The Student Left in the Midst of the Revolutionary Movement in Tunisia

The involvement of left-wing students, individually and in organizations, in all the forms of the political struggle, even in periods of severe oppression, is a starkly given fact in the history of Tunisia. However, what is reaped does not match what has been sown, so why is that? This is a reading of the student movement, on the subjective and public levels, that attempts to find elements of failure and their causes, and to seek solutions.

Motaa’ Amin El Waer

PhD student in Sociology, from Tunisia

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This publication has benefited from the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. This text may be reproduced in part or in full, provided the source is acknowledged.

Tunisia has known the existence of the “student left” since the emergence of the non-religious university, in the early 1940s. The path of this left has been through many detours, zigzags, and unexpected bombastic events. How can we monitor some aspects of the approach of this student left regarding the revolutionary movement that the country has known starting from the winter of 2010 and the new political reality after it? The features of this group are difficult to define accurately, as they are mainly youth organizations linked or not linked to political parties, as well as large numbers of militants not affiliated with any party or youth organization; a part of those may have been previously active in these organizations. This group generally belongs to the “leftist family” with its various branches, and to the “Arabist family” in its two main branched: Nasirism and Ba’athism. There is the “General Tunisian Union of Students”, a historical student union, which is an organized condensation of the student left. These designations may lack accuracy and are certainly a bit arbitrary for the sake of clarity and summarization.

In what ways and forms has the student left influenced the Tunisian political reality during the revolutionary movement? What are the political and social mechanisms that enabled it to do so, and what are the subjective and objective constraints that limited the student left’s ability to carry out its task? What prospects exist for the Tunisian student left in the context of the Tunisian political and social reality after 2011?

A Mobilizing Unit During the Revolutionary Movement

This role is the product of a long history of the Tunisian student movement, contributing to building the structures of the “General Tunisian Union of Students”, formulating its organizational and political identity, and defining its relations with its various components and to outsider components as well. The conditions of defining its capabilities were gradually formed over the major stages that the university went through. Remarkably, an examination of the stages that the “General Tunisian Union of Students” has gone through since its foundation provides a unique perspective on the history of the major political conflicts in the country, whether during its founding phase in the midst of the struggle for independence, or during the emergence of the radical left (1) as a child of the despotism of the ruling party, at a time when the conflicts inside the organization and around it presented a reflection of the reality of the country. The situation continued in this way throughout the years of Bourguiba, where the university – in which the left was an effective character during the 1970s - was the starting point for social protests that swept the country during the second half of that decade. The brutal repression of these protests did not succeed to eradicate them. Since the eighties, the university turned into a conflict arena between the left and the Islamists, who had succeeded in dominating the political activity within it. That, however, did not negate the presence and influence of the left in the university sphere.

After the coup d'état of November 7, 1987, Tunisia, led by General Ben Ali, went through a period of relative political détente for three years, during which political activity had recovered and the student struggle was searing again within the university walls. This period represented an open space for public and popular activity for the left and the Islamists, after the regime officially recognized their organizations in 1988: the “General Union of Tunisian Students”, the historical union that was banned from public activity for nearly 17 years, and which had become completely dominated by the left, and the “Tunisian General Union for Students”, which was founded by students of The Islamic Way in 1985 as a trade union organization.

During this period, the authority and the Islamists started to sense that the “Ennahda Movement” (formerly called “The Islamic Way”) was a political force capable of playing a major role and perhaps of getting to power if it had the opportunity. This feeling was further enhanced by the results of the 1989 legislative elections. Afterwards, since the beginning of 1991, the two parties have engaged in an open confrontation which was triggered by the regime to eradicate the Islamists and eliminate their threat to the authority, in which the state wanted no partners. The Islamists, on the other hand, wanted to defend themselves against this attack, but they were also part of the confrontation because they had a deep conviction that they were strong enough to topple Ben Ali's regime. This confrontation raged in all social spaces, and the university was its most aggressive field.

The confrontation was violently suppressed and ended with the organizational elimination of the Islamists. Their structures were dismantled, thousands were imprisoned, and the rest fled from Tunisia to settle in diaspora. In addition, on July 8, 1991, it was decided that the Tunisian General Union of Students be dissolved. The General Union of Tunisian Students, too, was not safe in the face of the repression, and the possibility of its dissolution became a serious proposition. It had survived two decades under a tight security and administrative blockade, which turned it into a semi-banned organization despite its apparently legal status. Its members from various leftist and nationalist organizations have also been subjected to multiple forms of repression. They were arrested, physically and morally harassed, subjected to torture and imprisonment, administratively restricted, expelled from the university, deprived of work, and subjected to other forms of repression…

Hence, the General Union of Tunisian Students during these two decades has been through a major organizational breakdown. For instance, this was manifested in its abstinence from holding a national conference for ten years, in the period between the 24thconference held in the summer of 2003 and the 25th conference held in 2013. Perhaps these conferences themselves were one of the reasons leading to this disruption, as the leftist organizations were fighting each other over control of the organization and ensuring a legal position that could provide them with a minimum level of protection against repression, in addition to the political and organizational privileges it provides (no matter how limited those are). Constant conflicts inside the organization over its leadership and operating structures have existed ever since it had regained its legal status in 1988.The years of political desertification and open repression have only become more aggravated as the fight over controlling its structures intensified to the point that the leadership split into two parts after the 21st Conference of 1995. Each side claimed to be the legitimate one (in the legal and / or militant sense). In all subsequent conferences, this division was present, until the whole issue reached an unprecedented level of rivalry in the year 2004 when there was a structural duplication for the first time since the organization regained a legal status. Some student political groups emerged to challenge the legitimacy of the decisions of the 24th Conference by holding the Corrective Conference. As a result, local offices affiliated with the two conferences appeared within university factions, which greatly affected the union.

