Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Part two

Following on from


Some suggested that the youth in Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid are less politically wise than the youth in Tunis. Some suggested that decades of marginalisation from the rest of the country and economic and political privileges in the capital have generated profound social and human imbalances. One consequence of these imbalances, it is alleged by some of our Tunisian interlocutors, is that the youth in the most deprived areas are easier to manipulate and subject to launch themselves in unrealistic and unsophisticated political actions, like the hunger strike demanding immediate jobs to all unemployed the chances of success of which are nil beyond the actual will of local and national authorities. Others observed that the revolution has to avoid reproducing among allies the marginalisation and the elitism of wider society in order to avoid creating an unbridgeable gap between activists on the basis of alleged political and cultural sophistication defined in exclusive terms.

These reflections raised a related issue, the relative poignancy of the analytical category of ‘the youth’. This category while highlighting the existential ordeals encountered by an entire generation in establishing themselves as active and productive members of a society, in constructing a family and, eventually, contributing to the reproduction of their society, it also obliterates multiple social and individual differences. Age is not enough to understand the dynamics at play in Tunisia. Regional and class imbalances, play a crucial role along social and political capital, culture, ideology, religious convictions and practices, gender and others yet. While the youth in Kasserine stressed repeatedly they did not want to be implicated in political battles played on their behalf by people who they did not trust, in Tunis a member of the student union said instead that they were struggling to ignite a ‘deep social transition’ aimed at ushering ‘a world devoid of capitalism and classism’. He added ‘we revolted against an economic pattern because we want Tunisia for all Tunisians’. It was not all, he saw many Western activists in his audience and he implicitly sent a message across to those who are anxious about the prevalence of religion in the new Tunisian society: ‘as far as religious ideologies are concerned, we say that we won against Ben Ali and we shall win against all dictatorships and totalitarianisms’.

There is also one further issue to consider along with cleavages, tensions and other differences as they are perceived in among the Tunisian youth. The context of the communication plays a crucial role in formulating the code of the exchange between local activists and travellers. In the square we spoke with some of the local youth. In Tunis a broader audience and a more formal event elicited a more self-conscious performance and defined the agenda of the speaker. While this observation is so obvious to be almost banal, it has large repercussions on the way a visitor is exposed to nuances and complexities of a huge transformative process involving an entire society. On the cultural politics of representation I will say a few more words in the post scriptum to this text. While the range of demands, discourses and ideological frames is so broad and differentiated so too are the political and pragmatic approaches to action for change.


The debates on practices of change revolve around several alternative or articulated approaches including transitional justice, workers struggles, revolutionary democratic fronts, insurgent practices, civil disobedience, representative politics.

A member of the student union in Tunis regarding practices of change commented that as union ‘we distinguish political work from union work.’ Further, he said ‘We want to have a political party for the working class’, it would be one of the 51 registered political parties in Tunisia. Such blossoming of political parties witnesses the renewed hope of Tunisians in representative politics and the great differentiation that followed the victory against Ben Ali. A women’s rights and union activist commented that the best way to pursue a democratic and energetic struggle is to ‘create a progressive democratic front to avoid the return of despotism and defend mutual respect and the principles of the revolution.’ In the spirit of connecting the Tunisian struggle with that of people from other regions a UGTT delegation will travel to Brazil to explore ways to form a party like the PT (Worker’s Party). And the representative of the Brazilian CUT reflected on how useful it could be to share the Brazilian experiences in solidarity economy, cooperative, family farming and small business with the local activists.

While the confidence in the democratic system is widespread, some activists highlight how democratic processes need to rest on strong foundations in order to be successful. The presence of many elements of the former regime, at the level of the districts, regions and indeed in ministries, professional and even sport organisations calls for a continued vigilance. A rather more insurgent strategy of change is articulated by some in the left and among the youth and, some suggest, also among religious activists.

