven by their own autonomous logics. Nevertheless, while they failed to create a “revolutionary avant-garde”, the significant ordeals undergone by the populations of these “interior” regions slowly but surely accumulated within the minds of individuals (whether involved directly in the protests or not), becoming a leitmotif for their subsequent engagement in the “revolution”.

23The revolutionary process also represented a transition to protest for those who had formerly opposed the dominant political order through a more diffuse kind of resistance. The cost of actual protest action within an authoritarian regime cannot be compared to that of the more mundane forms of daily resistance. [29] Nevertheless, if we want to understand the importance of the popular uprising, we must also analyse the forms of resistance and counter-behaviours that progressively took shape during the final years of Ben Ali’s regime. Here, what is interesting is not so much the dichotomy between “resistances” and “protest actions”, as the gradual transition from one to the other. [30] This is especially true given that the same actors can simultaneously undertake activities falling under the rubrics of “resistance”, “protest action”, and “conventional participation”.

Ordinary resistance and “revolutionary” engagement

24Silence is not necessarily consent. Political science analysis in the wake of work by J. J. Linz, especially when applied to authoritarian contexts, was too quick to interpret the feebleness of dissenting voices in the institutionalised public arena (the media, political organisations, unions, civil society associations, etc.) as a form of consent, or a lack of opinions, or even as a political expression by the “silent majority”. While numerous discourses and practices were expressed and sometimes set dynamics of denunciation in motion, the public arena in Tunisia was often interpreted through the lens of political apathy and depoliticisation, understood as a consequence of the securitarian lockdown of the public sphere. However, the applicability of the notion of “preference falsification”, described by Timur Kuran, [31] is quickly thrown into doubt in the Tunisian context as soon as we begin to pay attention to public manifestations of discontent at the micro-level. In many public spaces, critique and denunciation were expressed without their enunciator necessarily being at risk of repression. This can be explained by the fact that the people knew, even in an authoritarian context, that others thought like they did, even if those others did not see fit to express such thoughts in the same manner. To think in terms of “true” private preferences, as Kuran does, would thus hinder any analysis of the constant evolution of critical representations, visible both in “public” and “private” spaces, and with the potential to redefine possible courses of action.

25The actors and situations which I describe here have been selected in order to show just how diverse the paths to active protest were, and to demonstrate the ambivalence of such trajectories, the reasons and contingencies that structure the move towards action, and the different modes of action employed in protests during the winter of 2010-2011. Long-neutralised forms of resistance, which could be seen as integral to the reproduction of the authoritarian political order, would progressively change in nature as the political situation likewise evolved. Over the course of the fieldwork used in this study, I met with individuals and small groups of peers, in different social milieus, all seeking to express their “indignation” against a predatory and gangster regime, to which they attributed the responsibility for grievances large and small. Because they did not belong to opposition or protest organisations, these people were not muzzled in every possible space: they were able to express denunciation in several places. The cases studied herein were chosen because the actors and situations (public spaces of expression and social milieus) illustrate the diversity of perceptions and motivations underlying various forms of engagement, and thus provide an answer to the question of exactly how the Tunisian revolt escalated.

Resistance within the state-party

26Although the hegemonic party was dissolved on the 9 March 2011, it is important to bear in mind that it was a multifaceted organisation, cohabited by actors with a diverse range of statuses and functions, and with very different characteristics and levels of participation. The party claimed to have more than two million members [32] and the ways into the party were many. A great number of people, though card-carrying members of the RCD and frequent participants in its activities, harboured resistances to the political order. In what follows, we will analyse the diverse pathways which took individuals from ambivalent resistance to active protest when the revolution happened.

Yosra: the itinerary of an unexpected dissident

27Yosra was born in Monastir, in the city of Bourguiba. Her hometown is situated in the Sahel, the coastal region whence the two successive presidents of post-independence Tunisia originate, along with a host of the country’s other political figures. During our first interview in 2007 [33] she would tell me proudly: “Many ministers and ambassadors went to my high-school”. A 47-year-old mother, she is the daughter and niece of two activists who participated in the national movement alongside Bourguiba. Though she never obtained her high-school diploma [the baccalauréat], she was able to study at high-school. She was hired as a public servant in Tunis, and promoted thanks to the “intervention” of her parents. Yosra is married with three children: two sons aged nineteen and fifteen years old, and a daughter who is nine. Her husband, an alcoholic, has been unemployed for ten years. Their arguments are often violent. In this situation where she is alone in providing for the needs of her children, Yosra “needs the Party”, she repeatedly pointed out.

28However, the intercessions with the RCD, made possible by her illustrious familial ancestry, are no longer possible.


“I can’t ask anything of them here in Hammam-Lif. They’re thugs, bandits, jbura (yokels). I’m even afraid to go there alone, because the gaze of these men is so vulgar and overwhelming.” [34]

30The fringe benefits she got from the petty corruption carried out by RCD officials were less generous following the premature deaths of her father and uncle. She did not cope well with being sidelined in this way. Nevertheless, Yosra remained a fervent supporter of Ben Ali.


“He doesn’t have a clue about the goings-on of these thugs, and that old hairdresser [Leïla Ben Ali] has him totally bewitched. Her brothers and sons will rob us of everything. I’m very worried for our country.” [35]

32Despite this worry, she constantly reiterated her attachment to the party (to which she renewed her membership), to its projects and above all else to its leader. She commented on his portrait, hanging on the wall of her lounge, as follows:


“Make no mistake, Ben Ali saved us, he saved us from the heritage of Bourguiba.” [36]

34Although many Tunisians experienced intimidation similar to that suffered by Yosra every day and complained about it in private, the uniqueness of Yosra’s case lies in her public expression of disapproval. Thus, when making her daily trip to the capital city – a round trip on the suburban train from Monday to Friday – she would talk with her neighbouring passengers, denouncing the goings-on of the local power barons. [37] She would fulminate for thirty minutes without stopping, right until her arrival at the end station, in a carriage packed to the brim with high-schoolers, university students, office workers, workers from the Mégrine business zone, and junior civil servants. She would denounce the kleptocrats and relays rumours of the craziest sort, describing the perverse powers of the Trabelsi, and explaining exactly how different clannish factions used predatory tactics to exploit public companies such as Tunisair. These daytime diatribes were fuelled by her eldest child in the evening, at home. Her son had a computer and a connection to the internet: [38] he surfed, bypassed the censorship mechanisms, shared information with his “friends” on Facebook, and shared everything with his mother. In the daytime, in the train, some young people took Yosra for “suicidal”. During a trip together towards Tunis, one beaming university student joked loudly: “Personally I think I’ll pay the extra fee to travel in first class, it’s too risky here! See ya!”

