The quest for an alternative economy: Social activism in Tunisia as a case in point
Layla Al Riahi
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The restructuring of development patterns has for a long time been part of the official discourse of all political players in Tunisia, whether governments or opposition factions, political parties or trade unions, right wing or left wing, since the winter of 2010. Despite consensus over the necessity of restructuring the Tunisian economy, the level of political will required to achieve this end was never reached throughout the past seven years despite the relatively substantial political changes that took place during that time and the continuation of lobbying by social movements.

According to al-Saghir al-Salihi, the absence of a real will to effect a change is attributed to historical factors related to the balance of power in Tunisia. He explains that, for example, the unequal distribution of development is a result of the historical dominance of a ruling elite, which goes as far back as the era of the Hafsid Dynasty. Salihi coins the term “internal colonization” to refer to the sum of economic, social, and regional policies adopted starting with the Hafsid era through the Ottoman reign of the “beys,” French colonization, and the establishment of the modern state until the present moment[1]. Such policies have throughout all those years been concentrating both power and wealth in the hands of a privileged minority, hence the current lack of equality as far as development is concerned.

The concept of internal colonization underlines the similarities between the tools used by local authorities and the ruling elite to control the majority and those used by the colonizers to control the colonized. That is why eliminating the hegemony of this class is an essential component in any plan for the establishment of an alternative economy.

On the other hand, the democratization of public space and the expansion of freedoms provided an opportunity for traditional political players such as political parties and trade unions to alter the balance of power and promote a different economic approach during the revolution. However, proposed alternatives were not powerful enough to operate outside the establishment and while political factions made initiatives at times, they got detached at others and in all cases they were never able to establish a serious dialogue about the incumbent economic system that has proven a failure.

Like many countries in the global South, conditions in Tunisia hinder the establishment of social and economic alternatives. Indebtedness, restrictions imposed by international financial institutions, and a non-productive rentier economy were among the obstacles. Added to this was the weakness of state institutions, which in many cases were plagued with corruption as well as incapable of initiating reform programs or even conducting studies that look into the best way of serving the people’s interests and achieving social justice. These factors make it harder to initiate the kind of change that can establish an alternative system, one that designs policies which promote the fair distribution of resources and eliminate the accumulation of wealth.

The general state of discontent that prevailed in the Tunisian society especially as far as the economy is concerned started manifesting itself in the winter of 2010 through unconventional political players who belong to marginalized segments of the society. The marginalized are, in fact, the core of social movements that bring to the forefront the demands of the majority and that sound alarm bells over the main crises from which a given society is suffering. The actions and initiatives of those unconventional players constitute a guide for both conventional opposition factions and for the authorities as well as for public opinion, all parties that should contribute to the formulation of an alternative system that eliminates marginalization and establishes social justice.

It is not possible to establish an alternative economy from within the current economic and political establishment and it is similarly not possible to use conventional economic policies to design an alternative pattern through which social justice can be achieved. A sustainable and fair economic system needs to be founded upon both successful experiences on the level of microeconomics and general policies that prioritize public welfare. For this reason, it is necessary to initiate an alternative economy from outside the current establishment. This is what this paper will attempt to do with reference to the Tunisian context.

The first part of the paper will examine the most significant movements Tunisia witnessed in its modern history, which will be essential in identifying the economic problems accumulated as a result of policies adopted by successive administrations as well as the role played by marginalized political players. Those movements will be analyzed as a channel through which the current economic crisis can be dealt with. The second part will look into the possibility of benefiting from past experiences in formulating a new alternative that avoids previous mistakes while detaching itself from the hegemony of the current establishment.

  • Social movements: The start of the quest:


  • The significance of social movements:


Several studies, particularly sociological, focused on social movements as societal and political phenomena that mark significant milestones in the history of nations. Most of those studies attempted to understand and classify social movements based on a number of criteria such as sustainability, structure, mechanisms… etc. However, the results of these studies might not always apply to countries of the south with their economic, social, political, and cultural specificities. That is why it is necessary to conduct studies that formulate new definitions and criteria which are can be applied to the context subject of the research. The Tunisian case can serve as an example through which this approach can be presented. In this paper, social movements include protests, uprisings, and revolutions through which it is possible to detect the most pressing social, economic, and political crises that drive people to mobilize for change and to analyze the main reasons for tension in a given community.


