Embracing revolutionary legitimacy: former RCD officials and the Tunisian uprisings

By Anne Wolf
Submitted to Session P4870 (Politics of Legitimacy in the Maghreb, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Tunisia;
Democratization;
This paper explores political legitimacy in Tunisia through a re-evaluation of the 2010-11 uprising and its aftermath. Specifically it discusses internal regime frictions at the time of the protests which facilitated the overthrow of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011. The rise of internal dissent and the key role some former regime figures played in pushing Ben Ali out of power stands in contrast to the widespread narrative of a ‘popular revolution’ against the president and his infamous Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party. The economic and political power accumulated by the president and his family indeed marginalized key constituencies, leaving Ben Ali completely isolated when the protests broke out. Over the past years, a range of former regime figures have tried to reclaim revolutionary legitimacy by stressing the role of internal regime factors that also contributed to its demise. This paper explores in detail the empirical foundations of such claims. It also discusses through which channels some former RCD officials have made a political comeback and which rhetorical devices they use to prop up their political legitimacy — from renaming themselves ‘destourians’ to claiming that their political expertise is needed in times of uncertainty, belittling the inexperience of their new political contenders. Yet even amongst former RCD activists the events of 2010-11 remain contested and whilst some have positioned themselves on the side of the protesters, others maintain that Ben Ali was ousted by an illegal coup d’état and continue to affirm their loyalty to the former president. This paper argues that the distinct ways of interpreting the uprisings reflect the ongoing power battles in Tunisia and the reconfigurations of its political elite. It draws upon interviews and archival work conducted over the past five years in the country alongside in-depth research into the available secondary sources.