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Emergent Public Discourse and the Constitutional Debate in Tunisia: A Critical Narrative Analysis

The appointment of the Minister of Industry, the so-called “technocrat” Mehdi Jomaa, to form a caretaker government in Tunisia on the eve of the revolution’s third anniversary, threw into stark relief the country’s complex struggle for democracy following the January 14 revolution. The announcement came in the wake of the Islamist party Ennahdha’s sudden renunciation of the Prime Minister’s office in September, ostensibly a sign of cooperation in the face of mounting criticism surrounding the government’s failure to investigate the assassinations of two political opposition figures. A number of Western media outlets, including the New York Times, quickly absorbed the narrative advanced by Ennahdha’s leader and spiritual guide Rachid al-Ghannouchi referring to the appointment of Jomaa as a “yielding of power.” This narrative of concession, however, elides the fact that neither of the Parliament’s largest secular opposition parties supported the vote to appoint Jomaa, or, for that matter, that the vote failed to achieve a majority. Faced with mounting criticism, Ennahdha’s spokesman denied reports in Le Monde from the previous day that the appointment had been directed by lobbying efforts from the U.S. Department of State and the E.U.[1] In other words, Ennahdha leaders defended the appointment as a victory as much as they sold it as a concession. The former lends itself to the long-standing critique on the part of secular pundits within Tunisia that Ennahdha has been playing a long game and is determined to alter the secular nature of the State. The latter suggests that the Islamist party is representative of a democratic majority and envisions a path of moderate conservative governance along the lines of the AKP in Turkey.

As the collapse of the old Arab regimes has shown, reality tends to resist succinct narration, however. Or, at least, it tends to remain subject to a degree of differánce in the Derridean sense. In the following I look briefly at how events on the ground in post-revolutionary Tunisia have not so much been deferred by narrative, as they have been altered or reorganized to reinforce preexisting ideologies. The process of revolution offers a unique window onto the relationship between ideology, narrative, and phenomena, simply insofar as the very definition of the term is predicated on the disruption of this linguistic troika. In simpler terms, it is no longer possible to determine, exactly, whose ideology is revolutionary and whose is not.

To draw an example from the far end of the ideological spectrum, for the most radical actors in the region, the collapse of central authorities in Mali, Libya, and Tunisia was easily employed to substantiate their raison d’être. Al-Andalus Establishment for Media Production, a shadowy outlet whose primary function has been to broadcast and further articulate the message of the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, described the Jasmine revolution as a “blessed awakening,” describing it moreover as “the revolution of Kairouan,” in reference to Tunisia’s ancient center of religious learning.[2]

AQIM championed the cause of the Jasmine revolution primarily as stimulus for their aggression towards multinationals in the region as well as the corporatist regime of Algeria. But the revolution as an upending of Western backed governments was a fairly mainstream narrative from the outset, one that was aggressively promulgated across the ideological spectrum of Islamists and non-Islamists alike. In Tunisia, it was employed by the Salafi-jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia to validate its attack on the U.S. Embassy and an American school on the anniversary of 9-11 as a revolutionary action. But it has also been employed by groups like the Ligues de Protection de la Revolution who besieged Tunisian Parliament on the anniversary of the country’s first elections, demanding a purge of corrupt remnants of the old regime. Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the extra-official leader of Ennahdha, referred to this latter group as the “conscience of the nation.”[3] And while he was careful to create distance between himself and members of Ansar al-Sharia, when asked in a hidden YouTube recording, he described his party and theirs as “two sons of the same movement.” Published online in the summer of 2012, the video showed al-Ghannouchi telling Salafi activists to “be patient,” cautioning them to use moderation in their effort to enforce Sharia in Tunisian universities and neighborhoods. In reference to the Algerian experience of the 1990s that saw the election of an Islamist government, followed by a reactionary military Coup, and a bloody Civil War, he said, “we don’t want to go down their path.” “Today we have more than a mosque,” he said. “We have a Ministry of Religious Affairs. We have more than a single store. We have a State.”[4]