Social movements are significant because, as Jacques Boucher said, they create independent spaces and guide the community towards issues of extreme importance as far as social relations are concerned. Social relations constitute the main aspect from which the different types of communal work spring whether in its institutional form (power struggle) or its organizational form (demands, resources). Economic tendencies, particularly the relationship between the economy and society, are crucial in determining the relations between social players, whether in terms of the production or consumption of resources. As they led crucial struggles that targeted the state and its capitalist policies, social movements were carving for themselves an independent space through which they can intervene to introduce social and economic reforms or to establish a social economy[2]. This means that in addition to underlining the points of weakness in a given economy, social movements have the ability to open new spaces of experimentation that could lead to the creation of alternative solutions.


  • Major social movements in Tunisia’s modern history:


Tunisian modern history witnessed a number of social movements that played a major role in nurturing a culture of protest and mobilization for economic reforms. The most prominent of these movements are the Revolt of Ali Ben Ghedhahem (1864), the Frachiches Revolt or the Thala-Kasserine Disturbances (1906), the Bread Riots (1984), the Mining Basin Revolt (2008), and the Revolution of Dignity (2010).


Revolt of Ali Ben Ghedhahem:

The revolt started on March 10, 1864 before the French colonization and as the rule of the Husainid dynasty was coming to an end while Tunisia was becoming more and more tied to European powers through external debts[3]. The revolt was staged to reject personal taxes[4].


In his book Les origines du protectorat francais en tunisie (1861-1881) [The Origins of the French Protectorate in Tunisia], Jean Ganiage said that in 1864 when several tribes revolted and the revolt soon expanded to the entire country. Tax hikes were the main reason for the revolt, yet Ganiage argues that there were many other reasons for the resentment such as European-style reforms implemented by the Bey, who was influenced by his Western advisors. These reforms, which were done under the pretext of allowing Tunisia to join developed countries, led to more centralization of power in the hands of the ruling cliques comprised of Beys and Mamluks and families close to them. The judicial system also became more complicated as people were required to leave their hometowns and stay in major towns for long times until their cases are resolved[5].


Lieutenant-colonel Campenon, who was the director of the Military School at the time, said that all what Tunisian people wanted then was not to be burdened with taxes and bureaucracy and to have a local judicial system that can resolve their cases fast, but none of this materialized since the government was indebted and pre-occupied with implementing projects that did not benefit the majority. An example of these projects is the renovation of the Roman aqueduct that supplies Tunis with water from the town of Zaghouan. This project infuriated residents of cities and the countryside alike as the first objected to having to pay for the water they consume and the second complained of surveillance patrols that prevented them from changing the water course for their benefit. Soon, everyone regretted that megaproject that led to the bankruptcy of the “eyelet.”[6]


The uprising also came as a reaction to signs of an imminent European colonization[7] and to the collaboration between the ruling class and foreign powers. Prime Minister Mustafa Khaznadar was accused of compromising the country’s sovereignty through debts. In their rebellion, the people rejected the rule of the Mamluks and the new constitution and called for stopping the export of grains[8].


The rebellion demonstrated people’s awareness of the importance of food security and the threat of foreign intervention as well as their ability to foresee the French colonization and its negative impact on the farming sector in particular, which was to take place a few years later. According to Tunisian historian Ahmad ibn Abi Diyaf, revolutionaries seized large amounts of grains and distributed them amongst the needy while repeating that they managed to get back some of what was stolen from them[9].


Frachiches Revolt:

This uprising was staged in 1906 by small farmers against colonizers and their local supporters. It started in the area of the Frachiches Tribe, which is the Thala-Kasserine region in the west. According to al-Hadi al-Taimoumi[10], the revolt was triggered by a number of political, economic, and environmental factors, all related to farming and the land. Colonial authorities usurped lands from local owners so that the land owned by foreign settlers was estimated at 850,000 hectares in addition to the lands controlled by local elites who collaborated with the colonizers. A large number of farmers were forced into selling their lands because of deteriorating living conditions and others were victims to fraudulent deals in which foreign investors took advantage of their inability to understand the French language. Colonizers took advantage of border disputes between tribes to acquire the lands of entire families[11].