35As suggested above, the public recrimination expressed by this woman is related to the activist background of her family, to her perceived déclassement, which is made manifest by her “poor marriage” and in the disappearance of her familial support. But other experiences heightened her discontent. Her youngest son was unable to enter the high-school of his choosing:


“His grade average was really not great but he should have been able to enrol, other people got in with the same results; the headmaster looked down his nose at me.” [39]

37It was another episode that definitively sealed her judgement of the “local mafia”. After a fight between her eldest son and a neighbour, having asked the local authorities for an audience and been refused, she went to the police station. There, according to her:


“I was abused, practically raped by those thugs; those people use Ben Ali’s party to attack people, to hurt them, and all for a few dinars.” [40]

39The ambivalent denunciation of corruption; the critique of police violence; the déclassement of a junior civil servant who sees her working and living conditions worsen; the resentments at the heart of a party that no longer successfully assimilates all of its members; and gendered violence: these are the ingredients that led Yosra to voice increasingly powerful denunciations. But it is the photos her son showed her on his computer, the ones of mutilated corpses of young men following the brutalities at Thala and Kasserine on 8 and 9 January 2011, that led her to make the final step and actively participate in collective protest.


“That’s my son who’s been killed. Young men like him who are dead, I mean.” [41]

41Later, she explains:


“My colleague, originally from Kasserine, she called me that very evening and told me that her colleagues working at the ministry in the region have their children in prison, some of them are dead. They’re normal people, never made so much as a ripple. Everything was mixing together in my head; I dreamt that it was my son who was dead. The next day I received a text: tomorrow there will be a general strike, and I decided to go and see it for myself.” [42]

43The 14 January 2011, [43] Yosra was on Bourguiba Avenue in the very centre of Tunis with her eldest son. At every possible opportunity, she repeated to the passers-by, as if to reassure herself:


“It’s my first demonstration, I’ve never been in a union, normally when there’s a strike I stay at home, but this time it’s too much, they’re killing children, things can’t go on like this.”

45A slogan rang out that Yosra found somewhat excessive, and she was suddenly gripped by nervous amusement: “What? They’re telling Ben Ali to get out?” This caused her to remain silent, on the other side of the avenue, with those who had ceded the central median strip to the more seasoned protestors. That very morning, these protestors had gathered in front of the headquarters of the UGTT, before heading in the direction of the Interior Ministry, “the heart of the regime without a heart”, as one of the activists from the Tunisian Communist Worker’s party chanted. These demonstrators, in their thousands, forced the police barricades to yield. Amongst their ranks were hardened activists, unionists, young artists and left-wingers, lawyers, [44] as well as activists belonging to legal opposition parties. On Bourguiba Avenue, the very few times that left-wing chants were intoned, the “la ilaha illa Allah” (there is no god but Allah) of the few Islamist students in the Tunisian Student Union rang out to counter them. The national anthem was thus chosen and sung as a way of erasing these political cleavages, meaning that this was to be a moment of coming together. Yosra, for her part, remained for a long moment on the other side of the avenue, before being pushed by the human wave towards the other protestors. Taken up in the movement, she found herself chanting the same slogans as the hundreds of thousands of other protestors brought together before the Interior Ministry. First she sang the national anthem, then, the dynamic of the people getting the better of her, began to shout: “Ben Ali dégage!” [Ben Ali, out!].

46While the case of Yosra provides us with the opportunity to highlight how ambivalent practices of intentionally denouncing the governing elite evolved, other categories of the subaltern population challenge the regime, but without producing an explicit discourse of protest. Here, it is issues of survival and notoriety at the neighbourhood scale which prevail and may lead to conflict with the political order. We turn now to the case of the Zaïm, the leader of the gangsters in the medina in Gafsa.

The Zaïm and his forty thieves: pariahs turned revolutionaries

47The Zaïm is a 40-year old man, illiterate, judged brutal in his ways and repugnant in his appearance, with a ten-centimetre-long scar along his cheek, only slightly smaller than the one on his forehead. He is the leader of a tight-knit group of some 40 unemployed young men who live in the same neighbourhood: Houmet El Hara, in the medina of Gafsa, a highly deprived area where there is little more than old, over-populated and run-down houses. Aged between 15 and 40 years of age, the members of the Zaïm’s group are single, unemployed, and often were not schooled past primary school. They live from petty theft (which is highly organised); they sell and consume a psychotropic substance that they make themselves using palm alcohol (legmi), referred to as al qishem. These men occupy the space of “their neighbourhood” in a very ostentatious manner, going so far as to organise “patrols” in order to better control entry. The youngest of them run a go-between with the outskirts of the oasis, on the banks of the oued, where they make non-residents pay a few hundred millimes (a price fixed by the Zaïm) in order to get through the neighbourhood safely in the evening. The relationship with the local authorities, especially the police, is often a very distant one; the rule being: “we only bother them if they cross the line because we can’t just put every one of them in prison, and it wouldn’t help anything anyway”. [45] What this means is that, whereas almost every member of the gang has been called before the court, or received a summons or a letter notifying them of their necessary internment in a psychiatric institution (due to their consumption of psychotropics), it is rare that anyone comes looking for them, and especially not on their turf.

48The Gafsa medina was one of the zones targeted by the Local Human Development Programme, initiated by non-indigenous actors as part of efforts at international cooperation. With the aid of international lenders, local organisations implemented a range of activities: the “promotion of female entrepreneurs”, “micro-finance initiatives”, etc. Although, strictly speaking, the Zaïm did not belong to any local organisation, he claimed involvement in the so-called “participatory” development project, making full use of his “resources”: “scaring people”, “controlling the neighbourhood”, but also, being a “deserving poor person”(according to the regime’s criteria), and short-circuiting the local civil society elite by fostering a relationship with the programme manager in Tunis.

49To justify his presence in the project, the Zaïm followed the example of the project’s two main member organisations by making reference to “his localism”. During our interviews, he reiterated that: “No one knows the problems of the medina as well as I do, I’ve been here since my childhood, I’ve been struggling here since forever”, or “the street is my bedroom, my kitchen, my lounge, I know how it works” (May 2006). He made awkward attempts at appropriating fragments of the “local development” and “participatory” discourse. But when it comes to talking to most developers, this fell on deaf ears. He always came up against the dominant form of stigmatisation, which was at best “miserabilist” – i.e. “they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, we have to help them in spite of themselves” – or at worst “authoritarian” – i.e. “they’re beyond rescue, we should just lock them all up”. For this reason, the Zaïm was not really included in the meetings of the organisations, or those of the project’s steering committee.

