arab revolts column

Hanging by a Thread: Class, Corruption and Precarity in Tunisia

By L.S., 17 January 2012
Image: 14 January 2011, the day President Ben Ali fled Tunisia

Looking back beyond the events that triggered Tunisia’s overthrow of President Ben Ali, the systemic corruption of the state’s numerous officials emerges not as the anomaly of dictatorship, but as the structural control of a surplus population expanded by decades of neoliberal restructuring – writes L.S. in his second Arab Revolts Blog posting


The months following President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s sudden flight from Tunisia on 14 January 2011 were marked by further sustained popular pressure as mobilised Tunisians attempted to wrest the post-Ben Ali political transition from the elites that had surrounded him in the ruling RCD single party. In a short space of time three configurations of the transitional administration were compelled to dissolve or be substantially reconfigured to placate the large demonstrations and sit-ins rejecting the old political order. A strike wave erupted as long repressed economic demands could now be made via the unshackled and ascendant UGTT, the historically important trade union federation.


The unemployed youth from the underdeveloped, provincial towns at the heart of the uprising, such as Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine and Thala, were a crucial constituency in the continuing revolt, as they mobilised for sit-ins and faced the still murderous security forces, both in their home towns and by flooding into Tunis in significant numbers. After achieving some of its demands in prompting interim Prime Minister Ghannouchi to sack most of the old RCD figures from the transitional government on 27 January, the first important occupation of Tunis’s Kasbah Square (situated in front of Government buildings) was brutally put down by the police, reportedly resulting in five deaths and numerous injuries, although this was largely ignored by the press.


This brutality, the cowardice of the still muzzled press and the betrayal of the army which had posed as protectors of the occupiers only to withdraw at the appointed time and let the police do its dirty work, motivated many to push harder to ensure the gains of the revolt. The ugly events had proved that the old order was still very much in place, despite the defensive concessions of the interim authorities. This formed the background to the so called ‘Kasbah 2’ sit-in, which began on 20 February, involving hundreds of highly committed youths arriving from the interior in a ‘popular caravan’, and culminating in a demonstration of more than a hundred thousand on the 25th. This was even larger than the epochal gathering of 14 January on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the day Ben Ali was forced to flee, and it prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Ghannouchi. Shortly after, the tabling of elections for a National Constituent Assembly was announced, the new PM declared that the old constitution was suspended and that members of the interim administration would not be able to stand in the upcoming elections. Following these concessions, the protesters disbanded their occupation of the Kasbah.


Image: Ben Ali visits Mohamed Bouazizi in hospital... though it is widely believed that Bouazizi was already dead by then

In this period of upheaval political forces were polarised between a broad UGTT-led alliance organised into the National Council for the Protection of the Revolution and the remaining state elites. The NCPR claimed revolutionary legitimacy as the voice of the street and sought to push for the uprooting of the RCD establishment, challenging the right of unreformed government institutions to rule; the remaining state elites argued for caution and the restoration of order before a programme of gradual reform could be implemented. They backed their position up by wielding the spectre of instability designed to demobilise the masses in the face of the undeniably worsening economic situation. With the fall of Ghannouchi, the disbanding of the RCD, and the tabling of elections, a settlement of sorts was reached between the ‘gradualist’ party and the ‘revolutionary’ party, and the National Council was dissolved into the Council for the Higher Authority, a governmental body tasked with overseeing various pressing constitutional matters. As the immediate post-Ben Ali strike wave receded a rough assessment would be that the UGTT was able to negotiate pay rises for many of the workers that it represents, whilst other key demands, notably for permanent contracts, were left unmet. Strikes would reappear however, and other economically disruptive protests by unemployed workers such as 'piquetero' style roadblocks and sit-ins outside important workplaces have significantly picked up in frequency since the autumn.


The UGTT-led alliance was a highly heterogeneous force, expressing broad middle class interests as well as the aspiration of workers and the unemployed. It involved figures from the business world and liberal intellectuals concerned with the predation of ruling groups on commercial activity, the non-functioning of civil society under the domination of the single party and secret police. In other words, it was a direct expression of the cross-class nature of the revolt. Reflecting this class composition, the discourse around the revolt repeatedly asks whether it is predominantly ‘economic’ or ‘political’ in nature. Instigated and driven by the laissés-pour-compte of Tunisia’s interior in situations of pressing economic hardship, it broadened to include other social layers in putting into question the authoritarian system as a whole. For the liberal political economist, this marks a maturing of the revolt from the level of the bread riot – seen as an inchoate outburst of anger in immediately straightened material circumstances – to an understanding of the political reproduction of the economic. For more radical critics however, the worry is that the material interests of the working class are obscured in a cross-class alliance for political change, demanding democracy, civil rights and the clean state before all else. With the rejection of widespread corruption one of the central themes of the revolt, it would appear that middle class-articulated critiques of moribund, obsolete statism predominate, yet any assessment of the revolt needs to analyse the contemporary modalities of the experience of corruption in the liberalised Tunisian economy for those unemployed and informal workers that instigated it, and its rootedness in everyday social reproduction.


