Youth Politics in Tunisia: Comparing Land/Labor, Leftist Movements, and NGO-ized Elites

This is part of POMEPS Studies 36: Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Matt Gordner, University of Toronto[i]

Introduction

Perhaps the most coveted achievement in the eight years following the Tunisian uprisings is the attainment of freedom of speech and assembly. However, not all forms of mobilization and messaging are permitted, or even protected, in Tunisia’s post-Ben Ali public sphere. Tunisians continue to hold the same grievances that cut deepest in 2010-11—primarily calls for social and economic justice: abuses of corruption, lack of employment, and a decent standard of living. With some notable exceptions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been free to operate as watchdogs over the electoral and civil liberties dimensions of Tunisia’s nascent democratic experiment. But recent leftist and land/labor protests directed towards economic and social justice issues have been met with repression. This uneven response to forms of popular mobilization challenges narratives over the attainment of political justice, as the construction of Tunisianité harkens back to the controlled civisme of the past.[1]

Youth politics in Tunisia today can be understood through a differentiation between ‘civil’ society in the form of non-governmental organizations from two ‘contentious’ cadres: ‘land/labor’ protests, on the one hand, such as Weinou el Petrol (‘Where Is The Petrol’), and ‘leftist’ movements, such as Manich Msema7 (‘We Will Not Forgive’)[2] and Fech Nestanaou (‘What Are We Waiting For’), on the other. Membership and participation among these three forms of political participation are often shared, and activities sometimes overlap around common struggles for “Work, Freedom, and National Dignity,” constituting what Manheim labels a distinct ‘generational unit.’[3]  But the divisions among this trifurcation of civil society are significant, particularly in the ways in which geography determines and shapes grievances—as Giulia Cimini also finds in the present volume. Differences in their tactical approaches, local vs. national scope, and organizational and decision-making strategies are also prevalent, and oftentimes follow, from this geographic distinction. Significantly, these differences militate against unified political action and often play into the hands of regime strategies to coopt and instrumentalize (civil), repress (leftist), and divide and conquer (land/labor). Opposition to the corporatist, elite-led model of democratization and neo-liberal mode of governance thus remains largely unsuccessful despite being repeatedly checked and vociferously challenged. 

Tunisia’s revolutionaries ousted a regime but were unable to overturn the political and economic elite that supported it. This ‘passive’ or ‘political’ form revolution stands as a testament to the endurance of the past; its nascent democratic experiment remains, in many ways, mired in the legacies of authoritarianism that predate it. Calls to mobilize toward the central aims of the revolution oftentimes remain “red lines” in the sand. Civil forms of opposition operate within the limits of the “acceptable” as dictated by the Tunisian government, aided by the closely-aligned Tunisian media,[4] and supported and influenced by the hegemony of neoliberal governmentality.[5] Contentious forms are constrained by these actors at the same time. Terrorism and renewals of the Emergency Law are used as discursive tools and operational mechanisms to paint leftists and land/labor protesters as vandals, thieves, and threats to security requiring military and police repression.[6]However, powerful new forms of mobilization, activism, and “leaderfulness” (El-Sharnouby, present issue) are on the rise across the region.   

NGOs or NGO-ization? 

The proliferation of NGOs in Tunisia, taken as proof of the development of a robust post-uprising civil society, is one of the hallmarks of the Tunisian transition. Yet many Tunisian youth activists view this NGO industry as beholden to international donors and are suspicious of its role in shaping and constraining public discourse.[7]The effect of the “projectization” and “professionalization” of welfare, development, and democratization often serves to depoliticize reforms and distracts from the imposition of neoliberal modes of governmentality.[8]  As critics have put it, the NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, nine-to-five job rather than a true challenge to the system.

