On 14 January 2011 Tunisians ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after a month’s revolt. Ben Ali’s removal has changed our perception of revolution. Two things explain this: the change came totally from below; and the reactionary forces have failed to restore the old order. Unplanned and spontaneous, the revolution succeeded in realising the aspirations of the subaltern because it was a veritable working class response to unemployment, uneven regional development and the suppression of liberties. The regime had been in complete disarray for three weeks before it finally succumbed; it faced the protests with ruthless force but finally ceded to the will of the people on the historic day of 14 January. Ben Ali fled the country, leaving behind a history of dictatorship whose repercussions will persist for years. Yet the cleansing process has already begun, with an interim government responsible to the people to secure the path to democratic rule.
In 1933 the Tunisian poet Abou Kassem Chebi wrote this verse:
Once the people wills life,
Destiny must succumb,
No more shall reign the dark of the night,
No more shall we by the chains be bound. 1
This verse had been part of the literature of resistance to the French Protectorate imposed on Tunisia in 1883. However, literature and art seem to have exerted only weak pressure on the nationalist movement. Tunisian peasant society was more responsive to politics from above than literary expressions. Chebi’s poem coincided with the foundation of the Neo-Destour Party (New Constitution Party) in 1934. The NDP represented the political ambitions of an educated elite who sought to negotiate independence by peaceful means.2 The people’s will was then drowned by the partisanship of the Neo-Destourists, and the struggle for independence assumed an ideological character which distanced Chebi’s people from political life.
The 1940s saw the rise of a single leader, Habib Bourguiba, from the womb of Neo-Destourism (neo-constitutionalism). Bourguiba came to subordinate the nationalist movement to the dictates of diplomacy and negotiation with France. The Neo-Destour was the tool with which he charted the decolonisation map on the basis of an alleged protection/obedience formula. Tunisians were a peasant society mostly bound to believe that the party leader was the protector of their destiny. Bourguiba argued that he “personified his own people” and that he “fought for the cause of the people so much and so well that the course of life of the man and the people have been led to merge”.3
In the 1940s Chebi’s poem seemed to have little influence on the peasants and miners, basically because Bourguibism was thought of as the only inspiring ideology capable of decolonising the country. In the early1950s Bourguiba’s cohort manipulated the national question in favour of Neo-Destourism and denied peasant insurgency any role against French colonialism. In 1957—a year after independence—Bourguiba was anxious to court his people by adding the term “socialist” to the old name of the party; the NDP was abandoned for the Socialist Constitutional Party (SCP). Nevertheless, the term “socialist” was completely alien to Bourguiba’s republic. During the struggle period he had had a strong anti-socialist agenda inspired by American liberalism. That agenda was particularly aimed against Communism.4 Such was Bourguiba’s decolonisation strategy: to approach the liberal West in the hope of exerting pressure on France to negotiate the terms of independence.
Tunisian contemporary history has been informed by Bourguibism and has addressed only in passing the role of popular uprisings against French occupation. Today, for instance, very few among the Tunisian people evoke the memory of the Fellaghas (1952-1954), the most significant peasant and miner movement which, in my view, made independence possible. The Fellaghas were the only organised guerrilla rebels who attacked the French soldiers and colonists. Their leader, Lazhar Chraiti, conducted operations and planned attacks, but he is generally remembered today as the enemy of Bourguiba who attempted a coup in 1962.5
The role of the Fellaghas has been dumped in the hitherto closed files of the National Archive Centre (NAC); their contribution to independence has remained a book with seven seals. In the decades after 1956 official history acknowledged only the role of Bourguiba. Bourguiba led no armed struggle, and was only content with what he believed to be the force of diplomacy, relying for his cause on a discourse of anti-Arabism and overt praise of the West.6 The Bourguibist state between 1956 and 1987 was characterised by the inflation of Bourguiba’s role in Tunisia’s history. He received the title “Supreme Combatant” and was “voted president for life” in 1975.7
Nevertheless, 12 years later presidency for life seemed an impossible aspiration as the 84 year old Bourguiba began to lose control of the situation. On 7 November 1987 the minister of interior, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, made use of the turmoil and conducted a “white coup”. He decided to break with every Bourguibist element and declared in the “7 November Declaration” that there would be “no life presidency” and that a new era of “democracy” was in order.8 However, contrary to his steadfast declaration, Ben Ali took the country down a winding path where civil society was completely devoured by the state. Ben Ali’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), said to have constituted a break with the past, was only the tool of a new dictatorship. The RCD was deployed by Ben Ali to transform state rule from autocracy (Bourguiba) into a veritable oligarchy (Ben Ali, his wife and her family).