Colonial policies were accompanied by successive years of drought, which still did not stop local elites from exporting grains, whose prices kept hiking consequently. Colonial authorities also started imposing restrictions on traditional farming practices. These included farmers’ migration in the summer from the southern and central parts of the country to the north to take part in the harvest in return for a portion of the harvested crops. Farmers were also stripped of their right to use grass and forests. All these factors gradually turned farmers from owners who cultivate their land and herd their cattle into laborers who work for colonizers and their local supporters. Many of them were exploited in the mining industry that was starting to boom especially in the southwest, which was rich in phosphate, and the northwest, where iron was produced.


As part of restricting the mobility of Tunisians, colonial authorities made sure to tighten security on the borders with Algeria, which led to the deterioration of border trade and the disintegration of border communities and tribes.[12]


Taimoumi adds that among the other reasons for this revolt was rampant corruption among local elites, compulsory military services, and hiking taxes, all of which put pressure not only on farmers and the impoverished, but also on the middle class.


Bread Riots:


In the early 1980s, the state was under the control of international financial institutions, which started imposing new policies under the pretext of structural reforms. Austerity measures applied under the instruction of the International Monetary Fund included lifting subsidies on basic commodities, which led to doubling the price of bread. People took to the streets on December 29, 1983. The protests started in village of Douz in the south then spread to Kebili, al-Hamma, and Gabes and other parts of the country until they reached the capital on January 4, 1984. The protests were put down by brutal force, a state of emergency was imposed, and live ammunition was used with protestors[13].

This uprising was different from the previous ones because it did not reflect regional or tribal grievances, but rather championed a national cause in which all the people took part. The protests drove the government to retract price hikes. The protests came at a time when Tunisia was going through political tension as President Habib Bourguiba, whose era was coming to end, was imposing more restrictions on political freedoms and clamping down on all forms of opposition. However, when Bourguiba announced that no price hikes will be implemented, the riots ended and he regained his popularity through dismissing his Prime Minister Mohammed Mzali after accusing him of causing the crisis.


While bread and price hikes were the main reasons for people’s indignation, the protests did have a political dimension as they reflected nation-wide objection to growing unemployment, marginalization, and deteriorating living conditions[14].


Mining Basin Revolt:[15]


The Mining Basin has since the 19th century acquired a special economic important owing to its phosphate wealth. As part of the 1986 structural reform program, the Gafsa Phosphate Company, which manages the production of phosphate in the region, had to lay off 75% of its labor force without restructuring economic activities in the region so that residents can find an alternative[16]. Locals were impoverished and suffered from deteriorating living conditions. In the meantime, investments and development projects were concentrated in coastal regions, which widened the gap between those privileged areas and the Mining Basin[17]. In January 2008, youths from the Mining Bain, mainly those rendered jobless by the restructuring of the Gafsa Company, took to the streets but the regime crushed the uprising through besieging and imprisoning protestors while clamping down on any domestic support.


This uprising merged political, economic, and social demands and was led by unconventional players who were not originally part of the political scene. Those youths replaced political parties who were growing weaker and whose only contribution was to attempt lifting the media blackout and to support the families of imprisoned protestors. Trade unions sided with the regime and abandoned their role as the main defenders of the social and economic rights of workers. The emergence of unconventional political players constituted a major transformation not only because they managed to resist the state, but also owing to the support they started garnering on the popular level.

The Mining Basin incidents took place at a time when unemployment was starting to become a major crises and was obviously a direct result of the policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund. This link played a major role in raising awareness about the necessity of taking demands from the local to the national level so that a popular front against marginalization, unfair distribution of wealth, unequal access to resources, and monopoly of power started coming into being. It was an uprising against internal colonization, one that paved the road for the 2010 revolution that called for a more comprehensive change.


  • The December 17, 2010- January 14, 2011 Revolution:


The Tunisian Revolution managed to challenge all traditional perceptions of the main components of a revolution and the main parties that have to take part in effecting a change. This revolution, which can be considered the culmination of all the previous uprisings, was not led by conventional political players, but rather by average Tunisians from the middle and lower classes whose members shared the same demands: bread, freedom, and dignity. It is noteworthy that the number of uprisings in Tunisia reached 4,375 in 2015[18], which demonstrated the leverage of new political players, especially from regions that have for long been marginalized by the state such as Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, and Kairouan. Those uprisings focused on a number of different economic, social, and political grievances[19] and a large segment of protestors was comprised of citizens who were affected by deteriorating conditions such as the unemployed and residents of marginalized regions.


