Wednesday, January 19, 2011
The good news from Tunisia
17 January 2011. A World to Win News Service.
In a world sorely in need of good news and a Middle East that has seemed to be getting darker, a ray of light has broken through in Tunisia.
Instead of accepting being pressed down and passive, the masses of people seized the initiative and toppled a hated head of state who had long administered the country for the benefit of France, the other European powers and the U.S., a man who was backed by all of them until the very end. While the Tunisian events are not like, for instance, Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. has suffered serious military setbacks, this is a movement where no reactionaries have hegemony, at least so far.
This is rare in today's world where imperialists and Islamic reactionaries too often monopolize the political stage. These events have brought hope not only to Tunisians but millions of other people sick of the unbearable status quo crushing the region and the globe.
For this reason Tunisians face a very difficult situation as the enforcers of today's world order and their present and possible future Tunisian underlings and allies manoeuvre to stuff the genie – the people – back into the bottle.
In less than a month events moved at such a dizzying pace that each day brought about new and unexpected situations. The cork began to loosen last 17 December in the town of Sidi Bouzid. The police confiscated the fruit and vegetables Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed university graduate, was selling in the street. When his efforts to protest through legal channels went unheeded, he set fire to himself in a front of local government offices. Security forces attacked demonstrating local students who put the blame for the young man's death on the regime.
This resonated deeply in a society where the schools have been churning out large numbers of graduates who seldom find a place in an economy subordinated to foreign investment, particularly tourism and low-wage garment and footwear manufacture for export. At first the protest movement was strongest in towns in the country's disadvantaged central and western regions. By late
December thousands of people in the capital and other coastal cities demonstrated in support of the youth in Sidi Bouzid. The demand for jobs quickly went over to a movement to topple the regime.
The movement drew in the educated classes – a strike by 95 percent of the country's lawyers and a demonstration by hundreds of them in front of the government palace in Tunis 6 January gave it impetus. But it also involved much of Tunisian society, including various classes, with little political differentiation. In January, especially during the second week, the protests became more confrontational. Demonstrators set up barricades and fought back against the security forces. In the working class Tunis suburb of Ettadhamen-Minihla people attacked government buildings. Their chant, "We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are afraid only of god", revealed both a new mood of daring and determination and the persistence of traditional thinking. For the first time the army was deployed in several cities. Many dozens of people were killed in clashes with the police over the next days.
After first dismissing the crowds as "terrorists", President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali began to try to save his regime by offering them concessions. He visited the hospital room of the dying young man who had immolated himself. On 12 January he sacked the Interior Minister, claiming that orders for shooting people at Bouazizi's funeral and other demonstrators had been issued behind his back. The next day he promised not to run again in the 2014 elections. But the protests only became more defiant. On 14 January he fled, reportedly after the army chief of staff advised – or told – him to go.
As his last act, Ben Ali told a long-time loyal henchman, his prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, to replace him as head of state. This was not acceptable to the protesters. In a desperate attempt to cover the new government with the cloak of the rule of law, the courts declared that the speaker of parliament, the Ben Ali henchman Fouad Mebazaa, should become head of state, according to the constitution that Ben Ali had put in place. Mebazaa turned around and made ex-prime minister the new prime minister.
As things now stand, the situation is complicated. The police and armed militia that were Ben Ali's personal gang have been using their guns to cash in on their loyal service by looting. Their rear-guard action, including sniper fire on crowds, has had a (perhaps intended) political effect. It spurred a popular demand for order – neighbourhood self-protection committees sprang up – and helped divide those who now want stability from those still unsatisfied.
Ben Ali had reportedly recruited militia members from among petty criminals, and the police are certainly extortionist thugs at best, in addition to their role as the main force imposing repression and torture. The army has arrested the former Interior Minister and Ben Ali's head of security, accusing them of fomenting violence to prolong political instability.
At the same time the army is also trying to make the people back down. While armed forces units were briefly withdrawn from the streets just prior to Ben Ali's abdication and flight, reportedly because they did not want to use their tanks and armoured cars against the crowds, they have moved back in force. On 17 January came the announcement of a "unity government" in which the six key portfolios went to seasoned members of the ruling party and three other senior ministerial positions were given to opposition parties legal under Ben Ali. Several thousand people, including many trade union members, gathered in front of the Interior Ministry to chant that this new government did not meet the people's aspirations. They were attacked with clubs, water cannons, tear gas and warning shots.
Unhappiness in the Western capitals
This joyous explosion of the Tunisian people has brought unhappiness and deep concern to the Western governments. Nowhere is this more true than in France, where President Nicholas Sarkozy called an emergency meeting of his cabinet to plan what to do after the fall of Ben Ali.