Ben Ali’s 23-year dictatorship confirms that Chebi’s verses, still dinning in our ears, need not a diplomat, a negotiator, a charismatic leader or a politician to realise. They prove that Tunisia’s history has rested on a lacuna and that the people ought veritably to “will life” and change their world rather than lament it. The events of 17 December 2010 came to confirm that the people’s “will to life” can only be operated from below by whatever means. A young vegetable vendor sparked the change. He set himself on fire and lit the path to a second republic. Yet how could such a deeply entrenched totalitarian system crumble so quickly? A crisis theory is needed to explain this.
Ben Ali’s Tunisia was a façade democracy. It depended on a politics of virtual representation that the regime celebrated for 23 years. The multi-party myth had to do with a discourse of democratisation maintained since 1987. The political situation reveals that the regime’s party had completely dominated the scene. The RCD, a member of the Socialist International until 17 January 2011, long sought to work up support for Ben Ali by asking or forcing people to adhere to the party.9 On the other hand, the Tunisian Destour (constitution) in no way mentions the separation between the state and the ruling party.10 Ministers and government officials were forced to become members of the RCD; promotions and tenure were also dictated by membership of the party.
Second, Ben Ali’s façade democracy was based on the careful selection of the opposition. The opposition is composed of two main forces: authorised and outlawed. The authorised include mainly two accessory parties and two radical parties. The former are the Unionist Democratic Union (UDU) and the Party of Popular Unity (PPU). They supported Ben Ali and adopted agendas similar to that of the RCD. They also participated in elections and ran for presidency. Statistics reveal that they participated only in the hope of giving legitimacy to the regime and getting some favours in return.11 The authorised radical parties, however, had a clear anti-regime agenda. They include a moderate left wing movement, Attajdid (Movement for Renewal) and the secular Progressive Democratic Party (PDP). On the other hand, the outlawed parties are the Islamic Renaissance Movement (Ennahda)—with a radical Islamist agenda—and the Communist Party of Tunisian Workers (PCOT). They were rejected by the regime as fanatic and fundamentalist.12
The third characteristic of Ben Ali’s fake “democracy” was the assault on civil and human rights. Though the list of repressed civil organisations is long, two major movements might well illustrate the violations of the regime: the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT)13 and the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT).14 The CNLT was founded in 1998 in the hope of making up for the eclipse of the opposition after the official institutionalisation of the RCD by the regime in the early 1990s. The absence of a strong opposition made the CNLT assume the responsibility of wrestling with the authorities. The activities of the council increased dramatically after a 2002 referendum by which immense modifications were made to the Destour to allow Ben Ali to run again in 2004. In the aftermath of the referendum the CNLT, together with human rights organisations and civil rights movements, deplored the suppression of liberties in Tunisia and asked the regime to ease society of the oppressive policies of the government.15 Following continual protests the CNLT was shut down in May 2007 and has since then become clandestine.16
The APT—working closely with the Tunisian League of Human Rights—used to investigate human rights abuses in Tunisian prisons and detention centres. Its activities were mainly based on the observation of any violations, particularly those deriving from the “Anti-terrorism Law of 2003”. The anti-terrorism law is dubious and notorious. It was first passed to “combat terrorism” in the wake of the Djerba synagogue bombing in April 2002.17 But the government applied a broader definition to the law. Anti-terrorism would also broadly include any acts considered as “disturbing public order”.18 Almost all attempts by the opposition or associations to protest against government policies or organise strikes and demonstrations were treated as signs of public disorder. The law became open to extension, and human rights activists and forces of the radical opposition were often arrested on charges of treason and conspiracy against the country.19
The APT countered these extensions and openly condemned the abuse of the anti-terrorism law. That resulted in severe measures against the association. APT members were not immune from torture. Defending prisoners against torture was met by categorical refusal. In 2003 Nasraoui argued that “torture has become systematic” in Tunisia and that “all those arrested…for political reasons pass through torture”.20 Nasraoui edited a 209-page document that discusses the anti-terrorism law and gives statistics about the number of victims, and “systematic torture, as well as “testimonies”.21 Recently, thanks to the APT, the United Nations has reported the yawning gulf between official declarations and the “reality” of “torture, secret detentions and police harassment in Tunisia under Ben Ali.” The report also deplores the “abuse of the definition of terrorism” by the regime.22
