A revolution unfolds in Tunisia

January 17, 2011

Matt Swagler looks at the dynamics of the mass movement in Tunisia that toppled a dictator--and what could come next there and in surrounding countries.

AFTER FOUR weeks of mass protests in nearly every corner of Tunisia, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country January 14.

With protesters outside of the Ministry of Interior in Tunis chanting, "Ben Ali, thank you, but that's enough!" his corrupt, repressive, 23-year rule came to an abrupt end. Ben Ali's departure marks the end of a de facto dictatorship in Tunisia--where opposition to the ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD), has been systematically repressed and silenced.

The Tunisian Intifada has become a huge embarrassment to both France and the United States--both shamelessly supported Ben Ali's regime until the past week. Only when it became clear that Ben Ali was on his way out did his Western allies finally abandon him. The fall of the Tunisian dictator has also resounded across much of North Africa and the Middle East, as similarly venal and autocratic states like Algeria, Egypt and Jordan now face a growing threat.

Ben Ali was "elected" four times, always receiving at least 89 percent of the vote. His RCD effectively presided over a one-party state. As a former cop who rose to become head of the Tunisian state security forces, Ben Ali knew how to use force and intimidation to muzzle opposition.

Thousands march in Tunis celebrating the toppling of the country's dictatorial president
Thousands march in Tunis celebrating the toppling of the country's dictatorial president (Fethi Belaid | AFP/Getty Images)

But even the country's 150,000-strong security police--this in a country of just 10.6 million people--couldn't stop the thousands of Tunisians who have taken to the streets since mid-December. Frustration with rising food prices, inflation and unemployment finally reached a breaking point. From bus drivers to out-of-work math teachers, market vendors to medical students and angry high school students, the protests brought together strangers from across much of Tunisian society.

The country's union movement, with a long history of accommodation with the regime, sided with the movement--and discipline began to break down among at least some units of the military, according to reports.

Initially, on January 14, Mohammed Ghannouchi, the Tunisian prime minister since 1999, and a close ally of Ben Ali, proclaimed his authority to assume presidential duties. With power passing to another member of Ben Ali's inner circle, protesters saw the change as little more than a sleight of hand and quickly adapted their demands. They rallied successfully for Ghannouchi to step down as well.

As of Saturday, Tunisia's speaker of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, became the acting president, according to the country's constitutional rules, which also call for new elections within 45 days.

While Mebazaa has pledged to establish an interim government that includes opposition parties, Tunisians remain watchful and protests continue. Ben Ali may be gone, but many of his collaborators remain, and are currently jockeying for positions in whatever new administration emerges.

Over the weekend, British socialist Kevin Ovenden, whose activism with Viva Palestina gave him extensive knowledge of Tunisia, argued:

The second wave of the uprising is now taking place. The regime still lacks an interlocutor with the authority to calm the movement in the foolish hope of coming to an accommodation with what is essentially Ben Ali's apparatus sans Ben Ali. Discussion--largely semi-formal--is taking place everywhere in gatherings in neighborhoods, syndicates, mosques and some larger workplaces.

TUNISIA'S REVOLUTION was sparked by a harrowing act of protest. On December 17, Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate, attempted to commit suicide by setting himself on fire. Bouazizi had been trying to sell fruit and vegetables in the town of Sidi Bouzid, but his stall was confiscated by Tunisian police because he lacked a permit.

Sidi Bouzid has an unemployment rate of 32 percent and, like most of inland Tunisia, has been left out of the profitable development of the country's coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. While a flourishing tourist industry, amusement parks and coastal industry helped Ben Ali's ruling clique fill their bank accounts, it did little to help the majority of Tunisia's population meet their needs. Not surprisingly, Sidi Bouzid has been one the most fruitful places for the state security forces' recruitment efforts.

But Bouazizi's near-death prompted a response few could have predicted: protests broke out in Sidi Bouzid. Within a week, they had spread to at least a half dozen of other towns and cities--Menzel Bouzaiene, Kairouan, Sfax, Ben Guerdane, Sousse. They reached the capital of Tunis on December 27.

That same day, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) held a second rally in Gafsa Province, only to be attacked and dispersed by police. The following day, Ben Ali warned Tunisians that their protests would be dealt with "in all firmness"--a euphemism for continued violence by police.

Borrowing a page from the U.S. government's script, Ben Ali initially attempted to demonize the protesters as "terrorists." However, most Tunisians didn't fall for this fear-mongering, and popular support for Ben Ali fell to even greater depths.

Still, Ben Ali's threats were real--Tunisians have paid a price for their struggle. While the government has set the death toll at 23, by last Thursday, the International Federation for Human Rights documented the deaths of 66 protesters since the revolt began. Seven of these deaths have been suicides explicitly over the issues that drove Bouazizi's attempt. And far greater in number are the injuries and arrests of young protesters. Even 95 percent of Tunisia's approximately 8,000 lawyers went on strike January 5 after the beating and torture of one of their colleagues.