Still, it goes without saying that al-Ghannouchi and Ennahdha have pursued a relatively moderate path, a position made evident by their participation in elections, and, more importantly, the drafting of a new Constitution. This willingness to participate in government became in fact a major point of division between Ennahdha and more radical actors. For example, a 2011 fatwa posted by Shaykh Abu-Muslim al-Jaza’iri (Shura council member of Muhammad al-Maqdisi, jihadist ideologue closely connected to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) and attributed to a group known as The Forum Shari’a Committee addressed the subject directly, denouncing the “increase in voices calling for the secularism of the state, and the introduction of a constitution” as moving away from “the historically and physically proved Islamic identity of the country.” (The fatwa, it should be noted, was posted on Facebook).[5] This anti-participatory narrative, of course, was not born of the revolution, but found ready material in the new consolidations of power. In Tunisia its most vocal advocate has been the leader of Ansar al-Sharia, Sayf Allah Ben Hassine, or “Abu ‘Ayadh.” A veteran from the Afghan theater with claims of affiliation to the original core of al-Qaeda, ‘Ayadh, like al-Ghannouchi, reappeared onto the Tunisian scene in the immediate wake of the revolution, having been released from a 40 year prison sentence as part of the general amnesty that followed Ennahdha’s success at the polls. His message, conveyed in glossy online videos, Facebook postings, and elaborately staged mass rallies has been uniformly anti-conformist and directed towards Islamist and secular government figures alike.

In May of 2012, he set in motion a more concrete agenda, deputizing members of his audience at a rally in Kairouan, encouraging them to act as “political police,” and to enforce Sharia wherever they see so fit.

But as post-revolutionary machinations have shown, the materialization of an ideology into action has unintended consequences. After the summer of 2012, which included attacks on art galleries in Marsa, riots at the University of Manuba, and violent skirmishes with fishermen running alcohol, ‘Ayadh became seen as public enemy number one. Although he was allowed to escape from his hiding in a downtown Mosque in Tunis after police abandoned their position citing traffic congestion, he has effectively been on the run since September 11, 2012.[6]

The materialization of ideology into form generated a similar problem for the Muslim Brotherhood. Their Constitution attempted to make concrete the otherwise ambiguous concept of Sharia rule, by dissolving the entente between the former regime and al-Azhar, the country’s center of Islamic jurisprudence. Article 4 of Part 1 of the now defunct document read that “Al-Azhar Senior Scholars are to be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law.” Because Islamic law was also intended to be the “principal source of legislation,” the clause was intended to ensure that local legislation remain deferential to these higher authorities, functioning, of course, beyond the reach of government oversight. This became the principal source of tension between Egypt’s Islamist parliament and the existent judicial authority and it was this tension that set in motion the July 2 Coup that installed as President ‘Adly Mansour, a judge and also the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court. In Tunisia, al-Ghannouchi, who had articulated a common vision for the legislation of Sharia with the establishment of local Shura councils deferential at the supreme level to al-Zaytouna, Tunisia’s equivalent of al-Azhar, had seen Ennahdha bear the brunt of backlash, domestic and foreign, with the release of their 2012 Draft Constitution. The principal source of anger, however, was Article 2 which stipulated: “The state shall guarantee the protection of the rights of women and shall support the gains thereof as true partners to men in the building of the nation and as having a roll complementary thereto within the family.” The role of women as “complementary” to men generated virulent backlash from groups as varied as UGTT (the national labor union) and Human Rights Watch. The Brotherhood Constitution in Egypt, incidentally, attempted to advance an identical article, cloaked in the well-known poetic phrase that the nation is like a bird that needs two wings to fly. “There is no dignity for a country in which women are not honored. Women are the sisters of men and hold the fort of motherhood; they are half of society and partners in all national gains and responsibilities.”

The institutionalization of ideology then has proven hazardous to those in power. Revolution, ongoing still in North Africa, has been about the opposite, of uncovering and scrutinizing those nexuses of ideology and power that have shaped the social landscape, often in clandestine fashion, for the past four decades.

It is in this way that the most serious threat to Ennahdha’s hold on power (now at its lowest approval rating to date) came as the result of material revelations that their attitude towards Abu ‘Ayadh and his gang was possibly more than just one of complacency. Following one of Ansar al-Sharia’s most egregious actions—a June 2012 rampage through the upscale neighborhoods of the capital following an art-exhibition (Le printemps d’arts) that the group claimed had featured “blasphemous” instillations—Ennahdha members introduced into the Draft Constitution Article 3 which would prohibit violations of the “sacred,” effectively bolstering the work of the pillagers.

The controversial article was broadly perceived by secular critics as authoritarian, an attack on the freedom of expression as well as the secular nature of the State. Ennahdha attempted to deflect such criticism under the banner of revolution, claiming the right to free expression, including blasphemy, to be a Western ideal imposed from above by the recently ousted regime. It was not until the massive outburst of violence on September 11, surrounding the release of an online video—The Innocence of Muslims—that Ennahdha was forced to sideline its advocacy for Article 3. This issue, however, continues to be a sticking point in ongoing deliberations over the new Constitution, planned for completion by the fall of 2014.