50Faced with this obstacle, the Zaïm and his people did what they know best, which is to say, “scaring people”. Thus, physical confrontation often happened when an activity of one kind or another was attempted in the neighbourhood without their notice. This primary physical resource enabled them to put into place a clientelist relationship between the Zaïm and the organisations steering the project. The Zaïm was able to obtain two micro-credit loans (with a blank application), and also managed to turn the “community café” – created for the project – into “his office”. At its inauguration, he sent two of his “lieutenants” to thank the development agencies for having made the gesture towards the neighbourhood and its youth. As soon as the speeches were over, they padlocked the café door (June 2006).

51Such handouts being the exception to the rule, however, the Zaïm sought another way to benefit from the project and scored a significant goal. He learnt of the imminent arrival of the project’s financiers, who were to visit the project activities. Given that he had never had access to the project meetings, this piece of information was precious: it represented an opportunity to demonstrate that “we are also capable of doing things, and we do them”, in his own words (July 2007), and he quickly went about initiating activities to prove this point. In the oasis, he used his own funds to rent a piece of land that he farmed with the help of his friends, in order to show his harvest to the visitors. This of course did not stop the gang from continuing to extract palm sap in order to make their psychotropic drug, and they did not miss the opportunity to request “a gesture” from the eminent visitors, by way of covering their expenses – a request that was declined.

52Similarly, in certain streets in the neighbourhood, the Zaïm put together an ingenious DIY system that protected the streetlamps from being smashed – as they otherwise inevitably were (this system did not extend, howvere, to the zones in which the houses and factories for selling and making al qishem were located). As a result of his zealous efforts, the Zaïm managed to become involved in one of the local organisations, and more importantly, to position himself as a mediator in some of the “territorialised” neighbourhood activities. Thereafter, he was invited to lend a hand with micro-credit projects, for example.

53Through the exemplary nature of some of his activities, this local personality, whom many had despised, was gradually able to integrate himself into the processes of development-focused public policy. His involvement in local politics via the RCD meant that this “undeserving poor person” [mauvais pauvre] became, little by little, a “deserving poor person” [bon pauvre]. [46] Having thus become a respectable member of society, he was then able to marry. The Zaïm was the type of person who set set up the neighbourhood committee in his street. He became a card-carrying member of the party and participated in the activities of the local RCD cell. Strengthened by his connections with his new friends in the administration, the police and the party, he successfully negotiated to have the charges against some of his associates dropped. But very quickly, this involvement translated into a “career change”: the Zaïm, the leader, was in fact no longer one at all. At best, he had become one more link in the party network of favour exchanges and constraints. He gradually distanced himself from his former friends in the medina. He was even encouraged to do so in order to reap the full benefits of his new status as a “deserving poor person”, with access to even greater hand-outs.

54Throughout 2008, while protests brought the neighbouring mining region to boiling point, the Zaïm and the youths in his neighbourhood never mobilised. And in December of 2010, the Zaïm came late to the demonstrations of the neighbourhood youth, who had already been engaged in an intense night-time struggle against law enforcement. Called in by the police officials of the sector to intervene in order to calm everyone down, it was only then that the Zaïm realised the magnitude of the struggle.


“It was the 10 January, in the evening, when I spent the evening with my boys that I realised how serious, how unique, it really was.” [47]

56It was quickly apparent that the role that the authorities had asked him to play was far too risky at a time when choices must be decisive and enemies clearly defined. He explains:


“Those who asked me to get the young ones in order, they didn’t even answer the telephone anymore, and I live here, I saw quite clearly that these kids were ready to go right to the extreme end, they were happy and determined, wouldn’t tolerate any hesitation. They asked me straight up: ‘are you with us or against us?’” [48]

58This opportunity to be the Zaïm again would prove too tempting. Unintentionally reinstated at the heart of his group of neighbourhood “youths”, the Zaïm again began to coordinate nightly patrols. His little house became the headquarters of the struggle, with dozens of young men coming to seek refuge, eat, or obtain information from the teenage boys and girls standing guard upon the roofs. The Zaïm had the reins once more.


“This neighbourhood has to become ours again, and even Ben Ali won’t come in without our approval.” [49]

60After Ben Ali had fled the country, and calm had been restored, the Zaïm progressively imposed himself as the interlocutor for the different parties that had recently been created, or that were campaigning in the Gafsa medina. He organised the marriage of one of his lieutenants in his own house in February… the invitations mention “the Celebration of the Revolution”.

61The two profiles of the actors analysed thus far, those of Yosra and the Zaïm, demonstrate that the ambivalence of belonging both to a politics of “the conventional” (through the RCD) and to a politics of the “non-conventional” (bypassing the mainstream, denouncing, protesting, etc.) is common, and that actors may move from one side of the spectrum to the other. This also suggests that, in addition to the contradictions inherent in any multifaceted party structure, we must not lose sight of internal struggles within the “single” party. Indeed, the context was marked by uncertainty concerning the succession at the head of state [50] (notably due to the constitutional revision necessary to allow Ben Ali to stand again in 2014) in combination with occasional violent conflicts between rival RCD clans at the local level. Such was the case, for example, during the congress of the federation in Monastir, in December 2010, whose purpose was to renew the primary and intermediary structures of the RCD. [51] While the seizing up of the political machine does not necessarily explain the crisis of the state-party and its immobility in the face of insurrection, it does enable us to better understand why certain RCD activists jumped ship during the uprising; even if, once again, opportunities for action and engagement arose from very contingent sets of circumstances.

62Let us now turn to an analysis of the development of collective activities of denunciation carried out by groups that were not integrated into the RCD’s power network.

Escalations of everyday denunciation

63Space is an important dimension: it represents a condition of possibility for the resistances [52] described above: from places of expression, such as the train carriage for Yosra, to spaces which are to be controlled, such as the neighbourhood of the Zaïm and his gang: the medina and its narrow streets. Likewise, it is also a specific place – the micro-space of a café – that proved essential to the process of (de)mobilisation for a group of young men in Gafsa city centre.

A space for learning dissent: the “freedom aquarium” in Gafsa

64This is the name given by a group of men aged between 20 and 39 to the spot where they meet every day in Gafsa city centre. [53] Their “subversive café”, as they like to call it, is in fact composed of two adjoining patios. The space is circumscribed: “if there isn’t any room where we usually sit, then we’re not allowed to talk politics”, Mohamed explained (April 2006). In this group of 20 men, the majority are “non-salaried workers”, or “jobless employees”, Mohamed jokes. They are employed as temporary warehousemen, as stand-in salesmen, as assistants in empty photography studios, as occasional waiters, as alternating taxi drivers working the night shift… And yet, apart from one member of the group, they all graduated with a high-school diploma, and sometimes even a university degree. They know one another because most of them have lived their whole lives in the neighbouring projects. Though most of them aspire to be married, and often talk of it, few of them actually are. None of them have the money, nor the “standing” [situation] that would be necessary for marriage. Most of them are still living at home. Mustapha, 38 years old, works as an “intermittent louagiste” – a collective taxi service that goes between cities – and describes his daily expenditure as follows: “Two packets of cigarettes, six capucin [a Tunisian coffee], a chicha [waterpipe] and a little bit of money for my mother’s groceries”.

