Confronting Authoritarianism: Order, Dissent, and Everyday Politics in Modern Tunisia

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Chomiak, Laryssa
Tismaneanu, Vladimir
Schwedler, Jillian
This dissertation is a study of contestation and resistance under authoritarianism based on field research conducted in Tunisia (2008-2010) and Ukraine (2007 and 2009). The central objective of this study is to shed light on forms of contestation and resistance that exist under closed political systems through a careful analysis of a select sample of individuals engaged in protest politics through extra-institutional channels. My purpose is to explore the understudied case of Tunisia under Zine Abedine Ben Ali before the January 2011 Jasmine Revolution. More specifically, to what extent was the sudden burst of large-scale protest against the authoritarian rule of ex-President Leonid Kuchma culminating in the 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine relevant to an understanding of the sudden reversal of the Tunisian dictatorship? I argue that meaningful forms of contestation and resistance do exist under closed political systems, but they need to be located beyond formal political institutions. With elections in the Middle East and North Africa increasingly being co-opted by the state and civil society severely compromised, oppositional forces have had to turn elsewhere to have their voices heard. In this dissertation, I trace alternative political identities, forms of micro-contestation and attempts at direct resistance against the state. In particular, I examine extra-institutional political spaces, including soccer stadiums, subversion in print-publications and performing arts, internet mobilization campaigns via Facebook and Twitter, as well as loosely-organized street-based protests and strikes. The authoritarian state, I argue, does not always revert to repression of oppositional voices but also engages in a subtle dialogue with regime challengers. Such a dialogue can result in the opening of some areas, such as internet censorship and freedom of press, which are important platforms for the advancement of alternative and oppositional politics. On January 14, 2011, the Jasmine Revolution erupted in Tunisia followed by similar waves of resistance across the Middle East and North Africa. Where applicable, I link pre-Jasmine Revolution contestation to the widespread resistance that followed Ben Ali's resignation.