The left was an effective character during the 1970s – the starting point for social protests that swept the country. The brutal repression of these protests did not succeed ineradicating them. Since the eighties, the university turned into a conflict arena between the left and the Islamists, who had succeeded in dominating the political activity within it.

Despite this, it was not possible to completely eradicate the university space as one of the most important spaces for social critique in the country. The persistence of the protest movements within the university institutions proved this, even when they had to be very limited and modest during the decade of severe repression before their relatively vigorous comeback.

During this period, the university was the only space in Tunisia in which a person could openly address crowds of citizens with a speech criticizing the government in general, the ruling party, or one of the apparatuses of the executive branch of the authority, especially the Ministry of Higher Education. The general strike of March 10, 2005 was one of the significant milestones in the recent history of the Tunisian University. More than 200 thousand students went on strike to condemn the brutal suppression of the preceding student protests which lasted for more than ten days in a number of cities, opposing the invitation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the World Summit on the Information Society organized by Tunisia later in November of that year. The student left was leading the political movements under the banner of the General Union of Tunisian Students. However, the dominant features of this period’s protest movements are the geographical limitations and deficiency in the number of protests.

The ability of the student left to ensure a minimum presence throughout this period, starting from the outbreak of the first revolutionary waves in December 2010, was extremely important. The General Union of Tunisian Students was a space in which thousands of young people were trained in various forms of protest movements, where they gained political knowledge and field skills in incitement, mobilizing, facing the police forces, and protecting protest movements for the longest time possible and, especially, in accumulating and linking together field movements. The most important contribution of these militant experiences is their weaving of complex networks of spontaneous (informal) nuclear units (2) that bring together activists who had participated in some on-the-field experiments. They are interlinked core units that are sometimes connected by personal relationships or through forms of regional, professional, or political solidarity.

These nuclear units that were barely visible before December 17, 2010, even by their own constituent members, turned into an active network for exchanging information, organizing movements, propaganda and incitement. Something similar to the concept of “mobilization cells” by Verta Taylor (3) in her argument about the hibernation of American feminist struggles during the recessions and oppressions in America during the 1980s. This does not mean that the student left has assumed a leadership role in the protest movements, as it is clear that the revolutionary movement in Tunisia between December 17, 2010 and January 14, 2011 was happening without a centralized leadership. Rather, this idea refutes the claim of “spontaneity” about the revolutionary movement in Tunisia. The absence of a central leadership does not mean the absence of multiple forms of political awareness within the various protesting groups. The “mobilization cells” of the student left were some of the several groups fueling the protest. Those consisted of activists from the Student Union who had completed or had not yet completed their university studies, and others who had left the university and the Union years ago without breaking their ties with them due to unemployment and their involvement in the various dynamics established to defend the unemployed university graduates. Those are dynamics that have revolved, until the year 2011, in the orbit of the General Union of Tunisian Students. These militants have kept their ties through small groups that were close on a personal level. As for the networking among these groups, it was done by individuals of multiple positionings (militant, regional, sectorial, etc.).

The General Union of Tunisian Students has seen consistent conflicts over its leadership ever since it restored its legitimacy in 1988. The years of political desertification and open repression thereafter have only become more aggravated as the fight over controlling its structures intensified to the point that the leadership split after the 21st Conference of 1995. Each side claimed to be the legitimate one.

One of the most prominent roles played by this left-wing network is successfully linking between the youth of the popular urban neighborhoods on the one hand, and the traditional spaces of politicization on the other hand; such as the headquarter spaces of the Tunisian General Labor Union or the newer virtual spaces of the social networks. The network succeeded in playing this role by virtue of its initiative, with the help of the leftist union activists, to organize the first protest movements in most of the country's cities, despite their limited mobilization during the first three weeks, providing a suitable ground for the propagation of protest movements in the popular neighborhoods.

Present, Despite the Ongoing Inner Crises of the Left

After the escape of Ben Ali and the disintegration of a substantial part of the regime’s executive leadership, Tunisia witnessed a great political vacuum which was soon filled by the hundreds of new political and civil organizations. This process had its serious implications for the general political framework in the country, as a large number of hegemonic social institutions staggered in their positions. This period was open to many possibilities, and all the actors played their cards to affect change in the public scene and the political and social realities. This prompted a number of actors to reevaluate and drove political groups into taking some unexpected decisions that would have not been taken in any other context. It also pushed some previously marginal actors into the political scene, providing them, through a “structural obscurity”, an entry portal into becoming influential players in the public sphere.

The political authority at the time maintained part of the preceding executive apparatus, as an extension of its self-proclaimed “legitimacy”. This apparatus appointed itself the role of “preserving the state’s sustainability and unity”, consecrated by Mohamed Ghannoushi’s continued presence in his post as Prime Minister – being as he is, Ben Ali’s first representative in government- and with Fouad Mebazaa, the head of Ben Ali’s Parliament since 1997, becoming the interim President of the country on the night that Ben Ali fled (between January and December of 2011). This was despite the limited authority of this apparatus on the ground during the first few weeks after the revolution. The executive branch’s unity itself has been questioned, and its legitimacy doubted by multiple powers. However, what had enabled this legitimacy - despite its frailty - to continue is the fragmentation and confusion that characterized the forces that contributed to the overthrowing of Ben Ali, the limited field experience they had accumulated, their lack of political maturity, and the need for organizational ties that could ward off the violent reactions of the various forces who strongly denounce the rooting of the revolutionary movement.