65These men spoke of the precariousness of their situation in a manner similar to that of many other Tunisians, yet the difference is that they perceive themselves as “members of the resistance”. Sitting comfortably in their café, they point the finger. Mourad says loudly:


“I spend my time running around left and right, like someone who’s come to beg for work. They act as if they were doing you a big favour, and you have to pay them baksheesh to get a job or be allowed to take a competitive exam.”

67The group got together every day to discuss current national political affairs. Witty turns of phrase [54] went with the territory, and the tone was always ironic: “Ben Ali ila al-abad (Ben Ali for eternity)” became their slogan, as early as 2007. They also use English, “Forever BA”, calling themselves “Jama’at Forever BA” (the B[en]A[li] Forever Gang). In their own words, they describe their collective experience of resistance as “muqawama dud… al ginya”, “the struggle against… boredom”.

68Although not a single one of them belonged to the various opposition groups (party organisations, civil society groups, or unions), the information that they discussed was mostly derived from El Hiwar Ettounsi, an opposition satellite channel that is broadcast from overseas. Ridha is a self-appointed specialist in installing satellite dishes for his friends, and knows how to programme his beloved channel for free. The members of the group surreptitiously passed around the publications of the legal opposition, and told the latest jokes about Ben Ali’s extended family. El Bahi, one of the few to have the internet at home, occasionally brought with him snippets of information that he copied from the sites that “speak the truth”, so that he can read them to his friends.

69In this group of “resistance members”, Nizar was one friend who set himself apart. He was a sabbab, an informer. He was an RCD activist at the university in Sousse. Back in Gafsa, he has landed a good position at the Ministry of Employment. He refrained from veering from the “straight and narrow”, and avoided excessive critique of the regime during their vigils at the café. But according to Mohamed, “he couldn’t bring himself to denounce his friends. On the contrary, he’s even a resource for us. With him around, no one suspects us” (June 2007).

70The members of the group all originate from the area surrounding Gafsa, from Sened or from El Guettar, but most of them have some sort of family connection in the mining region, in Métlaoui, and especially in Redeyef. Few of them aspired to the positions opened up by the CPG. Only two of them had already applied for administrative posts at the company headquarters in Gafsa, in vain, but they had all gradually come to feel themselves concerned by the protest movements in the mining region during 2008.

71It is through Mohamed’s cousin that the group learned of the details of the first protests. He had been there at Redeyef, at the heart of the demonstration. Three weeks later, Mohamed decided to go and see his family in Redeyef. He jumped into Mustapha’s taxi, and managed to pass the military and police controls with a story about a visit to a sick aunt. Once in Redeyef, Mustapha didn’t leave again.


“At the beginning, I was just supposed to drop him off and take off again, but in the end we were invited to go and have lunch with his aunt. And then, the atmosphere there, it was just crazy! We were scared to death but we wanted to know, to see. It was much more significant than we could have guessed. In the end, we weren’t able to see Adnane Hajji [the leader of the primary union, a charismatic figure of the movement], but we heard and saw so many things, so much courage; the spirit of our ancestors has awakened, we are standing on our own two feet again.” [55],

73Back [56]at the café, they talked of the “beauty of the protestors’ independence”, the “charisma” of Adnane Hajji’s speeches… But very quickly, after the government-led repression in early April, during which the principal leaders of the protest were arrested, the discussions took on a less romantic tone, and from this point they centred on the repression to which the main protestors of the mining region were subjected. Mohamed’s cousin was arrested and tortured. In order to better defend him, Mohamed began to send news of his cousin’s ordeal, the violence to which he was subjected, in “coded language”, by post and by phone, to the members of his family living in Nantes, France. These family members would go on to play an important role in the protests in Nantes and also in Belleville, in Paris, particularly in the “solidarity” protests organised by a left-wing political organisation active in France, the Federation of Tunisians for North-South Citizenship [la Fédération des Tunisiens pour une citoyenneté des deux rives]. The “consequences” of such agitation were quick to pose a threat to the group. The members of the aquarium fell victim to repression. The younger brother of El Bahi was beaten up and hauled off to the police station after the protests. El Bahi accused Mustapha and his acolytes of having been bad influences on his youngest brother. Along with six other members of the group (including Nizar of the RCD), he stopped frequenting “the aquarium”.

74On the 14 January 2011, the members of the aquarium were not particularly active. They participated as spectators, exterior to the protests of the final day under Ben Ali. Several factors can be put forward to explain this. First and foremost, they were distancing themselves from the violence committed by protestors in the last days, considered “savage” tactics used only by the rioters from whom they had always distinguished themselves; they were the members of the “armchair resistance” [les résistants assis]. Low-intensity protest actions had become routine, and a certain kind of lassitude on the part of the group (as well as the splits within it) accentuated the disjuncture between its members and the violent struggles that emerged and spread throughout the month of January. In the end, the 14 January was just a day like any other for them… until it was announced that Ben Ali had fled.

75Two days later, the group met up in the cafe, and everyone was there. One week later, they learnt from Mohamed’s cousin in Redeyef that different protest groups from the interior regions were organising to occupy the central government square in Tunis. Mustapha took the initiative and coordinated the group. Twelve from the aquarium would travel to Tunis to take part in the occupation. Mustapha explains passionately:


“In El Kasbah, it was the revolutionaries, the real ones, the people without money, who paid the heavy price of the dictator and of the revolt. We are going up north to get rid of them all… once and for all, to push the Revolution forward, it’s simply unacceptable that they only change a few ministers; that’s not going to do anything to change the permanent siege situation under which we in Gafsa now live.” [57]

77Ultimately, the aquarium was a sort of “free space”, [58] like others that existed elsewhere in spite of authoritarian and police rule. It was a place in which feelings of injustice could be expressed, where discourse turned against the regime, emphasising its brutality and Ben Ali’s worn-out performances of autocratic power. But it was also a space in which long-term relations of trust were nurtured, in addition to the reciprocal friendships that are so fundamental to engagement in protest. Finally, the café was a space for planning ahead and developing strategies for action.

78To these practices of peaceful resistance, we should add other types of trajectories leading to political radicalisation, in which physical engagement was central, as was the case for the “young rebels” of the working-class suburbs of Tunis.

