Revolution #243, August 21, 2011

From A World to Win News Service

Report from Tunisia: the current situation and what could come of it

June 6, 2011. A World to Win News Service. Following is the third and final instalment of a report written for AWTWNS by Samuel Albert. The first instalment, parts I and II, described what the revolt in Tunisia achieved and how it took place. The second discussed the underlying and triggering factors behind this revolt.  

IV. The present situation  

People are worried—and "the people" are no longer united

It's not every day that there exists such a thing as "the people." During the revolt, there was a "people" that made its will known, not in the sense of all ten million or even millions of Tunisians coming out into the streets, but in the sense that people of conflicting social classes and political and ideological trends were united in their determination to get rid of Ben Ali, on the one hand, and on the other, those who supported the regime or weren't sure were no longer in a mood to speak out.

Now "the people" has begun to divide out according to the class interests of the various forces involved, even while nearly everyone's thinking remains contradictory. Millions remain dissatisfied, especially among the lower classes and the workers. That is very favorable for radical social change. But the factors that stand in the way of that change include not only the persisting strength of the world economic system and its local ruling classes, but also some elements in the thinking among the people and especially the lack of a clearer understanding of the basic problems that afflict them. Some of these conflicting ideas can be seen in what was said in interviews 

- Spetla, a very small town in the center of the country, between Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid. Newspaper and refreshments stand owner:

There is no work in this town at all. If you don't farm, the only way to make a living is commerce. People from here go down to the border with Libya, buy a few things made in China or Europe and bring them back here to sell. Before we couldn't make a living because people were just coming back with a knapsack of smuggled goods while Ben Ali's wife Trabelsi was having whole shipping containers full of merchandise brought into the country without paying customs fees. Local smugglers just couldn't compete. But we never had any demonstrations here

Now Ben Ali and the Trabelsi are gone but there's a war in Libya and the border is closed. So people from here are going abroad to look for work. When you hear about all those "sea jumpers," Tunisians dying to make it to Italy in small boats, that's us. We have liberty now but there's no way to make a living.

- Unemployed older man, Bourguiba avenue:

I've been unemployed for ten years. I can't tell you how I've managed to feed my family. I have a wife and two kids; one works in the street and another is seven and will go to school next year. I don't know how we survive. I studied in France and came back to a good job in the sanitation department. My brother-in-law was with the Islamics and I got fired for that. I haven't been able to find work since. I'm very glad we have liberty now but my life is still lousy.

- Grizzled older worker and other strikers at a plant that makes reinforced concrete pipes, Ben Arous:

We're poor. That means we don't have any money. Yes, we did contribute to the movement that overthrew Ben Ali. When he saw the crowd on  January 14, he was afraid we would storm his palace, so he and his family got on an airplane and left. He was backed basically by the French and the U.S. France intervened militarily in Libya and the Ivory Coast but they never told Ben Ali to go.

At our plant they treated us like slaves. Paid us less than the minimum wage. Now we have liberty, so it's only natural that we start a union and try to get the protection of the law. But the government is still a mafia, paid off by the U.S. and France.

What do we expect from the revolution? We hope for the best. So far we haven't seen anything at all, zero percent change. In fact, things are worse economically, not better. The bosses are still ugly and hard-headed. We all want—freedom to talk, freedom of the press, freedom of everything. Does democracy mean that the employers have all the rights? The new government is the same as before. Ben Ali was a big thief, but we've been under the same system for 56 years (since independence from France). Democracy hasn't changed that so far, but we want it to change. 

- 23-year-old student, at rally on Bourguiba avenue:

It's very important to me that we have liberty now. That's why we made the revolution. But when are the snipers who shot us down going to be brought to justice? Who's protecting them? Why does the government deny that they even existed? And why do the police have the right to stop me on the street and demand to know why I'm taking pictures with my mobile (cell phone)? And here's my big question: Why do bad people always end up on top? 