Although multiple parties took part in overthrowing Ben Ali, the hastiness of the process rendered what had been accumulated, both on the ground and politically, insufficient to establish the “post-Ben Ali” stage. The common denominator between these forces, or the center of the “revolutionary legitimacy”, was not clear and powerful enough to create a dynamic that brings together those various groups. Although important attempts have emerged to organize the masses in many neighborhoods and cities throughout the country since the night of January 14, 2011, the resulting groups could not do more than provide local security groups for neighborhoods. Rarely did these groups succeed in creating spaces for mass politicization within local spheres that could discuss local and national political issues (save for some very few exceptions, such as the experience of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution in Djemna), which kept these groups generally marginal.

After that, the most mature and organized political groups, the youth and civil groups that formed in the cities which had known the fiercest confrontations with the police forces for weeks and where there was the largest number of martyrs (Menzel Bouziane, Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, Thala...), decided on escalation to recover the political initiative and mobilize again the popular movement, which had relatively diminished for nearly a week. This escalation manifested in the organization of the first Kasbah sit-in, starting from January 23, which called for the dismantling of what remained of the executive branch’s leadership that was still under the control of the former regime’s men. More than two thousand protestors gathered in the sit-in which lasted four days and ended with the police suppressing the gathering and dispersing the people by force. Despite the relative failure of the sit-in, its repression and the participants’ insistence on their demands contributed to the mobilization of other groups that had not participate in the sit-in initially, refocusing the protest movement in the face of a common enemy. Furthermore, a number of civil and political forces that were confused at the time between two options: to head directly into the legislative and presidential elections organized by the existing executive body, or to overthrow the leadership of this body and establish a new political framework, were pushed – in the aftermath of the sit-in - to resolve their position for the latter option.

Naturally, many political organizations were not isolated from the first sit-in of the Kasbah, but some - especially the smaller, local, and more militant left-wing groups - were totally immersed in organizing it, accompanied by a majority of the protestors that were not affiliated with any organization. However, the joining of these groups happened individually and passed through previous local militant networks, which had been greatly reinforced by new members that had joined since the beginning of the revolutionary movement. Hence, what encouraged the new members to join these groups, at least during the period between 17 December 2010 and the middle of February 2011, was the local equilibriums, personal relations between the participants and their trust in each other, based on field solidarity and, to a lesser extent, based on the shared slogans and the more general political perceptions that often lacked compatibility.

The local leaders of the Labor Union supported the sit-in, especially those located in the areas where the revolutionary movement was highly-mobilized and vigorous. They provided bus transportation for the protesters and other logistical needs, in addition to their contribution to pushing the bureaucratic leadership of the Tunisian General Labor Union (the largest mobilization force in the country’s history) to play a role in breaking the official and media blockade of the sit-in, by providing it with a political cover. The trade union bureaucracy did this to protect itself from a confrontation with its most influential and dynamic bases, while relatively maintaining its role in the process to curb the more radical tendencies within the revolutionary movement whenever needed.

The general strike of March 10, 2005 was one of the significant milestones in the recent history of the Tunisian University. More than 200 thousand students went on strike to condemn the brutal suppression of the preceding student protests which lasted for more than ten days in a number of cities, opposing the invitation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the World Summit on the Information Society organized by Tunisia later in November of that year.

During this period, the student left organizations found themselves in a situation which they had partly created. It is imperative, before delving into the choices of the student left, to emphasize its diversity, which sometimes borders on being contradictive. The groups forming this left were not only conflicting over the leadership positions in the student organizations before the 2011 moment, but were also conflicting over a large number of major political and social issues, such as the prospects of a socialist revolution, the stance on the existing economic model and the ways of changing it, the issues of individual liberties and the independence of civil organizations. These disputes multiplied at the time. These general statements only aim to help deduce the major political dynamics that have fractured this student left.

In this context, two basic dynamics were at play. The first and dominant one was represented by the organizations that were at the forefront of the forces calling for a break with the previous regime (the communist Tunisian Workers’ Party, the Democratic Patriots…), and those were brought together by the second stage of the revolutionary movement, known as the Kasbah I and Kasbah II sit-ins in the Government Square in the capital. The members of these organizations participated, along with the unorganized leftist members, in setting the ground for the two sit-ins. They played important roles and undertook various tasks in which they used their previous militant experiences and acquired field skills, such as logistical preparation, incitement and rhetoric, and techniques of confrontation with the police forces in the public spaces. In addition to the participation of a significant part of the General Union of Tunisian Students in the Kasbah sit-in, it also supported the sit-in politically as a student union, despite all the fragmentation it was suffering.

As for the remainder minority of the student left (of the Socialist Leftist Party, Movement for Renewal (Ettajdid Movement), The Progressive Democratic Party…), its options hung between going to the elections and halting the revolutionary movement. This political confusion made it all the more vulnerable on the ground, and as a result, its ability to impact the course of the events shrunk. Those forces have occupied marginal positions within the political arena since 2011.

Since February 2011, there has been a consistent mobilization of the various dynamics opposing Mohamed Ghannoushi’s government for different purposes and in different forms. The popular coordination committees that flourished after the first Kasbah sit-in tried to encourage another sit-in in order to overthrow the government as the embodiment of the continuation of what was called the “former regime”. These coordination units, which are different in their organizational forms and methods, were becoming increasingly organized and their demands increasingly radical as their field involvement grew in preparation for organizing a sit-in that would outstrip the previous one in the number of participants and in its impact.

