An Incomplete Revolution: A Conversation with Mohamed Haj Salem Reflecting on the 2011 Uprising in Tunisia

Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, October 2021. Photo by Mohamed Houssem Saidi.

A decade has passed since Tunisians took the streets to demand a radical political change. Their act ushered a period of uprisings that toppled some of the oldest dictatorships in the Middle East. Since 2011, the north African country has been living a transition from dictatorship to democracy. Initially, things worked well in Tunisia as political elites compromised to establish democratic institutions and to draft a new constitution following a popular revolution/uprising that took place between December 2010 and January 2011. Nevertheless, as the years went by, social, economic, and political crises never seized to unfold, showcasing the fragility of Tunisia’s democratic transition. Ambiguity and liminality might best describe the state of political existence in Tunisia today. As a researcher interested in political anthropology, I conduct fieldwork in southern Tunisia, and I try to understand the depth of change brought about by the ‘2011 revolution,’ as it is called locally by Tunisians. My field encounters remind me every time that there is a gap between how on one hand politicians, and even many scholars, think about events such as revolutions and ‘democratic transitions’ in the Middle East, and on the other hand, how these events are imagined and lived by the people on the ground.

In this interview with Tunisian sociologist and anthropologist Mohamed Haj Salem, we together try to unpack what happened in Tunisia in 2011, why it happened, and how can anthropology, history, and sociology help us understand its implications. This interview is thus an attempt towards looking at moments of political change anthropologically, by drawing on themes of revolution, uprising, social movements, the state, and coups.

Mohamed Haj Salem is a Tunisian sociologist-anthropologist and translator. Haj Salem has a PhD in Arabic Language and Civilization, and he holds two master’s degrees in Political Science and Law, and in Sociology. He is a consultant at the London Institute of Economics and Political Science, and he formerly headed the research unit at the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies between 2012–2014. This interview was originally conducted in Arabic. The recordings were transcribed and subsequently translated into English.

Ihsan Mejdi: Political scientists and social anthropologists use very different concepts to refer to the events of 2011 in the Arab world. The former bloc refers to what happened as ‘uprisings,’ highlighting mainly the reformist nature of events that failed to amount to both social and political revolutions (Achcar 2013; Haynes 2013; Lynch 2013; Sadiki 2014). Anthropologists, however, use the concept of ‘revolution’ to talk about the social upheavals that occurred in 2011 and their consequences (Abu-Lughod 2012; Porter 2016, 2017; Armbrust 2019; Cherstich, Holbraad, and Tassi 2020; Pontiggia 2021). Ten years on after the events, how do you understand what happened in Tunisia? Is there an analysis that takes us out of the dichotomy of naming: revolution/uprising?

M. Haj Salem: What happened in Tunisia is nothing more than a qawma (a rising), in the sense of an uprising. It is a social explosion for reasons related to the 2008 economic crisis that impacted the whole world.

However, the intellectual elites, perhaps under the influence of the legacy of the French Revolution, as well as the revolts in the Mashreq (the revolutions in the Eastern part of the Arab world like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, etc.), made them project a revolution of their own in Tunisia. Especially since this uprising culminated in a change at the head of the political system, resulting eventually in a political victory that is often witnessed after an uprising or a major social movement. Thus, it was people who wanted to consider what happened a revolution. But in fact, we do not find any of the elements of a revolution fulfilled in this movement. It seems that it was the aspiration of some political elites and some political parties to consider that what happened in Tunisia was a revolution that established a new political, economic, and social phase.