The role of women in developing, articulating and practising methodologies of change has been greatly influential in the revolution. An activist in Tunis expressed in the following way her take on change and practices of transformation ‘we are for the internationalisation of the revolutions to fight against savage capitalism’. Another woman suggested transitional justice, and another still suggested a combination of long term healing processes with constitutional developments and representative politics. The crucial role of women has been recently acknowledged by the Supreme Council for the Defence of the Revolution which has adopted, on the 11th of April, a law on the election of the constituent assembly whose article 16 established the principle of gender parity in all lists that will be presented for these elections. The importance of this achievement can’t be overstated. As all women’s associations noted, it is a unique opportunity for Tunisia and sets an inspiring example for the entire region.

Some, mentioning the experiences of transition in Spain, Portugal, Chile and East Europe suggest transitional justice as a longer, more complex and more sophisticated way to deal with prolonged injustice under an authoritarian regime that used abuse, intimidation, harassment, torture and corruption to define relationship of power and distribution of resources. While drafting this report I follow a streaming from Tunis of the International Conference on Transitional Justice attended by some of the people we met in Tunisia. Justice and dignity, democracy and accountability, while resonating of profoundly human components are treated as processes whose length and developments are slow, hardly predictable and involve a wealth of actors whose influence exceeds often the national and the regional boundaries. In the elegant conference hall where practitioners, academics, civil society activists met, welcomed by the education minister of the current caretaker government, mention is made repeatedly to the epochal changes sparked by the Tunisian Revolution and to the difficult tasks ahead. Whereas the dictator has fled, justice has yet to be apportioned, institutions need to be developed and democracy and equality are far from being achieved.


‘Nothing has changed, here they are all the same as before, thieves and corrupt’
(Youth activist in Kasserine)

The multiplicity of demands, actors and practices is perceived by some as political and strategic fragmentation and a potentially damning weakness. Whereas they achieved a quick and resounding success, the revolutionary forces are now facing a long process of transition full of ordeals and challenges. Such challenges come from the international sphere, from the national context or are indeed internal to the revolutionary front.

According to some activists, the international agents and institutions of capitalism and imperialism are trying to destroy the Tunisian revolution and set back the advances it has inspired in Tunisia and in the whole MENA region. Moreover, news have been circulated that intelligence services are entering the country to stop the revolution as a trade union member warned the audience in Tunis. The dictatorships of North Africa were widely supported by Western governments who found in those strong men reliable allies and a convincing weapon against the spread of the much feared Islamist movement. But the fear of Islamic radicalism has an internal dimension in Tunisia.

Islamism’s growing influence and assertiveness not only concerns Western commentators and governments, it does also concern Tunisians who are concerned about the risk of currently minor forces stealing the revolution. As a human rights activist told me: ‘I can understand why Western people keep asking about the risk of Islamization: I live with them and I’m scared by them. I can only imagine how scared people must be who do not know how this people think and act’. A leader of the UGTT remarked, at the meeting in Tunis, that ‘Tunisia is no Pakistan and in no way will it become like Iran. We have a tradition of living in democracy and we know that mosques are places of worship not politics. We are secular and we believe in the rule of law.’

But Islamism is not the only challenge faced by the Tunisian Intifada. As many activists mentioned, though the dictator has be chased away it is necessary to transform the dictatorship. The people who represented Ben Ali’s power in society are still in their positions as governors, judges, university deans and rectors, even as union leaders. Those networks of power are still not only firmly in control of their positions but closely connected and resisting the changes ushered by the institutionalisation of the revolutionary efforts. They work in the dark, plot, resist and they could launch a full-fledged counter-revolution.

There are also internal challenges to the revolutionary movement. There exist tensions between those who want to go back to normality and those who want to fight for a full victory of the revolution and the achievement of a larger set of victories. Their opponents suggest instead that the time has come to revert to representative politics through free and fair elections and the work of the constituent assembly. There seem to be several differentiations developing between the once united activists. Now that the main enemy has been defeated, differences have space to flourish. Ideological, political, identity, class, etc. are developing at times in tension with each other and while many consider this a wealth of creativity to be fostered others consider such fragmentation a challenge to the same survival of the revolution as it exposes it to the return of powerful counter-revolutionaries.