During this period, the civil, political, and unionist organizations were working on restructuring themselves, after having been in a state of “clinical death” in the final years of the rule of Ben Ali. The left-wing and national parties found themselves in the same situation. Perhaps Ennahda Movement experienced the situation in a more severe way, which was manifested in its political and field absence from the events until that point. It was an appropriate opportunity for these organizations to reassemble and restructure (albeit in an often hasty and undemocratic manner), to address the challenges facing the country and to benefit as much as possible from the great political vacuum left by the self-dissolution of the “Democratic Constitutional Rally”(4). This period represented an opportunity for these parties and civil organizations (5) to return to the political forefront. The establishment of the “National Council for the Protection of the Revolution” stood for an official declaration  that the institutional legal organizations had returned to the foreground, and indicated a shift from the role of supporting the first Kasbah sit-in to making decisions and managing the second Kasbah sit-in.

Despite all the differences that divided these organizations, they were able to accomplish a very important main task through their unity in politically leading the second sit-in of the Kasbah, raising the bar of the political demands, which shifted from demanding the government's resignation to demanding the suspension of the constitution and the election of a new National Constituent Assembly. However, the people’s demands were confined to this limit, and any possibility for the movement to bypass the legal institutional ceiling was overruled. It can be said that, at this level, what had been done was more advanced than what the protesters demanded in the first sit-in, however, it was far less radical than the original direction of the protests in the midst of the struggle and the field conflict waged by the second sit-in committees in Kasbah from 20 February, and until the sit-in was resolved on 3 March, 2011.

The National Council for the Protection of the Revolution wanted to impose itself as a partner in power and a political representative of the mobile revolutionary forces during that period all over the country. Its approach, hence, recognized the partnership with the transitional political leadership, as a source of an inherent legitimacy that it did not possess itself. Secondly, it also represented a reproduction of the hierarchical relationship between the political elites and “the masses”, in which the former plays the roles of leadership, planning and negotiation, while the latter has the “honor” of playing the role of fueling the battle. This division was questioned at the time by the popular groups that formed in all cities and which pushed forward the first and second Kasbah sit-ins.

During that period, these groups were in the process of formulating new mechanisms that were growing in parallel to the existing partisan system (but without confronting it), among them there were voices questioning the hierarchical partisan organizational form and defending the democratic field leadership. The assertion of the Revolutionary Protection Council that the election of a new National Constituent Assembly was the primary way out of the second Kasbah sit-in was an extraction of all these citizenship networks from the sphere of direct action to the positions of either being supporters to one of the parties or rejecting the elections in its entirety. These are secondary roles in all cases, very different from the ideas of decentralized patterns of government and popular democracy that were brewing among the most radical groups of protesters.

These nuclear units that were barely visible before 2010, connected by personal relationships and regional, political or professional ties, turned into active networks for exchanging information, organizing movements, disseminating propaganda and incitement.

The field leaders of the second Kasbah sit-in did not succeed in resisting this hegemony despite the serious organization of the protesters, who were organized in the form of representatives of the different bodies participating in the sit-in and of what was termed as the “youth of the revolution”, the martyrs’ families, and the wounded of the Tunisian revolution. However, the institutional trend of the National Council for the Protection of the Revolution tried to politically devour the sit-in.

Most of the student left forces fully supported the second sit-in of the Kasbah, with their members actively contributing to it, but at the same time these same members were the field arm to defending the option of institutionalizing the political ceiling of the sit-in, standing behind the leaders of political parties. The youth of the left-wing organizations played an important field role in defending the sit-in and ensuring its continuity, but they were politically closer to the discipline imposed by the agendas of their parties than to the horizontal fieldwork, as was the case in the first sit-in.

The Return of the Conflict Between the Two Unions and the Bardo Sit-in

This period saw the relative departure of left-wing students from university commitment due to the intensity of political activity outside the college campus. The facility of establishing associations, parties, and engaging in field activity resulted in removing activists from the unionist and political work within the General Union of Tunisian Students. The political organizations that were previously fighting over leading the student organization did not give much importance to its restructuring or to holding its national conference. The Union stayed without any real leadership for almost two years past the revolutionary movement, long after all the members of its executive office and its central structures had left the university.

The leftist and nationalist organizations that benefited from the revolutionary movement and whose ranks were filled with militants were no longer in the leadership, while the organizations that previously dominated most leadership positions in the organization had lost a large portion of their proliferation among students. It was a situation that further complicated the possibility of holding the National Congress of the Union and resulted in prolonging the state of organizational inertia.

However, two facts arose during this period that contributed to a gradual restoration of the role of the union among the youth of the student left. The first is the return to action of the Tunisian General Union for Students and the historical organization of Islamic students, in the university with the beginning of the 2011/2012 academic year, after having obtained a legal permit in June 2011. Fear grew within the left of losing the university which they considered as their vital space, after they had lost their hopes of playing an important national political role in the October 2011 elections. The overwhelming victory of Ennahda Movement in the elections for the National Constituent Assembly paved the way for its control over a significant part of the executive and judiciary branches, in addition to its dominance of the legislative authority. The return of Ennahda Movement to the university represented a moral and symbolic revenge in the eyes of the leftist youth that had suffered a double political marginalization since the end of the second Kasbah sit-in, as it ended up occupying an ineffective position on the national political scene. It also found itself in the back seats inside its mother organizations after the hierarchal party mechanisms were reinstated. Hence, the left-wing youth organizations found themselves – at least in their own imagination - defending the “very last of the sites” that Ennahdha had not yet gained control over. The celebration of the historic victory of the lists supported by the General Union of Tunisian Students in the college council elections in March 2013 is a clear proof of this. The event represented an opportunity for all the anti-Ennahda forces to celebrate, including those that had always been very hostile towards the Students’ Union.