Starting in 2011, Western governments and international financial institutions (IFIs) have provided more assistance to Tunisian NGOs than to political programs themselves.[9] A critical mass of revolutionaries of the Qasbah Square transitioned into NGO work following the formalization of party politics. Entry into the NGO workforce became a sub-culture in itself replicating a “Silicon Valley” model which “impregnates” Tunisian NGOs and youth organizations with “neoliberal values and discourses.” Many youth organizations develop their own “newspeak,” where catch-phrases, shorthand idioms, and inside jokes incorporate English, French, and Tunisian popular references that are used so extensively that they can alienate the recipients of NGO services. English has become a dominant requirement for employment in NGOs: grant forms, progress reports, and donor meetings require a high proficiency.[10]

NGO-ization thus perpetuates developmental unevenness in access and assistance. Most NGO offices are located among the Tunis-Sfax axis, thus privileging Tunisia’s urban centers or employing those who can afford to migrate internally.[11] This unevenness is a source of distrust among local communities who view the targets of NGO “assistance” as elite or top-down endeavors that “fail to engage with groups in civil society, much less to adopt more than a tokenistic approach to consultation, partnership, and voice.”[12] NGO-ization therefore alters the landscape of contentious politics away from counter-hegemonic culture, disempowering social movements with its emphasis on issue-specific projects and pragmatic strategies[13] and taking the form of funding non-contentious modes of opposition to the state as well as the reproduction of a benign mode of citizenship education.[14]

Leftist Movements: Manich Msema7 (MM) and Fech Nestanaou (FN)

Youth resistance outside this world of NGOs has experienced both success and failure, and different forms of state response. Two leftist movements – Manich Msema7 and Fech Nestanaou – exemplify this trajectory. MM and FN can be considered two campaigns of the same social movement in that they were organized by the same core group of activists.[15]  Many of the core activists participated in the Qasbah Square sit-ins beginning in January 2011; were active in subsequent campaigns such as Hatta Ana Haraqt Markaz (“I, Too, Burned Down a Police Station”) and Hasibhum (“Make them Accountable”); haled from the Union générale des étudiants de Tunisie (UGET); remain connected to the Union des diplômés chômeurs (UDC)[16]; were or are members of political parties on the center-left spectrum; adopted horizontality as an organizational and decision-making strategy;[17] and allied around the central slogan iskat an-nidham (“overthrow the regime”).[18] 

Manich Msema7 began in response to the 14 July 2015 Reconciliation in the Economic and Financial Sectors Bill that President Beji Caid Essebsi introduced to parliament to provide amnesty to political and administrative figures of Tunisia’s post-independence regimes. The hashtag developed in August 2015 over online conversations and a Google group shared among a small number of youth discussing the bill’s subversion of the transitional justice process enshrined in the 2013 Transitional Justice Law.[19] Mobilizations were met with infiltration, surveillance, repression, and arrests, all of which added to the movement’s legitimacy and momentum.[20] The campaign quickly took off across the country and garnered international support. Between August 2015 and September 2017, approximately 70 mobilizations took place, the most notable of which brought cross-class coalitions of political parties and civil society organizations onto the streets numbering in the thousands.[21]

Cultural and intellectual forums like slam poetry, jam sessions, and invited speaker series were fused with protests and “signified a new strategy of activism beyond the purely political.”[22] Other tactics included calling upon football chants and cartoon slogans; a “Whose dog are you?” song accompanied by flares and fireworks;plastering “WANTED” signs with allegedly corrupt businessmen across public spaces; and sending letters to politicians calling on them not to discuss the bill in parliament. The campaign also included targeting alleged money laundering in Majel Bel Abbes (Kasserine), dirty hands in the Marina Gammarth construction project, and support for the Kamour and Jemna protests over land and labor issues, among others.[23]

While MM had only 100-200 core members, its Facebook page boasted over 70,000 followers. Membership was open to any and all who wanted to participate in the cause so long as they did so as individuals while also drawing upon many forms of material and logistical support from established organizations.[24] Because MM was able to bring together disparate groups, the movement was partially successful: the parliament was forced to amend its proposals on July 2016, April 2017, and September 2017, only to be passed as the Law on Administrative Reconciliation on 20 October 2017. Named Organic Bill 49-2015, the law ultimately granted amnesty to administrators—but notably, not to politicians. 