The young rebels of Hammam-Lif: from avoidance to insurrection

79During the years preceding the revolution, a group of eight young men, [59] children of a working-class neighbourhood in the southern outskirts of Tunis, all of whom grew up with limited means, would go on to drastically escalate acts of rebellion. These “sons of the Ben Ali Generation”, [60] as they defined themselves, adopted positions that denounced the older generation and their “system”, they engaged in acts of urban dissidence, rebel artistic practices, drug consumption, and violent forms of “hooliganism”. Such practices were first radicalised in 2007, well before most of these young people got involved in the January 2011 insurrection. “We don’t want to be schemers, hustlers… or losers!” Sami is commenting on this stanza (a rap verse), grafitti’d on the back wall of his brother’s boutique, as he explains to me why it is that he refuses to live like the others, “to live during the day”. He adds: “We live at night to avoid society”. To the question “so you’re a free-rider then?”, which I posed in order to make him be more specific about his lifestyle, he responded by extending the metaphor:


“We don’t free-ride; if we get a train, we don’t use the seats, we sit on the roof, between the wagons and the carriages of the metro, in the shadows of society…” [61]

81Sami refused to work, to break his back for a few scraps; he preferred to live from handouts. Nevertheless, his friends nicknamed him the “internship record-holder”, since he spent four years in successive internships without it ever amounting to anything. Like him, his friends are the children of employees, workers or maids, with few opportunities to climb the social ladder. While some of them did work, it was always with large gaps in between, never for a full year. Disillusioned, Sami adds:


“How are you supposed to say who you are? How are you supposed to answer the question ‘what do you do?’, if every month you have to find a new job again? Better to say nothing, better to do nothing.”

83In the group, three of them DJ-ed during summer at the night clubs in Hammamet, or even in Sousse. They rubbed shoulders with the “big families”, their splendour and their Hummers, the cars that fascinate and revolt them at the same time. They recounted the brutality of the Trabelsi again and again.

84In Echa’biya, the phrase “Ben Ali Generation” signifies experiences of police violence. Most of the young people in the group have a story to tell about this. As Ahmed was praying one night, for example, he was rounded up by the police and had to spend two nights in prison:


“I narrowly escaped bottle torture, my brother, and it was only thanks to a cop from our neighbourhood that I did.” [62]

86Ahmed is a rapper, he raps about the “harig”, his desire to flee, to “take off from the Hammam-Lif ‘International Airport’”, [63] to emigrate. He is also a moralist: “You have to protect yourself from whores, from nights of depravity”. Ahmed is a Muslim rapper, [64] but – he is quick to insist – not an Islamist. The Islamists, he knows them. His father was an activist for Ennahdha, but died after four years of imprisonment. Very active at the beginning of the 1980s and 1990s, his father was incarcerated, tortured and stripped of his civil rights at several points. Ahmed’s older brother is also an activist in the Islamist movement. A high-level technician, he is nevertheless forced to sell bootlegged CDs. Ahmed is very critical of his family. Bitterly, he lists their mistakes, their stubbornness. He wants to distinguish himself from them:


“For me it doesn’t bother me to drink, to be with good girls [virtuous ones], and to be a Muslim, a praying Muslim at the same time.”

88But again, the police get in the way of this:


“We were at the beach last summer, behind the seawall, my girlfriend and I, and the police came, two of them; they humiliated us, hit me and insulted my girlfriend.”

90He concludes our interview with a biting declaration:


“We are permitted neither to drink nor to pray…” [65]

92For this group of friends, as for many of the young men from working-class neighbourhoods, the routine experience of police violence was directly related to football matches. As supporters of the Hammam-Lif Sporting Club and the African Club (one of the biggest clubs in the capital), they were frequently in situations of confrontation with the police. During weekend trips to watch the matches, hundreds of young men left from Hammam-Lif. On the long walk back home together, ingenuity was required to bypass the security cordons and avoid receiving blows. When the police charged, getaways were well organised. The battles were even anticipated the day before, with stones hidden in the bushes that lay along the route back home.

93In their neighbourhood, especially during the night, these “rebels” made a performance of their self-endangerment. They filmed one another doing skids on their scooters, along with the police pursuit that usually followed. These forms of urban dissidence [66] were combined with other types of counter-behaviour. The consumption of cannabis, heavily condemned in Tunisia, was elevated into a form of local pride (the city is well-known for all kinds of trafficking). Ahmed explains that even the neighbourhood of Humat As-Sabun (“the soap neighbourhood”) is so named because of cannabis (“soap” referring to the soap-like bricks of hashish resin).

94For the group of Hammam-Lif rebels, the veritable trigger for their political radicalisation was the episode in Soliman, a city neighbouring Hammam-Lif. When, in January of 2007, an armed group described by the government as “salafist terrorists” was surrounded in a villa, and “smoked out” by the special forces, Sami and his brother were in the neighbourhood under siege, with shootouts that lasted hours. Shut up at their friends’ place, they filmed scraps of the bloody intervention. Shortly after he got back to Hammam-Lif, Sami was arrested and interrogated by the police in Tunis for three whole days. His face black and blue, he received a hero’s welcome back amongst his group of friends. In the neighbourhood, many people pressed him for details of what he saw.

95From spring of 2007, the group met up more and more often at night in the local CD- and DVD-burning workshop owned by Sami’s older brother. Three computers and an ADSL connection allowed the group to surf online, and also to find proxy servers that enabled them access to numerous forbidden sites. Mostly they watched films with girls or fights in them, but increasingly, it was the troubles of the Trabelsi that interested them and gave them ideas. They increased the number of night-time tagging expeditions, writing political slogans on the walls that run alongside the train tracks. They even planned to film the corruption orchestrated by the inspectors of the central police station at Hammam-Lif, and to capture the improper usage of vehicles by the RCD officials and their children…

96Absorbed in the imaginary of Gangsta Rap US, of Hollywood action films, and of video games based around fighting and combat, they were particularly interested in the information emanating from Wikileaks, relayed into Tunisia by the dissident website Nawaat, concerning the corruption of the Tunisian political regime. “America has just dropped them”, was Sami’s assured interpretation. “They’re going to send him a drone the size of a little fly, it’ll sting him and his hairdresser-wife and they’ll both be dead”, Ahmed suggested, upping the ante. [67] Their perception of the relative weakness of those governing them was to encourage their further engagement in the revolt.

97After the 10 January, some of them decided to join the struggle. The protestors carried out night raids to hassle the police while others, such as Sami, circulated videos of the clashes on social media sharing websites. On the 13 January, in the evening, the boys got together, braved the curfew, and took it upon themselves to attack the police station. Sami coordinated the operation. Using his local acquaintances, he contacted friends, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. The relationships, knowledge and practical experiences that these young football supporters had collected were now mobilised. Particularly useful was their taste for confrontation with the police, and their lack of fear in doing so, as well as their mastery of a certain skill in violence. Together with other gangs from other neighbourhoods, after a relentless battle that lasted three hours, returning gunfire with stones, they succeeded in emptying the central police station of its occupants.