There is another argument that states that what happened was an uprising. Yet, it was on the horizon of a revolution…the revolution will begin when the uprising, which resulted in the escape of the head of state, is complete. This opinion may be closer to the truth than the rest of the opinions that consider that the revolution took place between December 17 and January 14, and ended with the end of the tyrant. While the latter is indeed the view that has settled and become entrenched in the collective conscience in Tunisia, even the former perception is erroneous. It is better to draw a new horizon that considers what happened as the first step in a path that we must achieve, the path of the so-called revolution. Certainly, there are economic and social implications, and they must be achieved as well. This is called in the revolutionary literature (i.e., particularly the Tunisian revolutionary literature) completing the course of the revolution. Of course, some political elites sought to change the course of the events of 2011, i.e., they prioritized the process of the institutionalization of the revolution at the state level (political revolution) at the expense of the social revolution. And what was then (in 2011) called revolutionary parties, or parties with revolutionary outlook, which came to power, worked for that. Nevertheless, the claims of a revolution differ from those of the state. And what happened was the deviation from the course of the revolution and its claims to that of the state. And thus, the masses were disappointed that the so-called goals of the revolution had not been achieved.

IM: I recall from a previous conversation we had that you described what we live today in Tunisia as ‘a revolutionary movement built on a moment of an uprising.’ This means that what happened in 2011 was an uprising, yet its aftermath brought about a revolutionary movement, i.e., revolutionary demands made by different actors who seek a radical political change and are not satisfied by social and political reforms promised by the political elites since 2011. Could you further elaborate on this description of the political moment in Tunisia?

MHS: That is at least what I want. Of course, it is not a question of personal wishes, but this remains indeed the desire of a broad spectrum of intellectuals in Tunisia. That is to say that the 2011 uprising will be a path or the first brick in a course carved by a social-democratic and pluralistic state. And this indeed is very difficult because we have not yet properly understood the complexities of the social structure in Tunisia. Social reality is more complex than we imagine, and we usually simplify it, especially in the populist discourses that have become prevalent nowadays. These discourses simplify the issue and consider achaa’b (the people) as a homogenous bloc, as if they were not formed from different classes and groups divided by desires, aspirations, and ambitions. Their aspirations also differ from one region to another and from one segment of society to another. Therefore, the word achaa’b is akin to Noah’s Ark. It carries everyone, yet we don’t really know the identity of those who sail on it.

IM: In recent years, you worked on the question of the formation of social movements. For instance, you edited a book on Jihadist Salafism in Tunisia. How do you make sense of the process of formation and disintegration of social movements in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution? And do you think that these movements have clear ideologies and goals?

MHS: When we talk about social movements, we are talking about a clear and visible organization. Yet this does not mean that all social movements in Tunisia have been fully-formed and organized. There are some movements that wanted to have a particular political impact, like the ‘Menich Msemah’ (I will not forgive), or the ‘Fech Testanew’ (What are you waiting for). The naming of such movements, which were related to specific events and demands limited in time and place, referred to a social collective action (taharok) and not a social movement (haraka). There is a difference between collective action—limited in time and place—and a social movement. The latter is formed by masses that believe in the same ideology.

Social movements must also be imbued with a value-ideological system with specific goals for a specific political purpose, and struggle either to change power, change the nature of existing power, or pressure those in power to embrace the vision of the movement. What we see now in Tunisia is social movements in the process of formation, but it seems that the final features of these movements and the ideas/ideologies they adhere to are still not clear. The social movement in Kamour (also called el-Kamour) for instance, or what happened in Jemna (also spelled Djemna), are examples of incomplete acts because of the absence of a theoretical horizon within which the masses operate. These movements have not yet developed and crystalized their projects.

Among Salafists, there are some currents that are not yet formed into a social movement. Instead, these currents are an expression of some social groups with a set and system of ideas. However, they are incapable of positioning themselves openly in the public arena. Such a social movement is somewhat clandestine, its goal is to remain isolated, confined, and active in a narrow arena. On the other hand, social movements which embrace an ideology are movements whose primary goal is to mobilize the masses to bring about change. Thus, with such social movements that operate openly, we do not talk about clandestine or secret formations/movements. The clandestine movements do not amount to being social movements with an ideological horizon, as I defined it at least in some of my writings.