Fech Nestanaou (FN) was created in response to the austerity measures imposed on Tunisia by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) through the Finance Law of 1 January 2018.[25] Five members of the Communist Party’s youth wing started the movement in anticipation, on 25 December 2018.[26] That number was expanded to a committee of 25 members comprised of individuals from the Communist Party, Tayyar Democrat, Femme Democrats, Manich Msema7, and UGET. Like MM, this slogan was the product of an online brainstorming session. FN was launched along with a Facebook page, protest, and tagging campaign on 3 January 2018.[27]

A 6 January meeting brought 180 people together to agree on targeting the Finance Law, protesting the arrests of activists and the killing of Khmaies el Yerfani,[28] and, like MM, adopting horizontality as a model of management and decision-making. “We decided to walk from Jeanne d’Arc to the Ministry of Interior. We were aggressively beaten up by the police that night. We were around 100 people, but not no one was arrested. We heard the police saying: we are not allowed to arrest them; just beat them up!”[29] After posting photos and videos on social media, the group’s “likes” rose to over 30,000. By the third meeting of 8 January there were 18 committees across the country with only six regions unrepresented.[30] A national protest was planned for 14 January with the goal of breaching regional governorate offices. Of the 18 committees, nine mobilized. In Sousse, Kairouan, and Monastir protesters managed to breach governorate offices. Activists met with local governors who listed the protesters’ demands before sending them home. In Tunis, around 1000 activists encountered roadblocks and were met with violent repression. 

The official stance towards FN hardened further when it began reaching out directly to popular neighborhoods, a move that proved successful in sparking local discussions and support. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) responded with overt surveillance and intimidation.[31] Between 14 and 22 January, police arrested 1000 activists across the country in an attempt to halt the movement’s momentum. “The government understood that it’s no longer a good idea to put leaders in jail because they can mobilize public opinion. So, they jailed the masses instead.”[32] The movement proved to be short-lived in part because rioting erupted during nightfall,[33] thus permitting the media and government to paint the movement in a negative light, and in part because the UGTT released a statement through its ranks to stop supporting the protests, thus denying FN the cross-class coalition that was so germane to the latter’s success. Tayyar Democrat claimed that they were too busy preparing for municipal elections (to be held two months later), and members of prominent NGOs walked back their commitments thereafter.[34]

The final protest, set for 26 January at Bardo, was “a huge deception.”[35] Activists hashtagged prominent monuments downtown, and “clown brigadiers” distributed pamphlets across the city in preparation.[36] The Facebook page garnered 80,000 clicks to “attend,” but only around 1,700 participated. The counter-terrorism and anti-riots unit were in the wait, with police outnumbering the protesters. In the end, the event devolved into violence, thus marking the effective end of FN as a campaign.  

Wein al-Petrol and Land/Labor Protests of Tunisia’s South

Land/Labor protests encountered a very different set of challenges and responses. Winou el Petrole (“Where is the Oil?”) began in response to the Dutch Mazarine Company’s 1 May 2015 announcement of the discovery of an oil field in the town of  Faouar in the Kebili governorate.[37] The Ministry of Industry, Energy, and Mines linked the find on its Facebook page on 5 May, leading residents of Faouar to go on site demanding job recruitment, social corporate responsibility (CSR), and investment in infrastructure. On the same day, the TAP news agency published an article uncovering scandals implicating the Tunisian Company of Electricity and Gas (STEG), the Tunisian Company of Refining Industries and the Tunisian Company of Petroleum Activities (ETAP) that was relayed en masse by the media.[38] Neighboring Douz and Golaa joined the protests with similar demands aimed at Winstar and Parenco who were allegedly given sweetheart deals through suspicious circumstances under the Ben Ali regime, some of which implicated local Tribal/Management Councils (T/MC) responsible for the allocation of collective (tribal) lands.[39]

The issue was sidelined, however, with media coverage focusing on the granting of a license to an LGTBQ association and a shootout at the Bouchoucha barracks. In an attempt to refocus attention on the discovery and series of scandals, cyberactivists coined the hashtags Narja3ou el Mawdhou3na (“Back to Our Subject”) and Winou el Petrole? (“where is the Petrol?”). By 25 May, calls for Winou el Petrole abounded. Protesters burned police stations, and the police intervened, provoking a 2.5 month sit-in. Citizens in the capital began brandishing the Winou el Petrole slogan on signs, banners, and empty gasoline containers in support, thus drawing national attention to the campaign. 

The UDC, members of local associations, and selected protesters from each town were chosen to represent the collective at the table across from ETAP, who represented the oil companies. While deals were reached in each particular case for employment and CSR between ETAP and the protesters, none of the agreements were honored in full. Similar protests broke out across the country contemporaneously and thereafter, including the Kerkennah (2015), Kamour (2017) and Kebili (2017) protests in which protesters shut down pipeline production. The regime response in each case was to either threaten or deploy military intervention. And in each case, the government’s response was to treat each town on a case-by-case basis, promise reforms, employment, and investment, and then fail to deliver. In Kebili, for example, a return of protests in 2017 was met by various concessions to Golaa, Faouar, and Douz.[40] To date, however, each locale has yet to claim victory in their struggle(s). 