The Tunisian Revolution is also different in the way it sustained its momentum, which was not the case with previous uprising. Pre-2011 protests can be described as “occasional” since they were always linked to particular conditions, hence always ended when those conditions no longer persisted. The sustainability of the 2011 protests, on the other hand, is demonstrated by the fact that protests and political activism continued throughout the past six years. This shift from occasional to sustainable political activism can be attributed to a number of factors:


  • The democratic atmosphere that prevailed following the revolution and gave different factions the opportunity to voice their demands, which was not the case under authoritarian rule
  • The aggravation of the economic and social crises and the inability of successive governments to respond to popular demands
  • Adhering to the same neo-liberal policies that started the initial protests, which are expected to escalate in the future as long as these policies persist

The revolution’s ability to merge different levels of demands—political, social, and economic—led to a quest for alternatives. This included an economic alternative as was demonstrated in the Association for the Protection of the Djemna Oases and the Kamour Strike, where people in the first demanded their right to use the land and in the first called for the nationalization of natural resources which were controlled by foreign countries and local capitalists. While these movements constituted a real shift in the dynamics of activism, several factors remained in common with previous uprisings such as the role of inland regions marginalized citizens in the mobilization of protestors and the sustainability of protests.                           

  • The quest for alternatives:


Like the regional factor was important in initiating uprisings, it is also important in the quest for an alternative. That is why an alternative should start from inland areas that have for a long time suffered from marginalization and impoverishment at the hands of successive governments. The regional gap in Tunisia is particularly demonstrated in the discrepancy between the west and coastal areas in the east especially as far as development is concerned. Lack of development in the west led to the emergence of alternatives through which residents of this region tried to make up for the state’s abandonment of its role. This alternative is usually called “parallel economy” or “informal economy” and is criminalized by the state because they include activities that take place outside the official framework. Creating an alternative economy requires turning those activities into a form of “popular economy” through which marginalized citizens can improve their living conditions.


Popular economy has gained a prominent position in the Tunisian society, for according to official statistics parallel economy constitutes 54% of the gross domestic product. This percentage, which is calculated nation-wide, can reach 70-80% in some regions. While the state considers parallel economy one of the main obstacles to development, the activities included in this economy are a major source of direct or indirect income for a large segment of the Tunisian population. This economy also contributes to reducing inflation rates and to maintain economic and social balance including the public budget. For example, 70% of dates exported abroad are produced through parallel economy, particularly by oases that rely on water wells that are not licensed by the state.


It is noteworthy that parallel economy is deeply rooted in Tunisian culture and history, which was demonstrated in the practice of cross-border trade, officially criminalized as “smuggling.” This kind of activity remains a major source of income for thousands of Tunisian families who found in it an alternative to monopoly and the soaring prices of a number of commodities such as cement, foodstuffs, and fuel.  That is why it is not possible when establishing an alternative economy to exclude activities carried out under parallel economy. In fact, an alternative economy should be established through studying the mechanisms and activities (trade, farming, services, small and medium industries… etc.) and the regional and social aspects of parallel economy. It is also important to support the main players in this economy and assist them in organizing their activities into entities that would achieve better distribution of wealth and promote the principles of social and solidarity economy as a means of offering an alternative to the dominant market. Such development is bound to counter the official discourse that links popular economy to smuggling and crime as this kind of economy will become the channel through which political demands can be met.


It is not possible to establish an alternative economy under the dominant neoliberal system since an alternative should necessarily go beyond the mainstream and give precedence to the human factor as the core of all economic and social activities. This alternative should be centered in the Tunisian interior where the uprisings started and where marginalization has for long been practiced by the state.


This vision can be seen as idealistic since it is not founded on clear ideological basis, yet it is a realistic alternative since it is inspired by actual experiences, which proved that activities outside the official discourse can be effective and can constitute the core of a comprehensive system. Initiating alternative economy in the western part of Tunisia has a symbolic significance since this is a region that epitomizes the principles of solidarity and that has its cultural specificities as manifested in several cooperative practices[20].


The main purpose of an alternative economy is to make sure that the economy serves the people and not the other way round and that its main purpose is to improve the living conditions of human beings so that they become active players in their communities rather than recipients of policies they did not take part in designing.




