Subject: [SocialistWorker.org] A revolution unfolds in Tunisia
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Analysis: Matt Swagler
======== A REVOLUTION UNFOLDS IN TUNISIA =====================================
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
January 17, 2011
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
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.
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
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
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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
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
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
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
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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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