98From the very next morning their reputation had been transformed, and, accordingly, so too the manner in which they behaved towards the adults, parents, neighbours and shopkeepers of the neighbourhood. From “layabouts” they had become “real men”, from “thugs” they had turned into “revolutionaries”. [68] Later, they organised themselves into local neighbourhood watch committees, organised the trash collection and spent the night protecting the security of local inhabitants.

Concluding remarks: “Nothing will ever be the same again”?

99The change in perception which operated over the month of January 2011 was radical. A significant portion of the Tunisian population perceived the violent acts of the police as entirely disproportionate, as exceeding the limits of what was reasonable, and thus as the signs of a regime teetering on the edge. Likewise, the experience of the disjuncture between the “lived” reality and the very different mediatised version produced through censorship crystallised discontent, and many Tunisians began to countenance the end of Ben Ali. While there were various strategies for gathering information and interpreting the situation, a convergent narrative emerged that pitted “them” (al-Sulta, i.e., the regime, the police, the Trabelsi clique) against “us,” the “people of Tunisia”.

100Beyond the unanimity characteristic of revolutionary moments, this article has also revealed the fluctuations in reasons for action, and ways of acting, that occur when different social groups radicalise. Furthermore, it has underscored the diversity in the different trajectories that led individuals and groups to join in the protest, with their very different skills, resources, representations and justifications. By insisting on this variety of trajectories we avoid treating these engaged actors, with their differing experiences and profiles, as “those that history passed by”. [69] Of course, from an; a posteriori position, the temptation to ignore such small-scale engagement in favour of “big history” – that of the “big men” [70] and of the victors – is great. However, it would appear that, on the contrary, understanding the popular uprising in Tunisia depends, here as elsewhere, on the meticulous analysis of the relationships governing a social world that is often heavily shrouded or imperceptible.

101This analytical approach also enables the researcher to bypass another limit; namely, that which involves reducing the revolutionary process to a “revolutionary mobilisation”, ignoring the multidimensionality of the latter. Through the microsociological study carried out here, I have been able to illustrate that socioprofessional position, conditions of social mobility, social interaction at the neighbourhood- and family-level, the (inter)play [71] between generations, the memories of past protests, and/or the experience of police repression all constitute, to a much greater extent than membership of any kind of opposition or civil society group, the mainsprings of engagement in the “Revolution”. The multidimensionality of the revolutionary process is also apparent in the varying importance of several factors when considered over the long-term, for instance: the succession crisis in relation to the head of the state, at a time when rumours were circulating concerning the family of the president’s wife; the increasing numbers of collective protest actions between 2008 and 2010 in Tunisia’s “interior”; as well as in episodes that took place during the “political crisis” stricto sensu, such as the break in the security command structure, the political switch of the General Union, and the circulation of images of police brutality.

102“Never again will things be as they were before.” This phrase, expressed joyously by the majority of those whom I interviewed in January of 2011 just after the flight of Ben Ali, summarises rather well the actors’ perception of the irreversibility of the extraordinary series of events through which they had lived. However, behind this consensus, we find yet again an underlying diversity of situations, of differing social relations and imaginaries that resurface once the effervescence of the “revolutionary moment” of January-February has dissipated. The return to “normalcy” implies for some people a ceasing of the protest, and for others, an even stronger form of political radicalisation. Once out of the tempo of the revolutionary moment, each person would appear to have reincorporated their own original rhythm, albeit in a political situation that is changing fast, and whose magnitude we will only be able to measure by taking a long historical view of the Tunisian revolutionary process. Thus, while Yosra puts her portrait of Ben Ali in her bedroom rather than in her lounge and, disgusted, swears that she will never protest again, the young rebels of Hammam-Lif disengage: they no longer occupy the public space, and did not participate in the electoral campaign of October 2011, nor in the election itself. Ziad, involved in increasingly gruelling protest actions in the mining region, asserts that, for his part, he will be the “the next one to immolate himself if we don’t get any work soon”.


