In her book Youth and Revolution in Tunisia, author Alcinda Honwana rightly reminds us that the phenomenon of the “Arab Spring”—or as she refers to it, the “African Awakening”—was intimately connected to a globalized trend. From Senegal to Spain to Santiago to Seattle, the voice of a disaffected generation went viral across social media platforms on every continent. She expertly handles the task of deconstructing the roots of the revolution led by Tunisian youth who ignited the wildfire of social change, with meticulous testimonials and narratives that place their struggle within a rich historical context.
Honwana identifies “five critical areas of disconnect between the Tunisian authorities and the population: unequal regional development and massive youth unemployment; corruption and nepotism; political repression and lack of civil liberties; the shortcomings of women’s rights reforms; and the repression of Islam and the quest for religious identity” (p. 21). These points are discussed in depth in the first chapter, explaining how they followed an easily traceable path of state decline and subsequent revolution. Ben Ali’s regime secured a stranglehold over the economy by incrementally absorbing the various resources of the Tunisian state and crushing opposition parties, the media, and all forms of political dissent. As Ben Ali cemented his place as an ally of the West in the global war on terror, he angered both Islamists and human rights activists who claimed that anti-terror legislation was far too harsh. These conditions produced a perfect storm of discontent among a rapidly marginalized youth, who were promised education but were unable to find work given the nepotistic patronage-reliant economy.
Moving beyond the sources of Tunisian discontent, Honwana details how the revolution took shape and became effective, focusing also on the role of youth activists and their creative use of social media to advance their cause. The use of social media also meant that the regime increasingly began to lose the ability to censor actions by, or conversations between activists on the internet. Given that development, Tunisian “hacktivists”1A term that has come to refer to “A computer hacker whose activity is aimed at promoting a social or political cause.” Oxford English Dictionary. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/hacktivist. such as Slim Amamou began to disrupt government websites in their fight to reclaim the internet. Twitter, Facebook, blogging platforms, and the like allowed Tunisians from around the country to organize their activities and protests. The book examines how the youth movements that helped to overthrow the regime were too disjointed and ineffectual in transforming their groups into fully-fledged political movements or new political parties. Thus, it left the stage open for the re-emergence of Islamist opposition parties, often persecuted by Ben Ali, to hijack the political space forcibly opened up by the revolutionary momentum.
Through interviews with youth leaders and prominent figures from the revolution, Youth and Revolution in Tunisia weaves a comprehensive, personable account of Tunisia’s role in the “African Awakening.” The author does an admirable job capturing the genesis, tactics, and essence of the youth uprisings in Tunisia, and its reverberations in other parts of the continent. Though Honwana ends the book on a relatively optimistic note, some of its conclusions appear to be already dated barely a year after publication. While the book still leaves open the possibility that Ennahda will espouse a new brand of secular Islam, however, some Tunisians may not share the same view about the motives of the so-called “Renaissance Party.” Some of Ennahda’s members have been accused of jihadist tendencies and some prominent secular leaders have been assassinated, while Tunisian politics in general have come to include more radical Islamist and Salafist parties. It remains to be seen what direction Tunisia’s politics will take after the revolution of 2011. While the country’s new constitution includes provisions to protect the rights of individuals and women, it is clear that the last may not have been heard from the Tunisian and other African revolutions. Alcinda’s Honwana’s book helps us to make sense of Tunisia’s youth-led revolution, and its connections to African and global social movements that from time to time seek to transform their everyday lives and recreate history on their own terms.
- 1A term that has come to refer to “A computer hacker whose activity is aimed at promoting a social or political cause.” Oxford English Dictionary. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/hacktivist.