Towards Democracy? In memoriam, Gilbert Naccache on ‘a revolution of a new type.’

Following is an extract from Gilbert Naccache’s book Towards Democracy? (Vers la démocratie?).

Born to a working-class Jewish family in 1939, Naccache worked as an agronomic engineer before, as a member of the radical ‘Perspectives’ group, his political imprisonment in 1968. Freed in 1979, having written his first book, Cristal, on cigarette packets, he worked as an editor and writer.

Naccche died on 26 December 2020. In his dedication to him for Nawaat, Mohamed-Salah Omri wrote, ‘the Tunisia he identified with is struggling to remain inclusive, diverse, and forward-looking as it celebrates ten years of its revolution amidst setbacks, impending dangers and the disarray of the country’s Left.’

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The ‘Dignity Revolution’ 

In February 2011, a youth from the Meknassy region explained his participation in the revolutionary movement in the following way: 

During all those days of protest, when my friends, my comrades fell besides us, we weren’t scared of facing death, because we didn’t have much to lose. We live in a kind of hole, hopeless that things will get better. All we do is sit around in cafés, banging on about our hopelessness, squeezing the price of a coffee or a couple of cigarettes from a relative – and so life, death, what’s the difference? 

You speak about liberty, about democracy: we fought for their triumph. Not out of idealism, or out of much love for these ideas. No. We rid the country of the Trabelsi (Ben Ali’s affinal family, symbol of the mafia), and now the people with money will be able to invest, and so we’ll be able to get work. We don’t care that the rich get richer, the essential thing is to raise the country and the youth from poverty. 

In linking their demands to changes in both the economic and political situation, one can see that the level of spontaneous conscience of the revolution’s actors was very high, even if they did not imagine anything more than the removal of supposed obstacles to productive investment. And, very rapidly, they adopted the term ‘revolution’ to describe what they were doing, since they knew that they had transformed the political situation beyond a simple change of personnel. 

I will not here expand on the unfolding of the revolution, on how it was generalised from its beginnings from the interior of the country; a dispossessed region, long-discriminated against by successive central powers that have always been aggravated by the spirit of independence and the dignity of the semi-nomadic pastoralists and their tribes which, sometimes, came together to resist central power and the greed of its courtiers. 

The young internautes spreading of news and images of the police’s repression of riots – which did not stop, despite the deaths and injuries – was, if not decisive, then nevertheless accelerated the geographic and political unification of the struggle, and so has brought its achievements closer (and there were certainly foreign pressures towards getting rid of an inhibited Ben Ali, before things went too far). 

The political parties which only timidly showed their presence under Bel Ali were of three sorts: first, those that emerged from splits with the PSD [i.e. the historic ruling party, renamed the RCD in 1988], like the PUP: Belsalahiste’s, which is to say attached to the Tunisian socialism of the 1960s, or like the MDS, founded by Ahmed Mestiri, which demanded the democratisation of political life [1]. Second, those that emerged from transformations within the Parti Communiste Tunisien (PCT) and its various permutations which, having begun with an elementary Marxism, attempted to maintain an existence in (it must be said) unpropitious circumstances and, following the fall of the Berlin wall, implicitly rejected every communist feature of their politics. Finally, the Islamists: very heavily repressed, whose clandestine existence was hounded without mercy.

Due to the regime’s features and its constant repression, including against left-wing protestors, these parties, often tempted by participation in Ben Ali’s electoral farces, were focused above all on criticising the lack of liberty and denouncing the police character of the system. Having forsaken theoretical analyses of society and abandoned social struggles, they confined themselves to this role, closer to the dissidents of Eastern Europe [l’Est] than to parties implanted amongst the popular masses and leading, or at least participating in, their struggles. One was not surprised that in such conditions those parties preferred to address European public opinion in the hope of obtaining some support for their struggle for democratic reforms, rather than making an effort to speak to Tunisians. It must be said that, in this democratic fight, the parties were preceded by three or four civil society associations who have tirelessly carried the torch of liberty. 

It is for this reason that the parties were all absent from the revolution, revealing their limits, with their incomprehension of the real situation having become a permanent feature of it. It should be recognised that, as political formations conceived of and organised in the society of the 20th century, none amongst them posed the question of the need for adaptation to the realities of new times: the impossibility of developing productive forces, from which arises those mafiosi activities and the ever-stronger pressure exerted on the population from the RCD potentates; the true nature of the RCD, that those parties continued to consider, despite all evidence, as a political party – a decisive instrument of the construction of a one-party state, implying it as the principal enemy of liberalisation (and Ben Ali as being merely the head of this state and this party); the role of the different classes or class fractions and of their own organisations – UGTT, Avocats, UGET, UTICA, et cetera – and their attitudes to power [2]; and finally, they have not taken into account the information revolution, with the prodigious acceleration of the circulation of information (including of images, hence the role played by the internautes) and with it the possibility of popularising history and its lessons. 

After the fall of Ben Ali, when the rest of the ancien régime attempted to save what they could of the ancien État, the political parties, liberated from repression, still without asking any questions, have worked at maximum capacity to hijack this formidable political movement for their own purposes – a movement that they did not foresee, and that they do not know how to interpret. 

It was a revolution of a new type that the mobilisations from the 17 December 2010 to the 14 January 2011 launched: A revolution without leadership, without a vision of the state to be rebuilt, without demands any more precise than for liberty, work, and dignity, and without experience of struggle or the means to translate its slogans into political reality. It could do no more than find itself disarmed in the face of counter-revolutionary manoeuvres and the sordid appetites of the political parties, as the events over the following years would illustrate. 

But, despite the shortcomings of its subjective preparation and the limitation of its ambitions, this revolution (itself objective, in a sense) owes its vigour, its generality, its obstinacy, and its vigilance in blocking the return of the RCD, a return which appears to have been definitively excluded: things have changed. First amongst those changes is that those liberties, now grasped, will not allow for a single party; public liberties, particularly freedoms of speech and association, henceforth preclude one discourse, one thought, only one way in politics – liberties that should not be underestimated [on n’est pas prêt à les remettre en cause], even if it is not, or not yet, the revolutionaries who will benefit the most from them. 

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[1] The PSD, or the Parti socialiste destourien. As the Neo Destour party it fought for and negotiated Tunisia’s independence from France. In 1988 the PSD was renamed the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD): in these different forms, Tunisia’s ‘parti unique’.

‘Belsalahistes’ refers to Ahmed Ben Salah, the historic leader of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) who joined the post-independence government. Expelled from the PSD, Ben Salah founded the Popular Union Movement in 1973, from which ‘PUP’, the Popular Unity Party, was a 1981 split.

Finally, the liberal Movement of Socialist Democrats was founded by PSD dissidents in 1978. 

[2] I.e., the various larger labour organisations. 

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