Consider for example the events that we witnessed just last year (2021) in Tunisia following the 25th of July presidential decisions, or the so-called coup. The events of the 25th of July and its supporters who took to the street constitutes a moment of social collective action. A moment with goals limited in time and place. If President Kais Saied had retreated from his endeavor of the so-called coup, the bonds of his supporters would have been loosened. Additionally, the popular base of the president’s supporters is not homogenous. His supporters are diverse and consist of the poor, the middle-income middle class, and the rich. The supporters may have also benefited from funding. Their collective action may also not be devoid of the political ambitions of some parties whose visions are contradictory, as each political party works for specific political ends. Therefore, we cannot classify what happened last July as a social movement. It is a political movement that has no social depth. Indeed, even those currently in charge of this political movement do not differentiate between their purely political goals and the social demands that are happening now in Agareb, for example. So, there is a degree of nuance here between social movements and social collective action. The latter is limited in time and place, whilst the former is entrenched in time and place, has declared goals and political purpose, and depends on mobilization to reach its goals.

IM: We already talked about the revolution/uprising, and the formation of social movements in the context of the social transformations lived in Tunisia since 2011. These transformations are also political. We now see debates taking place about the state in relation to its roles and functions in the economy and social policies. How can we think about the state in the context of the social and political transformations we are living now in Tunisia?

MHS: First, we will try to move away from the normative definition of the state as expressed in western political thought, which considers that the state is one that monopolizes the use of armed forces and exercises its authority over a group of people in a specific territory. The state with such conceptualization does not fit the inherited conceptualization or the legacy of the state in contexts other than the West. In the Arab Islamic heritage, what has been entrenched in our collective conscience is that the state can expand the area of lands it controls with the expansion of the number of people who obey it. For instance, during the period of the Hafsid state, Tunisia’s geographical area was not defined by territory. There were no kilometer points, separators, and barriers on the borders. There were communities, either they obeyed the state and paid the tribute (i.e., taxes), and therefore they became part of it, or they disobeyed it and became outside the state. This was known as the dichotomy of makhzen and siba. The former (makhzen) were communities that obeyed the state and remained loyal to it (makhzen also refers to the state, the central authority, or the government). The latter (siba) refers to groups that disobeyed the state (and were also the periphery). Thus, historically speaking, what was called state in North Africa was territorially expanding and narrowing. The territory of the state expands when it embraces new communities, and it can also be narrowed when communities leave it. Here we face a problem. What state are we talking about today? Of course, most of the political elites in Tunisia seem to forget or ignore this conceptualization of the state, which is deeply rooted in the conscience of the masses and the ordinary people in Tunisia.

IM: To follow up on your last statement ‘what state are we talking about today?’, what are the different state traditions in Tunisia? How was the colonial state, for instance, different from the post-independence state? And how do these traditions inform the ongoing processes of state-making today?

MHS: Let us start with the colonial state that oppressed Tunisians. It was colonial, thus used brute force; it broke social structures through land dispossession and through replacing indigenous farmers by colonialists, and it also used policies of forced displacement leading eventually to repression with the force of arms. Of course, the local communities then were organized and governed by customary laws and traditions. The oppressive nature of the colonial state was later inherited by the post-independence state. Yet, the latter didn’t oppress in the same fashion as the colonial state. It was rather a regulatory state, in the sense that it replaced brusque and crude repression with the so-called regulation. This regulation was threefold. It was social, i.e, the state-regulated the persons through the policy of birth control, displacement, resettlement, and prevention of emigration. Indeed, sometimes the post-independence state forced emigrants to go back to their villages…they would gather them in trucks and send them back to where they came from.

We also find the political regulation through the one-party system (the Destour party which was a Tunisian political party formed to fight against French colonialism). In each town and neighborhood, you would find the local cells of the Destour party tasked with ideological regulation. Those cells won’t allow any competing ideology to roar its headCommunists, Islamists, Nationalists (supporters of Pan-Arabism), and many others were targeted by this political regulation.

Finally, along with the political regulation, there was an ideological regulation that was carried out through the schools and through the media. The schools disciplined and tamed the minds, and through specific programs, media whitewashed the system’s policies, and people were meant to be like sugar cubesall alike and replicas of one another.

IM: Did the regulatory state succeed in its social and political engineering projects?

