Unruly Life: Subverting ‘Surplus’ Existence in Tunisia

By Oana Parvan, 2 February 2017
Image: Mabrouk Ghodbani from Kasserine, Tunisia shows his stitched lips. Rached was on hunger strike from 24 January 2016 when he decided on January 27 to sew his lips in protest against the interim government.


Taking the case of Tunisia’s Dignity Revolution, Oana Parvan examines the structural connections between the growing global category of those designated ‘surplus life’ by the neo-imperial economy – and by extension, condemned to social and often actual death – and the preconditions of revolution


We live below the zero degree of poverty… Poverty! Poverty! Poverty! We eat grass! We eat cardoons! We eat mallow that my mother washes and cooks for us…We lack the most basic things. Water! Water! The water we bring from the mountain. Now that the terrorists are occupying the mountain, where will I drink from? I will either die from thirst, or from hunger, or from terrorism! To me, my homeland is only a word written on my national ID! We even lack the most basic things, like a road! He who gets bitten by a scorpion, dies! To which state do we belong?

- Nessim Soltani on NessmaTV, 2015 [1]


Here, by the downslope of hills, facing the sunset

And time’s muzzle,

Near gardens with severed shadows,

We do what the prisoners do,

And what the unemployed do;

We nurture hope.


- Mohamed Darwish, A State of Siege [2]



The Tunisian Dignity revolution of 2011 can be seen as a popular response to an ongoing economic restructuring. The revolution corresponds to a progressive dispossession of the most vulnerable categories of the country: rural, but mainly sub-urban, un- and under-employed people. This revolutionary event, generated by a network of related riots, contested the way certain spaces – mostly the South and centre of the country, alongside the urban houmas (deprived peripheries) – were marked by a historical exclusion and disposability.  The mobilisations were turned into a mass movement thanks to an alliance between the suburban unemployed, students and a unionised workforce, who brought Ben Ali’s western backed police state to a standstill.


The Tunisian revolutionaries started off by putting their lives on the line to fight the local police, while exposing the internal colonialism and the damaging consequences of the ‘structural adjustments’, with their demand of ‘Bread, Freedom, Dignity!’ But once they crossed the borders and reached Europe, where they became ‘undocumented migrants,’ their fight for dignity continued. And the tactics of protest – travelling from Sidi Bouzid all the way to Lampedusa – were sometimes the same (demonstrations, occupations, acts of self-harm, riot and arson).


Those who initiated the unrest, after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, had already been struggling with precarious informal work and constant state abuse for years. But what is the significance of the century’s first revolution being pioneered by the unemployed? And what was that revolution a sign of? This article is an interrogation of the global subjects of struggle, their mobility practices and the motivations that drive them to move, both within and against the constituted order. The Tunisian Dignity revolution offers a privileged standpoint to identify the interweaving of colonialist and capitalist logics, while also representing an extensive archive of resistance strategies, across East/West borders.


Image: Protests, Tunis, Tunisia, 14 January 2011

As the Tunisian revolution shows, riot is the privileged tactic of collective action of the surplus population, expelled from formal labour and destined to ‘informal economies, often semi- or extralegal,’ a ‘portion of humanity that earns less than subsistence amounts’ often at great risk.[3] Within today’s riots, there is an immediate connection between this growing category of labour with no access to a formal wage and state violence. Not only because many states’ answer to the surplus population is often a carceral one, but also because, in Joshua Clover’s account:


as increasing portions of population are rendered surplus to the economy in turn, the state turns more and more to coercion as a management style: the social wage of Keynesian compromise is withdrawn in favor of police occupation of excluded communities.[4]


This is how ‘surplus life’ becomes ‘the subject of politics and the object of ongoing state violence’ while the ‘the public of surplus [is] treated as riot at all times – incipient, in progress, in exhaustion – not out of error but out of recognition.’[5]


Clover identifies the connections between the changing access to productivity (as formally waged employees) and the way the consequent forms of collective action shift their focus from struggles of production (strike) to struggles of circulation (riot). More specifically, and relative to the Tunisian situation,


When the material substrate of daily life is the pooling of populations in circulation, in informal economies – a collective population rendered surplus and forced to confront the problem of reproduction in the marketplace rather than in the formal wage – in this situation, any gathering on the corner, in the street, in the square can be understood as a riot. Unlike the strike, it is hard to tell when and where the riot starts and ends. This is part of what allows the riot to function both as a particular event and as a kind of holographic miniature of an entire situation, a world-picture. [added emphasis][6]


While this analysis develops along the lines of Clover’s work on contemporary struggles unfolding in the US, which he sets in the ‘overdeveloped west,’ Tunisia is arguably different. This can be put down to its colonial past, the development of a neo-patrimonial state (concentrated on the northern coast) and the way its territory has been impacted by neoliberal policies. Last but not least, the Tunisian population is marked by a different articulation of race and class divisions.