Conclusion

Tunisian youth activism has proven resilient, but the trifurcation of their participation militates against the kind of unity often required for large-scale change. Leftist activists have altered their strategies deploying increasingly creative tactics to spark discussion and entice mobilization. Horizontality—inclusive though often inefficacious—is used in temporary and conditional campaigns as a decision-making and organizational strategy to appeal to previously apolitical or inexperienced youth. However, their geographic ‘isolation’ along the north-west and coastal areas has yet to reach critical participation from the southern and central regions. Likewise, though demonstrations in the capital exist in limited form in solidarity with land and labor protests in the hinterlands, this issue space is off the radar for most activists who reside outside of the Tunis-Sfax axis. Regime repression has proven effective against the leftists; while divide and conquer bodes well for those seeking greater government and corporate responsibility in the interior. The parochial demands of the latter and the national and geopolitical ones of the leftists remain unconnected in any meaningful way, as of yet, despite their apparent shared concerns for economic and social justice. 

One frustrated Tunisian activist summarized the struggle as such: 

In Tunis we went too quickly for this ready-for-use-democracy with this constitutional ready-to-use-system and this process all with the help of NGOs. I think that we didn’t take enough time to think about all the alternatives and options… The sad part is that we moved forward, and we now face the reality that we lost our chance. We face a classical system … there is no way to radically change things now. We are forced to accept the reality of the situation and all we can do is figure out how to make it better.[41]


[1] Eva Bellin. “Civil Society in Formation: Tunisia,” in Civil Society in the Middle East, Vol. 2, ed. Richard Augustus Norton (Leiden: Brill, 1995). 

[2] Matt Gordner. “Manich Msema7.” Participedia.net (2019): https://participedia.net/case/6252

[3] “Youth experiencing the same concrete historical problems may be said to be part of the same actual generation; while those groups within the same actual generation which work up the material of their common experiences in different specific ways, constitute generation units” (Manheim 1970, p. 304)

[4] Marc Lynch. “How the Media Trashed the Transitions.” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 4 (2015): 90-99.

[5] Emel Akçalı ed. Neoliberal Governmentality and the Future of the State in the Middle East and North Africa. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

[6] Corinna Mullin. “Tunisia’s ‘transition: Between Revolution and Globalized National Security.” Pambazuka News (12 October, 2015): https://www.pambazuka.org/global-south/tunisia’s-“transition”-between-revolution-and-globalized-national-security

[7] NGO-ization refers to a global process, internationalized by the 1990s, in which international financial institutions and Western states encourage the adoption of structural adjustment programs (lower subsidies, impose austerity measures, and privatize public utilities) which includes offloading development and welfare responsibilities to non-governmental organizations. In the absence of government-funded services, relatively miniscule sums are doled out for otherwise robust development and welfare programs and ‘sub-contracted’ to NGOs.

[8] Islah Jad. “NGOs: Between buzzwords and social movements.” Development in Practice 17, no. 4-5 (2007): 622-629.

[9] Sarah Yerkes. “Where Have All the Revolutionaries Gone?” Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution (2017).

[10] Omar Somi. “Youth Policies in Tunisia: The Internationalization of Youth as a Public Policy Issue.” POWER2YOUTH, Working Paper no. 9 (2016).

[11] Jamaity, an organization that tracks civil society organizations in Tunisia, accounts for approximately 3,000 NGOs on its website. Of these, around 800 are located in Tunis, 240 are in Sfax, 165 in Monastir, 135 in Sousse, and 120 in Hamamet-Nabeul (the Tunis-Sfax axis). In Sidi Bouzid, a city of nearly 50,000 people with ten times the population of Monastir, there are only 90 registered NGOs.  

[12] Paul Stubbs. “Community Development in Contemporary Croatia: Globalisation, Neoliberalism and NGOisation,” in Revitalizing Communities in a Globalizing World, ed. Lina Dominelli (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

[13] Aida Bagić. “Talking About Donors: Women’s Organizing in Post-Yugoslav Countries,” in Ethnographies of Aid: Exploring Development Texts and Encounter, eds. Henrik Secher Marcussen and Jeremy Gould. Roskilde University Occasional Paper in International Development Studies 24 (2004). 