The shrinking space for open political activity outside the walls of the university also contributed to the return of the General Union of Tunisian Students to the forefront of the leftist forces’ interests. The academic year 2012/2013 witnessed endless discussions, negotiations, and conflicts between the components of the student left, in all its various ideological and political colorations, in preparation for the organization's national conference. The conference aimed at renewing its organization’s structures and revitalizing its roles, which the different forces and components defined differently, but they agreed, however, that holding the conference was vital. The leftist and nationalist student components did not succeed in holding a unified conference. Once again, they held two divided conferences, in May 2013.

The major struggles that fractured the student left during that year contributed to the marginalization of the position of the union struggle within the priority scheme of the youth political organizations. On the other hand, the Tunisian General Union of Students played a clearer unionizing role, despite its known proximity to the ruling Ennahda Movement.

Despite all the differences that divided these organizations, they were able to accomplish a very important main task through their unity in politically leading the second sit-in of the Kasbah, raising the bar of the political demands, which shifted from demanding the government's resignation to demanding the suspension of the constitution and the election of a new National Constituent Assembly. However, the people’s demands were confined to this limit, and any possibility of the movement to bypass the legal institutional ceiling was overruled.

The Ennahda movement was forced to form alliances with the remnants of the old regime, or what was termed the “deep administration”, which had preserved the legacy of the authoritarian regime in its working mechanisms and internal organization for 55 years and was able, despite the changing leaders and successive administrative divisions, to reproduce itself with astonishing perseverance. These alliances had two major repercussions at the political level. The first is that they restored the legitimacy of “preserving the state’s prestige” ideology, with the state being a common denominator, agreed upon by both political opponents, and even consolidated by both, with each seeking to bring it to their side. The second is that it helped the “deep administration” out of its political confusion by providing it with field leaders who negotiate on its behalf. In the same period, in April 2012, the “Nidaa Tounes” party was founded as a political expression uniting the forces of the old regime, even though it did not purely reflect the aspirations of those forces... Beji Caid Essebsi, the former Minister of Bourguiba, and the head of the transitional government that arranged the elections for the National Constituent Assembly (agreed upon after the second Kasbah sit-in was broken) was the focal point of this hazy party. He managed to form an alliance around this party of groups that represented the remnants of the “Constitutional Democratic Rally” party, former leftist, businessmen, jurists and senior management figures.

This coincided with the exceptionally sensitive political situation following the assassination of two political leaders (Chokri Belaid and Muhamed Brahmi) of the Popular Front, the main leftist force in Tunisia. That period was characterized by an extreme political tension that can be summarized in the unprecedented bilateral polarization, exacerbated by the developments in Egypt. The Ennahda movement and its allies inside and outside the government represented the first pole of this polarization, while the National Salvation Front represented the second pole. Though the long list of founding parties and organizations of the front might make it seem that this front was heavily diversified, however, it cannot obscure the hegemony of “Nidaa Tounes” and the representatives of the old regime init, after they had gradually reconstituted themselves as the main political force in the country.

The two conflicting poles, hence, defined the axes of the struggle over the question of identity, which they both knew how to handle. Consequently, most of the left forces became involved in the conflict based on this chosen axis. On the other hand, the left did not succeed in becoming a pole which is independent of the two aforementioned ones, despite the intensifying social crisis in the country and the ongoing social demands that had mobilized broad groups of protestors in the uprising of 2010, not to mention the fact that its two martyrs, Belaid and Brahmi, gave the left a “legitimacy paid by blood”.

The field battle began on 25 July, 2013, on the day Mohamed Brahmi was assassinated. Its main arena was the area around the Constituent Assembly in the capital’s suburb, Bardo. The various leftist forces, especially the youth factions (students mainly), played a vital part on the first couple of days of the sit-in. On the 26th and 27th of July, the members of the leftist organizations and some independent youth made several attempts to concentrate the sit-in in Bardo square, but they were suppressed and attacked by the police forces. Eventually, the protestors succeeded in imposing their presence and stationing their sit-in starting from the third day, after they were joined by the opposition lawmakers who had frozen their memberships or threatened to resign from the parliament (and most of those were leftists). During these early days, a significant part of the members of the General Union of Tunisian Students participated in the sit-in, in addition to most leftist student organizations. The Bardo sit-in, which will play a major role in rearranging the political papers in Tunisia, would not have been possible without this participation. The leftist youth present at the sit-in – including the youth factions of the left-wing parties- tried to push towards a more radical political horizon, by seeking to establish revolutionary units for regional sit-ins that could polarize citizens around them and gain control over the local authorities.

However, this participation, as those before, did not meet the necessary conditions for success. The general subordinate position of the left to “Nidaa Tounes” kept it in a marginalized position both politically and media-wise, and stripped its youth initiatives of any revolutionary credibility. They appeared as mere field maneuvers to improve the conditions for negotiation whose strings were in the hands of “Nidaa Tounes”. The streaming of political money from entities close to “Nidaa Tounes” to mobilize its supporters in the sit-in was the death sentence of the student left’s presence in the sit-in, as most of its members gradually withdrew from Bardo in disappointment.

The Bardo sit-in succeeded in achieving the goals formally-announced by the Salvation Front, bringing an end to the foundational phase of Ennahda Movement, voting for a constitution guaranteeing the minimum public and personal rights and freedoms, setting a date for the upcoming legislative and presidential elections and appointing a technocrat government… However, despite this, the left is the one who emerged from Bardo with the greatest losses, after handing over its years of struggles and sacrifices to “Nidaa Tounes” to exploit, although the latter was in a more secondary political position compared to the left in 2012. In the political scene, the left had turned into a mere complement to the liberal right against the conservative right, rather than becoming an independent standalone political pole.