I have chosen Clover’s understanding of ‘surplus life,’ because it underlines the resistance to an attempt to strip the unintegrated labour power of its dignity. Through the state abandonment, abuse and criminalisation of the disenfranchised rural and suburban Tunisians (also targeted as ‘undocumented’ migrants, ‘Salafists,’ ‘terrorists,’ houmani), the elite in charge is clear as to which lives deserve to be nurtured. In this sense, when certain acts of public self-harm (such as the self-immolations) spark mass unrests, they operate as an interruption to the ‘business as usual’ exclusion game, which keeps the majority of the population on an intermittent survival, while engaged in an informal economy worth the equivalent of 50% of the country’s GDP.[7]


I understand the term ‘surplus life’ as a double articulation: of the way it is being produced and of what it produces. On the one hand, it indicates a horrific condition of life, resulting from the fact that certain groups of people (especially the impoverished rural and suburban communities) are produced as surplus, therefore deemed as dangerous, indecorous, disposable. Beyond the Marxist understanding of the surplus (labour of the reserve army), these categories occupy the place of the excess, of the abject and their lives are affected by the way the state abandons and/or disciplines them. On the other hand, ‘surplus life’ is also a reminder of how these people reject their production as surplus; as political subjects, they work from within a level of disposability and bareness that is forced upon them. In this sense, surplus life is different from bare life in that it regards doing politics with bareness as a starting point. By claiming dignity while weaponising one’s own biological life (through acts of self-harm) what is played out is a sort of affirmative thanatopolics.[8]


Lineages of Resistance: fellaga, houmani, harraga


When the French colonists occupied the Tunisian territory in 1881, the survival of the peoples who inhabited it was based on a symbiotic relationship between the nomadic and the sedentary groups, distributed throughout the mostly arid land, centred on the oases for agriculture and the desert for the breeding of animals (such as the camel).[9] This interaction was based on collective ownership of lands and on the occasional exchange between crops and animal-derived products or tools, as well as a protection tax (saliab) that sedentary groups paid to the warrior nomadic tribes (mainly Berbers). Instead, the French colonists prohibited the saliab tax (that had supported the nomads), imposed their own taxes and forced nomads into sedentarisation, while also subjecting them to taxes and initiating a process of privatisation of the land. Progressively dispossessed through debt, thousands of former fellaga (peasants), animal breeders, together with the poor European settlers, headed towards the cities for their livelihood as corteges de déracinés, ‘cohorts of uprooted people.’ ‘The climatic and capitalist calamities push[ed] entire sections of the rural society into becoming a sub-proletariat.’[10] The cohorts of dispossessed occupied the space around the urban capital, Tunis.


Image: The two Tunisia's collide, January 2011

According to the official numbers, the precarious bidon-villes (or gourbi-villes) at the outskirts of the capital went from 2000 people in 1935 to 10,000 in 1941.[11] The inhabitants of the bidon-villes got by with petty crimes, reselling objects and food they found in the garbage, small robberies, begging or practicing sex-work.[12] The local beylical authority tried to hinder their settlement in numerous ways, by limiting inhabitants’ movement with detailed mobility permits (for both humans and animals), and by repeatedly deporting, fining and detaining them. By 1946 the bidon-villes were inhabited by 50,000 people. In the ’70s, the main peripheral neighbourhoods of the capital turned from illegal settlements to officially administered zones. These are today’s houmas.


Before 2011 the,


Security apparatus also performed a social function, which was reinforced following the introduction of the structural adjustment policies. The security apparatus maintained social order by keeping (…) disadvantaged neighborhoods on a tight police leash. Using raids, the later Law 52 [criminalising cannabis use], the security forces used combating youth crime and drug abuse as a cover for stepping up their containment of the ‘dangerous classes’ and physically hemming them down.[13]


Most of the inhabitants of the houmas, the houmani, had in fact reached the sub-urban peripheries abandoning the countryside in the search of livelihood and a chance to support their families in rural Tunisia. Meanwhile, under the pressure of the international financial organisations, the Tunisian government initiated a process of public divestment and liberalisation of resources (such as land and water) in the rural areas which comprise the majority of the Tunisian territory, and so crippling the subsistence activity of most of the population as a consequence, especially given most of the country’s desert-like climate, and the centrality of family farming.