- Middle-aged high school chemistry teacher, shopping center cafeteria:

I decided to wear hijab (in this case a "modern" head scarf) five years ago. My mother wore one of those old-fashioned white head scarves but my family wasn't observant. It was when I got older that I turned to Islam. I teach and my husband is a teacher and we share all the household tasks. I'm not someone who believes women should stay home or be paid less.

Why are people like me turning to religion? When you're frustrated and don't have freedom you take refuge in religion, drinking or drugs. I hate to see all those kids doing nothing with their lives but hanging out in cafés and drinking beer. I don't want to see so many university graduates without jobs. My daughter, who's a chemical engineer, couldn't find work here and had to go to France to teach. If the extremists come to power, they won't let her work here or even go abroad. But under Ben Ali, I wasn't allowed to cover my head in school.

I'm the one who decided to cover my head, and I'll decide when to take it off. I believe in an indulgent Islam, one that believes in forgiveness. I define religious extremism as not wanting to allow discussion. What I want is a democratic, balanced country where people have values.

- Owner of a restaurant frequented by merchants in the Medina, the Tunis old-quarter markets. Employs six people:

I'm an Islamic. But I'm against extremism. Islam means moderation in everything. What we need now is security. The laws should be changed so that they can cut off the hands of thieves.

It's a good thing that the army didn't shoot the people but this revolution isn't working. Things have gotten out of hand and they shouldn't have let that happen. People aren't going to work and there are thieves everywhere. The garbage workers are on strike and the rubbish is piling up. Everyone should be working hard now, but they're not.

I want three things:; security, order, everyone going to work. The old regime people are still running the government, business and industry.

God protects our country, but it could be better. It's not really our country. The economy is very iffy—we have industry, even hi-tech, phosphate mines and agriculture, but things could go better. A new president means nothing. Belgium has gone without a government for a year and nobody cares. But we do need police and security.

When I'm at work I should be able to concentrate on business without worrying about my wife at home and my kids on the street. What I want to see is a country without iron bars. The day I no longer see iron bars on all the doors and windows is the day we'll have law.

We fathers need more support as heads of the family. We need child subsidy payments so we can have more kids. And I want to pay less taxes and utility fees. In France, if you make minimum wage and spend it all on meat, you could buy 100 kilos. Here it would be only 15 kilos. And we pay relatively a lot more for health care than in France. Why is that?

- Young woman activist, Ben Arous:

When we had an International Women's Day demonstration on Bourguiba avenue on  March 8, the Islamics held a counter-demonstration. They didn't physically attack us, like they sometimes do to "immodest" women in the cafes, but they were very aggressive. They chanted, "Women go home!" That's their solution to unemployment: make all women quit their jobs and spend their lives taking care of their families. 

There have always been Islamics among the workers and the union members, but now that the preachers can operate openly, more young workers are joining that movement, just like thousands and thousands are joining unions and political parties. That's what freedom means. I'm afraid of the old regime making a comeback and I'm afraid of the Islamics.

- Teachers' union official, Ben Arous:

First we battled the dictatorship, now we're battling the fundamentalists. Since the revolution there's been a lot of Islamic agitation, especially among the youth. They didn't lift a finger during the revolution but at last night's meeting they demanded most of the seats in our Committee to Defend the Revolution. But I know that the government won't let them take over.

Where things stand no

On his way out the door on January 14, Ben Ali named his Prime Minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, the new head of state. This was seen as a last act of tyranny on his part, since it went against the procedure established by the constitution.

Veteran and new activists organized Committees to Defend the Revolution at open mass meetings in cities and towns throughout the country. Students, youth and others from Tunis were joined by youth who came from the provincial cities in a giant sit-in in front of the government office complex called the Kasbah, on the other side of the Medina from Bourguiba avenue, to demand the dissolution of a government made up of the "living dead," Ben Ali's old ministers and notables. 