The path to revolution
In what follows I broach three main factors that, I argue, were decisive in hastening the eruption of the revolution:
Unemployment: According to the 2009 census by the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics, the unemployment rate reached 13.3 percent, the highest in the Maghreb.23 The Ben Ali government kept promising new jobs but statistics reveal that very few jobs were secured and most of such jobs went to the daughters or sons of the people who controlled the bureaucracy. The latest World Bank estimate shows that out of a population of 10,433,000 there are around 336,000 jobless graduates, and very few have any hope of getting a job.24
Corruption: Corruption in Tunisia was determined mainly by extra-economic factors. Such factors include essentially the oligarchy and bureaucracy. The oligarchic system created a strong bureaucracy through which political life and the distribution of wealth had been controlled. It is in such a way that the regime had exploited the country for 23 years. Power abuse by Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, was what brought about, reinforced and expanded corruption. First, it is not difficult to observe that the major factories, companies and commercial centres are located in the Sahil region (home of the Ben Alis) and the capital, Tunis. Second, the foundation of conglomerates in these regions has been dictated either by the regional interests of the Ben Alis or the unlimited personal ambitions of the Trabelsis—relatives of Leila Trabelsi.
The Trabelsis’ monopoly of wealth is far more complex than that of the Ben Alis, mainly because their exploitation of the forces of production was more flagrant. They controlled almost every industrial sector and the overall financial situation. The story of the Trabelsis reaches beyond economic profit or the abuse of the country’s wealth. They tightened their grip on most state institutions. Not long ago Nicolas Beau and Catherine Graciet published The Regent of Carthage (2009) to examine the influence and corruption of the Trabelsi family. By “regent” the authors refer to Ben Ali’s wife who literally took Ben Ali’s place in ruling the country. In the book “Carthage” is a term which both refers to the presidential palace situated in the suburb of Carthage and the historic city founded by Queen Dido (Elissa) in 814 BC. The book ironically depicts Leila Trabelsi as the Ellisa of Tunisia.25
On the other hand, the relatives of the regent are described as the bloodsuckers of desperate Tunisians. They were an indispensable component of the oligarchy and used all sorts of means to control Carthage. Recently Le Monde Diplomatique commented on the nature of such control.26 Their domination of the state and society had to do with the manipulation of such strong institutions as parliament and the judiciary.27 The judiciary, in particular, had been intimidated since 2001. In their lust for money and power the Trabelsis used all means possible to expropriate factory owners, entrepreneurs and farmers and forcibly take bank loans which they never paid back. And to anticipate lawsuits, they threatened and attacked magistrates by deploying the State Security Police. Intimidation of the judiciary reached a peak in 2005 when the authorities dissolved the democratically-elected Legitimate Board of the Association of Tunisian Judges, whose task was the monitoring of the legal system in Tunisia.28
The Internet: In Ben Ali’s Tunisia the media were monitored, controlled and censored by the Ministry of Communication Technologies (MCT). Local TV stations, newspapers, magazines and papers spoke very little of the political and economic situation or the dire poverty in the interior of the country.29 However, Tunisians found relief in the Internet, the alternative media source that was somehow underestimated by the MCT. Although the MCT established the Tunisian Internet Agency (TIA) in 1996 to watch and block the sites considered a threat to “national security”, the social media have created a fresh ground for action. Such media played a key role in pushing for the 14 January revolution. Social discontent and hostility to the regime were articulated on Twitter, YouTube, Dailymotion and, most importantly, Facebook. The use of these services had a remarkable influence on the youth. Facebook in particular was the Trojan horse of the Ben Ali regime. The social media activists (bloggers, rappers, freelance journalists and students) also had significant impact on the Tunisian people. In response to the role of cyber dissidents, the authorities, already in deep crisis, arrested a number of bloggers and rappers between 6 and 10 January 2011.30
The immiseration of Tunisian society, the suppression of liberties and the influence of the social media had a powerful impact on the youth. The revolution started in the region of Sidi Bouzid when a municipal inspector slapped a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in the face and confiscated his cart. Humiliated and desperate, Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2011. He died two weeks later.31 In consequence, demonstrations broke out in Sidi Bouzid in protest at the policy of the local council and the governor of the city. Bouazizi’s death has made history and has had far-reaching implications for the future of Tunisia.