This increased the national divide between the rich Tunisia (mostly the capital, the North, and the coast, with pioneer cities like Sfax and Sousse) and the ‘Tunisia of rich resources’. As Amel Rahbi from the League of Human Rights explains,


Ever since the colonial period, the country has been built upon the illusion of a useful Tunisia concentrated on the coast. This model continued after independence. The rest of the country is therefore abandoned, impoverished, discriminated.[14]


On the one side, the rich Tunisia is the financial centre of the gains derived from the agricultural, mining, textile and tourist industries. On the other side, the rest of the country is subject to a constant extraction of its natural resources, such as ‘water, agricultural lands, oases, ores (like phosphate, iron), gas and oil’ while, at the same time, being pushed into a ‘spiral of exclusion.’.[15] [16] In other words, southern and central Tunisia is a main target of resources extraction, while its population feels underprivileged by the state policies and the politics of the central government, more focused on addressing the interests of the economic groups of the North.

The bigger the gap between the Sahel and the rest of the country grew, given that the demographic growth was not absorbed by the labour market, the more these areas started implementing a series of ever changing survival strategies, an everyday anxious and precarious course à l’hkobza, literally the ‘race for bread.’[17] A good example of ‘bread race’ strategies is provided by the account of Walid, an unemployed bricklayer from Kasserine (in the North-West), condemned to ‘get by, selling scrap iron one day, fruits another day and then maybe oil smuggled from Algeria.’[18]


The Tunisian spaces of exclusion, the heritage of the past colonial zoning and dispossession practices, are concentrated around the rural South and the over-crowded houmas of Tunis (such as Ettadhamen, Douar Hicher, Ariana), where time oscillates between a suffocating immobility and the anxious pursuit of everyday livelihood, as described in the popular song released by Hamzaoui Med Amine and KAFON in 2013:


We live like trash inside a bin

Poor, without a dime

We wake up late; we never see the time passing

I don’t even have a clock

Here the atmosphere is suffocating.


With my head down, we go ahead

One dime doesn’t stay long in my pocket

I passed too quickly from youth to old age, my brain weakened

[by substances].[19]


In a region with ‘the highest rates of unemployment in the world across recent decades,’ the ‘spatial, economic, social and political marginalization of one part of the country and society in favor of another’ was the ‘direct cause of the revolutionary process that ended the mafia dictatorship of Ben Ali-Trabelsi.’ [20] [21]


Riot: How to Destabilise a Police State


The most significant precedent of the 2010 Tunisian Dignity revolution happened in 2008 in the city of Gafsa, centre of the Gafsa Phosphate Company (GPC). A massive rebellion, recalled as the ‘Gafsa Intifada’, was triggered by the announcement, on 5 January 2008, of the results of the hiring contest for 380 workers, technicians and managerial staff.[22] Thousands applied for these positions, but the results followed nepotistic criteria. The protest spread across the neighbouring cities of Redeyef, Moulares, M’dilla and Metlaoui, through hunger strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins and riots. The mobilisation involved seasonal workers, public sector workers, teachers and high school students. Long-lasting sit-ins and tents were set up in the strategic sites, in order to slow down the economic and commercial activity of the phosphate extraction company.


The repressive answer was massive: 6000 policemen were sent to besiege and occupy the cities, operating raids in the homes of the rebel unemployed. Hundreds of protesters were arrested and many subjected to torture.[23] Four people were killed during the clashes with the police. Hitchem Ben Jeddou El Aleimi died from electrocution while occupying the site of the electricity generator of the mine’s washing plants.[24]


On 17 December 2010, local municipal agent Fadia Hamdi sanctioned Mohammed Bouazizi, confiscating his merchandise, his cart and – some claim – slapping him in public. Desperate to get his belongings back, he set himself on fire in front of the local governor’s residence. He was taken to hospital (where he would die the next January), but ignited a series of protests across the region. Public order brigades were called in from Kasserine, Kairouan and Sfax to sedate the unrest but, this time, the mobilisation spread.


The most aggressive repression then occurred in the city of Kasserine where 60 people were killed in only three days, between 8 and 11 January 2010. The city descended into massive riots. This episode marked the moment when all protests united against Ben Ali and his authoritarian rule. After the events in Kasserine, the most representative trade union, the UGTT, decided to support the protesters. More riots enflamed the cities of Thala and Regueb, but also touched upon Tunis suburbs.


From 9 January 2011 onwards, it was through riots that hundreds of these young people entered the world of politics. That was the day when, at a roundabout opposite the line 5 terminus, at the intersection between three working-class suburbs (Ettadhamen, al-Entilaka and el-Mnihla), the first of the anti-Ben Ali demonstrations reached greater Tunis.[25]


In no time and as an alternative to the police being driven out of the suburbs:


Young people, even minors, set up self-defense committees, an embryonic form of power structure, which ended up being the only real source of authority in the two neighborhoods for over five months.[26]


On 14 January a general strike was declared by the UGTT trade union. The police charged and shot tear gas, while a curfew and a state of emergency were announced. Nevertheless, Ben Ali eventually left the country that very night, fleeing to Saudi Arabia.[27]


That moment marked the beginning of two highly significant mobility streams. Firstly, the initiation of the ‘Liberation Caravan’, started in Menzel Bouzaiane (the city of the first ‘martyrs’ in the Centre-South of the country) rallying more than 4000 people to march towards the capital demanding social justice and the resignation of the Benalist politicians. This march occupied the Kasbah, the capital’s governmental centre, on two occasions (23-28 January – the First Kasbah, and 22-25 February – the Second Kasbah). Thousands of revolutionary, disenfranchised Tunisians took the centre of the capital, imposing their troublesome presence upon a political establishment that had always ignored them, making themselves visible to their governors but also to their fellow citizens. The Kasbah was the place of class alliances, where the dispossession of the rest of the country became visible to the inhabitants of the capital.