To appease the people and demonstrate that Tunisia would now be a state of law, the head of the National Assembly, Fouad Mebazzaa, became president as prescribed by the constitution. Mebazzaa turned around and appointed Ghannouchi his prime minister.

Then on February 25 came a new occupation that lasted until Ghannouchi was replaced as prime minister by Beji Caid Essebsi, an 84-year-old man who had been prime minister under Bourguiba but was not so associated with Ben Ali. Eventually the youth from the provinces went home and the second Kasbah sit-in dwindled and came to an end. An attempt in March to organize a "Kasbah III" to depose Essebsi failed.

The new government successfully brushed aside the attempts of the Committees to Defend the Revolution to exercise a kind of dual power. Instead it proposed what Essebsi described as a "synthesis" between those advocating continuity and those fighting for a clean break with the old regime: a High Authority for the Achievement of the Goals of the Revolution, Political Reform and the Transition to Democracy, whose 155 members are nominated from below and approved by the state (hence the union leader's statement that the government won't let the Islamics take over). This body is to prepare for elections to a Constitutional Assembly, which in turn would write a new constitution and hold new parliamentary and presidential elections.  Originally scheduled for July 24, now it seems that these elections may be delayed until November 

This body has been joined by most (but not all) of the organizations that took part in toppling Ben Ali and some that did not, such as Ennahda (The Renaissance), a newly-revived Islamic party that says its aim is not an Islamic regime but what some people call "Islam lite" modeled after the governing AKP party in Turkey. Ennahda defends its failure to participate in the revolt as a tactic to avoid allowing Ben Ali to discredit the movement against him, but many people think it hoped for an accommodation with the regime. Considered the largest party now, it is among the most loyal supporters of the present government and consistently praises the armed forces.

These measures taken in the name of democracy have significantly lessened the participation of the broad masses in the political process. Many people feel that things are being decided behind closed doors in cynical negotiations between representatives of what they see as hard-to-define "interests" who don't care what ordinary people think or want or need. Yet at the same time there is a still a tug of war between the regime's efforts to stabilize and the continuing dissatisfaction.

One of the most important of these tests of strength took place in May, when a recently-fired Interior Minister told a TV interviewer that he had been prevented from getting rid of former regime figures in the security services. He also said that the president and the head of the armed forces had discussed launching a military coup if they didn't like the results of the Constituent Assembly elections. This swelled the ranks of the Friday march to the Interior Ministry on May 6.  Protesters chanted, "The people want a new revolution!"  The police not only attacked it with special savagery, they rampaged throughout the city center and into adjoining lower-class neighborhoods. They also hunted down and beat journalists, chasing some into the offices of a regime mouthpiece newspaper. 

There are constant strikes (hence the restaurant owner's complaints) and mini-"Clear out!" movements aimed at getting rid of petty tyrants linked to the old regime in schools, offices, hospitals and all sorts of institutions. But some activists now feel a discouraging sense of drift, a feeling that they don't know where things are headed or exactly what to do about it.  They also understand that "stabilization" doesn't necessarily mean that things would stay the way they are right now. Facebook, Twitter and mobiles (cell phones) helped make the revolt possible, but their electronic records also mean that if the forces of repression regain the initiative, they would know who to round up and punish.

Who defines the goals of "the revolution?

Despite its name, most of what the High Authority is supposed to decide is not related to "the Goals of the Revolution," in the sense of the yearnings that drove people forward. It is true that the electoral code grossly favored the ruling party (which never, however, skipped an election), and that the formulation of a new code and related matters will have consequences. But it's like an interminable squabble over the rules for a discussion to avoid discussing the basic issues and hide the fact that they are already being decided.