While the Western media attention jumped at the opportunity to frame the unrest as "riots," young people setting fire to police stations and government buildings have been responding to not only weeks, but decades, of repression and violence meted out by Tunisian authorities.

Even as the protests were taking place, Chawki Salhi reported for the French left-wing newspaper Tous est à nous that large private agricultural monopolies had sparked a major increase in the price of food.

The cause was a looming government ban on large cash payments to such companies from their distributors. So to protect their interests, the big agricultural companies began insisting on legal transactions with large food distribution wholesalers. However, distributors balked, quickly leading to scarcity, speculation and even further raising food prices.

While the protests began by raising demands for jobs and affordable food, in the face of escalating state repression, popular calls for Ben Ali's resignation soon came to the fore. By the end of last week, protests had taken place in more than 20 towns and cities in Tunisia.

On Thursday evening, Ben Ali belatedly attempted to appease protesters by promising a number of reforms. After dismissing his current ministry, he announced that he would not seek another term as president in 2014. He vowed to hold new legislative elections in six months, reduce the price of food staples and investigate the murder of protesters at the hands of the state police.

However, Ben Ali coupled his promises of democracy with greater repression, by simultaneously declaring a nationwide state of emergency. State television told viewers that it was forbidden for groups of more than three people to gather in public, with security forces given permission to shoot at those who did not disperse.

While Ben Ali called for peace in the streets, Tunisians exposed his charade, posting videos on the Internet of protesters who had been shot by police on Thursday night. Al Jazeera described one of the videos, in which a young man says he was among a group of peaceful protesters who were confronted by police. The police shouted that "they rule this country." When the young protesters retorted, "You don't rule this country," the police opened fire.

Ben Ali's words failed to placate the protest movement because his verbal concessions rang hollow to many Tunisians. They simultaneously showed how quickly the regime's law-and-order facade could crack--the president's grip on state power was finally showing signs of loosening.

With a new sense of confidence, 10,000 protesters were able to force their way to the Ministry of the Interior on January 14. Facing police tear gas and batons, and being struck by police vehicles, the protesters held their ground, chanting and refusing to leave until the president stepped down.

Less than 24 hours after his attempt to quell the revolt, Ben Ali conceded defeat.

AFTER DEPARTING from Tunis on January 14, Ben Ali initially attempted to flee to France, seeking refuge with his longstanding friends. His repressive regime has received tireless support from France, the former colonial ruler of Tunisia.

The administration of French President Nicolas Sarkozy was noticeably silent as the protest movement grew over the past month. After a meeting between both countries' foreign ministers last week, the French government remained tight-lipped about Ben Ali's deadly repression, choosing instead to praise the Tunisian government's economic program--an arrogant slap in the face to Tunisians protesting in the streets over food prices and jobs.

Spokespeople from Sarkozy's party tried to defend Ben Ali's regime by warning that "al-Qaeda" or "terrorist-linked" governments would come to power if Ben Ali wasn't supported. In other words, they turned to Islamophobic fear-mongering to cover for their support of an authoritarian government in the face of mass popular protests.

Only after Ben Ali had fled did Sarkozy suddenly express his support for the people's "democratic will" in Tunisia. Fearing the ramifications of continuing to cozy up to the deposed dictator, Sarkozy then refused to offer Ben Ali asylum.

France has a large North African population that has increasingly rebelled in recent years against the racist and xenophobic policies championed by Sarkozy. Tunisian-born French citizens visiting the country were among those killed by the security forces in the past few weeks, and a demonstration in France in solidarity with the Tunisian struggle had been called for January 15. Facing a possible outbreak of protest at home--and wanting to maintain what tiny shred of credibility he may have left in the face of the Tunisian movement--Sarkozy finally dropped his support for Ben Ali.

Next to France, the U.S. has been the other major champion of Ben Ali's regime.

Tunisia implemented a structural adjustment program at the insistence of the International Monetary Fund at the beginning of Ben Ali's presidency and has moved toward greater and greater privatization of public services. This has opened up profitable opportunities for those closest to Ben Ali. A U.S. diplomatic cable recently leaked by WikiLeaks compared the economic control of this ruling group to that of a Mafia family.

This, of course, didn't sour Washington's relationship with Ben Ali. On the contrary, not only was he the flag-bearer for neoliberalism in North Africa, but he also became a close U.S. ally in the "war on terror," repressing Muslim political organizations and agreeing to house secret U.S. prisons.

As Hashem Ahelbarra wrote for Al Jazeera: "The U.S. and France were in love with Ben Ali. They were impressed with his persecution of the Islamists, his economic agenda was touted as a brilliant model...and he proved to be a staunch U.S. ally actively involved in the controversial rendition program."

However, Ben Ali's "brilliant model" failed the vast majority of Tunisians, who have faced decreasing prospects for employment and increasing food prices--a situation magnified by the ongoing international economic crisis. Knowing all too well the Mafia-like behavior of the ruling clique, protesters targeted business, banks and industries controlled by members of Ben Ali's family, and that of his wife.

