Glimpses of the Tunisian revolution: Challenges, transformation and politics

Published on Pambazuka News (first on Giuseppecaruso’s Weblog), by Giuseppe Caruso*, May 4, 2011.

Following on from part one of his article on the Tunisian revolution, Giuseppe Caruso continues his reflections on a recent ‘solidarity caravan’ in the country.


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 … //


‘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 … (full long text).

* … About: … currently a researcher at the Centre of Excellence in Global Governance Research at the University of Helsinki …


World Social Forum 2011 /Algeria: trade union social forum of Maghreb;

corresponding Google-Videos;

Maghreb Social Forum in arabic, mars 4, 2011;

Why Social Forum? Genesis of Maghreb Social Forum, by Kamal LAHBIB, 1. September 2008;

THE MAGHREB SOCIAL FORUM IS BORN, by e-joussour, 21. October 2008.

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