  • [1]
    Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, translated by Isabel F. Hapgood (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1887).
  • [2]
    Tunisia hadn’t seen such widespread movements since 1984. See Mouldi Lahmar and Abdelkader Zghal, “‘La révolte du pain’ et la crise du modèle du parti unique”, in Mahmoud Ben Romdhane (ed.), Tunisie: mouvements sociaux et modernité (Dakar: Codesria, 1997), 151-92; Olfa Lamloum, “Janvier 84 en Tunisie ou le symbole d’une transition”, in Didier Le Saout and Marguerite Rollinde (eds), Émeutes et mouvements sociaux au Maghreb (Paris: Karthala, 1999), 231-42.
  • [3]
    The hegemony of the president’s party had endured since 1959. The Tunisian model of the single party, which became the Democratic Constitutional Assembly (Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique – RCD) in 1988 under Ben Ali, did not tolerate any form of competition, despite the installation of a sham multiparty system in 1981. Every single legislative, municipal or presidential election gave the RCD a hegemonic share of the vote. In this context, the party constituted a de facto administration, with its members responsible for mediating access to all types of “public service”.
  • [4]
    In this respect, the slogan “Ben Ali dégage!” [Ben Ali, out!] can be misleading. Although it may indeed be the case that Ben Ali did “get out”, things could have turned out very differently. Furthermore, his departure is not solely attributable to the movements against him.
  • [5]
    For an analysis, see Sadri Khiari, Tunisie, le délitement de la cité. Coercition, consentement, résistance (Paris: Karthala, 2003). Online
  • [6]
    For an analysis of the “18 October 2005 Collective”, its beginnings and its “failure”, see Vincent Geisser and Éric Gobe, “Le régime Ben Ali face aux mobilisations protestataires”, in L’Année du Maghreb 2005-2006 (Paris: CNRS, 2007), 367-74; and “La question de ‘l’authenticité tunisienne’: valeur refuge d’un régime à bout de souffle?”, L’Année du Maghreb 2007 (Paris: CNRS, 2009), 371-408.
  • [7]
    On the relative impact of “social media”, see Romain Lecomte, “Au-delà du mythe de la ‘Révolution 2.0’. Le rôle des ‘médias sociaux’ dans la révolte tunisienne”, in Amin Allal, Thomas Pierret (eds), Devenir révolutionnaires. Au cœur des révoltes arabes (Paris: Armand Colin, 2013), ch. 6.
  • [8]
    For the last 55 years in Tunisia, dissenting voices or options that offered an alternative to the hegemonic party have dwindled. Opposition from civil society organisations or partisan actors was only able to exist in small clusters, with a very restrained social base. The Central Labour Body [Centrale syndicale] was domesticated and turned into a clientelist body, and the demands of its most outspoken members censored. The Islamist movement, decimated by repression, was entirely absent from the domestic political scene: cf. Michel Camau & Vincent Geisser, Le syndrome autoritaire. Politique en Tunisie de Bourguiba à Ben Ali (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2003).
  • [9]
    Michel Dobry, Sociologie des crises politiques, La dynamique des mobilisations multisectorielles (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 3rd edn, 2009).
  • [10]
    Michaël Béchir Ayari, “La ‘Révolution tunisienne’, une émeute politique qui a réussi?”, in A. Allal & T. Pierret
    (eds), Devenir révolutionnaires. Au cœur des révoltes arabes, ch. 9.
  • [11]
    The adjective “revolutionary” (thawri), is used here in the sense in which is currently common in Tunisia, without entering into a normative debate over whether or not the nature of the events was “revolutionary”, and without presupposing the outcome of these major political changes. This does not relieve us of the task of analysing this new common meaning, and the multiple struggles over definition and classification behind the “revolution” label, as the historian Kmar Bendana has done in “Vous avez dit Révolution?”, paper at the ISHM, Tunis, 14 January 2012.
  • [12]
    For an analysis of the political economy of hustling [la débrouille] in Tunisia, see: Hamza Meddeb, “L’ambivalence de la ‘course à el khobza’. Obéir et se révolter en Tunisie”, Politique africaine, 121, 2011, 35-51.
  • [13]
    Desectoralisation evidently has its limits: at no moment did the bosses denounce the regime. What’s more, they had always been quite comfortable with the Ben Ali family. Cf. Béatrice Hibou, “Nous ne prendrons jamais le maquis. Entrepreneurs et politique en Tunisie”, Politix, 84, 2008, 115-41.
  • [14]
    The UGTT, for a long time the only federalised union and under the control of the regime, had called for a general strike – initially at regional level – as early as 12 January, in Sfax, before calling for a nation-wide strike on the 14 January 2011. The Union thus contributed to the mass movements of the final day before Ben Ali’s flight from the country. Cf. Amin Allal, Vincent Geisser, “Tunisie: ‘Révolution de jasmin’ ou Intifada?”, Mouvements, 66, 2011, 62-8.
  • [15]
    From the month of February 2011 onwards, protest movements were progressively marginalised. This doesn’t mean, however, that they were diminished, because the number of protestors remained significant. This marginalisation took place following the repression of the 25 February rally on the Government square (El Kasbah 2). The nomination of the Prime Minister Béji Caïd Essebsi (a former minister of Bourguiba) was to “fit the revolution into the state framework”: see Sadri Khiari, “Tunisie: Révolution, contre-révolution et transition démocratique”, Revue marocaine des sciences politiques et sociales, forthcoming.
  • [16]
    Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, Olivier Fillieule, “Exit, voice, loyalty et bien d’autres choses encore…”, in Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, Olivier Fillieule (eds), Résistances et protestations dans les sociétés musulmanes (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2003), 43-126.
  • [17]
    The data used herein is taken from several sources: fieldwork carried out since 2006 for a doctoral thesis on the Gafsa region (before, during, and after the 2008 protests in the mining area); in addition to investigations conducted in the city of Hammam-Lif, a working-class suburb in the south of Tunis, and in the capital during the month of January 2011. These three inquiries constitute more than 100 interviews, and direct observations document the daily relationship to the “political” (public policies, relations to the authorities, local officials and to the administration), but also the protest dynamics, and finally the “critical” actions in January in the wider Tunis area: insurrections, contestations, and so on.
  • [18]
    Béatrice Hibou, “Tunisie: le coût d’un miracle économique”, Critique internationale, 4, Summer 1999, 48-56.
  • [19]
    CPG [la Compagnie des phosphates de Gafsa] is a publicly owned company in the sector of phosphate processing.
  • [20]
    For more on the subject, see Amin Allal, “Réformes néolibérales, clientélismes et protestations en situation autoritaire. Les mouvements contestataires dans le bassin minier de Gafsa en Tunisie (2008)”, Politique africaine, 117, March 2010, 107-26. Online
  • [21]
    Personal observations and interviews conducted in the mining region in Redeyef, Métlaoui, Oum El Araies and Mdhila (January-June 2008).
  • [22]
    Personal interview, January 2008.
  • [23]
    Personal interview, February 2008.
  • [24]
    Translator’s note: in French, the word déclassement signifies a downgrading of one’s socio-economic class position, from the middle- to the working-class, for example. The term refers to the label employed by the protestors as they sought to put their grievances into words.
  • [25]
    Personal observations, January, February 2008.
  • [26]
    Negotiation talks with small groups of protestors were organised. For example, the “Widows of Oum El Araïes”, comprising wives of workers of the CPG who had died following workplace accidents, had set up tents and demanded that their children be hired. They removed the camp in February following promises to that effect by the authorities.
  • [27]
    H. Meddeb, “L’ambivalence de la ‘course à el khobza’…”.
  • [28]
    See the article by Choukri Hmed in this same issue.
  • [29]
    Frédéric Vairel, Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle, “S’engager en situation de contraintes”, Genèses, 77, 2009, Online
  • [30]
    M. Bennani-Chraïbi, O. Fillieule, “Exit, voice, loyalty…”.
  • [31]
    Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies. The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
  • [32]
    During the Kram Congress in July of 2008, on the twentieth anniversary of the party as the RCD, the party leaders announced a total of 2.2 million members out of ten million Tunisian citizens.
  • [33]
    In total, we met for five interviews between March of 2007 and February of 2011. For each excerpt, the precise date of the interview is specified.
  • [34]
    Interview, April 2008.
  • [35]
    Interview, April 2008.
  • [36]
    Interview, March 2007.
  • [37]
    Observations made starting in March 2007, on the train from Hammam-Lif to Tunis.
  • [38]
    On a side note, this connection was acquired at a subsidised rate thanks to a consumer credit programme run by the RCD officials at the local level.
  • [39]
    Interview, May 2008.
  • [40]
    Interview, May 2008.
  • [41]
    Interview, 10 January 2011.
  • [42]
    Interview, 18 January 2011.
  • [43]
    In situ observations.
  • [44]
    On the politicisation of lawyers, see Michaël Béchir Ayari, Éric Gobe, “Les avocats dans la Tunisie de Ben Ali: une profession politisée”, in L’Année du Maghreb 2007 (Paris: CNRS, 2009). 105-32; Éric Gobe, “Les avocats, un corps professionnel au cœur de la ‘révolution’ tunisienne?”, in A. Allal, T. Pierret (eds), Devenir révolutionnaires. Au cœur des révoltes arabes, box 11.
  • [45]
    Personal interview with a police officer in Gafsa, June 2006.
  • [46]
    Cf. Béatrice Hibou, La force de l’obéissance. Économie politique de la répression en Tunisie (Paris: La Découverte, 2006).
  • [47]
    Interview, February 2011.
  • [48]
    Interview, February 2011.
  • [49]
    Telephone interview, 12 January 2011.
  • [50]
    Larbi Chouikha, Vincent Geisser, “La fin d’un tabou: enjeux autour de la succession du président et dégradation du climat social”, L’Année du Maghreb 2010 (Paris: CNRS, 2010), 381-420.
  • [51]
    Cf. M. B. Ayari, “La ‘Révolution tunisienne’, une émeute politique qui a réussi?”.
  • [52]
    As many specialists have pointed out, space is an important dimension of collective protest action: see in particular Javier Auyero, “L’espace des luttes. Topographie des mobilisations collectives”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 160, 2005, 122-32; Deborah Martin, Byron Miller, “Space and contentious politics”, Mobilization, 8(2), 2003, 143-56; William H. Sewell, “Space in contentious politics”, in Ronald R. Aminzade, Jack A. Goldstone, Doug McAdam, Elizabeth J. Perry, William H. Sewell Jr., Sidney Tarrow, Charles Tilly, Silence and Voice in the Study of Contentious Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 51-89; Charles Tilly, “Contention over space and place”, Mobilization, 8(2), 2003, 221-6. Notwithstanding such research, few studies have yet to deepen the analysis by way of an ethnographic study of how effects of place (the way in which places are used and appropriated) impact upon dynamics of contestation. This has most notably been done by Asef Bayat, Street Politics. Poor People’s Movements in Iran (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); and 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.
  • [53]
    I first met them during my first fieldwork exercises in 2006, and subsequently carried out a series of interviews and observations with them until March of 2011.
  • [54]
    Humour has rarely been taken seriously by the social sciences in Tunisia, excepting one short text: Vincent Geisser, “Les blagues populaires comme symptôme social du discrédit du régime de Ben Ali”, Forum Nokta, October 2001.
  • [55]
    This is a reference to a shared memory of struggle. The region produced a great number of the combatants during the struggle for independence, but also during the unionist struggles and the revolts near the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. See A. Allal, “Réformes néolibérales, clientélismes et protestations en situation autoritaire…”, 119.
  • [56]
    Interview, March 2008.
  • [57]
    Interview, 24 January 2011.
  • [58]
    For a summary, see Daniel Céfai, “Micropublics: les espaces libres”, Pourquoi se mobilise-t-on? Les théories de l’action collective (Paris: La Découverte/MAUSS, 2007), 646ff.
  • [59]
    They were neighbours of my family. I first met three of them as friends of a cousin. My curiosity subsequently became “sociological” in nature, and I increased the number of meetings and interviews with them between June 2006 and November 2011.
  • [60]
    Born after 1987 and the “surgical” coup d’État, they had only ever known one president, Ben Ali.
  • [61]
    Interview, 2006.
  • [62]
    Interview, June 2006. Translator’s note: supplice de bouteille, “bottle torture”, is a form of torture reportedly practised under Ben Ali’s regime, in which a bottle is inserted into the anus of the victim.
  • [63]
    He is here jokingly referring to a spot on the beach at Hammam-Lif whence boats would leave towards Italy.
  • [64]
    Still unknown to the mainstream, the Sfax-born rapper Hamada Ben Amor, aka Al Général, is his influence. At the time his music circulated only on the black market. This rapper was one of the few to directly call out “the General” Ben Ali, in a song that led to his arrest and imprisonment within the Interior Ministry in Tunis at the beginning of January 2011.
  • [65]
    Interview, June 2006.
  • [66]
    Pascal Menoret has analysed these phenomena in Riad, such as the “tafhit”, young people’s wild acrobatics in cars, also known as “drifting”, punctuated by screaming skids and by scuffles with the impotent police forces. See: “Development, planning and urban unrest in Saudi Arabia”, The Muslim World, 101(2), 2011, 269-85.
  • [67]
    Telephone interviews, 27 December 2010.
  • [68]
    For further details, see Amin Allal: “‘Avant on tenait le mur, maintenant on tient le quartier!’ Germes d’un passage au politique de jeunes hommes de quartiers populaires lors du moment révolutionnaire à Tunis”, Politique africaine, 121, March 2011, 53-68.
  • [69]
    Brigitte Gaïti, “Les ratés de l’histoire. Une manifestation sans suites: le 17 octobre 1961 à Paris”, Sociétés contemporaines, 20(20), 1994, 11-37.Online
  • [70]
    In the case of Tunisia, we have an illustration of this perspective in the discourse celebrating the role of the Chief of Staff of the Army who refused to fire upon the crowd, but also in the discourse ascribing strong influence to the U.S. army.
  • [71]
    Translator’s note: (en)jeux, a portmanteau term combining “issues” and “games”.