No longer defined as a prohibition on violations of the sacred, members of the commission charged with producing the Final Constitution are now debating the inclusion of a clause that defends the antithesis of this idea, i.e. “the freedom of conscience.” According to the non-profit legal advocacy firm al-Bawsala, which tweets on the Constitution commission from within the board room, this issue continues to be a major stumbling block. Representatives of the left-leaning Progressive Democratic Party (Maya Jeribi and Issam Chebbi) argued for inclusion of the “Freedom of Conscience” clause within the Preamble of the document. Ennahdha representatives (namely Sahbi Atig, a member of al-Ghannouchi’s original core group) who once argued for including the “ban on violations of the sacred” in the Preamble, now find themselves arguing for removal of the clause supporting “Freedom of Conscience.” Compromise, it appears, may find the clause as it is, or slightly altered, cached somewhere within the body of the Document, not in the Preamble.

The other major issues still under scrutiny are transitional provisions, the creation of a Constitutional Court and the length of service for appointed judges, the freedom of press, and the freedom to protest. Only the question over the inclusion of a provision for the creation of a Constitutional Court has generated substantive public debate. Although some members of the mixed commission remain cynical, including the filmmaker activist Salma Baccar of the Democratic Modernist Pole, and Selma Mabrouk of the secularist Ettakatol coalition who walked out of the last meeting in protest, the body has a viable structure for evading the kind of popular resistance faced by the earlier, Ennahdha-led commission.[7]

The more fragile dynamic is likely to be reaction to the appointment of Jomaa. Heralded as an independent, Jomaa, in addition to other major industry positions, held a post, until recently, as a member of the group TOTAL, one of the largest energy companies in the world, and he was the Director of the Aerodynamics division of the French engineering giant Hutchinson. Although intended to serve just a limited interim term, his candidature is a reminder of the intense foreign investment and privatization initiatives that characterized the last decade and a half of rule under the regime of Ben ‘Ali. It is worth remembering that the 2011 revolution, though typically summarized as an ideological awakening towards democracy, began, in essence, in response to revelations that one of the country’s largest employers, the Gafsa Phosphates Company (CPG), had fabricated and put forward a grossly inflated jobs report, presumably in an attempt to stave off additional tax hikes. The sit-ins that followed gave way to violent crackdowns which in turn became precipitous to national resentment.[8] The episode came as a shock to outside observers, as growth in the mining and energy industries had appeared steady for nearly a decade.[9] But unemployment in Gafsa was in fact at 30 percent, a carryover from a 75 percent cut in the company’s workforce following its merger with the Tunisian Chemical Group (GCT). Unemployment in the capital, by comparison, was 13 percent in 2010.[10]

The appointment of an industrialist with strong ties to foreign multinationals, combined with recent revelations that the region of Kairouan will be open to an unprecedented level of hydraulic fracking expeditions, and that the U.S. will open a permanent military base in the south of the country, may well stir some of the original cinders of the revolution.[11] Privatization of major industries across the Maghreb (90 percent of Tunisie Télécom for example is owned by Qatar Telecom, most major gas installations across the region are foreign owned, etc.), without significant reinvestment in the local economy, is likely to give credence to those narratives of resistance espoused by more radical actors in the region.

For example, in a 2007 communique by the Emir of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abu Musab ‘Abdel-Wadoud (A.K.A. Abdelmalek Droukdel), wrote: “Big foreign companies took hold of our resources and our internal wealth, they controlled our domestic markets after they forced us to accept the principle of liberating the exterior commerce, the use of the privatization laws, transferred the ownership of many of our strategic economic companies to foreign countries.”[12]

Privatization, in the narrative of AQIM, is closely linked to an even more pervasive ideology that rejects liberalism as a form of social decadence. In one dispatch from 2011, Droukdel describes the cosmopolitan condition as an expression of “mundane life,” an attempt to connect the miseries of the poor to the political programs of liberalization.[13] In another from 2010, he applauds the “heroic mujahidin . . . who stormed the French mining region of Arlit in Niger. . . . One of the most significant sources of uranium in the world.” “The companies of the Crusaders, which are stealing our wealth and exploiting our sons, must know that they are legitimate targets for the mujahidin,” he writes “and they must leave soon.”[14]

