Monday 17 January 2011

Tunisian revolt - everything is possible, nothing is certain

by Omar Hamed
16 January 2011
from Socialist Aotearoa

At this stage the only certainty about the future of the Tunisian revolt is uncertainty. With the departure of President Ben Ali the longtime dictator, a massive power vaccuum has opened up in the north African country.

The situation in the country is changing rapidly with a state of emergency declared, prisons emptying, rioting gripping the capital Tunis and reports of fighting between the army and militas loyal to Ben Ali.

News media outlets, bloggers and politicians are offering up a variety of different analysis of the political situation and offering up competing predictions for what will come next.
The facts as they stand are:
  • A new unity government in place and elections have been promised within 60 days.
  • Violent criminals are terrorising Tunis neighbourhoods, discharging firearms randomly from cars. These criminals are probably connected to Ali's secret police and regime loyalists may be attempting to destablise the situation before attempting a counter-revolution.
  • Local neighbourhoods are organising committees and raising militias to defend themselves in co-operation with army forces who appear to be supporting the new government.
  • Rioters are looting supermarkets while also targeting banks, businesses and car brands connected to Ali and his family.
Unless some totally unexpected event occurs Tunisians can expect in 60 days (or slightly longer if opposition parties get their demand for a lengthier period in which to organise themselves) to be living in a functioning parliamentary democracy scourged of much of the corruption, censorship and political and human rights violations that has characterised the country's past.

Apart from that though there are a myriad of uncertainties around the future of the revolt as the 23 year old police state that has ruled the country melts away to the sound of sporadic gunfire and cheering.

Forget the silly online squabbles over whether this is a Wikipedia or twitter inspired revolution the most significant question that the global left is wrestling with is how far the social revolt spread through the rest of the Middle East

The answer at this stage appears to be we don't know. The attempts by western commentators to flatten out the diverse political, economic and social geography of the Middle East to extrapolate various conclusions about the possibilities of revolt are almost completely useless here. However the most promising signs of potential social unrest come from two countries - Jordan and Algeria.
Will the social revolt spread through the rest of the Middle East?

Last Friday Jordanian streets were rocked by thousands of protestors during a "day of rage" over rising food & fuel prices and unemployment. The political situation in Jordan is comparatively open & democratic for the Middle East although protests have been nearly entirely absent since 2001. Unemployment is high and food inflation for the year ending December 2010 is a whopping 25%. After a farcical election at the end of 2010 in which opposition parties called for a boycott because of the rigged nature of the voting system. With voter turnout at just 34% in Amman in the last election and unemployment sitting around 12% the potential for the inner cities to erupt on a mass scale remains. So far only around 8000 are said to have participated in the protests and King Abdullah appears to be moving swiftly to offer up economic relief measures in the form of bread subsidies and to deploy military units including tanks to surround the cities.

With a sit in planned at Parliament today much depends on the momentum that Friday's protests and the events over the weekend in Tunisia have generated within the country. It is possible that another political revolution could take place within Jordan but it is far more likely that massive protests would force the current Prime Ministers resignation followed by fresh elections on fairer terms.


Sitting right next to Tunisia in north Africa is the country of Algeria which for the past few weeks has seen riots similar to the Tunisian ones. Algeria is also a police state under constant state of emergency with a soaring cost of living and high youth unemployment. Rioting youths face a "bleak future" in a country with massive oil and gas reserves but also high rates of poverty and large slums.

Indeed Algeria's rioting is angrier and much more widespread than in Tunisia and the waves of strikes, occupations and unrest that sweeps the country have turned the country into a cauldron. Yet because of the subservience of the main Algerian union movement to the Algerian state the possibility of regime change is low. In Tunisia the union movement and professional associations have participated and supported since just after Christmas the revolt right up to Ali's abdication. The Tunisian trade union movement had been supportive of the dictatorship back to the 1980s but swapped sides in late December to join the revolt as dissident unionists amongst the teachers and postal workers gradually won over the rest of the union movement. As general strikes swept Tunisian cities the balance of power finally went towards the revolutionaries.

