Masses in revolt

The people have succeeded in sending one dictatorial president packing. But the old regime remains intact. James Turley argues for a pan-Arab revolution led by the working class

Kept quietly out of the western media for decades, Tunisia has now hit the news with a bang.

After weeks of protests, the Tunisian president finally gave up the ghost on January 14. The background to the revolt against the regime of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was endemic unemployment, soaring food prices and an authoritarian political system. Millions are in desperate economic conditions. Millions yearn for radical change. When Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man prevented from selling fruits and vegetables on the street in his home town, set himself alight in a final, desperate act of protest, the floodgates opened. Fear gave way to anger. Mass demonstrations paralysed the country - and, even with Ben Ali having fled to Saudi Arabia, still continue.

The president tried every trick in the book to defuse the protests, but, as he swung from brutal repression to ever larger concessions and back, it became increasingly clear that his days were numbered. In order to save the regime he had to go. Various members of his cabinet, army generals and the business elite urged him to quit … and within a matter of days he did just that (the alleged $5 billion fortune he and his immediate family amassed is now being ‘investigated’). So for the moment the old regime survives, albeit with new faces. Fouad Mebazaa, former speaker of the lower house, has taken over as interim president and now heads a wobbly ‘unity coalition’. He promises early elections, press freedom and other concessions. Not that the masses are satisfied. Demonstrations continue.

It is often claimed by apologists for imperialism that the dark days of the cold war, when no dictator was too brutal to enjoy American support so long as he stood firm against the communist threat, are over - that the much-touted western support for freedom, democracy and human rights is sincere. In this respect it is a happy accident that Ben Ali has wound up in Saudi Arabia - he has fled to the best known counter-example to this mendacious argument, a monarchy sustained by religiously charged despotism, his own regime being a more obscure variant of the same phenomenon.

The Tunisian government, under Ben Ali, was a consistent ally of the US and other imperialist powers (especially its former colonial overlord, France). It colluded, most significantly, in the ‘extraordinary rendition’ and torture of terror suspects in the aftermath of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. It was also the officially stamped ‘model’ for economic growth in the region, a stalwart example of neoliberal orthodoxy (before, that is, the west suddenly discovered the manifest corruption in the country last week …) Nicolas Sarkozy came under fire from the French opposition parties for maintaining an undignified silence, as his close ally was ever more starkly rejected by the Tunisian people.

The US, according to cables released by Wikileaks, was not clinging on so tightly; the foremost imperial power in the world, after all, has learnt when it is time to let go of tin-pot client dictators. The author of a cable of July 17 2009 sums up his conclusions at the outset: “By many measures, Tunisia should be a close US ally. But it is not.” The rest is a candid assessment of the decay of a “sclerotic” regime, corrupt to the very top.[1]

The international media, meanwhile, have done their bit for opacity in international affairs. Those following the BBC’s reports of events could be forgiven for thinking it the fastest revolution in history - no mention until the end of last week. That was the tipping point, when it could simply no longer be ignored, as tour operators began to evacuate British holidaymakers amid escalating violence. Rare are the moments when vulgar tourism gets disrupted so spectacularly by political upheaval.

The governments and big economic interests of the imperialist world, needless to say, will be watching events closely - and doing their darnedest to make sure any resulting settlement is to their liking. The coalition government issued in by Ben Ali’s fall is already in a crisis of its own. Only days after coming into existence two of its ‘worker’ components peeled off due to ongoing popular pressure (showing its worth- not the former ‘official communist’ Movement Ettajdid - Movement for Renewal). The momentum is clearly to the left. Having taken cabinet positions for a few days, the Union of Freedom and Labour and the General Labour Union now demand the removal of all ministers belonging to Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally (the party seems to be disintegrating). Indeed the trade unions have turned very rapidly from tame state-run institutions into a leading force in the protests.

None of this is to the liking of the US and other imperialist powers. They want another colour revolution, a jasmine revolution, not a real people’s revolution. This was always going to be problematic. Nevertheless, if the US gets its way, we should expect a revamped coalition which will ensure an ‘orderly’ transition to free (or at least apparently free) elections, at such time when everyone has calmed down (and the US has found a way to give its favoured agents a head-start in any polls).

At present, the Tunisian masses are unlikely to bite on any such kind of arrangement, at least without some serious concessions. The chants of “Ben Ali out!” have been superseded by “RCD out!” Those on the streets know full well that the whole gang at the summit of his party have been holding them down for decades, while lining their own pockets - not just the top man himself.

That raises the possibility of the exact opposite development - far from Tunisia stabilising in line with the needs of imperialism, other North African populations will get the bug; or, worse still, the unrest will spread throughout the Arab world. This possibility should not be underplayed. Neighbouring Algeria has recently seen large-scale food riots of its own. Meanwhile the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Syria, Libya and Jordan are petrified that the contagion might spread. In Egypt, the most important Arab state by far, pro-Tunisia demonstrators have taken to the streets. The government of Hosni Mubarak is corrupt, nepotistic, deeply unpopular and the masses live in dire poverty (50% of its 80 million have to make do with less than $2 a day).

Communists, certainly, urge the masses in the Arab world to seize the moment opened up by Ben Ali’s fall, and the continuing protests in Tunisia. The demand must not be elections after a period of calm. On the contrary the demand must be for the immediate release of all political prisoners, the lifting of all state proscriptions on ‘subversive’ political organisations (there have been a wave of arrests in particular of leftwingers). The role of Islam as the state religion must be ended. Trade union must be given full rights to operate. The people should arm themselves as a particular matter of urgency - given that the state response to protest has already claimed the lives of over 100 demonstrators. The police and the army must be replaced by a popular militia.

Instead of Mebazaa’s interim government we should be calling for a provisional government born of revolution that will take back the billions looted by Ben Ali and sweep away the whole RCD regime (a position advocated by the Maoist Workers Communist Party, which ends its response to Ben Ali’s fall with calls for a provisional government, constituent assembly and democratic republic[2]).

Necessarily there must be widespread nationalisation. Ben Ali and the RCD regime privatised much of the economy for its own narrow benefit. There must also be far-reaching democratisation. The existing parliament must be closed down. After that the position of president must be abolished, along with the whole upper house of parliament. A successful uprising crowned by a revolutionary provisional government can then oversee elections to a popular assembly (elected on the basis of proportional representation).

But things can and must go further. After all, many countries in the region are facing the same issues over which Ben Ali came to grief - rising food prices, progressive immiseration of masses of people. There is also a fuzzy but nevertheless real, shared Arab national identity - a common language and shared history - that allows ideas and movements to jump borders very quickly. There are some indications, moreover, that this spread of unrest is already happening - The Guardian reports “a spate of self-immolations” in North Africa.[3]

How far such a pan-Arab movement is taken depends, ultimately, on what political forces gain hegemony. The relative prominence of the left and the workers’ movement in the Tunisian protests is heartening, when Islamists have in the last decades increasingly become the beneficiaries of grievances with the status quo. It is very possible that, despite the ethnic and religious distinctions between the two cases, the idea of an Islamic Revolution has lost much of its sheen thanks to recent events in Iran.


  1. www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/217138
  2. tunisiasolidarity.wordpress.com/related-items
  3. The Guardian January 17.