It seems unlikely that al-Ghannouchi and Ennahdha will appropriate this narrative any time soon, however. Jomaa is not only their man, but al-Ghannouchi and the former PM, al-Jebali (who also ran Ennahdha’s militant wing in the 80s) spearheaded the notion last February of appointing a “Technocrat” to office. The lucid political commentator and philosopher Youssef Seddik, who was also a colleague of al-Ghannouchi’s at lycee, took note of the curious new word then rooting itself into public discourse. “The word [technocrat] was introduced with a magician’s touch,” he wrote. It was to be the catalyst for an “artificial catharsis following the assassination of Chokri Belaïd.” By its evocation of ‘technique,’ the word ‘technocrat,’ had the philological merit of announcing to the ear and understanding of your average Joe (M. Tout-le-monde), an idea, and a word, so familiar that it seemed to be almost a part of our own dialect, or even classical Arabic when one thinks of the word ‘teqanī‘ surreptitiously tucked into the lexicon of certain tracts of literature. It was in this way,” he wrote, “that M. Ghannouchi was able to demonstrate his flair for populism. . . . As he said on the radio one day, during a particularly inspired moment, he would resolve the false dilemma of politics and party by assembling an apolitical party. A party of technocrats!” The Prime Minister, he said, had already done so, appointing people like MM. Abdellatif Mekki and Khélil Zaouia as the Minister of Health and the Minister of Social Affairs. “They are politicians, yes,” he said, “but they are both doctors as well. They’re technocrats. I know from having spent time with the Super Sage of Ennahdha,” wrote Seddik, that Rachid al-Ghannouchi “knows virtually everything, except for the language of Homer. Should it have been otherwise he might have known that techne is just the first part of the word ‘technocrat.’ And the second means ‘power.’ And not just any doctor becomes a political boss. Unless, unless he is named Hippocrates. Because this famous doctor does always hold power, albeit strictly over horses.”[15]

In attempting to purport something other than what it is, the technocrat strategy is a perfect reflection of the paradox that is revolution today. That which is intended to counter an idea—in this case politics—may easily become that which it is not. The power of technocracy is still a kind of power, after all. And it is not difficult to imagine what future narratives of resistance to this current technocracy might look like. Because they too already exist.


1. Isabelle Mandraud, “Tunisie: un nouveau premier ministre nommé sous la pression occidentale,” Le Monde, December 16, 2013.

2. al-Andalus 2012. OpenSource.Gov. 2012. Accessed May 14, 2013.

3. “Rached Ghannouchi: ‘Les ligues de protection de la Révolution sont la conscience du pays,'” Shems FM. October 22, 2012.

4. The video can be found here. See also Marc Daou, “Filmé à son insu, Rached Ghannouchi tombe la masque,” France 24, 2012.

5. al-Jaza’iri, Shaykh Abu-Muslim. 2011. “Fatwa Supports ‘Campaign to Defend the Islamic Identity of Tunisia.” OpenSource.Gov. Accessed May 18, 2013.

6. “La police se retire des alentours de la Mosque el-Fath pour congestionner la circulation.” 2012. Mosaїque FM, September 14. Accessed September 14, 2012.

7. “Projet Final de Constitution—Avis des Commissions Constituantes à l’ANC,” al-Bawsala. June 10, 2013.

8. See for example Tunisian journalist Youssef Seddik’s column in Le Temps, “Matins et crépuscules de Dame Démocratie,” March 13, 2013. Karine Gantin and Omeyya Seddik provide a more complete account of the events in their article “Révolte du ‘peuple des mines’ en Tunisie,” in Le Monde diplomatique, July 1, 2008.

9. See the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, The state of Arab cities 2012: challenges of urban transition, 2012, 92.

10. As Karine Gantin and Omeyya Seddik noted, the layoffs occurred largely as the result of an increase in technology and the closure of deep-shaft mines that demanded the use of more labor than the “open casting.”

11. C.f. Med Dhia Hammami, “Feu vert à Shell pour 742 puits de gaz de schiste!” October 18, 2013. On U.S. military presence in Tunisia, see: “Tunisie: où en est la base américaine.”

12. ‘Abdel-Wadoud, Abu Musab. 2007. “AQLIM’s Abdelouadoud Issues Statement Warning Collaborators, Foreigners.” OpenSource.Gov. Accessed April 2, 2013.

13. al-Andalus Establishment for Media Production, “Oh my Muslim Brothers in Tunisia.” 2011. OpenSource.Gov. Accessed May 14, 2013.

14. al-Andalus Establishment for Media Production. 2010. “Kidnapping Five French Nuclear Experts in Uranium Mines in Niger.” OpenSource.Gov. Accessed May 18, 2013.

15. Youssef Seddik, “M. Ghanouchi, des chevaux et des hommes!” Le Temps. February 27, 2013. A member of the Dar al-Sabah group, the newspaper that published Seddik’s column, Le Temps, has been shut down in recent weeks along with its website. Le Temps was the second largest francophone daily in the country and the home of the country’s most incisive critics of Ennahdha. Tension between Dar al-Sabah (home also of the largest Arabic daily al-Sabah) and the government began after an unwanted political appointment to the head of the organization.

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