From the September-October 2022 issue of News & Letters
by Eugene Walker
In January 2011, a revolutionary upsurge in Tunisia—for bread, freedom and dignity—threw out the dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, initiating the Arab Spring. Today, however, current Tunisian President Kais Saied has reinstated one-man rule.
Even before the referendum on a new Constitution solidifying his powers—whose overwhelming approval was belied by a huge boycott of the vote—Saied abolished parliament and dismissed the prime minister. Ruling by decree, he has had opponents and critics jailed and tried in military courts. Restrictions were placed on news media and independent institutions such as the judiciary, and election authorities became subject to his direct rule.
What happened to the Arab Spring’s revolutionary aspirations to allow this counter-revolution?
One major turning point occurred six years after the uprising. In 2017 the government granted an amnesty to all the officials of the corrupt authoritarian government that had looted Tunisia before the 2011 uprising. Millions who suffered under the old regime never got justice. “You’re actually pardoning people without trials. Their victims are still around,” noted a woman minister from an early post-revolution government.
But the dissatisfaction with the post-revolution years went deeper. Religion was an important divisive factor. A moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, has been a major player in the governments of the past decade. Tensions have grown between religious and secular Tunisians, particularly with extremist Islamist groups waging counter-revolutionary jihad in other countries.
But perhaps most decisive was the fact that capitalism remained intact. Unemployment, poverty, and government instability have characterized much of the last decade.
The government hired tens of thousands of workers, but in the end it lacked the funds to pay them, borrowing millions, putting the country in deep debt and causing a devaluation of the currency.
Democracy is hollow when the economic-political-social system remains ensnared within capitalism, whether in neoliberal or in mixed state/private forms. Arab Spring in a new, deeper form will surely be on the horizon again.