After Ben Ali's fall, Barack Obama and State Department officials were quick to call for fair elections in Tunisia. But until recently, the administration was nearly silent about the killing of protesters--aside from voicing its "concern" to the Tunisian ambassador in Washington.

Meanwhile, Ben Ali, the champion repressor of "radical" Islam, ironically found a haven with another U.S. ally: Saudi Arabia.

ISRAEL WAS also alarmed by Ben Ali's demise, with Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom voicing concerns that further democratic revolts in the Middle East might challenge Israel's stability.

This contempt for democracy is nothing new. Israeli leaders have consistently and consciously undermined elected Palestinian leaders who challenge their rule, and they continue to deny equal rights to Palestinians, both within the Israeli borders and in Gaza and the West Bank.

While Israel's oppression of the Palestinian population is made possible largely because of U.S. financial and military support, Israel also works closely with many ruling regimes in the Middle East--including those that claim to be its enemy--to repress popular protests. Thus, for Israel, rebellion and democracy in places like Egypt or Jordan are things to fear, not to celebrate.

Other U.S. henchmen in the region have also begun to worry about the repercussions of Tunisian's successful revolt. Last year saw an escalation of social protest and labor strikes in Egypt, undermining the once-authoritative regime of Hosni Mubarak.

And in an echo of Tunisia's revolt, food protests erupted January 15 in Jordan, a country known for the quietude of its political opposition. Protests in five cities not only called for an end to rising food prices, but for Prime Minister Samir Rifai to step down. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri collapsed while he was visiting the U.S., after ministers from Hezbollah resigned.

But perhaps most significant are the mass demonstrations taking place across the border in Algeria. As in Tunisia, the root of the Algerian movement lies in anger over rising food prices and unemployment. The government backed down on its original plan to increase the cost of food products, while continuing to carry out violent repression--but protests and student strikes have continued.

During a day of joint strikes at five Algerian universities, the student association Nedjma issued a statement that declared, "The collapse of purchasing power, the high cost of living, unemployment and job insecurity, and soaring housing costs are all daily problems faced by Algerians. This could produce a connection between workers' struggles, the student movement and popular mass protests."

By January 12, students had come together with labor unions and unaffiliated workers to back a national campaign calling for an end to police violence and an opening up of the political system.

One Egyptian commentator's words have been repeated widely, succinctly capturing the implications of Tunisia's revolt: "Every Arab leader is watching Tunisia in fear. Every Arab citizen is watching Tunisia in hope and solidarity."

AS PROTESTS continue in Tunisia along with uncertainty about the future, the next few days and weeks will be crucial.

The capital remains tense, with reports that the army has moved in to protect residents and protesters from the brutality of the police. But the shift in control from one heavily armed force to another is far from reassuring. While this is being portrayed as a sort of military revolt against the police, what is far more likely is that the military brass is positioning itself to play a bigger political and policing role in society.

With the struggle largely initiated by unemployed Tunisians organizing outside of formal opposition parties, the diffuse movement is not immediately in a position to fill the political opening it succeeded in creating. Opposition leaders have announced their return to the political sphere, but Tunisians face the challenge of holding oppositionists accountable to the movement's demands. Tellingly, not all opposition party leaders joined the mobilizations or were happy to see Ben Ali flee--some instead were hoping for time to oversee a transition.

In the past few weeks, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) has proved to be a critical nucleus for organizing and uniting the employed and the unemployed in protest.

Unfortunately, union leaders joined the movement somewhat belatedly. After initially condemning the protests and holding back from them, they were pushed by rank-and-file pressure to support and join the actions. But their weight was important in tipping the scales against Ben Ali.

As Dyab Abou Jahjah wrote, the UGTT "played the role of the momentum regulator and political indicator. It was clear that as long as the trade union kept on declaring strikes, the battle was on, and that was the signal to the people to stick to the streets. Yet we cannot say that the trade union led the revolution; it rather synchronized with it, especially the last crucial two days."

The Tunisian labor movement has an important radical history--most notably, a 1978 general strike. But it has been severely weakened by a combination of repression, privatization of state jobs and accommodation by the union leadership. Whether Tunisian unions will regain some of their former strength in solidarity with the protest movement remains to be seen.

With the movement's basic political demand achieved, Tunisians face new challenges. The first is to dislodge the rest of Ben Ali's clique. Holding interim leaders accountable to their promises for reform and an end to repression will be another sizable challenge.

And winning the demands at the root of the revolt--an end to rising food prices and increased employment opportunities--will require deeper structural changes than what can be provided by any upcoming election. Trade unions and opposition organizations on the Tunisian left could play a significant role in helping to coalesce a movement for this sort of radical social change if they are able to continue linking up with the protests of the unemployed.

As the movements in Tunisia figure out their next steps, any would-be successor to Ben Ali should bear in mind the slogan raised by protesters: "la khowf ba'ad al-yowm"--"No fear from now on."

The Tunisian people have showed that they are capable of taking down a decades-long dictatorship. They are not likely to give up the power they have fought for--nor should they.

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