Whether in the High Authority or elsewhere, there is little debate over the big questions that the country faces, issues that made themselves felt, even though not clearly understood: How is Tunisia going to recover its national dignity and become the truly independent country that more than half a century of political independence from France has not yet brought about? How is it going to overcome the yawning regional disparities? How will it have the kind of development that can provide not only jobs but the dignity of fulfilling lives to everyone?  How are the workers ever going to be anything but slaves? How are people in the countryside going to be rescued from their living tombs and freed to become a long-term force for social transformation? Are women's aspirations for equality going to bring them more fully into the movement for social change, or are these aspirations going to become a target? How can the education of so many youth become a force for that kind of transformation and not a cruel joke on them and their parents?  What kind of social and moral values and what kind of world outlook will prevail?

Again, the question of "Who will lead" is not just an abstraction.  Two visions are competing for the people's loyalty, and neither is good. 

Which do you want: the French or the Iranian model?

Many people, including religious people, are terrified by the prospect of a fundamentalist takeover. This danger is far from a fantasy. In April, a man yelling "Allahu Akbar" swung an iron bar at the head of one of Tunisia's most famous film directors, Nouri Bouzid, as he chatted with a student at a university. His 1992 film Bezness (the title combines French slang for sex and the English word "business"), about a prostitute who sells himself to tourists but insists on male domination in the family in the name of "honor", brought out the side of Tunisian society many people would rather not see. Other Tunisian artists and intellectuals took this as more of a warning than an isolated incident. In May, Nadia El-Fani was threatened with death because of her new film Neither Master nor Allah.

In the 1990s, the Tunisian Islamic movement, led by Ennahda and the man who still leads it today, Rachid Ghannouchi (no relationship to Ghannouchi the prime minister), allied with  fundamentalists in neighboring Algeria in an attempt to foment and actually carry out an armed takeover in Tunisia. 

It would be hard to exaggerate how traumatic that period was for Algeria, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab countries. The Algerian military canceled elections after an Islamic party won the first round. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in a convoluted civil war between the military and two rival Islamic trends. Who was killing whom became hard to determine and ultimately not the most important question. All sides massacred whole villages and urban neighborhoods. Intellectuals and artists were murdered in such numbers that many fled the country. 

In Tunisia, Ben Ali succeeded in crushing Ennahda by means of arrests, torture and imprisonment on a vast scale. He also used this as an excuse to crush all dissent for the next two decades. But the Islamics bore the brunt of the most violent repression.

Ennahda re-emerged as a major force almost as soon as Ben Ali fell and its leaders returned from exile in the UK and France. There is constant debate about whether it has abandoned its goal of religious rule. It has strength among the lower and middle classes, from factory workers to shopkeepers and especially lawyers, who are divided between secular and religious tendencies. Meanwhile, a Salafist movement has also sprung up overnight. (Salafists are Sunnis who advocate a return to Islam as they believe it was practiced in the early days.) Hizb al-Tahrir (The Party of Liberation) calls for an Islamic caliphate and the abolition of political freedoms. It has been able to recruit many youth, apparently from among the poor, and they go around looking for fights. The situation on the streets is complicated. Often, when "immodest" women and girls are treated as fair game, people say they aren't sure who is doing it.

It can't be ruled out that Ghannouchi sincerely has become a "revisionist Islamic," as some people call him, and would like to follow the path of the Turkish "Islam lite" AKP in becoming part of a pro-U.S., modernizing government. In a recent major report on Tunisia, the International Crisis Group, run by the cream of European and American diplomacy and government-friendly think tanks, is unashamedly enthusiastic about Ennahda. But it would be wrong not to recognize the contradictoriness and fluidity of the situation. Once religion has been accepted as the ground of legitimacy and truth, then "indulgent" religiosity can find itself at a disadvantage in relation to fundamentalism.

Bob Avakian has introduced the concept of the "two outmodeds": "Jihad on the one hand and McWorld/McCrusade on the other," "historically outmoded strata among colonized and oppressed humanity up against historically outmoded ruling strata of the imperialist system." While "it is the historically outmoded ruling strata of the imperialist system" that "poses the greater threat to humanity," "if you side with either of these 'outmodeds', you end up strengthening them both." (Bringing Forward Another Way) In Tunisia, it's not that one side stands up and proclaims itself in favor of imperialist domination and the other opposes everything modern. But still, this quote accurately describes a trap that most people are falling into.