MHS: This regulatory state in Tunisia was unable to extend its influence over the entire social structure. There were forgotten regions in Tunisia. The internal regions, or the arid regions as opposed to the coastal regions. These are the margins, which were subject more than other parts of the country to the oppression of the state, and they were not disciplined by its regulatory policies. Margins are always what cause change in every structure, even in the structure of natural things. Let us take a very simple example: change in color, or rotting, affects the peel of any orange before it affects its center, its heart. Margins are always moving, and here I mean urban, rural, as well as political marginsfor example, suppressed outcast parties with fifty militants can sometimes make a change that mass parties with hundreds of thousands of members cannot make.

Today, Tunisian elites have yet to discuss the nature of the post-revolutionary state. It was a tribute state which depended on taxation during the reign of the Husaynids (ruling elites in Tunisia between the early eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries), then a repressive colonial state, and then a regulation state. What do we want now? Some call it a democratic state, but have we discussed the requirements of this democracy? What democracy do we want? Do we want a particular democracy? Or a borrowed democracy model? I see that elites in Tunisia borrow models from here and there, they talk about the experiences of the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and South Africa. But we are always unable to create our own democracy that would be compatible with our economic, social, and political reality. Thus, we still have not thoroughly discussed the nature of the state, its functions, and the roles it plays. In my view, the state now has to play new roles unlike those of the past. So the question is, to what extent can the state in Tunisia respond to this? Also, to what extent can the emerging social movements contribute to crystallizing a new vision for these issues relating to the state? As long as these issues persist, we cannot get out of the bottleneck, as it is said...

IM: You talked about the margins and their role in bringing about change. What is the importance of studying margins in the context of Tunisia's social and political transformation?

MHS: The margin is the center of every change. Consider, for example, the model of the Arab-Islamic civilization. It emerged on the margins of major civilizations, on the borders of Byzantium and Persia, and on the margins of the great Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, and Babylonian civilizations. It was born in the desert, in an “uncultivated valley” (as described in the Quran). Look at Europe also, it was on the margins of civilization, and it later constituted a great historical turning point. Change comes not so much from the big centers as from the margins of those centers. Look at what Tunisia has been experiencing since the beginning of the twentieth century. Although history may mention only what occurs in the center at the social, economic, political, and cultural levels, changes in the center at these levels in Tunisia had always roots in the margins.

In Tunisia, the Husaynids ruled for three hundred years and after them, someone from the margins emerged; Habib Bourguiba (founder of the independent Tunisian republic). In the 1930’s, the Destour party, which lead the struggle for independence, enacted a coup against its then-leader Abdelaziz Thâalbi who belonged to the makhzen (center). Again in 2011, following the revolution, we can observe how a balance/division of power between officials from the center and from the margins of Tunisia in holding the highest positions at the state level was visible (president, head of government, head of parliament). When Moncef Marzouki held the position of president, being from the margins (south Tunisia), the two other positions went to Mustapha Ben Jafar (head of parliament) from Tunis, the center, and the head of government was from the Sahel region. Officials from Sahel (central-eastern Tunisia) had ruled for sixty years, so it was unreasonable to exclude them. The Sahel, too, is a center in its own right.

You told me about some cases that you work on in your research; regions like Redeyef and Jemna. In the former, some people benefit from jobs provided by the state without necessarily committing to work. And the second experience is in Jemna, in which the state abandons parts of its economic role, its role as an employer, and its role in interfering with and setting the economic priorities of citizens. It leaves them to manage the economic life by allowing the community to do developmental projects locally by making use of agricultural land revenues. Some may ask the question: why does the state own five hundred hectares of agricultural land? What will the state do with the land? Why does the state own factories? Why doesn’t it give lands to the citizens? These two visions and perceptions of the state are relevant and have profound historical reasons which explain why they both exist in Tunisia.