Until the Algerian trade union movement is radicalised and abandons support for the Government and begins to join in on a national scale with the revolt then the chances of revolution remain low. Rioting alone will not cause regime collapse. The bulk of the union movement must be involved even if they only end up tailing more radical and confrontational sections of the working class - university students, the young unemployed or public sector workers.

Lessons for revolutionaries

With the political crisis easing in Tunisia focus will turn amongst the revolutionary forces to the continued economic crisis in the country. Juan Cole has identified a number of competing interests within the revolutionary sections of society including the workers movement, the university educated middle classes, unemployed youth and rural workers. Whether the Tunisians can create a serious alternative to neo-liberal capitalism in the ancient seat of the Carthage empire still remains to be seen. With the army taking control of the streets and a conservative union movement it is likely that economic questions will be played out within the framework of parliamentary democracy in the immediate future as Tunisians begin to experiment with genuine electoralism.

As the situation continues to simmer it is illuminating to study the lessons of the Tunisian revolution as the flames of revolt continue to lick the Mediterranean shore.

1. A class for itself Critically for the revolution was the transformation of the Tunisian working class into not just a class against capital but a class for itself.

The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends becomes class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle. - Karl Marx
In Tunisia we witnessed the formation of a revolutionary working class very rapidly. From decades of fear of activism emerged a youth who finally said "enough!". The catalyst of this may have been the wikileaks relevations but the final spark came close to home as one Tunisian youth explained, "And then, WikiLeaks reveals what everyone was whispering. And then, a young man immolates himself. And then, 20 Tunisians are killed in one day. And for the first time, we see the opportunity to rebel, to take revenge on the "royal" family who has taken everything, to overturn the established order that has accompanied our youth."

The conspicous consumption of Ali and his cronies rankled and wikileaks only confirmed to Tunisians what they were already thinking - Ali's lifestyle was a disgrace. Most of us feel class anger at some stage when we meditate on the material inequalities that surround us. Yet by giving this anger an expression and communicating our rage to others can embolden fellow proletarians. Exposing the ruling class and their luxurious lifestyles can be a form of class formation as it polarises and solidifies the already existing class divisions in the eyes of workers and the oppressed. Certainly in Tunisia the US embassy at least understood how conspicous consumption acted as a revolutionary agitator - "With Tunisians facing rising inflation and high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and persistent rumors of corruption have added fuel to the fire."

The suicides of Mohamed Bouazizi and Allaa Hidouri, two unemployed men substituted for revolutionary leadership and guided the initative of the masses. Faced with a life of brutality and misery, crystallised by these suicides, unemployed youth began rioting and other sections of society joined in attacking police stations, luxury villas and the property of the ruling elites. What has made the revolutionary situation in Tunisia so electric is that the insurgents, rioters and protestors haven't been taking to the streets just to liberate themselves. They've been attempting to liberate Bouazizi and Hidouri, who symbolise the common condition of Tunisian youth.

The revolution could not stop until the secret police who confiscated Bouazizi's produce had been burnt out of their stations and their rulers who destroyed the Tunisian economy had fled beyond their reach. The rage in the streets is the rage of dead men walking in ten thousand bodies. A class fighting for itself, even for the memory of those who have been killed by the rulers.

2. The hip-hop revolution
One of the most interesting features of the Tunisian revolution has been the role hip-hop has played in transmitting anti-state and anti-regime sentiment. The youthful protaganists of the insurrection found through hip hop not just a creative expression but a weapon of cultural and political subversion.

"Rap has become the voice of Tunisian youth," said Malek Khemiri, rapper himself in the Armada Bizerte Tunisian band. "It is a very popular musical style with Tunisian youth and is the only way to express opinions. With social networking sites like Facebook, the music is quickly shared and distributed without the passes the official censorship channels should pass."

The Ali regime has responded by jailing rappers and sending secret police to intimidate rapperss like Lak3y, "a rapper and part of the group Sounds of Freedom. He has a degree in computer animation, but has been unemployed for three years. "We work ourselves to death to us graduate, but we remain unemployed. It has a huge impact on our morale."