Image: Burial of Mohammed Boazizi who died after self-immolation, 4 January, 2011

Secondly, the revolutionary interruption (of the border control) triggered a massive re-orientation of the surplus population across borders, since this group of people saw emigration as the only strategy to increase their margins of reproduction. This is when the flow of harraga started streaming out of the country. Harraga in the Maghreb indicates ‘those who burn’, meaning both young people who ‘burn’ frontiers as they migrate across the Mediterranean sea and those who are ready to burn their documents (but also their past and eventually their lives) in order to reach Europe.’[28] The island of Lampedusa, South of Sicily, not far from the Tunisian coast, became the symbol of this flow. The first 100 Tunisians reached Lampedusa only one night after the departure of Ben Ali, on 15 January 2011. According to the estimations of the Italian Interior Ministry, by April 2011, more than 20,000 people reached Italy by boat.


The prospect of deportation ignited an on going series of riots in the Italian detention centres, accompanied by hunger strikes, self-harm, fires and collective escapes. They culminated with the Sicilian detention centre at Lampedusa being set aflame on the 20 September 2011 generating violent clashes with the police and some local inhabitants.[29] Emigration had temporarily worked as a massive relief valve, allowing the removal of precisely those young unemployed who inhabited the poor areas and who had ignited the revolution in the first place.



Islamic Militancy: Extracting Value from Dissent, Informalising Labour, Breaking Alliances


The fall of the Benalist establishment and the electoral victory of the Ennahda party (October 2011) impelled a large number of disenfranchised urban Tunisians to enter organisations inspired by political Islam, such as Ansar al-Sharia (literally ‘the partisans of the sharia,’ the Islam-inspired law system), ostensibly focused on preaching and charity.[30] Islam-inspired participation was largely supported by the financial aid and initiatives coming from the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia, pushing for a Wahabist hegemonisation based on a highly conservative interpretation of Islam. Several events, starting with the political assassination of two major Leftist leaders (Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi) in 2013, determined the start of a massive crackdown campaign against the so called Salafists, mostly young sub-urban Tunisians, ‘advocating a return to Islam in its original root form, untainted by any new, corrupting influences.’[31]


But many people in the houmas considered the Salafists ouled houma (literally ‘kids from the suburbs’), sharing a strong social proximity with all the other inhabitants of these excluded spaces, no matter the level of religious sensibility.


Overlooked by the state, they are all forced to be creative and resourceful, fend for themselves and find their own way; the only option is to come up with strategies for social, economic and symbolic survival.[32]


It is easy to understand then what the impact of the state’s campaign against the Salafists has been, since it targeted a category – that of the disenfranchised Tunisians – already extensively oppressed by state violence before the revolution.  In a 2016 survey, the inhabitants of two of the most deprived and overpopulated suburbs of Tunis, Douar Hicher and Ettadhamen, explained how they saw Salafists as ‘kids from the neighbourhood (known as ‘ouled houma’) who conform to religion’. This attitude was expressed by 69.3 percent of the respondents in Douar Hicher and 56.8 percent in Ettadhamen despite the majority of them (80 percent) actually admitting to knowing someone from the neighbourhood who had gone to Syria.[33] Following armed attacks of the Quaedist Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade on military forces and tourist resorts, organisations such as Ansar al-sharia were outlawed. By July 2013, over 6500 people had been imprisoned for terrorism. More than the number incarcerated by Ben Ali. This is the moment when many Tunisians chose to emigrate towards the military centres of the so-called Islamic State in Libya, Syria and Iraq, becoming the most represented cohort of foreign fighters, with reportedly 7,000 fighters in 2015.[34]


Beyond the Islamic State’s eschatology, based on utopic religious authenticity and the employment of the brutality meme as a deterrent, the radical Sunni organisation is the effect of a complex assemblage of activities by foreign states.[35] Namely the American de-Baathification of Iraq in 2003, with the imposition of the Shia rule (backed by Iran), the repression and exclusion of the Sunnis (many of the Islamic State’s generals having met in the American camps of Abu Ghraib and Bucca), alongside the sympathy of important states such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which facilitate the smuggling of oil and foreign fighters across the borders.[36]


The Islamic State organisation holds one of the most successful propaganda outlets (controlling over 100,000 Twitter accounts, with 50,000 tweets per day selling the ‘Islamic dream’) fuelled by an extensive and ever-growing wealth (it owns nine oil fields in Syria and Iraq worth $1,5 million per day alongside the money coming in from the control of access and supply routes and from kidnappings, extortions, the sale of antiquities, smuggling and the various taxes they impose).