Youth unemployment is a long running and structural problem, engendered by the very success of Tunisia’s development model. After an initial partial opening with the establishment of export processing zones in the mid ’70s under Bourguiba (Tunisia’s president since independence) the country suffered a major structural crisis at the end of the decade, involving acute balance of payments problems and large amounts of non-performing loans in state owned banks linked to unproductive state industries. Ben Ali’s 1987 coup finally replaced the ageing leader and made possible a programme of thoroughgoing reform and economic opening, under the tutelage of the IMF. The new regime stabilised the macroeconomic situation, gradually writing down the internal debt, whilst opening the country to foreign direct investment and privatising key productive sectors. This led to a period of sustained and stable growth, glowing IMF and EU reports and talk of a ‘Tunisian Miracle’ and a ‘Mediterranean Tiger Economy’. Tunisia became one of the model children of neoliberal globalisation, integrated into the southern flank of the EU economy, boasting a healthy, well educated and cheap labour force that leading economies to the North, led by France, were eager to exploit.


With the working class disciplined by the spreading police state and dissenting political groups muzzled in periodic moments of crisis, the local bourgeoisie also found itself subjected to Ben Ali’s peculiar neoliberal dirigisme, in which various EU-sponsored technocratic schemes designed to improve productivity – and thus the country’s adaptability in the changing global market – are applied to individual firms via the clientelistic ministration of the all powerful single party.


As the ’90s wore on and areas of profitability such as textiles gradually fell away under the pressure of Asian competition, Tunisia sought to diversify its economy into IT with call centres, and also aspired to ‘move up the commodity ladder’, developing more skilled industrial sectors such as electronics, car parts and aeronautics (airbus assembly). However, in the hyper-competitive globalised economy, what improvements in productivity there were did not lead to the ‘virtuous cycle of growth’ that would result in employment growth, as anticipated by its legion economic advisers. The rate of job creation fell and could not keep up with population growth. Thus long-term unemployment set in for new entrants into the labour market, especially college and university leavers. The massed ranks of graduates, supposedly destined to give Tunisia the edge in the competitive global economy, were left jobless by virtue of that very commitment to economic dynamism and openness, now experienced by the tiny ‘tiger’, that willing student of structural reform, as a mercilessly objective process. Concomitantly, further education also became a way for the state to deal with the problem, as the young were temporarily soaked up in universities on Tunisia’s richer coastal region. Indeed, the country’s regional disparities increased, with private and public investment concentrating on the coast. Furthermore, the more recent restructuring of the state has meant that the number of state jobs, which had remained stable for much of the Ben Ali period, also began to fall. The tourism sector meanwhile, is subject to intense competition from other Mediterranean destinations such as Turkey, Morocco and Egypt, something accentuated in the post 2008 slump.


Thousands of Tunisians gather in Sidi Bouzid, central Tunisia, to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolution in Tunisia, Saturday, Dec 17, 2011. Photo: Amine Landoulsi


It is against this economic backdrop that a Tunisian state keen to maintain its relatively buoyant GDP growth figures embarked on an accelerated programme of state asset privatisation in the ’00s. This is the precise context for the much-mediatised problem of elite family corruption – a rush to divest public assets in an authoritarian state with a weak domestic bourgeoisie less able to find dependable sources of new growth. Those that are well connected will take advantage in a relatively less propitious climate for amassing wealth.


Outrage at these elite clans’ corruption, as famously ‘revealed’ by Wikileaks and heavily involving the family of the President's wife Leila Trabelsi, may well have been one of the key unifying moments of the revolt. Although not directly affected by the financial misdeeds of these particular social layers, the poor, from their worsening situations, would of course well recognise in the wholesale profiteering of the clans the expression of sheer class self-interest. The new post-Ben Ali authorities and some of their middle class supporters however have since attempted to paint this corruption as a mere aberration, the work of a relatively few greedy individuals operating in mafia-like networks which had become a parasitic burden on the normal course of Tunisia’s growth trajectory. Other instances of corruption in society are then portrayed as the mirroring of a ‘culture’ that starts and ends with its morally deficient instigators at the top of the social pile, and have depth in society only to the extent that the authoritarian single party’s grip on social interactions is also seen as the problem.


Liberal endorsements of the revolt can thus see in the toppling of Ben Ali the removal of a mere impediment on Tunisia’s already impressive path to progress. A ‘tick’ against ‘democratic freedoms’ and ‘fight against corruption’ can now be added to the other ‘ticks’ extolling prudent macro-economic policy, openness to foreign investment, relatively high education standards, etc. An anachronism has been abolished and the newly clean state and free political sphere can rejoin the already liberalised economy.