When pressed about their hopes for Tunisia, many activists and intellectuals as well as people from the lower classes answer that they want it to become like France, a stable parliamentary multi-party democracy with a social safety net. Many Tunisians have lived the harsh lives of immigrant workers, and they don't think Europe is heaven. It's just hard for people to conceive that anything better is possible,  especially in today's world, where even most of the Tunisian left has not really analyzed the historical experience of the communist-led revolutions, and instead accepts the dominant thinking that radical change has proved futile. Further, while many ordinary people do have some sense that France could not be the way it is without the super-exploitation of countries like Tunisia, they don't have enough of a scientific understanding that the "French" model is actually impossible in Tunisia, again largely because they don't see any alternative.

This posing of Tunisia's possible future in terms of the French model or Islamic fundamentalist rule (what people not so scarred by the Algerian experience would call the Iranian model) provides more favorable grounds for Islamicism—and vice versa.

This is a society modern enough to have as many girl students as boys but where not only is there more than twice as much illiteracy among women than men in general, but even among today's generation there are twice as many unemployed female university graduates as male. Secularist Tunisians are right when they point out that Tunisia's 1959 constitution was more advanced than France’s at that time in terms of women's rights, but it also makes serious concessions to Islam on this subject (women only inherit half as much as men and have less rights in other family matters). At any rate, the example of France should tell us something: women there are equal in legal terms but it is still a thoroughly male supremacist, patriarchal society, as the recent wave of support for the accused rapist, IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, should make obvious, since the argument is not that he is innocent but that rape isn't important. Male supremacist religion and patriarchal elements are still very powerful in Tunisia, reflecting the hold of reactionary traditions, beliefs and practices among the people, and the Islamics can gain an advantage by openly appealing to male supremacy rather than trying to cover it up.

Some people contend that a more radical stand against the "French model' and the "Iranian model" would cut off political activists from the broad masses and especially the lower strata, but in fact fuzzy and wrong thinking on these questions is a major obstacle to being able to connect in a sustained way with those who have nothing to lose and unite these masses, better-off strata, the intelligentsia and others.

Further, clarity on these questions is the only way to provide a scientific understanding that can deal with a major source of depression among ordinary people and activists alike right now: when they look at the Tunisian regime, the army and the Islamics, and think about Algeria and the civil war between the French- (and American-) backed Algerian military and the Islamic fundamentalists there, many people feel that the question now is not whether things can get better but whether or not, one way or another, they are about to get much worse.

V. Now what?

Political liberty—freedom of expression, protest, the press and so on—is not just for the educated middle classes. In fact, as can be seen in the concrete development of the revolt as people seized these rights through their own struggle and sacrifice, ordinary Tunisians have spoken up fearlessly, defied authority and produced a more profound and society-wide social questioning and ferment than seen since the 1960s in most "advanced" countries where such rights are enshrined in law. This is necessary for people to become fully alive and for real social change to take place.

But what to tell those whose lives will continue to be miserable? That now that some relatively better-off people have gotten some of what they want, the "revolution" is over?

The unspoken assumption behind the political arrangements now being put into place is that life—Tunisia's relationship with the rest of the world and the economic and social relationships between Tunisians (the various classes, men and women, the regions)—is going to be like before, only a little better because now they have political rights and parliamentary democracy.

Whether or not people are fully aware of it, what they are rebelling against in Tunisia and throughout the Arab countries (and elsewhere in the Third World) is the way imperialism dominates the organization of their economies and shapes their societies as a whole on that basis, and the political regimes that enforce that domination.

