The most famous slogan chanted in Tunisia in January, then in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, is a reincarnation of opening lines of the poem “The Will of Life,” written in 1933 by the Tunisian poet Abou el-Kasem Chebbi (1909–1934), which now form the closing part of Tunisia’s national anthem and have been sung by some of the most influential Arab stars, written on protest banners, and shouted by students in the face of French and English occupiers and their own governments. The couplet even entered the folklore of global protest music and poetry, and was adopted by the International Solidarity Movement. On January 14, 2011, in front of the forbidding Ministry of the Interior in Tunis, crowds shouted their version of the poem–“The people want to bring down the regime”–and fate responded. One key feature of the system during Ben Ali’s rule was a duality or parallel existence of two opposing systems of values and cultural production. One was dominant, while the other was repressed but survived in various forms and in uneven ways. The present essay is, in part, the story of that survival and eventual victory. I draw on printed material, extensive fieldwork, and personal observation in Tunisia and Egypt, personal recordings, interviews, the media, and Internet sites in an attempt to provide a more complex story of culture during and before the wave of revolts, particularly in Tunisia.

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