There are many levels on which this corporate Islamic militancy organisation managed to appeal to its foreign military workers. First, thanks to the well-distributed propaganda of a proposed mission of justice against Assad and his crimes, but also with the promise of a Golden Age return to a Muslim dominated caliphate (possibly cancelling the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement) blessed with prosperity and peace, which much of the region has not enjoyed for a long time.[37] Last but not least, this type of Islamic militancy contains the promise of the recognition of one’s worth, whether through the community’s appreciation, a military career or the access to temporary ‘marriage’, with the girls and women engaged in the jihad al-nikah (a form of union tolerated by the religious law, allowing the bride and groom to be married for one night). The jihad al-nikah is just one form of Islamic militancy that Tunisian girls and women engage in, when they choose to travel to Syria and Iraq, alongside care and military work.  Moreover, it must be noted that the pay for an IS fighter is of $300-400 per month, which is double the amount paid by the Iraqi army and way more than any Tunisian houmani could hope to earn.[38] Paradoxically to the mainstream discourse monopolised by the fear of what is perceived as ‘the threat of terrorism’, some suggest that ‘without the political integration of Islamism, the people of the region will never free themselves from the dictatorships that promote themselves to counter it, nor from the Islamism itself which finds legitimation against them.’[39]


The current conflict in Syria exemplifies how the emergency state acts partially as a device of radicalisation and sectarianism when it decides to exclude expressions of political Islam from the range of acceptable politics. In this sense, Mahdi Amel’s definition of sectarianism developed by Hanieh, is revealing:


Sectarianism is a modern technique of political power, a means through which ruling classes attempt to establish their legitimacy and social base, while fragmenting the potential for any kind of popular opposition. Post-invasion Iraq and the subsequent rise of ISIS provide a tragic confirmation of this thesis.[40]


But focusing on the Islamic militancy of 7,000 young Tunisians often tends to confirm the western belief that the Dignity Revolution failed epically and that ‘Arab’ peoples are incorrigibly destined to religion inspired violence. Moreover, their poverty and frustration seems to also confirm the fear of certain Tunisian and Western observers (sharing a generic left-wing sensibility) towards the political unpredictability of the lumpen proletariat – one according to which deprived people lack the political consciousness to engage in progressive politics and are easily inclined to migrate (and ‘abandon the struggle’) or be recruited by Islamic militancy organisations, if they identify any of the latter as a solution to their economic needs. Yet on closer scrutiny, one discovers that the rural and suburban Tunisia has never stopped struggling, despite the continuous state abandonment of the countryside and the unfolding of a permanent emergency state, legitimised by the ‘terrorist threat’, not very different from the former police state.


At a rural level, after 2010, local peasant communities extensively repossessed the formerly state-owned land by occupying it.[41] Despite the massive emigrations (both towards Europe, where Tunisian emigrants have initiated new struggles, and the Masreq), the country was inflamed by 4,288 social protests as recently as 2015, most of which had their epicentre in the centre-West of the country, where the revolution began.[42] One of the most significant of recent mobilisations broke out in the western city of Kasserine on 16 January 2016. A young unemployed man named Ridha Yahyaoui protested alongside other fellow citizens against his exclusion from the employment lists, due to his previous activism in the students’ trade union. He climbed on a light pillar and committed suicide by exposing himself to the high voltage electricity.


What follow[ed] can be seen as the copy of the class-based mapping of the 2011 protests: following the same paths of contagion, with differential speeds, the rebellion spread out, first around Kasserine and then in the neighboring regions (Sidi Bouzid, Thala, El Kef, Jendouba, then Kairouan) until it reached the suburbs of the capital, Hay Ettadhamen and Intilaka on Thursday night [the suicide happened on Saturday].[43]


After Ridha’s suicide and the expansion of protests to the other poor cities and the capital’s neighbourhoods, one of the collective actions taken was the occupation with tents of the local wilaya, the Prefecture of the city of Kasserine, by two hundred unemployed citizens. Thirteen of the occupiers of the wilaya, the ‘Kasserine 13’, chose to start a hunger strike. To show their determination they sewed their lips together and demanded public employment. Unfortunately few local and global observers recognised the authenticity of the protests for fear of the terrorist threat, which also worked as the government’s legitimation for not addressing the protesters’ demands, but rather limiting their mobility and detaining them. The Tunisian trade union did not express solidarity and did not join the popular movement, letting it fade away, while its members were individually pursued and worn down by state repression, under accusations of ‘forming gangs and inciting to disorder’.[44]


Image: 28 years old Ridha Yahyaoui killed himself on a light pillar protesting in front of the Kasserine governorate. The banner says: #We are all Ridha Yahyaoui #Employment is a right. Source: Tunisia Red


What Subject of Struggle? (What) Recognition in a Police State?