Tunisia is not necessarily doomed to the rule of an autocrat or a military junta, but it's no accident that naked dictatorship has been so common throughout the Third World, geographically and historically. (Latin America, sometimes held up as proof that those days are over, has actually known alternating periods of "democratic openings" and military clampdowns for the last century.)

They may have elections and sometimes constitutional rights (as opposed to arbitrary rule of the Ben Ali or other varieties), but these things tend to get restricted, when not just cut off. The local foreign-dependent ruling classes are smaller and weaker than the ruling classes in the imperialist countries, the middle classes are smaller and even less stable, the conditions of life more often impel people to rebel, and lopsided regional development often makes centralized rule difficult. Persisting feudal and other pre-capitalist exploitative relations often facilitate imperialist domination, and the classes and forces that represent these relations are also bitter enemies of the people's basic interests.

Most fundamentally, no matter what the system of government, the ruling classes of such countries are representatives of the imperialist relations, and the right of self-determination and the equality of nations are never on the agenda. It is not just that they are subservient to imperialism politically, although it is true that imperialist machinations and interventions play a major role in bringing governments into office and taking them out again. As long as their economies are organized according to the laws of capitalism, especially the pursuit of the highest rate of profit, in a world where the competing monopoly capital formations rooted in a handful of countries dominate the rest, or in other words, as long as they are dependent on the imperialist world market, they must bow to the interests and dictates of Paris, New York, London, Berlin, Rome, etc. This is the only logic capitalists and other exploiting classes can follow.

A development that would meet the needs of the people would require a whole different political system, one whose purpose was to free the people and the nation from the domination of imperialism and the Tunisian capitalists and other exploiters reliant on them, not seeing development as a goal in itself, which would simply open the door to old or new exploiters, but as part of a process leading toward the abolition of forms of exploitation and oppression and the overcoming of all inequalities on a world scale. As part of this, there would also have to be a process of breaking with prevailing oppressive social relations, customs and thinking, both those imposed by imperialism and those traditionally embedded in Tunisian society.

Tunisians are right to want to be able to express themselves, organize themselves, and enjoy other liberties, to be free of arbitrary rule, to recover individual and national dignity and take their country back. But they can't be free unless they understand that the word "freedom" is meaningless and deceitful unless they ask themselves: freedom for who, for which class? Freedom for the imperialists and their local allies? Or freedom from them for the people, freedom to have a decisive role in determining the direction of society and join with people worldwide to free humanity?

These questions, even in the most immediate forms of why Tunisia and Tunisians suffer like they do and what can be done about it, are not being thought about deeply enough and debated in Tunisia right now. Instead, too many people are caught up in what seems possible at any given moment, even when they know or suspect that there is no way out for Tunisia unless it breaks the bonds of politics as it is now practiced and people start figuring out how to make possible a real revolution. In a word, the future of the revolt in Tunisia has not been settled. Today's "democratic opening" can favor the training and preparation of the people for revolution; but it can also disorient and lull them, leading to the loss of the revolt's great gains: their political awakening, their widespread and acted-upon determination for some kind of radical change without which such change is impossible, and the political initiative they have seized out of the hands of their oppressors.  

The point is to see the situation in Tunisia not just as it is, but as it could become. Some activists close their eyes and hope that history will always do the right thing, while others are prone to bouts of dark thoughts. Many are afflicted by both. The important thing is not to pluck up one's courage but to see how what the masses of people have done has created a very favorable situation for the revolutionary work that has to be done.

 No one can predict how long this situation will last. Nor can anyone predict how the regional and world volatility that Tunisians have helped bring about might react back on Tunisia.

So far the Tunisian people have accomplished amazing things on their own initiative. But they are facing obstacles that they can either overcome or be defeated by. The question is who will lead the people now—one or another sort of reactionaries who seek to drag the people backward, or comrades who break with reformist politics, seize the possibility of training themselves and many others in the most advanced understanding of the science of communism amidst the upheaval and confusion, and forge a revolutionary strategy.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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