‘This event, I believe, will change the world like WWII, it will lead to
all sorts of institutional changes that will change the world.’
(Women’s rights and trade union activist)

What do recursive dynamics between demands, political practices, actors, resources and challenges suggest about the visions and the emerging paradigms of development towards a better world emerging in Tunisia? This question sparked engaging conversations among the members of the solidarity caravan and between us and the Tunisian activists we met or travelled with. This question raises issues of global solidarity, development and political models and sets the ground for the cooperation between activists from the four corners of the planet. The joint Secretary General of the UGTT, told us in Tunis about the vision and values of the UGTT: ‘UGTT’s cultural tradition is European and socialist which we influence with new blood.’ He further said that to achieve the international goals of Tunisian workers it is important to establish stronger ties with the international union movement and with unions in South America, South Africa and elsewhere in the global South.

Just as coherent is the vision of human rights activists of a global democracy governed by human rights and the rule of law. Development for both strands of activist revolves around some version of sustainable growth. Values of cooperation and autonomy underpin the relationship between international partners. Cultural and religious specificities need to be inbuilt in the local instantiations of development aspirations and institutional configurations and all need to be tied to the broader fabric of economic globalisation and global governance. Some of these debates resonate with wider global debates and contribute to their deepening and broadening while linking them to local practices and to the demands and practices of the revolutionary youth. How this broadening and deepening will be influenced by the Tunisian contribution and will influence in turn the vision of the Tunisian transition is too early to see.

At the same time younger activists than the seasoned unionists and human rights activists are developing visions of better futures and are learning politics the hard way after decades of silencing, terror, repression, fear and hopelessness. They submit their demands to mistrusted government institutions, they understand their failure in generating economic development and political accountability, they scale up, down, sideways their demands and their strategies, they win and lose and they go back to the drawing board. They discuss, deliberate and try again. Messy as such trial and error is, complex as the shifting allegiances and alliances, chaotic as the multiplication of strategies, ideologies, ideas, visions, desires, aspirations, this is what democracy looks like and this process promises the most inspiring outcomes.

While listening to the praises many articulate of Bourguiba’s policies on education, one had the impression that Tunisian learning achievements are now entering a new phase outside of the classrooms of indoctrination and pedantic learning of useless ‘knowledge’, as doubtlessly illustrated by the high unemployment rate of graduates, and into the streets of relations and struggles, negotiations, differences, mediations. Knowledge, politics, culture, religion, dignity and aspirations, eventually met in the streets, emancipated by schools like jail, freed of the hopelessness of trust in something that is handed by a gracious government and empowered by success and failure, by action and thought, by deliberation and struggle, by trial and error by knowledge as it is, messy, dirty and bloody at times, rather than the sanitized and delusional knowledge imparted by any (more or less) tyrannical regime.

In these diverse and complex senses, the revolutions in the MENA region may inspire new articulations between culture and religion, society, economy and politics. Such articulations are context specific and neither necessary nor inherent. Unique contributions to the global recipe are given by the Arab Spring as they are given by India, Indonesia, Brazil and the other democracies whose understanding and experience of the relationship between religion, economy and politics is unique rather than dictated by the ideological equation between secularism, liberal economy and democracy, outcome of a unique history that has not been, is not and will not be reproduced anywhere else in the world (pace stagist ideologists).


Such an understanding of collaborative learning and building of shared visions across national boundaries, calls for solidarity on the basis of a multiplicity of articulations of democracy rather that a support to an uncritical reproduction of a reified (though eminently colonial) model of democracy which is not based on true recognition, does not support autonomy and self-determination (of individuals and communities) and eventually creates dependence and breeds resentment.

This solidarity caravan and the meeting of the Maghreb Social Forum taking place in Tunisia from the 19th to the 23rd of April contributed to building the political argument for a regional social forum in Tunisia towards the end of the year to commemorate the first anniversary of the revolution and perhaps a World Social Forum in Tunisia or somewhere in the region. Our group expressed to the people we met our interest in linking their struggles with our work around the world and in particular through the work in and of the WSF. We might have used more time to discuss with the activists we met what they thought about the idea of a Forum in Tunisia, about the idea of forum, and about transnational activism. Those and so many other topics are left for the next visit to Tunisia.