The Sidi Bouzid protests reminded the regime of similar events which had taken place in the region of Rdaeif in 2008. The Rdaeif protests had been ruthlessly crushed by the police.32 In order to alleviate the tension and avoid another Rdaief scenario, Ben Ali sympathised with Bouazizi and promised to aid his family. However, such a step was not enough to curb the rage. The protests had already spread to the town of Menzel Bouzaien where two civilians were shot dead on 24 December.33 In response to the riots Ben Ali delivered a speech in which he described the demonstrators as a “bandit of agitators”. He vowed to quell the “violence” and warned parents that their “sons were being manipulated by agitators”.34
Ben Ali’s speech, however, did not succeed in preventing the protests spreading out to the towns of Thala and Rgeub. The events in these towns were a turning point. On 8 January the regime began the systematic cleansing of protesters. The confrontation between unarmed civilians and Ben Ali’s special guard (Al Amen Arriessi) left over 50 victims in Thala and Kasserine alone.35 The shooting, filmed by amateurs, was later broadcast by TV stations such as Al Jazeera and France 24.36
On 12 January protests reached the capital Tunis, after they had spread to the South, the Sahil and Nabeul. By then the death toll had risen dramatically. Snipers shot civilians in Douz, Hammamet and Nabeul.37 In Tunis the protests first reached the poor and densely populated suburb of Hai Tadhamen (Tadhamen quarter) where more were killed.38 Ben Ali responded by delivering his third and last speech. He ordered the police to “stop using live bullets”, and apologised to the Tunisian people,39 but his apologies, an attempt to restore order, were too late. The following morning, 14 January, tens of thousands marched in Bourguiba Street and protested in front of the ministry of the interior—the symbol of torture. The fall of the regime seemed imminent when protesters, in a historic moment, climbed the walls of the ministry and challenged the police force.
The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT)
The UGTT played no central role in the Tunisian Revolution. It did not expect Bouazizi’s self-immolation to trigger popular revolt across the country. Yet the Bouazizi incident, it seems to me, does not offer a thorough explanation. Historically, the UGTT was strong during Bourguiba’s rule, but got systematically enfeebled under Ben Ali. It had played a significant political role between 1978 and 1985, mainly in protest against the policy of “economic liberalisation” adopted by the Tunisian government. 40 On 26 January 1978 the UGTT organised a general strike and threatened to “burn Tunis”. Bourguiba refused to make concessions and ordered the police to open fire on protesters.41 The paradox was that Bourguiba accepted strikes but crushed them while Ben Ali suppressed them altogether.
After the 1987 coup Ben Ali dwarfed the UGTT and dictated a new agenda based mainly on pay rise promises. The union’s leadership was not immune to corruption and demagogy. Two secretaries-general have chaired the UGTT since 1989: Ismail Sahbani (1989-2000) and Abdesslem Jerad (currently). Sahbani was entirely in support of the regime, but was ousted in 2000 on charges of corruption and financial mismanagement. Jerad, on the other hand, has certainly scored worse than his predecessor. He notoriously campaigned for Ben Ali’s candidacy in 2004 and 2009 while he failed to defend the Rdaief labour activists. In December 2008 the authorities arrested 140 protesters in Rdaief, including leading activist Adnan Hajji, but the UGTT refused to condemn the regime’s repressive measures.
