In a region where terrorism, war and refugees set the agenda, Tunisia has been conspicuous as the only one of the Arab states to have emerged unscathed from the series of popular revolts in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. On Sunday, Tunisia held its second presidential election since the revolution that toppled president Ben Ali in January 2011. In her PhD thesis, researcher in Middle East Studies, Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle investigates the mechanisms that led to the Tunisian people being the first in the region to rebel against their government.
- My research argues that we cannot truly understand the Middle East purely by looking at institutions, states and elites. We also need to understand the people and the small changes that are constantly happening and resonating in them. In attempting to understand how the regime in Tunisia could remain in power for so many years in spite of being so corrupt, both researchers and the media have become preoccupied with political systems, the regimes and the state. However, to really understand the background to the Arab Spring and events in the Middle East, it is equally important to investigate the social changes that were taking place among the population, because this will ultimately affect the political process, Haugbølle says.
In her thesis, Haugbølle documents the changes that have taken place in Tunisia over the past 30-40 years.
- I began my field work just before the uprising and discovered almost immediately that something was happening below the radar among the Tunisian people. I could see that over the years, a number of changes had slowly taken place that had weakened the regime's hold and I began to investigate these changes, although field work was difficult at that time, because Tunisia was still an authoritarian regime. Then the revolution happened and suddenly everything I had planned to investigate was actually happening all around me, she says.
The media defied the regime
The changes that had been building up over a long time and which ultimately led the Tunisian people to rebel also took root within the media.
- The Tunisian media had long been a state monopoly, then in 2003, as part of a general process of liberalisation, and on the recommendation of the West, the regime liberalised the media. Although in effect, this meant that it was sold off to the president's friends and family. Many studies have focused on the impropriety of this course of action, but no one investigated what was actually happening in the newsrooms. I therefore visited some of the new privatised radio stations owned by president Ben Ali's son-in-law and friend, and as it turned out, once you left the management offices, went down a level and spoke to journalists and editors, the story was completely different. I spoke to some young journalists that wanted to challenge the status quo and break down taboos with their radio programmes, which they could and did. So even though the media was owned by an elite around Ben Ali, through their programmes, that were critical of the regime, these journalists created a space for freedom of expression for many Tunisians - even before the revolution, Haugbølle explains.
Haugbølle stresses that it is important to understand that Arab regimes do not operate in a vacuum and their leaders must always relate to the surrounding society. The Tunisian population is well educated, many of them having studied in France, and they follow events in the world outside Tunisia by satellite channels and the internet, so they were not easy to control.
- People didn't just sit down and say nothing while Ben Ali rode roughshod over them and this is what we haven't picked up on. We thought nothing was happening. But Tunisians are well educated because the country has no oil it can profit from, so they have opinions, are interested in the social debate and can articulate their points of view. They made demands and held opinions the government had to take into consideration, react to and change policy accordingly. Thus, there have always been 'negotiations' between the regime and the people - not only in relation to the media, but also with regard to education, Islam, health, culture, etc. And it was all these different demands that ultimately undermined the government, she says.
Islamists are not new to politics
In her thesis, Haugbølle also discusses the spread of Islam in Tunisia under Ben Ali.
- Islam disappeared in Tunisia when the country became independent in 1956, or at least that's the official line. However, my research shows that Islam never really went away. Researchers, the media and the regime may have believed Islam had disappeared, but no one actually asked the people. Islam has been equated with Islamism, or political Islam, which has indeed suffered. However, privately, people have still practised the religion. These are the people who are now revealing themselves as Islamists and attracting the attention of both researchers and journalists in the new Tunisia, even though they have been there all the time. They are some of those most oppressed by the Ben Ali regime and who therefore feel they now have a right to be part of the political scene in Tunisia, Haugbølle argues.