Whereas above I mentioned some of the limitations of international media’s representation of the struggle for recognition, dignity, freedom, jobs, democracy and development by the people of the MENA region, the notes that follow sketchily record the ‘being there’ of the political traveller and its influence on the representation of encounters and contexts in reports such as this one.

The objective of the caravan as I mentioned above was twofold. On the one hand it aimed at representing and conveying the solidarity of the activists of the International Council of the World Social Forum and, on the other, to look, listen, record and report images and stories of the revolution and the transition that Tunisian people were undergoing. Both goals were fulfilled in haste; hugs and handshakes exchanged briefly; stories told quickly. The non-said, the non-communicated was the greatest part. Allusions and projections constituted the deepest content of the exchanges.

Urgency travelled with the caravan and at each stop defined the spaces it settled in. Avid picture taking and video shooting, anxious interview recording of witnesses’ accounts, and all around the pain of victims and parents, relatives and friends that surpassed by many orders of magnitude what many of us thought they could express or hope to capture in our pictures, videos and audio recordings. The inevitable superficiality of much of the communication with the dozens of people we met and heard from came with a related limitation, reduced reciprocity. Both partners had to explain a lot to each other and spoke fast. We had to say who we were, what the WSF was, what our individual organisations did and stood for and why we were there. They had to tell us about the revolution, the hopes, the frustrations, the pain, the anguish, the rage, the visions, the dreams, the practices. There were moments nonetheless of deep engagements, but were inevitably exceptions. During the long drives across the country members of the caravans mentioned the deep connections they felt with that particular person, through those quickly exchanged lines, through just a hug or through the touch of the hands of a bereaved mother that cleaned tears from the face of one of us.

In Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid we listened to a mother crying, to a mutilated young man, to a beaten up boy, to the sister of a heroic brother, she cried, she could not stop. We heard the story of the father of a killed teenager, and of the father of a 16 year old victim, a martyr. The voice of a guy with a broken foot resonated long after we left the room: ‘We gave everything, our blood, our life’. We discussed at length among ourselves our feelings, the impact of those stories and of the pictures of the dead bodies, of the portraits, of the unaware smiles that could not foretell the future. A member of our group, an Italian woman, told me ‘at least we women know how to express what we feel, we cry. Poor you.’ I made a note to self on my diary. Later I asked another woman that I saw crying in that room in Kasserine what she felt, how she found in herself the answer to what she saw, what was she telling herself while she looked at the rolling landscape outside the window. She told me ‘I hate what I saw and I hate how we behaved with our picture taking and all the rest.’ Later, we thought of a zoo and the recursive relationship between anxious display and ravenous voyeurism. I engaged in several such conversations in the following days and I confirmed that many of us tried to make sense of their feelings and their impressions while asking themselves and to each other how to tell the stories they heard and the images they saw without blinding them with their own feelings but without denying a healthy amount of reflexivity.

There exist troubling implications regarding the ethics of such encounters that are perhaps too numerous and an incomplete list might be all there is space here. Political tourism raises contentious issues about the relationship between the visitors and the hosts and the representation of those relationships. There are also wider issues of context that escape the fleeting relationship to which political tourists are exposed. While heartfelt feelings about the issues addressed are here out of the question, the knowledge of the conflicts at stake might be both limited and oversimplified in symbolic codes that are not more than projections of the foreign observer which are then reproduced in a solipsistic space that while pretending dialogue, indeed reproduces a monologue of images that are selected on the basis of specific interests and emotional sensibilities fully rooted in the eyes of the beholder. Intense communications as many of us described those they established with Tunisian activists might not be a full replacement of long and engaged relationships that might engage and transform be transformative of the simplified symbolic codes and those projections that too often inform short activists’ encounters as the solidarity caravan in Tunisia. Consider also that many of us regularly repeated how little they knew about Tunisia, how ignorant they were of Islam and of the cultural and social dynamics of the region we were visiting, how limited their knowledge was of the pre-colonial, colonial, independence and post colonial histories of Tunisia.