The ramifications of the Bardo sit-in were deep within the student left, too. The disappointments led to an escalation of conflicts, disagreements and frustrations. Organizational conflicts over the legal structures of General Union of Tunisian Students deepened, and the disagreement over the dual (or even the plural) organizational bodies within the structures of the organization took violent forms in several faculties among militants belonging to the different leftist factions. This situation has placed the union and the student left in general in a futile situation in which its energy was exhausted in sabotage actions instead of invested in the struggle for democracy. This reality increased the isolation of the student left and its impact receded, making it unready to fight the major battles much needed by the student masses. The student left neither filled this void in the university, nor did it withdraw from the scene to open a gateway for the student movement to produce other expressions that could be closer to its reality and more capable of addressing the students’ needs.

The student left missed the most important national, sectoral and local battles because of these absurd conflicts, but also because of the rigidity of the mechanisms and common organizational principles that impeded the radicalizing of the democratic struggle within the General Union of Tunisian Students.

Political Marginalization Continues after 2014

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in the face of understanding how the General Union of Tunisian Students should operate is the issue of the relationship between the student union and the political parties (the leftist parties and, implicitly, the national ones). To address this issue, one must first go back to the need to define the role of the union in the university and outside of it; a task that has occupied generations of militants and was the subject of hundreds of theoretical-political publications formulated by the various political organizations of the student union.

In Summary

Perhaps the most important conclusion derived from studying the spectrum of political sides and their practical approaches in the union for decades is their conviction that the union is first and foremost an incubator for political organizations, rather than for the students as individuals. It is an organization that includes within it other clandestine and overt organizations. It polarizes the students for unionist action and, afterwards, each of these organizations seeks to re-polarize them to its own ranks.

Among the syndromes created by this situation is that the legacy of the student struggle carried a unique meaning for its militants and for the students who sought to engage in it. Not any student who wishes to participate can do so, because only the student who is delegated by one of the political organizations in the university institution can belong to it. And since political organizations have often sought to exaggerate their volume in the context of their struggles by introducing individuals who did not necessarily have an organizational position or even a political affiliation to them, they have been compelled, in order to perpetuate their control, to create a second level of discrimination between members, by creating what they called “the militants”, and those who belong to the political organization. The person who wishes to become a member without having to belong to one of these organizations is required to make great efforts to prove themselves as a “militant” in the union. Some have even come to the extent of creating coordination units for the “independent” (non-affiliated) members to defend their membership in the union without having to belong to one of the organizations. But, because of their limited influence, they ended up as subordinates to one or another of the university parties. The situation gets far more complicated in the field (which is often the case) when organizational differences or difficulties emerge, disrupting the membership distribution within the union, turning the process of joining the union into a process of endorsement by political organizations. This complicates the independent members’ engagement with the Union.

The second syndrome related to this legacy is that democracy inside the union, in its most perfect manifestation, means ensuring the participation of the different political groups in the decision making process. This means that, in this context, the exclusion of the independent ones from being militants is not a sign of the absence of democracy in the union. More than this, when conflicts and repression intensified, the union sometimes came to the point of sufficing with the agreement of the organizations’ leaderships on the practical steps to be taken, as a way of blessing their decisions with a “consensual democracy”, in the absence of any collective decision-making mechanisms which are open to the militants, let alone the rest of the members. Ironically, these limited agreements made (among the leaders) were never taken seriously on the ground, during most of the historical stages that the union went through. The failure to give legitimacy to political agreements at the level of the grassroots makes their denunciation and manipulation by the most politically and logistically powerful organizations an easy task.

Denying the role that the repression and the lack of political freedoms played in formulating these organizational mechanisms would be unjust for the union and for these political organizations. However, the denial of the continuation of these forms even in the periods of political détente (the beginning of the eighties, the late eighties, and after January 14, 2011…) confirms that factors other than habituation contribute to perpetuating these practices.

Leftists (with caution in using this generalization) are advised first to stop “alienating people”. They are also called upon to raise awareness of their social position individually and collectively. This may seem surprising at first impression, but in reality it is one of the basic criteria that may explain the distance between this left and its assumed popular social incubator.

These organizations also agree on a functional understanding of the union’s role. It is the framework that should bring together “the student movement as an arm of the popular movement in its struggle for a revolutionary alternative to the existing regime”. Although there are different understandings of how to unionize and what the alternative should be, the organizations share that view that the General Union of Tunisian Students is their incubator. According to those interpretations, the union is a public space in which the “student masses” can unionize, especially since they are reluctant to get involved in a direct manner in costly political action, in light of the repression they had experienced under the previous authoritarian regime. Students are brought to this space based on their desire to defend their direct material interests. Afterwards, they become politicized through a careful framing process by the political parties inside the union. This understanding has contributed to the conviction that the union’s activity is inferior, as it is merely an excuse to lure the students into “the real mission”, which is political change. During the rule of authoritarian regimes before 2011, this reading overburdened the union with conflicts that transcended its role; ones which the political parties were unable to settle outside of it. This led the union into a state of permanent contradiction between its rhetoric, which mainly promotes its role as a union, and the reality of its action, which was often political and partisan.

These statements have neither been reviewed nor criticized after 2011, and no efforts were made to adjust to the major changes in the country in general and the university in particular. The union’s occlusion of the general student body was no longer justifiable as it previously had been by the risks of a security breach (which is a questionable matter in the first place). The union was also no longer the only legitimate entity in the university, as associations and parties now operated with relative freedom. With the lack of accountability, the union has fallen into a temporal paradox, much like the other leftist organizations outside the university. In recent years, most of these organizations have lost a large number of their activists, and their outreach has shrunk in a way that threatened their very existence.

