The study of Tunisia and its politics has enjoyed renewed popularity since the Arab uprisings, partly because there is more information available. The opening up of once closed or highly controlled spaces provides researchers, journalists, and academics opportunities to explore issues critically and in depth. 

In his latest paper for the London School of Economics (LSE) Middle East Center’s Working Paper Series, Professor Charles Tripp explores the political effects of this opening up of spaces. In his estimation, the redefinition of space, the struggle over what is “public,” and what constitutes public business (res publica) suggest a substantive change in the practice of politics in Tunisia. In all its complexity, what we have been witnessing over the last several years has been Tunisians setting the boundaries of a new “Tunisian Republic.”

Fadil Aliriza, guest editor for Sada, interviewed Charles Tripp to explain and summarize the ideas he explores in his recent paper. 

What initially attracted you to the question of space and its role in politics in Tunisia?

I had been interested for some time in how urban space is configured to reinforce established forms of power, but also how it becomes the object and site of struggle for those who try to challenge the status quo. With the uprisings in Tunisia and elsewhere across the Middle East and North Africa, this interest deepened—especially since the focus of much of the political struggle was the occupation of public space both physically, by security forces and hundreds of thousands of citizens, and in a symbolic re-appropriation of the sites where dictators had asserted and advertised their own presence and domination. 

By bringing their claims into the public arena, citizens can challenge the often unspoken forms of exclusion that may deprive them of their rights.

Amid continuing economic misery, ideological polarization, and security concerns, how is the question of physical or institutional space key to the study of politics?

Space should not be thought of simply as physical place. Rather, in its socially constituted forms—symbolic, ideational, discursive, as well as institutional and physical—it lies at the heart of power relations because it can provide the terrain for contending political interests to find expression. In Tunisia, as elsewhere, it is here that the systematic forms of exclusion due to the economic disparities of class and region can force themselves onto the public agenda—as they did in 2010 to 2011 and more recently in early 2016. By bringing their claims into the public arena, citizens can challenge the often unspoken forms of exclusion that may deprive them of their rights. For this same reason, these spaces can become the place where ideological polarization is played out and given substance, often serving to sharpen the divide as citizens take up actual or symbolic positions confronting one another. This is why the unreconstructed security forces become so concerned, leading them to employ the old methods of repression to impose a particular view of order in the name of social peace.

In your latest study, you focus on the “republic” instead of the “state.” Is this concept particularly suited to Tunisia given its history and institutions, or could it bear fruit even in the study of countries popularly understood to be experiencing state collapse?

The idea and the reality of the “republic” is a way of encapsulating the ideals of a common political project, not in terms of its substantive content, but in terms of the basic principles that provide the framework for a politics of non-domination. That is, it should be one where all citizens have equal rights to participate in the shaping of their common futures within a framework of laws and institutions (the state) that emerge from public deliberation and that are answerable to the public. This is the ideal. 

Of course, in Tunisia as elsewhere the reality of postcolonial politics differed markedly from the republican ideal. It took the events of 2010–2011 to re-assert such an ideal in the teeth of those who had hijacked the forms of the republic for their purposes. The rapidity and enthusiasm with which others across the region followed the Tunisians’ example and not only took up the ideals of the lost republic, but also participated in the mass re-creation of the public as a political force, demonstrates the appeal of the republic. Again, the terrible cycle of events over the past few years in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain has demonstrated that republican aspirations are not enough. But the fact that they are still powerfully present has also been shown in the recent mass demonstrations in Syria (since the ceasefire), Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq. Significantly, in all of these countries it needed the (possibly only temporary) creation of space for republican protest to re-emerge. For different reasons, these spaces have been restricted and closed down in Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain.

Many credit Tunisia’s “strong state” institutions as having helped the country avoid greater violence post-2011. If the “state” is more closely linked with stability while the “republic” is always being redefined, does this suggest it is easier for popular movements to shape a new republic than to reform the state?

As in other countries, so in Tunisia, there were parts of the institutional apparatus of the state that were less easy to recapture.

Tunisia’s institutions and Tunisian citizens’ accustomed interactions with them helped to prevent other outcomes, particularly those involving violence and civil war as in other parts of the region. However, these should not be seen in contrast to the republic. Rather, what happened in 2010–2011 was the effort to make those institutions accountable to the people and re-found them in the republican ideals that would make them accessible to all, not the preserve of the few. In this respect, it was noticeable that these were both state institutions but also non-state institutions, such as the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) which was reclaimed by its members—its leadership having been close to the old regime.

As in other countries, so in Tunisia, there were parts of the institutional apparatus of the state that were less easy to recapture. This has been most obviously the case in the Ministry of the Interior, whose employees have indeed held onto the idea that they represent a form of stability that puts their claims above those of the rest of the public and believe, therefore, that the public is answerable to them rather than the other way round. Similar attitudes persist in other branches of the state administration, as well as in some of the circles of the Nidaa Tounes party.

You write that Tunisians with different visions of the republic—Bourguibist, Ben Aliist, secular, Islamic, or social-democratic—have all so far agreed that “the republic, flawed as it may be, offers a better alternative than the scenarios” unfolding in the region. Do you think Tunisians are succeeding?

They share ideas of political space. Even if they disagree about what should fill it or how people should act within it, the right to enter such space and to participate in the debates that it encourages is the right of all Tunisian citizens. This does not mean that all the actors trust one another, nor are they satisfied that the institutions of the republic are working in the way that they would like to see, but it still makes sense to conduct politics within this framework. There are clearly social, economic, and ideological factors that place immense strains upon this, so one should not assume that what has been achieved in Tunisia is immune from such pressures, nor underestimate the dangers that this can pose for the republic. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about what historical or contemporary factors have given Tunisians this chance to redefine republican space as a space for purposeful but bounded, rather than boundless, political contention.

Charles Tripp is a professor of politics at SOAS, University of London and a fellow of the British Academy. His most recent book is The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2013). This interview was lightly edited for style and length.