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“The Year 1789 of the Tunisian Revolution”: Interview with Jean Tulard, Historian of the French Revolution

Jean Tulard is a historian, specializing in the French Revolution and revolutions in general.  According to Tulard, the future of the Tunisian uprising will depend on the role played by the army.

In a month of uprising, the Tunisian people has successfully toppled the Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali regime.  Is it a revolution?

Right now we are in the pivotal phase of the Tunisian uprising.  From a simple revolt, this movement is on the way to becoming a revolution.

A revolt is a spontaneous act, born of anger, discontent, desperation.  It is generally anarchic, without a leader, without a watchword, and geographically limited.  That is a perfect description of the Tunisian case, at least of its early stages.

A revolution promotes radical transformation of people, of institutions, of the way of thinking.  To take the example of the French Revolution, the insurrection was foreseeable and its objectives well known: equality, through the abolition of privileges, the suppression of feudal rights that oppressed peasants, the end of absolute monarchy.  The Tunisian model doesn’t correspond to this schema, for it began and has continued without leadership or ideology.

However, it is following a trajectory parallel to that of the French Revolution, which makes the two events comparable enough.  The French Revolution, too, went through a phase of riots before it gripped the hearts and minds of a critical mass of the population as on 14 July 1789 or 10 August 1792.  It started with riots due to hunger and unemployment, as in Tunisia.

A revolt can thus engender a revolution.  For that, it is necessary for initial anger to resonate with the deepest aspirations of the whole country, rather than a limited area.  That’s what happened in the summer of 1789, when the French peasants, without really understanding what was going on in Paris, armed themselves and attacked the palaces of nobles.  That, too, has happened in Tunisia, where the revolt began in Sidi Bouzid, far from the capital, before spreading across the country.

Moreover, it’s this distinction between revolt and revolution that explains the procrastinations of the French leaders.  Till mid-January, they still thought that the Tunisian affair was one of simple food riots, a limited revolt.  And it is easy to put an end to a revolt, be it by repression or concession to demands.  Stopping a revolution, that’s another story entirely. . . .

If we follow this parallel between the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime and the French Revolution, the latter no doubt has lessons to teach, about the future of Tunisia. . . .

To develop the comparison, Tunisia is undoubtedly on the way to experiencing the year 1789 of its revolution — which corresponds, in the French case, to the establishment of the National Constituent Assembly still dominated by aristocrats.  The hour in Tunisia today is 1789, the hour of enthusiasm, the wildest hopes of reform.

But the French revolutionaries were soon disenchanted: from the beginning, the revolution had to face a dire economic situation and confront the reactions of other countries, just as the neighbors of Tunisia will perhaps attempt to stifle a movement that threatens them.  And don’t forget faction fights, which shake up a revolution by sometimes bloody jolts: the Montagnards against the Girondins then, Islamists against progressives now.

In France, these upheavals didn’t end until Napoleon’s coup d’état of 18 Brumaire and the establishment of a dictatorial regime.  But far be it from me to predict such a future for Tunisia: I am a historian, not a political scientist, and it would be an abuse of analogy to wish to make such greatly different situations seem identical.

The only constant in the history of revolutions is the essential role played by the army.  After the Cromwell episode, in England, it was George Monck who restored Charles II.  And I have already mentioned that the French Revolution didn’t really end till Bonaparte’s coup d’état.  It is necessary to watch carefully what the Tunisian army is going to do.

You say that the Tunisian uprising began without any ideological foundation or leader.  How do we, in this context, explain its success?

We have seen such a scenario in history.  The English Revolution in the 17th century and the fall of people’s democracies in Eastern Europe beginning in 1989 were due more to exasperations than to clear and definite programs.

In these cases as well as in the Tunisian case, revolt became revolution because the regimes against which people revolted were discredited and delegitimized.  When the regime is strong, revolt cannot become revolution — it gets crushed.

That is exactly where the Western governments as well as Ben Ali miscalculated: they believed that the regime was more solid and better anchored than it actually was.

The leading members of the ancien régime appear to be set to remain in place.  Can a revolution succeed without excluding the elites of the previous regime?

Yes.  That is not unprecedented.  The French Revolution may have invented the Terror — but it also had its “weathervanes.”  During the revolution and in its aftermath, some officials changed their allegiances as much as fifteen times.  Lieutenant General Henry is a symbol of that: police chief under the ancien régime, he was still in office at the moment of the Restoration.  During the purge, in 1944, a majority of officials kept their positions.

You cannot rapidly replace people who have specific technical skill.  That is especially true of engineers.

And what about the highest-ranking officials?  Can a revolution be content with seeing the former ruler go into exile, as is the case with Mr. Ben Ali?

It’s true that the judgment and execution of the deposed ruler is the most powerful symbol of revolutions: Charles I was beheaded, Louis XVI guillotined, Nicolas II shot, Ceauşescu executed by a firing squad.

France, by the way, undoubtedly refused to give asylum to Ben Ali so as not to be later saddled with an embarrassing demand for extradition.  That said, political mores have evolved, and regime changes today are less bloody than in the past.

The new government has announced that elections will be held within six months.  Have we ever seen a revolution enter into peaceful democratic transition without going through periods of troubles and violence?

The Carnation Revolution of Portugal is maybe the only example of smooth transfer of power.  Generally, troubles and violence are the norm, not to mention settling the score.

But, for all that, I’m not worried about Tunisia.  The Tunisian people hardly seems to me to be keen on bloody riots or violence.


The original article “Jean Tulard : ‘L’an 1789 de la révolution tunisienne'” was published in Le Monde on 18 January 2011.  Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at] gmail.com).   Cf. Sepehr Zabih, The Iranian Military in Revolution and War (London: Routledge, 1988); “The army isn’t in a position to take control either.  It is very small — it has never seen military action abroad, and according to [George] Joffe has only been used internally once (and even then it refused to fire on demonstrators).  It intervened last week to prevent Ben Ali’s security forces terrorising the population, but there is little prospect of it seizing power for itself” (Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Tunisia as Paradigm?” New Left Project Blog, 18 January 2011).


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