If we go back to the university, we find that the intensity of the struggle experience and the high cost of joining the union previously represented a barrier to the members that lacked a militant upbringing, keeping them from approaching the General Union of Tunisian Students and the rest of the leftist and national political organizations. The reason lies in the exclusive collective frameworks the militants use in their everyday lives: the use of a special lexicon, coded inside jokes, a distinct taste in clothes, art, and literature, and specific interests. This informal framework becomes a repulsive factor for the new students, or at least a source of a feeling of alienation for them among this group. Although the cost of joining the union has decreased significantly since 2011, these obstacles for newcomers have not changed, rather, these particularities have become vaguer and more abstract, especially since the conditions that caused their emergence have changed. Contrary to the popular discourse among leftists (concerning the necessity of simplifying the leftist discourse because it is incomprehensible for the “ordinary student”), what is actually happening is that leftists generally resort to adopting a sophisticated discourse (one that most of its own members find complicated), as a desperate way of proving they belong to a so-called “elite”, socially distinct from the “student masses”. Therefore, the process is related to the very common strategies for acquiring social positioning.

Leftists (with caution in using this generalization) are advised first to stop “alienating people”. They are also called upon to raise awareness of their social position individually and collectively. This may seem surprising at first but, in reality, it is one of the basic criteria that may explain the distance between this left and its assumed popular social incubator. The Tunisian left includes elements that generally come from families of the lower classes to the educated urban middle classes. Questioning the repercussions of this social positioning is supposed to explain some of the causes of the conflicts that divide the left’s ranks, away from the dominant personal pathological analyzes, or the so-called “personal conflicts”. It also reveals some aspects of the political margins and limits of a part of the left, away from the accusations of treason or of being rightists…

Acknowledging that the left is ignorant of its environment is also a necessity. A part of this ignorance is understandable and reasonable in a country that has lived under an authoritarian regime for 55 years, where the possibility of accumulating knowledge or producing critical knowledge about the social realities is hindered. This relative ignorance is not limited to the left, naturally. It is a common denominator of all the political and civil forces and an objective reality in Tunisia. The Tunisians do not know much about how their collective lives proceed, neither in the past nor today, and definitely not in the future. Perhaps this is a normal matter for the forces that seek to safeguard the status quo, which generally means ensuring that the same social mechanisms continue to operate. But, the issue becomes truly disruptive when it comes to a force that claims to seek a change in the power relations, production relations, and social relations as a whole. How can it accomplish this without an in-depth understanding of the realities of these relationships? Of course, this knowledge is not produced by alleged experts who isolate themselves in offices, but rather through a collective effort in which revolutionary knowledge is produced from revolutionary field practice (i.e., from “Praxis”, as Gramsci has argued). This requires questioning and scrutinizing the dominant social relations within left-wing organizations themselves, as well as their relationships to their surroundings, which is not an easy task, nor a possible one without a collective will to address it.

In recent years, waves of resignations have struck all the left’s youth organizations, bringing them into a major crisis. It is no secret that the feebleness of their internal democracy, their detachment, and the failure to overcome their political sterility over recent years are the most important reasons for these waves. Tracking these resignations is important to understand their causes. Contrary to the hypothesis that political aversion is spreading among young people, an inspection of the reality leads us to detect a continued interest in civil and political commitment among a large number of those who had resigned. This is proven by their engagement in major movements, such as those against the so-called “reconciliation act”, or the movement in support of the unique agricultural cooperative experience by the people of the Djemna oasis in southern Tunisia, and in other major struggles.

One of the most vital spaces the militants who grew up in the student movement have engaged in after 2011 is the social movements that became widespread after the political openness in the country. Those movements have been carried out regardless of any of the political actors’ opinions, but rather by the autonomous will of the people who participated in them, as a response to the continuous deterioration of the living situation in the country. Local groups were formed whenever the need was present to confront urgent problems related to issues of employment, pollution, supplying safe drinking water, etc. The members who have accumulated a militant experience within the General Union of Tunisian Students have been part of these movements in most of the regions all over the country. They have worked with others for years to overcome the occasional nature of these movements through networking and providing frameworks of solidarity to protect and enable them to accumulate experiences.

In addition to these semi-spontaneous movements (at least in their beginnings), a second type of movements had also risen, in which the union activists played a pivotal role. Those are the social movements that carry political demands and concern personal and public freedoms. This is where the left’s youth has proven several times its field knowledge ability, practicality, and political flexibility during the movements of the unemployed ones of the union’s veterans, or in its handling of the various political contradictions that surrounded the mobilization against the reconciliation act, the campaigns against police brutality, and the campaigns supporting the legalization of the consumption of cannabis, for instance.

However, this situation must not obscure the major difficulties faced by the left’s youths in formulating general political visions and plans. While the relative withdrawal from field work represented an ordeal for the leftist organizations in a way that deepened their isolation from their environment and kept them hostages to the outdated theoretical analyzes (addressing a changing reality they cannot grasp with the analytical tools of the past), the immersion of unorganized leftist members in movements and their dispersion – on the other hand - have not allowed them to take the necessary critical distance from their experiences to formulate general perceptions about the daily reality. And despite the richness of political experiences accumulated over the past seven years and before, the general synthesis process remains weak, and the defensive social movements and partial battles remain the dominant characteristic of the leftist youth. The risk of this situation lies in the immersion in the daily tasks, getting used to the inability to change anything of substance, and sufficing with the partial battles. There lies the broadest door to the disintegration of the radical tendencies and to paving the way for being easily devoured by the market mechanisms through international funders and the existing ruling system.

