Exhibition Revisits a Revolution Whose Legacy Is Still Uncertain

TUNIS—Eight years after the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, the Bardo National Museum is hosting an exhibition that cleverly and movingly reconstructs the nearly month-long uprising that toppled a dictator here. It comes even as the legacy of the revolution remains contested, with decreasing confidence in electoral politics and frustration at economic inequality.

Called Before the 14th: A Tunisian Moment, the exhibition makes use of digital archives of the revolution collected largely from citizens. It features songs, poems, audio recordings, photographs, news coverage, amateur videos, blogs, Facebooks statuses, drawings and maps.

Organized around a series of small cube-shaped rooms, the exhibition packs a lot of history into a small space. It shows how the momentum of the uprising spread across time and space—with cubes featuring particular locations (Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution started, and cities like Menzel Bouzaiene, Kasserine, Sfax and finally Tunis) and detailed timelines for each.

These give day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour accounts of the way street protests, police repression, official denial, online activism, and growing solidarity from national syndicates played off each other to amplify the protesters’ demands and strengthen their resolve, leading seemingly inevitably to the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his escape to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011.

In 2015, the Bardo was the scene of one of the worst terrorist attacks in Tunisian history, when gunmen affiliated with the Islamic State killed 22 visitors and injured another 50. So far, Tunisia has been able to weather the threat of extremism and terrorism, but its political transition has become mired in power struggles. Successive governments have been unwilling or unable to implement much-needed reforms.

The Bardo is one the most important museums in the Mediterranean region and in Africa, showcasing Tunisia’s long and diverse history. It houses a very impressive collection of Roman statues and mosaics, from ancient Roman cities such as Carthage; artifacts from the Libyco-Punic and other periods of Tunisia’s history; as well as Islamic ceramics and the largest segment of the famous Blue Qur’an of Kairouan.

The museum was established in 1888 within a palace built by the Bey of Tunis. The combination of so many different beautiful works of art from various civilizations spanning millennia—the way Roman mosaics and ancient statues look at home in rooms covered with Islamic tiles and stucco-work—is part of its considerable charm.

The show on the revolution adds the latest, dramatic chapter of the country’s history to this ancient and hybrid narrative. And it aims, according to its organizers, at raising citizens’ awareness of the value of archives, and at “contributing to the development of a collective memory.”

Yet on the afternoon I visited the Bardo, there were only a handful of visitors to the museum, mostly foreigners. I had been warned that that would be the case.

“People don’t go to museums,” Youssef Cherif, a Tunisian political analyst, had told me. It is a pity the show is unlikely to reach a large audience, said Cherif, because nowadays “there are so few exhibitions that retrace the revolution and explain its history and politics, that explore it beyond some very general narratives.”

Many Tunisians are suffering from revolution fatigue; they may even believe the revolution was a conspiracy and express regret for the days of Ben Ali. Whereas a majority of Tunisians supported democracy after Ben Ali’s ouster in 2011,  55 percent of the respondents in a 2018 survey by Afrobarometer said they are opposed to multiparty democracy.

That is largely because after eight years—despite new freedoms, successful elections, and a political transition that has survived intense divides between secularists and Islamists—the underlying causes of the uprising remain, and have arguably worsened.

On videos shot eight years ago, one sees protesters chanting “Work is a right, you gang of thieves.” One of the revolution’s core demands was an end to the monopolizing of the country’s resources by the president and small circles of his allies and relatives, in particular his wife’s family, the Trabelsi. Yet today, the economic situation in Tunisia remains dire, with high unemployment, growing inflation, and a sense that corruption and nepotism  are worse than ever.

The same week I visited the Bardo, the Tunisian General Labour Union organized huge nationwide protests calling for pay increases and decrying austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund. Protesters chanted, again, “The people want the fall of the regime” and “We’re sick of the new Trabelsi.”

Before the 14th: A Tunisian Moment was put together with the participation of several government, academic and private organizations. They include Tunisia’s National Archives, Library, Information Center and Heritage Institute; the Higher Information Institute; the Higher Institute on the History of Contemporary Tunisia; the Arab Institute for Human Rights; and the Doustourna Network.

The exhibition will run at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis through March 31.


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