What’s next for Tunisia?

January 20, 2011

Gary Lapon and Alan Maass report on the latest developments in Tunisia's revolt.

THE STRUGGLE over the future of Tunisia is continuing in the days following the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of brutal and corrupt rule.

The cabinet for a supposed "unity government" met for the first time on Wednesday, but it was without ministers representing the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT, by its French initials) and several opposition parties, who resigned over the presence of numerous officials from Ben Ali's old regime in the new government.

While the cabinet met, hundreds of protesters rallied in the capital of Tunis, demanding that members of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) be excluded from the government. The demonstration was smaller than previous days, but represented a continuation of the mass mobilizations that forced Ben Ali to flee late last week. As demonstrator Salem Ben Yahia, a filmmaker and former political prisoner, told the Guardian:

We don't want our revolution hijacked. We forced a dictator out the door, and now he's come back in the window. His old ministers are still in a majority in this transition government, and that has to change. Police have already shot at us and beaten us to stop us protesting, but we come back again like a tide.

Tunisian protesters call for leaders of the former ruling party to be excluded from the new government
Tunisian protesters call for leaders of the former ruling party to be excluded from the new government (Nasser Nouri)

The true character of the "unity government" is evident at the very top. The president is Fouad Mebazaa, the former speaker of parliament, and Mohamed Ghannouchi remains prime minister. Both men were members of the RCD. They attempted to distance themselves from Ben Ali by resigning from the party on Tuesday, and Mebazaa promised "a complete break with the past" in his first televised speech as president the next day. But that won't fool protesters.

The announcement of the new government the day before was greeted with anger. In addition to Mebazaa and Ghannouchi, RCD leaders were left in charge of the ministries of interior, defense, foreign affairs and finance. Members of moderate opposition parties and three UGTT officials were given minor posts, such as the ministries of health and regional development. The Tunisian Workers' Communist Party and Islamist parties were excluded.

Demonstrations erupted anew. According to the New York Times, more than 1,000 people marched down the main road of the capital, chanting, "Citizens and martyrs, the government is still the same...We will protest, we will protest, until the government collapses!" Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, but the demonstrations continued in different parts of the city into the night.

A member of the moderate opposition Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), outraged that PDP leader Ahmed Najib Chebbi had accepted a post in the new government, reportedly told Chebbi: "The people, who bled and died for us and our children, need to decide! How can the murderer [Ghannouchi] be our leader today?"

The three UGTT ministers led the resignations from the government the same day it was announced--and the union federation held a general meeting that decided to withhold recognition of the government, according to reports. As British socialist Richard Seymour commented on his Lenin's Tomb blog:

The significance of this is clear. The political elite, the ruling class it is integrated into, and in all probability a phalanx of EU and U.S. diplomats wanted a constitutional lash-up that would preserve the same basic pyramid of control, with some more inclusive, and slightly more representative, structures...

The ruling class is clearly weak and divided, its institutions of repression unable to keep control. In some cities, the population has been able to effectively take full over. No government that does not include organized labor in some capacity will have any legitimacy.

What happens next will depend on the continued mobilizations by union members, left-wing organizations and others, which pressured the UGTT leaders and opposition figures to leave the government.

Mebazaa and the government will attempt to masquerade as opponents of the old regime. As the cabinet met on Wednesday, 33 members of Ben Ali's family were arrested on suspicion of "crimes against Tunisia," according to local television reports that showed images of gold and jewelry seized in raids. But, of course, RCD members like Mebazaa were collaborators with the Ben Ali kleptocracy until last week.

The struggle will continue to drive out members of Ben Ali's party from the government. Another looming question is that of elections. The new government will have to hold them, but will they take place under the old constitution that cemented the power of Ben Ali's regime?

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the banned Islamist party Hizb al-Nahda, gave voice to a widely supported sentiment for a new constitution in an interview with the Financial Times:

The [current] constitution was a tyranny. The state was reduced to one man, who had in his hands the executive, judicial and legislative powers and was not accountable to anyone. How can such a constitution point towards building a democratic system, even as a starting point?

The first step of building a democratic system is to build a democratic constitution. For this, we need a founding council for rebuilding the state, one in which political parties, the trade unions and the civil society join. This council will rebuild the democratic constitution and will be the basis for building the democratic system.