IM: Lastly, I want to go back to the 25th of July (2021) event in Tunisia when President Kais Saied froze the parliament and started ruling by decrees. One reading says that the President’s decision was a corrective measure in line with the ethos of the 2011 revolution. However many view what happened as a coup that put an end to Tunisia’s democratic transition. In fact, there is also a Gramscian reading which says that now we are living in a period when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” How do you read the President’s July decisions?

MHS: What we witness now is a course-correcting or ending a course that deviated from its path. This is a possible reading of the event. But there is a problem here; change cannot come from the one in power unless this change serves his interest as a political actor. Kais Saied represents the state, he is the presidentfor me, I see the state and the people as always on opposing sides. Indeed, the history of humanity proves that the state's primary task is to control the people and to have its authority inclusive of all aspects of their lives. Thus, Kais Saied’s claim and slogan, “The People Want,” is nothing but an ideological and apologetic statement.

About calling what happened a coup, I wonder here, a coup against what? If it is not a coup d'état against the state, then who or what is the coup against? Is it a coup against an agreement, a covenant, a document, or a social contract? And then we must ask the question: to what extent did the masses contribute to drafting this social contract? In fact, this contract was imposed by a few political parties, and it was imposed by some economic interests as well, and yet we claim that this social contract reflects the will of the people simply because the parliament is elected by the people. And because the president had more than two million votes, as if the election as a process entitles him to speak on behalf of each and every one of us.

In reality, president Kais Saied speaks on behalf of the imagined, he speaks on behalf of a fiction called ‘the people,’ and another fiction ‘the state.’ There is no material existence of the state, there are material manifestations of the state. But as an entity it is a fictional entity, and so is ‘the people.’ Some discourses seek to equate the two fictions: state and people. As if what the state does, reflects the will of the people. Such discourses entail the identification of the state with the people, whilst in reality, none of them exist. However, what really exist are the conflicting interests among the institutions that manage public affairs and the competing groups within ‘the people,’ such as social movements, political parties, unions, associations, media, etc... I believe that thinking about the nature of the state and the people is more useful in analyzing the stakes of the conflict in the Tunisian political scene than thinking with Gramsci about a new that is yet to be born and an old that is not dead. What is the meaning of the new and the old? Wasn’t the old once new? And the new will be old in a year or two.

Generally speaking, what I would like to refer to briefly, at last, is the problem of legalists in Tunisia, those who manage the politics of the country and who claim to understand its affairs. They are mostly legalists (or law experts). Look at the parliament, for example, and the dominant discourse there. It is a formalist barren discourse void of depth. Look also at those who were in power, politicians like Bourguiba or Essebsi, they were all experts in the law. And even Ben Ali was similar to legalistshe came from the military and was used to working with legal clauses, articles, and legal magazines.

IM: Do you mean that the legal mind overshadowed the political mind in Tunisia’s political scene? By the legal mind here I refer to the dominance of lawyers and legal experts in the political arena, as compared to people from other backgrounds, say the political science, sociology, or anthropology.

MHS: Exactly. Moreover, it seems that the legal mind seeks to take over the state. What we lack is the anthropological perspective or the sociological perspective. An approach that is capable of understanding some of the issues we talked about without falling into formalist discoursesas we see now, for example, how political actors publish statements and others respond with other statements, etc. These formalist discourses tend to reduce reality, and reality is always complex. We can think of reality as scattered atoms of incidents and occurrences. What we see presently in Tunisia today is that some want to reduce these many occurrences into one worda coup. Some are against the coup, and others support the coup. Some also say that we lived a black decade in the last ten years because of the Ennahda party (a political party in Tunisia). They reduce everything to Ennahda. As if with the disappearance of the Ennahda from the political scene in Tunisia, everything will change. We sometimes also reduce our problems to France and colonialism, as though if France had not colonized us, we would have been in a very different situation. The reductionist mind is a formalist mind that has greatly and negatively impacted our understanding of the minute details of many issues. Since 2011, we witness scattered incidents happening in different parts of the country, they may be all within the borders of the country, yet each incident has its social reality and truths. Thus, I am against all these reductionist readings of our present political situation. I believe that any politician must have an imagination, a broad social and political imagination.


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