So far I have taken into consideration the instances of collective action initiated from a space of exclusion, from the anti-colonial fellaga to today’s houmani, the (mostly) young people inhabiting the suburbs, who have been historically considered a threat to the constituted order and who have ignited the revolutionary process in 2010, as a way of addressing an unbearable existential precarity. The subjects of these contemporary struggles inhabit overlapping spatialities: they are the people of the poor South and central Tunisia; the inhabitants of the metropolitan suburbs; as well as those among them who decide to leave the country, headed to Europe (where they start new cycles of struggle) or towards the Eastern military fronts. As Fabio Merone has pointed out regarding the attitude of the Tunisian authorities towards these most vulnerable categories of citizens, especially in the context of the crackdown against armed political Islam:


the Interior Minister is convinced that no difference exists between this large disenfranchised population, Ansar al-Sharia [the Tunisian Salafi social movement] and Okba Ibn Nafaa [the Quaedist brigade who carried attacks against the Tunisian militaries and civilians and against Western tourists]: they are all ‘terrorists.’[45]


Tunisia offers a particular example of the struggles of those designated as superfluous. First of all, the mobility patterns of the impoverished Tunisians allow for reflection on the vast process of the global informalisation of labour. In all the spaces marked by a significant existential precarity – the countryside, the sub-urban houmas, the European cities and the centres of Islamic militancy – Tunisians are acting with little hope of accessing a formal wage, whether they engage in smuggling, street vending, substance trade, military or care work (including sex work). In this sense, a connection can be drawn between the transnational process of the informalisation of labour and the spreading of riot-related tactics of collective action, which have emerged in both Tunisia and Europe (especially against deportation in detention centres).


Surplus life is devoted to ‘unruly mobility’ practices, maybe because it holds very limited margins of action and movement in the first place.[46] Whether they disobey the ‘Saturday night curfew’ and leave the suburbs to reach the centre of the city, or transgress the European anti-migration laws, the struggling Tunisians are a force of ‘disorganisation of this controlled space.’[47] Moreover, the violence of the riots is employed as a disordering strategy, as a result of the increasing state investment in coercion. ‘The police now stand in the place of economy, the violence of the commodity made flesh.’[48] Gaining temporary control over a formerly policed space, whether a neighbourhood or a detention centre, forces the military representatives of the state to recognise the transformative agency of otherwise criminalised and de-humanised subjects. In this the body, ‘the reminder of the destroyed political bios’ is:[49]


crucial in its presence to form a political space, to claim the streets in their politicality. The body is present to claim, to demand, to negotiate and to interfere. The body is there to form together with other bodies a multitude of political subjects.[50]


The claim for recognition – articulated in the suffocating atmosphere of the police state – originates from a space of alienation, dispossession and demands political transformation by disturbing the status quo’s ‘spatial fixity’ and ‘temporal closure.’[51]  Moreover, surplus life exceeds the limits of its own body by taking a stand against the distribution of life and death operated by the state. 


Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, alongside 160 attempted or successful self-immolations between 2010 and 2013 in Tunisia; the acts of self-harm of the migrants detained at the borders of Europe; the public suicide of Ridha Yahyaoui; and the sewn up lips of the hunger striking  ‘Kasserine 13’. All these practices transform the individual body ‘from a site of subjection to a site of insurgency, which by self-destruction presents death as a counter conduct to the administration of life.’[52] In this way, ‘bodies deny their state-sponsored mutation into colonial subjects, obedient nationals’, transforming self-inflicted death into a strategy of resistance.[53]


According to Banu Bargu


Necroresistance presents an embodied form of radical critique. Embodied because the biopolitical management of bodies needs resistance from the points of its application. Bodies have become sites of contestation and the vessels of a political intervention.[54]


The devastated body of the necro-resistance, which has devoted its organic being to making visible the deadly action of power, ‘presents us with a materialist theory of being, a theory that carries with it the potential for political resistance to the violence of dispossession.’[55] In this sense, extreme acts of self-harm, like Bouazizi’s self-immolation (one of hundreds of similar cases) work like an affective aggregator of an all too well-spread existential frustration. Within the affective/political sphere, the weaponisation of one’s own body (when all other political tools are inaccessible) operates as an immediate exposure of the system of hierarchisation of lives. Claiming one’s right to be employed and the end of state violence, here, stands for demanding an effective termination of existential precarity alongside the right to be acknowledged as a dignified member of the community. Surplus life as a subject of struggle therefore enacts practices of disobedient mobility (in the pursuit of livelihood), contests state power expropriating its monopoly on violence, ‘both materially and symbolically’ with the riot and employs its own body as a terrain of extreme counter-conduct, articulated through practices of necro-resistance.[56]