RATHER THAN focus on the struggle over the composition of the new government, much of the Western media coverage of Tunisia since Ben Ali's ouster has revolved around sensational reports of "chaos" and "rioting." But the calls from the media and political leaders--as well as from establishment voices in the Arab world--for "stability" don't address who is really behind the continuing violence: loyalists among Ben Ali's paramilitary police.

Over the weekend, after the dictator fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia, members of Ben Ali's militia committed acts of terrorism against civilians, with snipers seizing government buildings and banks to fire on civilians and even units of the military--sections of which appear to have broken with Ben Ali and the police apparatus that defended his regime.

Rather than be intimidated by this reign of terror, ordinary Tunisians armed themselves with clubs and set up ad-hoc self-defense groups, manning barricades to defend their neighborhoods and round up Ben Ali's thugs. This is a significant development, as bodies of popular defense challenge the state's monopoly on the use of force and provide a glimpse of the ability of masses of people to ensure their safety in the face of state violence.

According to the Guardian:

[T]he full horror of repression over four weeks of demonstrations is beginning to emerge. Human rights groups estimate at least 150-200 deaths since December 17. In random roundups in poor, rural areas, youths were shot in the head and dumped far from home so bodies could not be identified. Police also raped women in their houses in poor neighborhoods in and around Kasserine in the rural interior.

Meanwhile, ordinary Tunisians have targeted businesses owned by members of Ben Ali's family and that of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, who reportedly stole $60 million in gold from the treasury before fleeing the country with her husband.

This comes after years of corruption and looting that enriched a tiny handful of elites connected to Ben Ali and his wife at the expense of the majority of Tunisians. According to Juan Cole on his Informed Comment blog, a U.S. State Department cable revealed by WikiLeaks estimates that "50 percent of Tunisia's economic elite were related in one way or another to [the couple]."

The blame for the violence today lies squarely at the feet of Ben Ali and his family, the paramilitaries, and his former colleagues in the RCD who now lead the "unity government."

To call for "stability" under an interim government headed by a party that oversaw more than two decades of corruption and human rights abuses is to ask the Tunisian people to acquiesce to injustice and surrender the gains they sacrificed so much for.

Furthermore, it would be absurd to trust leaders of Ben Ali's own party to oversee a "transition to democracy" or to investigate the wrongdoing for which their party is responsible--never mind to look out for the interests of the Tunisian people who, until a few days ago, they were openly engaged in repressing.

When Western leaders talk about "stability," they mean the return of conditions that are favorable to Western business interests. For the last two decades, "stability" in Tunisia has meant worsening economic inequality, sharp increases more recently in food prices and unemployment, and a repressive security state that denied ordinary Tunisians any semblance of human, civil or democratic rights.

It was "instability"--caused by the Tunisian people rising up against injustice--that finally toppled the Ben Ali dictatorship.

EVEN MORE worrisome to the U.S. and other Western powers than what is happening inside Tunisia is the threat that the uprising will be contagious--and infect with the spirit of rebellion those living under oppressive Western-backed dictatorships in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere.

The news of Ben Ali's overthrow rocked the Arab world. Millions of Arabs know the same problems that the Tunisian people rose against: rising costs of food and other necessities, high unemployment, endemic poverty and repressive dictatorships. In addition, they live under regimes that support, openly and behind the scenes, not only the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, but Israel's crimes against the Palestinians.

As one Egyptian put it in a Twitter post: "Every Arab leader is watching Tunisia in fear. Every Arab citizen is watching Tunisia in hope and solidarity."

Beyond the region, too, the Tunisian uprising represents a popular reaction against the economic policies of neoliberalism that have immiserated workers and the poor across the world.

One immediate spark for the struggle in Tunisia when it began in mid-December--as for protests in neighboring Algeria and in Jordan--was rising food prices, which are due in no small part to speculation by wealthy commodities traders in the West. As Canadian socialist David McNally put it, "[T]he massive spike in food prices is directly connected to the turmoil in the world economy that has been raging since the outbreak of the financial crisis of 2008."

Similar speculation was at the root of food price increases that sparked rioting in more than two dozen countries in 2008, including Egypt, which saw an extensive trade union struggle develop at the same time.

Meanwhile, in the Global North, workers and students in Europe took to the streets by the millions last year to oppose austerity measures that are the result of the same economic crisis.

Resistance to the effort on the part of capitalists worldwide to impose the costs of the economic crisis on the masses of workers and the poor is what ties the heroic struggle in Tunisia not just to those of people across the Arab world, but to the fight of workers and the poor everywhere.

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