In addition to the foregoing, the critical discourse of party organizations has not yet reached a level of maturity that allows it to leave the impressionism and the timeliness of the subjective experiences of those who had resigned. With the exception of some delusional perceptions that appear on the scene from time to time, the absence of in-depth readings of the reality remains evident. Perhaps the main element absent from this critique is attempting an open collective thinking process that could provide opportunities for intellectual accumulation and a critical approach to the formulation of contents and programs, and could then extract the leftist conflicts from the tradition of personalization that has distorted the struggle and obscured the real causes of the existing conflicts.

Contrary to the hypothesis that political aversion is spreading among young people, an inspection of the reality leads us to detect a continued interest in civil and political commitment among a large number of those who had resigned. This is proven by their engagement in major movements that have motivated their participation.

The absence of this systematic and collective criticism facilitates the spread of the culture of intellectual consumption, through attempts to reproduce the experiences of other regions in the world, without taking into consideration the constraints and specificities of each experience, which impedes critical interaction with new experiences and the ability to produce organizational forms and contents drawn from the reality of the class and social conflict in Tunisia. Hence, the shallowness of the discourse on the conflict between horizontal and hierarchical forms of organization is exposed as a mere echo of generalized proverbs, along with a lack of any significant intellectual production on the subject from both sides. In fact, the struggle in Tunisia is extremely enriched by the dialectical conflict between the two sides, and the experience is capable of providing more eloquent and valid arguments for the current reality.


Perhaps what we can draw from all of the above is that the Tunisian left has not succeeded, until today, in becoming an independent and well-defined political party. In its arguments, the left, reiterating Marx, has always considered that the most important step in eliminating capitalist oppression is the transformation of the proletariat from a class “in itself”, that is, by force and spontaneous consciousness, into a class “for itself”; that is, by revolutionary practice and consciousness. However, the Tunisian political reality confirms that our left, until this moment, lacks the awareness in itself and of itself, as it has been imprisoned by the grand political schemes for years, supporting one at the expense of the other at times “for tactical reasons”.

The left has not yet abandoned the narrative that the modern classist Tunisian state was founded on, which is the reformist narrative (6). What is essential in this regard is the relational aspect of this narrative which has shaped the relations of the self-proclaimed “elites” who tasked themselves with the mission of freeing the “people” of their backward reality. This perspective is characterized by the conviction of these elites that the “commoners” are incapacitated to undertake the historical tasks themselves. More than this, they are instinctively unable to do this task and thus, it is the duty of the elite to become the shepherd who lead these “sheep” to paradise, even if they have to chain them along the way. In general, the major intellectual groups in Tunisia agree on this evaluation, although they use terms which are less acute. Rather, they disagree on the ways that should be used to advance this historical mission by the “elites”.

The left’s belief in the “vanguard” role of the university as a part of the historical mission of the “elite” to extract the “people” from theirbackward reality has remained unshaken. The role that the Tunisian University has played, since its establishment, in the ideological structuring of the authoritarian Tunisian state has never been questioned. The university might not be an exception within this authoritarian and discriminatory regime that Tunisia has known since its independence. On the contrary, it might be one of the conditions for this regime.

Perhaps the first step in questioning this crisis situation perception is to doubt the social role and benefit of the “elite” and to question its relation to the intelligentsia. Do the elite identify with the intelligentsia, is it a part of them or is it a completely different group apart from them? What are the social conditions necessary for a person to become an “elite”? The second step is to hold the university, in its position, accountable as a presumed space of production of this elite. In this context, one of the crises of the left in general and the student left in particular perhaps lies in its dealings with the university as a starting point and an end point for its political work. Perhaps believing in the university's “vanguard” role explains, for example, how left-wing organizations are mainly found in the university. Their discourses are also about the university, and thus the discourse of the General Union of Tunisian students itself, in its most profound analysis, has not yet gone beyond the nostalgic reminiscence of comparing the university’s poor conditions today with its exceptional situation in the beginning of the sixties of the last century, when the student was a socially respected person who had many privileges. The role that the Tunisian University has played, since its establishment, in the ideological structuring of the authoritarian Tunisian state has never been questioned. The university might not be an exception within the authoritarian and discriminatory regime that Tunisia has known since its independence. On the contrary, it might be one of the conditions for this regime.

There are very few answers to the many questions and many doubts remaining at the moment…

The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of Assafir Al-Arabi and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation cannot accept any liability for it.

Translated from Arabic by Sabah Jalloul
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 24/12/2018


1- For more information about this relationship during the fifties and sixties, one can refer to the article “March 1968 and the Radicalization if the Student Activism”.
2- The usage of this familiar term is similar to the meaning given by Deleuze and Guattari in their book "Capitalism and Schizophrenia" for the term “rhizome”.
3- V. Taylor (1989), “Social movement continuity: the women’s movement in abeyance”, American Sociology Review, pp. 761-775.
4- The process of the fast “self-dissolution” this party(which has brought two million Tunisians into its ranks in a few days’ time) needs to be carefully studied in order to understand what happened and reveal its implications, as that would be greatly beneficial in understanding the basic political mechanisms in the last years of Ben Ali's rule, and the conditions and possibility of reshaping again that which is called the “old regime” in several parties and organizations.
5- The situation of most of these professional organizations (lawyers, judges, writers’organizations...) and associations (Tunisian Human Rights League…) is no less disastrous than that of the parties.
6- B. Hibou (2006), La force de l’obéissance. Économie politique de la répression en Tunisie. La Découverte, Paris.

Articles from Tunisia