In the context of the revolution, the UGTT stepped in only six days before the fall of Ben Ali in the hope of catching up with the unfolding events. On 8 January the UGTT spokesman, Abid Briki, declared the leadership’s unconditional support for the protests and deplored the shooting of civilians. Though Briki’s speech demoralised Ben Ali, it had very little effect on the demonstrators, mainly because by then they seemed too strong and steadfast to break.42
Nonetheless, the inconsistency of the leadership should not conceal the role of several regional unions. During the protests there was a clear rift between the UGTT’s Executive Bureau and the local unions. In Sidi Bouzid, Bouzaien, Rgeub, Thala, Kasserine and later Sfax the unions acted unilaterally in support of the protesters but lacked systematic organisation. While the leadership had been gripped by undecidedness, the regional unions merged with the demonstrators. Jerad had supported Ben Ali unconditionally in two presidential elections, and was now all too cautious to turn the clock forward and risk an uncertain future. And Briki’s speech was not insignificant; he intervened when he felt that the regime had already lost control of the situation.
Change from below
Social revolution is the frenzy of history. This is what the Tunisian Revolution has taught us. Hardly anyone has ever predicted a political revolution in the Arab world, let alone a popular revolt from below. Revolutions from below are rare in history. The 1791 Haitian Revolution—though social in character—was largely bound by the ideological dictates of priesthood as well as the French revolutionary tradition. The 1871 Paris Commune was an unfinished project and the Young Turk Revolution (1908) had to do more with political activism and partisanship than the aspirations of the grassroots.43 The Iranian Revolution (1979) was conducted in the name of the Islamic sharia law, and failed to meet the democratic aspirations of Iranian society. The October Revolution was wanting in the proletarian element and led to no classless society.
The Tunisian Revolution has very little in common with the above-mentioned revolutions. Its defining characteristic is the absence of an obvious leadership. It is a spontaneous movement of the masses against an oppressive regime and is informed by the aspirations of people from all walks of life. The 23-year Ben Ali rule emptied the country of any political culture, and Tunisian society, apart from a small segment, was bent on improving standards of living, education and health. Such were the fields which the regime focused on all too much in the hope of gaining credibility for itself; and such were the fields under the pretext of which liberties were suppressed.
Yet would it be appropriate to see the Tunisian Revolution as aimless and therefore contingent and without a future? The answer to this question depends on determining why such a revolution erupted in the first place. What people agree upon in Tunisia is that this revolution concerns the retrieval of “human value and dignity”; it has very little to do with bread. It occurred because the people felt dispossessed and alien to their essence. It was a battle for human dignity. In this sense it might well be understood in Marxian terms—without falling prey to the dictates of Marxist ideology. That is to say, it is the emancipation of humanity from alienation, from “the existence of the state” as such.44
Tunisian society was enslaved by the Ben Ali regime in the name of economic development, literacy and national security. Here the observer need not receive lessons in political history to perceive a Tunisian “false consciousness” dictated by an alleged “constructive interplay” between the people and their president. Political history has estranged people from social reality, and the politics of the “great man’s history”—Ben Ali’s—has dominated the country for over two decades. Such false consciousness, Marx reminds us, can only be overwhelmed when we perceive “social revolution” as “a human protest against a dehumanised life”.45
The Tunisian people have merged Chebi’s “will to life” and Marx’s “human essence” to recover consciousness of the historical role of the individual. The change, unplanned and spontaneous, has come from the grassroots. No religious overtone dominated the protests and no Pan-Arabist agenda, moderate or radical, was at work. “We need a life, dignity and freedom”: these were the universal principles for which Tunisians protested and got killed. They demanded work, equality, freedom of speech and the right to choose their government, but were met with live ammunition.
Significantly, the spirit of the social revolution in Tunisia resides in the symbolism of the slogans chanted for over three weeks. I shall take such slogans chronologically. The first was “Allah Akbar” (God is Great) chanted when Bouazizi set himself on fire. This was an expected popular response to inevitable destiny. Allah would pardon Bouazizi for an act considered blasphemous by Muslims, but would also have mercy on him and punish those who pushed him to take his life. On 4 January, when Bouazizi died, the slogan “Allah Akbar”—very little associated with Islamism—fanned the flames of rage in Sidid Bouzid and the rest of the country. More radical slogans were introduced: “Our soul and blood are to sacrifice for the martyr.” The latter confirms a sort of concord between those who die for a cause and those who are ready to sacrifice their lives for them. It symbolises the will to face up to the enemy of the people—often the regime or the coloniser.