Finally, though, the Tunisian context also allows for reflection on the transition from riot to revolution; revolution intended as a mass movement, animated by a vast variety of collective actions, enacted by informal and formal workers, alongside students and able to destabilise and re-articulate the establishment. In fact, the Tunisian revolution was the result of an alliance between the suburban surplus labour and other categories holding a different degree of disposability, such as the unemployed and high school students, and the unionised public sector workers, able to bring the state to a standstill with their general strike. While ‘revolutionary movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance’ dictated by the commonality of surplus lives, alliances help enforce the transformative impact of the mobilisation.[57] The protests of Kasserine, at the beginning of 2015, show what happens when the alliance is no longer in place. The protesters are slowly repressed and worn down by the state, which continues to ignore their claims for economic justice, therefore directing those people towards other attempts to pursue their livelihood and dignity, such as emigration or Islamic militancy.


This is why the potential for alliance, whose future form is not yet known, is one of the most significant promises articulated collectively by the people who reject their production as surplus. State-driven racism, sectarianism and segregation are only some of the techniques employed by the constituted powers to prevent similar alliances. And the alliance of the future can only be an abolitionist[58] and decolonial project, as shown by the recent mobilisations of the Standing Rock Sioux community or the Berber town of Hoceima in Morocco.


From the US to Morocco,


The global classes dangereuses are united not by their role as producers but by their relation to state violence. In this is to be found the basis of the surplus rebellion and of its form, which must exceed the logic of recognition and negotiation.[59]


Decolonisation, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a programme of complete disorder.[60]


Oana Pârvan <cup01op AT> is a Romanian researcher based in London. She holds a background in philosophy and semiotics and is currently completing her PhD at the Centre for Cultural Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, working on the politics of representation around the 2011 Tunisian revolution. She is interested in contemporary instances of collective action and cross-class alliances.




[1] Nessim Soltani, Testimony of Mr. Nassim Mabrouk, Cousin of the Martyr Mabrouk Soltani, 2015,

[2] Mahmud Darwish, The Butterfly's Burden. Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 2007.

[3] Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings. Verso Books, 2016, p. 156.

[4] Ibid., p.47.

[5] Ibid., p.170.

[6] Ibid., p. 123.

[7] Aziz Krichen, L’affair de Jemna; question paysanne et revolution democratique, 31 October 2016,

[8] Roberto Esposito, Biological Life, Political Life, lecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, 1 October 2015.

[9] The majority of the Tunisian territory is characterised by an arid or even desert climate, with the exception of the oases. Only the North benefits from a more fertile climate, and this is precisely where all the main urban centres have developed.

[10] Claude Liauzu, ‘Un Aspect de la crise en Tunisie : la naissance des bidonvilles’, Revue française d'histoire d'outre-mer, Vol. 232-233, 3rd and 4th trimester, 1976, pp.607-621.

[11] Significantly, gourbi has an Amazigh (Berber) etymologic origin, and starts being used in the French colonial period to indicate a shack, or a precarious dwelling made of earth and sticks.

[12] Liauzu, op. cit., p.615.

[13] Olfa Lamloum, Politics on the Margins in Tunisia. Vulnerable Young People in Douar Hicher and Ettadhamen, International Alert, 13, 2016.

[14] Rosa Moussaoui, ‘Les vies brulées des jounes chomeures de Kaserine’, L’Humanité, 10 February 2016.

[15] Habib Ayeb, ‘Social and political geography of the Tunisian revolution: The alfa grass revolution’, Review of African Political Economy, 38:129, 2011, pp.467-479.

[16] Mohamed Elloumi, ‘Capacité de resilience de l’agriculture familiale tunisienne et politique agricole post révolution’, Vianey G., Requier-Desjardins M., Paoli J.-C. (eds). Accaparement, action publique, stratégies individuelles et ressources naturelles : regards croisés sur la course aux terres et à l’eau en contextes méditerranéens. Montpellier : CIHEAM (Centre International de Hautes Études Agronomiques Méditerranéennes), 2015.

[17] Hamza Meddeb, ‘L’ambivalence de la course à “el khobza”. Obéir et se révolter en Tunisie,’ Politique Africaine, 121, 2011, pp.35-54.

[18] Najeh Missaoui; Khalfaoui, Oussama, Dégage, degage, degage. Ils ont dit degage! Tunis: Editions Franco-Berbères, 2011.