The performative set in which the panels of testimonies took place, in large meeting halls (two of them had stages and in one case the panel took place ‘on stage’), as in the headquarters of the UGTT where activists, generated further ambiguities and potential misunderstandings (the extent of which we might all be ignorant as we did not have the chance to exchange each others’ perception of ‘the other’). Indeed, wherever we travelled, victims, family members and friends gathered to provide the visitors with a narrative of the revolution and such performances involved multiple projections, not only those by the visitors’ about who the hosts were but also those of the hosts about who the visitors were and what their expectations were.

I asked a woman, part of our group ‘why are we doing this if it challenges so many of our basic understandings of the ethics of mutually transformative human relationships and activism?’ She replied that ‘this [the activists’, victims’ and parents’ performance in the UGTT headquarters in Kasserine"> responds to our own projections and desires about changing the world’. She later added ‘there is too much projection and very little listening’ in the way we interacted with our hosts. In this sense, then, the representations of what we saw and heard (such as this one) might be selective of those aspects that illustrate our ideas on what is necessary to change the world. We may indeed, have even contributed to reinforce the codification of a discourse and its ossification in performances that trap performers away from transformation. Performance of pain and loss to which we cried and reacted in dismay, performances of claims and demands that we applauded, descriptions of causes and effects that we subscribed to and visions that we embraced may have been responded in less than emancipatory ways. Of course, this might well be one further projection in which the assumption is the imbalance of power between ‘us’ and ‘them’ which I think, though, is illustrated if by nothing else by the fact that after the encounters ‘they’ went back to their lives of unemployed or bereaved family members and friends and ‘we’ moved on to our plush hotel and to our drinks by the poolside.

The speed with which we met people, saw contexts, listened to stories and moved on to the next location to start over, might implicate some attitudes and beliefs that are incongruent with stated and implicit values of our caravan. Speed and connectivity indeed might be squarely positioned within neoliberal social and ideological coordinates. Speed and connectivity were the assumptions on which our caravan was constructed, according to which it is possible to report and represent social struggles through portraits and interviews and those may make the struggles resonate the world over via quick circulation over the Internet.

There is also, one further risk deriving from the relative fleetingness of the relationships established in the few days of our permanence in Tunisia and from the relative ignorance of social, cultural and historical specificities of the region we visited. One is the risk of legitimising political discourses that we do not fully understand, let alone agree with, that we reinforce projections and imaginations that people have about us but we have no ways to negotiate. It was not always easy for us to understand the subtle politics between our direct hosts and their counterparts in the different places we visited. It was not possible to always understand how we were introduced and how we were described. It was never possible to know how we were perceived and how our relationship with our direct host and guide were perceived to be.

One further caveat and recognition of the complexities involved in the representation of the revolutionary struggles and the transition that Tunisians are currently undergoing refers to the relationships that we built among members of the caravan, both Tunisians and visitors, only some of whom knew each other previously, and how the long conversations helped crystallise perceptions and thoughts into forms of more or less collectively built representations of what we saw during those days.

Finally, personal, professional, activist and committed relationships among members of the caravan flowed into each other and challenged the boundaries between the different dimensions. This was undoubtedly one of the most inspiring aspects of the solidarity caravan which allowed us to chat for hours on end during the long transfers on the bus. We did, in fact, spend with each other more time than we spent with the activists we met. We compared notes, we told stories, we exchanged emotions, images, aspirations and visions of individual and global transformation. We talked about ourselves as it is only possible in such moments of shared emotional experience, as only long road journeys can inspire. But we also typed, wrote and shot pictures of the stunning views rolling out of the windows. There was a lot of singing too both on the bus and in a hotel in Gafsa. The performance of Marcel Khalife’s Rita and Fairuz’ Bektob Ismak, among many others, was simply unforgettable.


* Part one of this article is available here.
* This article was originally published on Giuseppe Caruso's blog.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.