Book Review: Revolutions without revolutions?

Rosita Di Peri and Raffaella Giordana (eds.), Revolutions without revolutions? The challenges of the tourism sector in Tunisia (Bologna, Italy: Emil, 2013). 176 pp., €15,00 (paperback), ISBN: 9788866800705.

In December 2013, Mehdi Jomaa was appointed as the new Prime Minister, following several months of a political stalemate. Tunisia’s economic crisis was undeniably the greatest challenge facing the new Prime Minster. An increase in tourism advertising immediately unveiled that the tourism sector would receive the greatest support and be the flagship of governmental activities.

The volume edited by Rosita Di Peri and Raffaella Giordana is a timely book. Beginning with an analysis of this strategic sector, the book retraces the events leading to the Jasmine Revolution and questions the conceptual underpinnings adopted by analysts to describe Bourguiba’s and Ben Ali’s Tunisia. The common thread underlying the contributions is whether the focus on tourism is part of a strategy contributing towards democratic development or another myth about Tunisia.

In the introduction, Rosita Di Peri clearly explains why the government selected the tourist sector to fuel Tunisia’s socio-political development. From an empirical point of view, exploring the dynamics of tourism entails debating the structure of the country’s national and regional administration, the failure of the decentralization process, and the political and legal framework for local governance and economic management. Theoretically, it necessitates reconsidering the arguments regarding major paradigms, such as alternative development, authoritarian resilience, democratization, and neo-liberalism.

In the first part of the book, Francesco Cavatorta and Fabio Merone outline the blurred picture of post-Ben Ali’s Tunisia, pointing to the three myths created by the previous regime; these myths prevented most analysts from grasping the country’s internal power dynamics and understanding its economic and political development. The rhetoric about the economic miracle, democratic gradualism, and secularism succeeded in hiding the increasing dissatisfaction of a globalized middle-class that, instead of becoming insular, fought back in part through a return to a private practice of Islam that would be turned, after Ben Ali’s fall, into fully-fledged party activism. Furthermore, besides being a reaction to the corruption of the regime, religiosity was very well rooted in central and western regions where the economic miracle was neither a reality nor a myth, and can now explain the rise of the Salafi movements. The authors compellingly describe the puzzled political landscape of pre- and post-Ben Ali’s Tunisia by emphasizing how and to what extent personal rivalries amongst party leaders add to ideological and strategic divisions in diminishing the prospects for cross-party cooperation. These insights pave the way for future researches on local (economic) governance in that they add a variable for examining regional disparities and uprisings.

The second part of the volume tackles the development of the Tunisian economy before narrowing the analysis down to the tourist sector. Ammar Aloui retraces the six phases of Tunisia’s economic history, discussing the country’s socio-economic performance. The picture drawn by the author is that of a Mediterranean country passing through post-colonial nationalization and pervading state intervention from 1960 to 1967 under President Bourguiba, before entering a phase of capitalism in the 1970s, which gave birth to Tunisian entrepreneurship. Ben Ali’s era is marked by the adoption of the structural adjustment plan in 1986, which provided the framework for the negotiations with the European Union that led to the signing of the Association Agreement in 1995. Consequently, this liberal turn moved Tunisia into the global order and changed its economic structure by linking national investment to multilateral cooperation, and soon after to direct foreign investments. The partial and unequal achievement of Ben Ali’s economic objectives led to protests on the one hand, and to a parallel economy coming to surface on the other.
The author conveys the idea that this new economy risks blurring the analysis of the country’s current and prospective socio-economic performances to a similar extent as the myths described in the first part of the book. Dynamism is neither real nor a benefit to the entire population; rather, it benefits foreign partners exporting low quality products to the country. Similar to chapter one, the added value of Aloui’s contribution is to highlight that the revolution did not burst into the everyday lives of Tunisians or radically alter the economic and socio-political landscape. Economic performances, and those of the tourist sector in particular, collapsed in 2011 as insecurity and political instability ensued; however, the country’s economy has been seriously weakened because of low diversification and the lack of a strategic tourist policy consistent with the national development plan.

The volume succeeds in deconstructing the history and development of Tunisia before and after the revolution, as understood thus far; moreover, it highlights overlooked variables that are worthy of being considered by scholars. The governance structure and power dynamics within the tourist sector are glimpsed and can lay the theoretical and methodological groundwork for future researches, thus openly enhancing the debate on the Arab uprisings.

Federica Zardo, University of Turin

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