[19] Hamzaoui Med Amine feat. KAFON, “Houmani,” 2013,

[20] Gilbert Achcar, ‘What Happened to the Arab Spring?’, Jacobin, 17 December 2015.

[21] Habib Ayeb, op. cit., pp. 467.

[22] Eric Gobe, ‘The Gafsa Mining Basin between Riots and a Social Movement: meaning and significance of a protest movement in Ben Ali’s Tunisia’, 2010

[23] Missaoui & Khalfaoui,  Dégage, 2011, pp.127-8.

[24] Eric Gobe, ‘The Gafsa Mining Basin between Riots and a Social Movement’, 2010, p.14.

[25] O. Lamloum, Politics on the Margins in Tunisia. Vulnerable Young People in Douar Hicher and Ettadhamen, International Alert, 2016, p. 9.

[26] Ibid., p.10.

[27] Missaoui & Khalfaoui, op. cit., pp.151-182.

[28] Glenda Garelli; Sossi, Federica; Tazzioli, Martina (Eds.) Spaces in Migration: Postcards of a Revolution, London: Pavement Books, 2013, p.14.

[29] Ibid., p. 199.

[30] Fabio Merone, ‘Explaining the jihadi threat in Tunisia’, OpenDemocracy, 21 March 2015,

[31] Lamloum, pp. 13.

[32] Ibid., pp. 20-21.

[33] Ibid., pp.21-23.

[34] John Zarocostas, ‘More than 7,000 Tunisians said to have joined Islamic State’, McClatchyDC, 17 March 2015,

[35] Adam Hanieh, ‘A Brief History of ISIS’, Jacobin, 3 December 2015.

[36] Jason Burke, ‘The New Threat from Islamic Militancy. Q & A with Jason Burke’, Five Dials, 2016,

[37] Alberti Fabio, Osservatorio Iraq, ‘The Eastern Question, the Arab Malaise and Daesh’, 01 March 2016. The Sykes-Picot agreement is a secret document signed by the British diplomat Mark Sykes and the French counterpart Francois Georges-Picot in 1916, in which the two powers establish their spheres of influence should they defeat the Ottoman Empire: Palestine and Iraq under the British rule, Syria and Lebanon under the French rule. The terms of the agreement are contrary to what the British had promised to the Arab communities in exchange for their support against the Ottoman empire, namely that the British empire would support a national Arab homeland area, the so-called greater Syria.

[38] Hanieh.

[39] Alba Rico, Santiago, ‘Tunisia: torna la rivoluzione?’, Tunisia in Red, 24 January 2016.

[40] Hanieh.

[41] Krichen, L’affair de Jemna

[42] Alba Rico, 2016.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Henda Channaoui, Nawaat, ‘Reportage à Kasserine: Personne ne saura calmer la colère de la faim,’ 21 January 2016,

[45] Fabio Merone, ‘Explaining the jihadi threat in Tunisia’, OpenDemocracy, 21 March 2015, merone/explaining-jihadi-threat-in-tunisia  

[46] Martina Tazzioli. "Revisiting the Omnes et Singulatim Bond: The Production of Irregular Conducts and the Biopolitics of the Governed." Foucault Studies, 2016, pp. 98-116.

[47] R.L., ‘Wanderings of the Slave: Black Life and Social Death,’ Mute magazine,, 5 June 2013,

[48] Clover, op. cit., p.125.

[49] Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, ‘Bare Life’, in Sussman H. (Ed.) Impasses of the Post-Global: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol 2. Michigan: Open Humanities Press., 2012.

[50] Ahl Al Kahf, Performative Intervention at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna (text), 2012,أهل-الكهف-ahl-alkahf/ahl-al-kahf-performative-intervention-jan-2012/593074547439538.

[51] Brenna Bhandar, ‘Plasticity and Post-Colonial Recognition: ‘Owning, Knowing and Being’’, Law Critique, 22, 2011,  pp. 227-249.

[52] Banu Bargu, Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons. Columbia University Press, 2014.

[53] Hanud Dabashi, Corpus Anarchicum: Political Protest, Suicidal Violence and the Making of the Posthuman Body, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, p. 9.

[54] Banu Bargu, Why did Bouazizi kill himself? Fatal politics and the politics of fate, Conference at SOAS, 21 September 2015.

[55] Brenna Bhandar, ‘Plasticity and Post-Colonial Recognition: ‘Owning, Knowing and Being’’, Law Critique, 22, 2011, pp. 242.

[56] R.L., op. cit.

[57] Invisible Committee, Coming Insurrection, 12 in Clover: 153-4.

[58] I refer here to a shift from the state’s focus on policing and detention as answers to the issues arising from the ongoing marginalisation of large sections of the population. Especially considering the importance that state violence has had in triggering the initial riots leading to the 2011 mass movement.

[59] Clover, op. cit., 165.

[60] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, London: Penguin, p.27.