As the newspaper Le Monde and other media have abundantly detailed, France supported Ben Ali to the bitter end. (See the Facebook page "Ben Ali Wall of Shame" – more than a third of Tunisia's 10 million people are said to have access to Facebook and Twitter.) Early on in his presidency, in 2008, Sarkozy feted the Tunisian tyrant with a super-delegation featuring Mrs Sarkozy and seven ministers. IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who hopes to be the opposition Socialist Party's next presidential candidate, visited to tout Tunisia's economy as a "model for emerging countries". Several French government ministers made statements supporting Ben Ali during his final days. The day before Ben Ali fled, Sarkozy's Interior Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie offered to send French police to "share French skills" and train their Tunisian counterparts in handling "security situations". Although in her statement for French public consumption she added that the police should preserve order and respect democratic rights, the official version of her statement left out this second clause, probably because it might embolden Ben Ali's opponents. In Tunis, people commented that the last thing they needed in fighting a "police state" was French police.
When the fleeing president's private plane approached Paris, Sarkozy apparently gave orders that it not be allowed to land. Members of Ben Ali's family who had been waiting for him in a luxury hotel at the Euro Disney amusement park were asked to leave. Finally, it was Saudi Arabia that gave Ben Ali shelter, probably to France's great relief. A leader of the fascist National Front criticized Sarkozy bitterly for betraying a great personal friend and a friend of France.
It could be said that the basic deal that kept Ben Ali in power so long was that France allowed him and especially his wife's family to enrich themselves obscenely as long as he efficiently performed his role as manager of France's Tunisian enterprise – not very different than a bank or other big corporation. In trying to protect France's man, Sarkozy was continuing the policy of all the French presidents of the right and left who came before him.
Tunisia's ties with France are not only financial. In fact other European powers (especially Italy) and the U.S. have also profited from Tunisia's enslavement to the world market and the economic boom under Ben Ali. But there are also political and cultural ties that have made Tunisia particularly pliable to Paris and therefore important to France's regional and global efforts.
France made Tunisia a "protectorate" by invading it in 1881 and ran it directly until 1957. But unlike Algeria, for instance, which France's ruling capitalists considered an integral part of their country, so that it had to win its independence through a long and hard-fought war, Tunisia became independent without a violent struggle (not unrelated to the war going on in much larger Algeria at the time), and slipped easily and quickly into the neocolonial mode. Its first president, Habid Bourguiba, was also a close "friend of France" from independence until 1987, when the senile old man was overthrown by his security chief, the military leader Ben Ali.
The U.S. did not see Ben Ali as their man the way France did, but Washington was not far behind in supporting him. The "Tunileaks" (WikiLeaks of cables to the U.S. State Department from the American embassy in Tunis) are very revealing in that regard. A report from the U.S. ambassador spread over a series of cables details the almost surreal degree to which Ben Ali's family used its power to accumulate personal wealth, so much so that "50 percent of the economic elite" are members of his and especially his wife's family. This is seen as making the regime more fragile than it would be with a broader-based ruling class. Yet the ambassador's main complaints centre around Ben Ali's failure to support American initiatives that might soften the country's ties with France, particularly in the educational and cultural fields.
The cables make the point that while Tunisia is small and without much regional influence, it is particularly useful to the U.S. in terms of its informal ties with Israel and its refusal to support the Palestinians, even in the purely rhetorical and hypocritical ways dear to some other Arab regimes. The ambassador also expressed appreciation for the regime's Westernised trappings (such as its adoption of French family law, including a ban on polygamy) and its apparent success in strangling Islamic fundamentalism. For these reasons, while continuing to express concern for what are seen as the regime's self-inflicted weaknesses, a later cable advises the U.S. State Department to "dial back the public criticism" and continue efforts to strengthen U.S. influence in the country in the context of supporting Ben Ali.
But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did have the very good luck to give a speech calling on Arab governments to reform the day before Ben Ali fell, and President Barack Obama was the first head of state to salute the developments. Under the guise of "promoting democracy" the U.S. will likely seek to advance its influence in Tunisia and the Arab world in the course of the present political turmoil.
Still, turmoil in the Middle East is what the U.S., France and all the big powers are united against. Tunisia does not have the strategic value to the U.S. as other "friends" such as Egypt, Algeria and Jordan, as the diplomatic cables point out, but what has broken out there does pose dangers for regimes that are crucial to continued U.S. regional control. It is no accident that the focus of Clinton's speech was the need to strengthen Arab regimes under the U.S.'s thumb in order to isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The bright spots and dangers of the current situation
The best thing about the events in Tunisia is that for once the people themselves have stepped in and become the motor force driving events. As a reactionary Washington commentator pointed out, even if U.S. and Western interests are not necessarily threatened by the fall of Ben Ali in and of itself, those interests could be imperilled by the fact that he has been thrown out thanks to a popular upsurge and not allowed to go quietly in the kind of smooth transition that characterized the end of fascist regimes in Pinochet's Chile and Franco's Spain. (Anne Applebaum, Washington Post, 17 January 2011)
Many commentators have said that the absence of a strong Islamic movement is one reason why the West is not more worried about what's going on there and hasn't tried to more directly intervene. Actually, there hasn't been much opportunity or means for the West to do that so far. But it is also true that it is a very good thing that this upsurge has been able, until now at least, to steer clear of the deadly dynamic that has kept the terms of struggle in other countries confined to open capitulation to imperialism versus a reactionary Islamic fundamentalist movement that does not truly break with the imperialist system even while upsetting the imperialist order.