By 8 January the protests in the Central West (Thala, Kasserine, etc) expanded into revolt and more audacious slogans were chanted by college students. Slogans included “Kobz w mé w Ben Ali lé” (Yes to just water and bread, and no to Ben Ali, he’s dead); or “Horia w karama watania” (Freedom, national dignity); or “Echogol istahkak ya isabet essorek” (Work is a must, you the bandit of theft). These slogans sent a clear message to the regime: “We don’t want the dictator”; “We want our freedom and money back, and we call upon the people of Tunisia to stand up against the Ben Ali regime.” Live bullets prompted further action and more daring slogans. Ben Ali wanted to silence the students and the declassed, but the snipers failed to snuff out the crisis.
When the protests reached Tunis the slogans became uncompromising. They clearly asked the president to step down: “Tounes hora hora w Ben Ali ala bara” (Tunisia’s free, leave Ben Ali, leave us free); “Echaab yourid iskat ennitham” (The people want to topple the regime); “Ya chaabi thour thour ala dictatour” (Rebel, my people, rebel, and quell the regime, quell). These slogans had been shouted for two days before the protests penetrated Bourguiba Street on 14 January. The Bourguiba Street slogans were succinct and powerful: “Dégage” (Piss off) and “Game over”.
In part, the Tunisian Revolution succeeded thanks to the slogans that forcefully demoralised the regime. They forced Ben Ali to deliver his third and last speech on 13 January and call upon his guard to stop shooting people. Slogans were a social message for change not only in Tunisia but in the rest of the Arab world. The Egyptian upheaval, which started on 25 January, was operated by the same Tunisian slogans, which revealed that the power of the word might well defeat the power of the bullet.
1: Chebi, 2009, p111.
2: For details about the foundation of the Neo-Destour, see Bourguiba, 2011.
3: Bourguiba, 1959.
4: Bourguiba, 1957.
5: Girard, 2005.
6: Bourguiba, 1961.
7: Bourguiba, 2011.
8: Ben Ali, 2006.
9: The RCD was dismissed from the Socialist International on 17 January 2011.
11: For elections statistics, see the following links: www.arabicnews.com/ansub/Daily/Day/…/2004102606; www.allafrica.com/stories/200910260111.html
13: Front Line Defenders, 2007.
14: Comité pour le Respect des libertés et des Droits de l’hommes en Tunisie (CRLDHT), 2008.
15: Front Line Defenders, 2007.
16: Front Line Defenders, 2007.
18: CRLDHT, 2008, pp 19-25
19: Black, 2008.
20: Lesme Anthony, 2007.
21: CRLDHT, 2008.
22: Vermeulen, 2011.
23: National Institute of Statistics-Tunisia, 2004.
24: World Bank Report, 2011.
25: Beau and Graciet, 2009.
26: Séréni, 2011.
27: For more on the corruption of the Trabelsis, see Monnier, 2008, and Deléan, 2008.
29: Only two newspapers of the radical opposition were authorised: Almawkef (PDP), www.tunisiemedias.com/ecrite/almawkef.html; and Attariq Aljadid (Attajdid Movement),
www.attariq.org. Authorities occasionally banned them on different charges.
30: Langley, 2011.
31: Reuters, 2011.
32: Reveiltunisien, 2008.
33: Al Jazeera English, 2010.
34: Pan-African News Wire, 2010.
35: Ibrahem, 2011.
36: A YouTube search for “Kasserine Thala” or “videos of Tunisians shot” reveals an astonishing amount of amateur footage of victims of the regime’s violence.
37: Whitaker, 2011.
38: Kirkaptrick, 2011.
39: World Crunch, 2011.
40: Barrie, 2004.
41: Com4News, 2008.
42: Leaders, 2011.
43: See Hanjoglu, 2001.
44: Marx, 2000, p135.
45: Marx, 2000, p136.
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