[14] Ana Bela Ribeiro, Andreia Caetano, and Isabel Menezes. “Citizenship Education, Educational Policies and NGOs.” British Educational Research Journal 42, no. 4 (2016): 646-664.

[15] Sofien Ben Jaballah. “Youth Campaigns in Tunisia (Fech Nestanaou Campaign as a Model),” in In Sociology: Protest, Organization, and Tunisian Youth.” RAJ (2018) [Arabic].

[16] Matt Gordner. “UDC.” Participedia.net (2017): https://participedia.net/organization/4989

[17] For more on horizontality in Tunisia, see: Matt Gordner. “Tharek (T7arek). Participedia.net (2019): https://participedia.net/organization/6253

[18] Interviews with MM and FN Activists, Tunis, 2016-2019. Ibid.  

[19] Interview with Activist, Monastir, 19 April 2019.

[20] According to internal documents, the first recorded incident occurred 25 August when security officials took notice of activists wearing MM t-shirts. The activists were stopped and harassed while attending an event at the Carthage Theatre.

[21]  Number of protests obtained through internal MM documents (many of them were independently verified by the author). 

[22] Laryssa Chomiak and Lana Salman. “Refusing to Forgive: Tunisia’s Maneesh M’Sameh Campaign.” Middle East Report 46, no. 4 (01, 2016): 28-32. 

[23] Matt Gordner. “The Association for the Protection of Jemna’s Oasis (APJO).” Participedia.net (2017):https://participedia.net/organization/4991

[24] Interviewees with the author identified the following supporters: the political parties and coalitions of the Popular Front, Democratic Current, Republican Party, iWatch, al-Bawsala, UGTT, UGET, UDC, Femme Democrats, LTDH, FTDS, Tunisian League Against Torture, RAJ, and YouthCan. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released reports about the arrests of MM participants. 

[25] “It is a question, meaning: ‘What are we waiting for [to revolt]?’ It’s a revolutionary call, or ‘ta7ridh,’ a provocation or incitement to revolt against the government.” Interview with Activist, Beja, 10 February 2018.

[26] The five members began with four main goals in mind: (1) Addressing the rising cost of living, (2) Employing one member of each poor family across the country, (3) Increasing welfare payments, and (4) Halting the privatization of public institutions and facilities. Interview with Activist, Tunis, 28 June 2019. 

[27] That date was selected as a symbolic gesture for its alignment with the Bread Riots of 1986 and acted as a “trial” run with the release of political pamphlets advertising the campaign.

[28] El Yerfani was run over by a police vehicle in the first week of the FN protests. 

[29] Interview with Activist, Tunis, 28 June 2019. 

[30] The six regions were: Mednine, Tozeeur, Tatouine, Kebili, Kef, and Zaghouan.

[31] In Beb el-Falla, for example, the Ministry of Interior set up a tent outside of the local coffee shop as an intimidation tactic. Interview with Activist, Tunis, 28 June 2019. 

[32] Interview with Activist, Kef, 9 February 2018.

[33] In an interview with one FN activist, the individual claimed that the only violence from members occurred when police attacked them during the day. Interview with Activist, Tunis, 28 June 2019. 

[34] Interview with Activist, Tunis, 28 June 2019.

[35] Interview with Activist, Tunis, 28 June 2019.

[36] Interview with Activist, Kef, 9 February 2018. 

[37] The company claimed potential production to amount to 4000 barrels per day.

[38]Mohamed Dhia Hammami. “Gafsa 2008 & Weinou el Petrole 2015: A Comparative Study of Media Coverage of Two Natural Resources Crises,” 1 September 2015 (Unpublished). 

[39] Interview with Activist, Golaa, 25 December 2017. 

[40] Interview with UDC Representative, Faouar, 24 December 2017. 

[41] Interview with Activist, Tunis, 11 January 2017.


[i] Research for this project was made possible by funding from a Pierre Elliot Trudeau Scholarship and an American Political Science Civil Society Fellowship. The author would also like to thank the excellent research assistance provided by Sara Snoussi, Wael Gara, Norah Zaouali, Amine Ghorbel, and Imene Debbeche.