Alcinda Honwana’s ‘Youth and Revolution in Tunisia’ – Reviewed by George Joffé
The Arab Spring, or as its participants prefer, the Arab Awakening, has begun to generate a spate of analysis and comment from within the academic community. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of recent books on the subject are concerned with interpretation, on the assumption that reportage of what actually happened was adequately covered in the journalistic coverage of the events of 2011 as they happened. Unfortunately, this overlooks the ways in which reportorial prejudice and assumption, no doubt quite unconsciously, has coloured both the manner and the nature of the events actually reported.
The demands of the contemporary audience for immediate responses to current events no doubt are largely responsible for this but they have also contributed towards widespread misapprehensions of what the consequences of the Arab Awakening might actually be. Few commentators at the time anticipated the absence of Islamist movements from the actual events themselves or their success in capturing the political scene in the immediate aftermath. Little thought was given, furthermore, as to whether such movements were politically mature enough to handle the implications of participatory politics. Nor was much attention paid, at the time, to whether what was occurring was genuinely revolutionary or merely a change in personnel in regimes that still had the capacity to remain in power or to confront their oppositions through violence. Most striking of all, virtually nobody considered what youth, the primary movers in the dramatic changes that had occurred, might have felt about their aftermath.
Much of the academic analysis now emerging bears the imprint of these deficiencies in reportage, largely because insufficient time has passed for the kind of detailed field research that would reveal the complexity of the events of 2011 and 2012 to have been undertaken. Alcinda Honwana’s latest book, Youth and revolution in Tunisia, is, from this point of view, at least, quite exceptional for its primary purpose is to interrogate youth in the country where the Arab Awakening began, Tunisia, on their reasons for demanding change and on their reactions to the aftermath of the removal of the Ben Ali regime from power. Although she freely admits that she had little prior knowledge of Tunisia, as an anthropologist from Mozambique, she has specialised in links between political culture and conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. She also created an impressive circle of contacts in Tunisia itself which gave her wide access to active youth there and their own experiences of the Tunisian revolution and its aftermath.
The result of her two extended research trips to Tunisia is a rich tapestry of the manifold ways in which young people in Tunisia engaged with the revolution and its aftermath. She describes the revolution itself through the eyes of her young interlocutors and then turns to the background against which it took place, highlighting the massive alienation that was so widely felt throughout Tunisia in the last months of the Ben Ali regime and identifying how the Tunisian population mobilised against a regime that demonstrated itself to be completely out-of-touch with popular sentiment after the catalytic event of the suicide of Mohammed Bouazzizi in December 2010. Once the revolution has disposed of the old regime, she turns to the ways in which a new political system emerged, against the background of growing youth disenchantment with the implications of formal politics.
Professor Honwana’s study successfully maintains an objective stance between secularists and Islamists in Tunisia over the various issues with which the author deals. This is particularly the case over one of the most acute social divides, the question of the status of women within the new constitution, in the light of Tunisia’s much-prized Personal Status Law. She does not disguise the immense suspicions that exist amongst secularists over the intentions of Tunisia’s major Islamist movement, Ennahda, although her own research, carried out in 2011 and 2012, was completed before secularist anxieties were inflamed, first by government ambivalence over the growth of Tunisia’s Salafist movement, part of which now is openly jihadist, and then over the assassinations of two major political leaders, murders which the government now blames on Salafi extremists.
Although, inevitably, this study highlights the role played by social media in the organisation of the revolution, it also points out that this was only part of the complex mechanism of communication that enabled the spontaneous organisation of protest that eventually brought the Ben Ali regime down. Due weight is given to the social movements that emerged from pre-existing organisations to mobilise and organise public reaction and that were key in achieving the immediate goals of the revolution itself. It is, perhaps, a measure of the author’s relative unfamiliarity with the literature on North Africa and the Middle East that she chides the academic community for its apparent failure in expanding social movement theory to cover the Islamic world. In fact, this has been undertaken more widely than she seems to realise and there is a considerable body of work that discusses these issues in detail.
In her conclusion, Professor Honwana points out correctly that relatively little work has been done on analysing the lineaments of the kinds of “˜leaderless revolutions’ that have characterised not only the Arab Awakening but also parallel events in the developed world, such as “˜Los Indignados’ and the “˜Occupy Wall Street’ movement. She suggests, with considerable justification, that such movements are symptomatic of a fundamental change in the nature of politics as disillusioned young people move away from the concepts of formal political engagement, although they have not yet addressed the associated question of empowerment to achieve the restructuring of the societies in which they live. Implicit in this conclusion, however, is the realisation that political transformation in Tunisia, as elsewhere in the region, is a very long term and uneven process, but one that only Tunisians can determine. It is an appropriate note on which to end a uniquely insightful study on how a revolutionary process in the Arab world began.
George Joffé, University of Cambridge.