Tunisian revelations

The Force of Obedience: The Political Economy of Repression in Tunisia by Béatrice Hibou, translated by Andrew Brown (Polity Press)

Lawyers prosecute leaders of totalitarian states by emphasising the distinction between victims and perpetrators, resistance and collaboration, good and evil. Meanwhile, histories of the same actors and states bring to the fore murky shades of complicity and compromise, as well the long-term challenges of moving beyond entrenched patterns of domination.

Béatrice Hibou’s newly published work applies more of the historical insights to Tunisia.
By translating the initial 2006 French version into English, Hibou has created an invaluable archive, an interpretive historical record, which allows the English-speaking world to catch a glimpse into life under the authoritarian rule of President Ben Ali, before his ­overthrow in January 2011. Tales from this “little country” matter—for its 10-million citizens, for supranational and regional geopolitics and for understanding the relationship between individuals and systems in single, “liberation” party states.

Based on nine years of research in the field, Hibou’s work of historical sociology recounts the daily experiences of elite and average Tunisians, from applying for loans and jobs to enforcing or being subjected to “law and order”. In fact, Hibou proves seemingly banal rituals can never be disentangled from the big picture of the political economy. Thus, when a young street seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself alight in protest on December 17 2010, he galvanised not only his own people to find a voice with the ensuing Tunisian Revolution, but also inspired populations across the Maghreb to “speak truth to power” in what became the Arab Spring.

A cautionary chronicle

Yet the long-term consequences of the uprisings remain uncertain today, which is one reason why The Force of Obedience reads as more of a cautionary than a celebratory chronicle.

Precisely because “memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing”, as the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus once wrote, Hibou is wise to draw attention to historical continuities in the present era.

Throughout the text, and particularly in the new preface, the most poignant examples highlight the intimacy between the rhetoric of liberation and practices of oppression. For instance, in 1987 Ben Ali promised to end old authoritarian policies in the so-called medical coup d’état, which deemed the previous ruler unfit to rule. Promises of liberation gave rise to a “security pact”, that is, a regime that gained domestic and international legitimacy by projecting the image of a stable, macroeconomically efficient and just Tunisia.

Tunisians “obeyed” this rule partly because of police brutality and tight supervision under the single party, the rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique, but also because of non-violent coercion at banks, in schools and at work.

The work argues that systems of credit, jobs in the primary textile and tourism industries, as well as “non-political” technocrats, shopkeepers and law enforcement officials, all played key roles in constructing the oppressive fiction of the “Tunisian miracle”. Of course, multinational actors and “aid relief” are never off the hook; if anything, their influences deserve more sustained attention here. Ottoman and French forms of indirect rule in the territory surface as more of a backdrop, as with the explanations of how the codification of “Moslem laws” sowed the seeds for more recent forms of institutional violence, or how the direct descendant of a traditional sheikh (omda) still plays a public role in the central administration.

Salacious details
Passing references are also made to nongovernmental organisations and development initiatives, which have at once promoted democracy and human rights and “perversely” ignored how their financial support sanctioned the status quo and bolstered state oppression. For non-specialists, these salacious details will whet, but not satisfy, an appetite for more information on past and present ties between Tunisia and the Mediterranean world.

However, readers will feel most frustrated with the diction, which suffers in the English translation. For the same reasons Hibou eschews “-isms” (such as totalitarianism, authoritarianism, liberalism, dirigisme) that bury academic works in jargon, The Force of Obedience may have benefited from less theoretical framing and fewer references to the likes of Weber, Marx and Foucault. Although these scholars are meant to clarify the phenomena described and succeed to this end to some degree they risk sterilising the testimonies of her Tunisian sources, whose voices provide more vivid and complex pictures of society.

Far beyond her notable erudition, the work most benefits from the author’s deep-seated personal investment in her interview subjects and from her own brave commitment to continue research amid intrusive police scrutiny of her activities in Tunisia and France. The reader is left wanting more of the material she gathered “on the ground” and less of what she learned from the library.

Still, The Force of Obedience offers a sophisticated portrait of a society in crisis, one that more South Africans would be wise to consider. Just days after the overthrow of Ben Ali, Moeletsi Mbeki predicted South Africa’s own “Tunisia Day” would arrive around 2020, the year that China estimates its minerals-industrialisation phase will conclude. At that point, he predicted South Africa would no longer be able to rely on the high cost of minerals to sustain social welfare programmes. In this framework public grants operate as South Africa’s “security pact”, one that at once normalises daily humiliations and empowers certain ­segments of the population to ­exercise certain rights.

Some may counter that, in comparison, pre-revolutionary Tunisia proved to be far more repressive as a police state than post-apartheid South Africa. Hibou demonstrates, however, that more obvious forms of repression proved far less influential and effective for the regime than the insidious and non-violent coercion required of completing everyday chores.

Such repression lingers with far more subtle legacies to “transform”. Mbeki may have a point.

David Bargueño is a Fox Fellow at the University of Cape Town

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