Despite apparent unanimity among actors, individuals experience the revolutionary moment quite differently. Diverse dynamics of radicalisation operate. In order to understand how a multitude of individuals who were not part of the political opposition per se engaged in collective action, we must avoid the “immaculate contestation” trap. Therefore I focus on 1/ increased engagement in contentious collective actions in “inner Tunisia” since 2008, and 2/ emerging ambivalent counter-behaviours among different social groups that are transformed under certain circumstances into anti-regime protests. Through repeated interviews carried out since 2006, this diachronic study identifies the conditions which triggered these mobilisations: socio-professional situations, neighbourhood and family sociabilities, the interplay between generations, memories of past struggles, and experience of repression. Simultaneously, the ethnographic approach reveals the extent to which political engagement was contingent in an uprising as intense as it was rapid.

Amin Allal
PhD candidate in political science at Sciences Po in Aix-en-Provence (CHERPA), Amin Allal was temporary teaching and research fellow (ATER) at the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis. His publications include: (co-edited with Thomas Pierret) Devenir révolutionnaires. Au cœur des révoltes arabes (Paris: Armand Colin, 2013); (co-authored with Youssef El Chazli) “Figures du déclassement et passage au politique dans les situations révolutionnaires égyptienne et tunisienne”, in Ivan Sainsaulieu, Muriel Surdez (eds), Sens politiques du travail (Paris: Armand Colin, 2012), 321-36; “‘Avant on tenait le mur, maintenant on tient le quartier!’ Germes d’un passage au politique de jeunes hommes de quartiers populaires lors du moment révolutionnaire à Tunis”, Politique africaine, 121, March 2011, 53-68; “Réformes néolibérales, clientélismes et protestations en situation autoritaire. Les mouvements contestataires dans le bassin minier de Gafsa en Tunisie (2008)”, Politique africaine, 117, March 2010, 107-26. His research focuses on the “everyday” relationship to authorities and public policies, in addition to the protests in the impoverished regions of the Tunisian south-west (Sciences Po Aix, Service Recherche, 25, rue Gaston de Saporta, 13625 Aix-en-Provence cedex 1
Translated from French by 
Jasper Cooper
Uploaded on on 03/03/2014
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