In the banlieues of North Africa proletarian consciousness is transformed and radicalised not via way of Leninist programmes distributed outside factory gates but by way of the electrified sound of rappers spitting bars passed down social networking mediums until they reach critical mass and the anger and hope encapsulated in the verses moves listeners to dance away the regime in the streets. "If I can't dance its not my revolution!"

3. Union revolt was crucial
As one commentator has noted, "The trade union (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."

Although youth and students have provided the momentum for the revolution, the revolt required the collective intelligence, leadership and co-ordination of a significant mass of society. The general strikes and final trade union rally (in spite of union leaders) on the Friday before Ali's departure provided the political weight and confidence to force the states hand. Emboldened by the appearance of workers on the streets the more militant sections of the revolution could begin to confront government buildings and attack banks without fear of the sorts of murderous reprisals that isolated looting could bring on.

The union revolt played the crucial Ace that swept Ali from power but also with their higher profile and international links has provided inspiration to unions across the Arab world. Bringing the union movement into the struggle isn't an optional extra for revolutionaries but a critical part of the whole process.

4. Direct action can spark a revolution
The days of the anti-globalisation movement seiging summits are long gone but their tactics live on in the anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist rebellions of the global South and increasingly the global North. Select attacks on banks, police stations and luxury cars by masked mobs resemble Black Bloc anarchist tactics outside major financial summits. In a combustible social and economic situation Black Bloc tactics and street fighting can spark a revolution. Yet the riots in Tunisia differed from Black Bloc tactics in important ways. They had the support of the majority of the population and facilitated the entry onto the political stage of a wide range of political actors. They were able to absorb scores of casualties while still spreading outwards. Rioters in Tunisia did not isolate themselves from the rest of the demonstators and police violence against direct actionists served only to discredit the security forces and heighten the stakes for the rebels.

5. From riot to insurrection
As the CWI analysis notes, “We are not afraid, we are not afraid!” shouted hundreds of youth rising up and attacking local government buildings in Tunis’s working class neighbourhood of Ettadem on that day. In response, the government ordered the imposition of an unlimited curfew from 8pm to 5.30am in the capital and initially deployed, on Tuesday night, army units and armoured vehicles throughout the city. But these measures were largely inefficient, as thousands courageously defied them from the first night. Fear changed camp, moving over to the governing elite.

Many revolutionaries have noted that control over the terrain of the struggle overnight is a necessity for a riot to transfer into an insurrectionary situation. It denotes a shift in the power relationship between the rulers and the ruled and from protest to resistance. The establishment of neighbourhood committees to defend neighbourhoods is the most obvious example of how control of the night solidifies a revolutionary movement and can root it in the control of the insurgent communities.

Revolutionaries should take heart from the Tunisian example. Continuous rioting, rolling and ongoing general strikes combined with targeted looting and attacks on ruling class property can force a country into the future. Last Friday Ben Ali's regime and the revolutionary forces were locked in stand off but after Ali blinked and caught a plane to Saudi Arabia the political momentum swung to the revolutionaries. Riot had turned into insurrection. The army remained essentially neutral. The police fled from the masses and the next phase of Tunisian history began.

With these thoughts in mind it is only necessary to hope that the rebellion in the Middle East continues. That the left is able to advance an anti-capitalist revolution in Tunisia in the face of what will be significant pressure to entrench free market neo-liberal economic dictatorship. The new openings of freedom and democracy and the recent experiences of revolution give left revolutionaries in Tunisia plenty of opportunites in which to continue to inspire the world.

In the West our tasks will be to foment anti-capitalist, anti-neo-liberal revolt amongst the unemployed and youth who desire a world without misery and to engage in solidarity struggles with all those in the north Africa and across the world who are fighting for their freedom.

And from Tunisia to Aotearoa let the oppressed rap together the words of Tunisia's famous poet Abou al-Kacem Echebbi, “Who grows thorns will reap wounds."

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