Commentators have compared the events in Tunisia with the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran. The revolutionary process there had the advantage of a much longer period of political turmoil and fighting before it was aborted by the installation of today's hated Islamic Republic. When the U.S. and the UK could no longer keep the Shah in power, they decided that an Islamic regime in Iran would be preferable to the uncertain and perhaps revolutionary alternatives, although they probably regretted that later. In the case of Tunisia, it is not impossible that the U.S. summed up those lessons and decided to pull the plug on Ben Ali before the situation became even more uncontrollable.
Explicitly examining the Tunisian situation from the angle of how to pursue U.S. interests, the academic Steven A. Cook wrote for the Web site of U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, "Whether the [Tunisian] military leaders are democrats is not the issue; rather, their concern seems to be that graft, corruption, and the practices of one of the worst police states in the Middle East proved to be a threat to social cohesion and stability." Cook deliberately overlooks the fact that U.S.-dependent regimes in the region like Egypt have killed and tortured many more people than in Tunisia. Probably he means that Ben Ali ran one of the most successful states in the region in terms of its ability to stifle opposition almost completely for 27 years – until a month ago, when these "practices" no longer worked. But his characterization of the role of the Tunisian military is both accurate and expresses the American imperialist point of view.
While various clans have disputed over the spoils, the Tunisian army has always been and is still the backbone of a comprador (imperialist-dependent) state and the ultimate guarantor of a whole imperialist-dominated economic, social and ideological order. In fact, given the country's geopolitical situation, it has little other reason to exist. If the army dumped Ben Ali and has tried to distance itself from his torturers and jailers, it is all the better to play that role. This is why one of the Wiki-leaked U.S. cables stresses the importance of American support for the "neutrality" of the Tunisian army vis a vis disputes among the "economic elite".
It is impossible to predict what concessions to popular demand the military behind Tunisia's governments of the day may feel compelled to grant, and to what degree such concessions may succeed – or fail – at quelling people's anger. It is very possible that they will have to allow more space for political debate and the people's will to be expressed than they normally do. But it is absolutely certain that the Tunisian armed forces and the imperialists will focus on preserving the existing state power.
The media are now arguing that this is the first Arab revolution. One reason why that is wrong is that so far, this has not been a revolution, strictly speaking, in the sense of bringing about fundamental change in social, political and economic relations, or even a thorough regime change. But lessons should be taken from earlier upheavals that toppled feudal monarchies (Egypt and Sudan, Iraq) and and neocolonial republics (Syria). For instance, while the U.S. was at certain points somewhat favourable to the nationalism of Egypt's Gamal Nasser, in terms of challenging British and French dominance of the Middle East, the U.S.'s objective was to make Egypt an American neocolony. Similarly, while the military coups in Syria and Iraq, with their nationalist trappings, created problems for some Western powers, neither of these countries experienced any liberation.
There is also the example of neighbouring Algeria in the 1990s, where the U.S. and the West at first backed political reform in order to achieve a more broad-based and stable comprador regime, and then dropped it when it became clear that Islamic elements would win elections. This helped provoke ten years of bloody and thoroughly reactionary strife in which both the regime and the fundamentalists slaughtered many thousands of people and both sides specifically targeted the intellectuals. The fact that many Algerians felt trapped and mortally threatened by both the comprador regime and its religious fanatic opponents played a major role in putting a damper on the popular struggles that had shaken Algeria in the 1980s. In fact, this experience had a big influence in bringing about a state of political depression in the Arab world.
The media have also enjoyed throwing around the term "Jasmine Revolution", in hopes that the Tunisian upsurge will take the path of the non-violent (on the part of the people) and totally non-revolutionary "colour revolutions" in former Soviet-bloc countries, most recently in Ukraine, which have brought nothing but disappointment, disillusionment and a new plunge into passivity for the people. That is one possibility, and the one for which the enforcers of the world order will do their best to impose, but that is not the only one now.
The Tunisian people have every reason to be happy and proud, but it's no use pretending that they don't face formidable obstacles. The imperialists and the various varieties of smaller reactionaries are going to interact with the people's movement in complex and perhaps unpredictable ways, seeking to slam shut the door that the people have opened through their struggle and sacrifice.
It is far from certain, but there are objective reasons to hope that the enemies of the Tunisian people will not be able to consolidate their grip for a while, and that this situation will continue to inspire and spur on other people and constrain the reactionaries' regional efforts, especially if the movement that brought down Ben Ali develops in a way that gives expression to the independent and revolutionary interests of the people in opposition to the imperialists and their system. The world needs more open doors like the one the Tunisian people have given us, and it needs breakthroughs to the other side.