But as already indicated, this perspective misses the fact of the intimate and everyday experience of corruption by the unemployed or semi-employed proletariat, and its rootedness in the specific, contemporary moment of the Tunisian political economy. For the unemployed poor of the interior most notably, but for Tunisians suffering declining incomes and rising prices generally, corruption and the attendant experience of violence and injustice at the hands of state officials is an everyday fact of social reproduction. From the point of view of the state, it is a way of managing the growing surplus population: a specific way in which authoritarianism is modulated to control and integrate the proletariat of the restructured and globally integrated neoliberal economy.


Involvement in the economy for those unable to sell their labour power for a regular wage – through the various schemes for unemployment relief and micro-credit help for instance, but also in the growing black economy – means constant negotiation with corrupt state agents in order to strike more or less compromising clientelistic ‘deals’, and constant fear of extortion and violence at the hands of the police and other petty authority figures. Civil servants, from their side, negotiating the problems and opportunities of depleted state resources, impose an increasingly personalised, arbitrary writ on struggling individuals, letting the masses of the hyper-precarious know that increasing demand for access to declining state resources will entail fulfilling the will of this or that corrupt official and submitting quietly to this or that local RCD party structure. Police recruitment with its huge numbers – 100,000 in a country of just 10 million – is a way of cheaply hiring some of the unemployed to watch over the others, whilst the low wages incentivise security personnel to constantly interfere in the everyday business of citizens in order to bump up their income with daily ‘perks’.


With regards to the large informal economy (which is especially extensive as cross-border illicit trade into the country’s South and centre), the state’s position is effectively laissez-faire, but individual civil servants have the power to extort or block activity because of their capacity ultimately to uphold the law. Much the same is true in the area of clandestine immigration: supposedly prohibited, and only weakly restricted to appease European partners, it is ultimately tolerated as the best way to deal with chronic labour surpluses. In these various ways, the state, through its necessarily ‘flexibilised’ agents, can constantly exploit the difference between its macro-necessity to turn a blind eye and the ultimate recourse to the letter of the law. This very arbitrariness, the knowledge that each individual state agent can point to the law seemingly on a whim or compelled by some obscure reason of local politics, thus throwing lives lived on the edge of survival into disarray, instils fear and ensures compliance… up to a point![1] To all this must be added the more immediate circumstances of the global recession, whose effects (food price inflation and another spike in unemployment due to falling exports to the EU), beyond worsening basic material wants, further deepened these compromising dependencies.


Corruption is then not simply an exception to the normal functioning of the relationship of the state to civil society, nor merely the concern and cause of the established middle class citizen, but a moment in the state’s habitual, harassing reproduction of the mass of marginals in the restructuring Tunisian economy. The youth of the interior identified with the Sidi Bouzid vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi’s desperate act of self-immolation not only because they could see themselves in him as the paradigmatic unemployed university graduate trying to make ends meet, (in fact, he hadn’t been to university but was working to put one of his sisters through university), but also because he suffered precisely such an act of arbitrary state harassment in the confiscation of his scales and the humiliation of the policewoman’s slap.[2] Many could recognise themselves in this subjection to the capricious writ of petty state officials, the lack of respect, the sense of one’s basic social reproduction always hanging by a thread, the unpredictability of everyday life.


Thus the increasingly particularised experience of the relationship to the state, is a universal experience of the class. One could say that in the moment of recognition that sparked the revolt, the particularisation of the individual’s fate and the fragmentation of experience is understood as a class experience.[3]



[1] For more on the ‘privatisation’ of state roles in the neoliberal one party state and the micro-relationships of power that buttress Tunisian authoritarianism see Beatrice Hibou’s, The Force of Obedience, Polity Press, 2011.

[2] After a very politicised arrest in the closing days of Ben Ali's rule, all charges were dropped against policewoman Fedia Hamdi in an equally politically charged atmosphere following his fall. whether the slap occurred or not, or whether one of her assistants assaulted Bouazizi, as some claim, the apocryphal story certainly corresponds to the reality of petit traders' fraught daily dealings with the authorities on the black market in Sidi Bouzid and beyond: bribes asked in exchange for authorities turning a blind eye to illegal trading, unpredictability (some officers 'strict', some 'lax'), arbitrary confiscations of scales and goods bought on credit (hence Bouazizi's desperation - if he can't trade on a particular day, he's in trouble with his supplier), and bullying violence.

[3] Although it is meaningful to speak of Bouazizi’s suicide as a beginning since protests relating to it followed immediately and spread outwards from Sidi Bouzid, one must not forget the two major recent instances of civil unrest in the Tunisian interior preceding the December 2010 explosion: in the Gafsa mining basin and the town of Redayef in 2008; and at Ben Guerdane in the South East of the country in the summer of 2010.