Looking into the historical and regional factors associated with the uprisings that took place in Tunisia over the years highlight a number of facts, on top of which is the state of internal colonization that rule out any possibility of introducing an alternative from within the incumbent system. This is because this system is the main cause of the marginalization and disenfranchisement of entire regions, hence the uprisings staged by their residents. It also becomes obvious that the failure of successive regimes to address the crises led to transformation of political activism from being associated to particular events to a sustainable movement that is expected to continue and escalate as long as demands for justice are not met.


Despite the nine-year political activism through which Tunisia has been going since the Mining Basin Revolt, conventional political players have not been able to build on the previous uprisings in order to look for an alternative outside the dominant system. In order for an alternative to be established, it is importance to benefit from past experiences that gradually created new forms of political, economic, and social resistance to counter the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the minority and to replace neoliberal policies. This should be accompanied by the promotion of the principles of solidarity and social economy and which give precedence to the public good.


The parallelism between political activism and popular economy render nonconventional players, such as the unemployed, the marginalized, and the poor, the core of both processes and main initiators of an alternative economy that will take into consideration both the regional and cultural specificity of individual experiences as well as design a nation-wide plan.


An alternative economy combines three factors, each of which is controversial: replacing conventional political players with nonconventional ones, establishing an alternative from within marginalized regions, and using micro-economic experiences to design a holistic vision. All these require benefiting from previous uprisings, establishing a new system outside the dominant discourse, and reconsidering the dominant set of social values.                                              

[1] Al-Saghir al-Salihi. Internal Colonization and Uneven Development: Marginalization in Tunisia as a Case in Point [Arabic]. Tunis, 2017.

[2] Jacques L. Boucher. Mouvements sociaux et économie sociale: un arrimage en constante reconstruction, Economie et Solidarité. N°33, Volume 2. Presse universitaire du Quebec, 2002.

[3] Eric Toussaint. La dette, l’arme qui a permis à La France de s’approprier La Tunisie:, 2016.

[4] Taxes imposed on people regardless of what they owned or produced

[5] A 25-member council was established to look into all cases before presenting them to the Superior Council while the powers of local judges were reduced. The constitution drafted at the time had no actual impact on people’s daily lives.

[6] Jean Ganiage. Les origines du protectorat francais en tunisie (1861-1881).

[7] France, Britain, and Italy all had interests in Tunisia at the time.

[8] Jean Ganiage, Op. Cit.

[9] Ahmad ibn Abi Diyaf. Presenting Contemporaries the History of Rulers of Tunis and the Fundamental Pact [Arabic]. Tunis, 1963.

[10] Al-Hadi al-Taimoumi. The Thala-Kasserine Disturbances 1906 [Arabic]. 2nd edition. Tunis: Mohamed Ali Publication House, 2011.

[11] Al-Hadi al-Taimoumi. The Social History of Tunisia 1961-1881 [Arabic]. 2nd edition. Tunis: Mohamed Ali Publication House, 2001.

[12] Idris al-Raisi. Tunisian and Algerian Border Tribes: Between Usurpation and Invasion (1830-1881) [Arabic]. Tunis: The Mediterranean Publishing House, 2016.

[13] Al-Saghir al-Salihi. Op. Cit.

[14] Marguerite Rollinde. “Les émeutes en Tunisie, un défis à l’Etat ?” Emeutes et mouvements sociaux au Maghreb: perspective compare. Didier Lesaout et Marguerite Rollinde, ed. Karthala, Institut Maghreb-Europe, 1999.

[15] Tunisian politician Ammar Amroussia wrote an article about the revolt under the title “A Tunisian Revolution in the Making” in reference to the protests paving the road for a revolution that would topple the regime.

[16] Larbi Chouikha and Eric Gobe. “La Tunisie entre la révolte du bassin minier de Gafsa et l’échéance électorale de 2009.” L’Année du Maghreb, CNRS Editions, 2009: pp. 387-420.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Social Uprisings in Tunisia in 2015 [Arabic].” The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights: p.60.

[19] These included unemployment, lack of development, corruption, regional marginalization, unequal distribution of resources, and the deterioration of infrastructure.

[20] This includes a traditional practice that prevailed in Berber communities in Tunisia and in which individuals and families exchanged services. Such practices took place during harvest seasons, construction of infrastructure, and social gatherings such as weddings.

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