Intifada in Tunisia
The long-awaited harbinger of a wider revolt against reactionary Arab regimes.
Issued by: CPGB-ML
Issued on: 30 January 2011
In developments of great magnitude, wrote Marx, “twenty years are no more than a day – though later on days may come again in which twenty years are embodied”. (Letter to Engels, 9 April 1863)
The current revolutionary upsurge in Tunisia furnishes yet another proof of the correctness of the above profound observation. Even as late as the beginning of December last year, Tunisia presented an outward image of calm serenity. The dictatorial regime felt secure, and the Tunisian masses gave the appearance of having reconciled themselves to their fate under its suffocating dispensation.
The movement of the Tunisian people for a truly democratic revolutionary regime, their resistance against the dictatorship of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), which was first headed by Habib Bourguiba and then, for the past 23 years by Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, has had a near-subterranean existence ever since the independence of the country in 1956 from French colonial rule. It appeared as though the regime could do anything.
Confining ourselves to the period since 1987, when Ben Ali, having pushed aside Bourguiba, became the president, the Tunisian regime has been notorious for the application of brutality and medieval torture in its attempt to crush all opposition and destroy physically, morally and intellectually all those who presented the slightest danger to it. Torture, beatings, show trials and imprisonment in tiny isolation cells, which can only be described as dungeons, was the lot of the opponents of the regime.
All political, trade-union, progressive thought or cultural manifestation was repressed. From the Tunisian Communist Workers Party (PCOT) to the Islamists, even liberals, who at the beginning were Ben Ali’s allies, were all subjected to harsh repression. In an effort to bolster the Ben Ali dictatorship and wipe out the remnants of the social, economic and cultural gains of the Tunisian working class, even human-rights advocates, such as the Tunisian League for the Defence of the Rights of Man, as well as the members of the General Union of Students of Tunisia, became the targets of draconian suppression.
All this was in response to the demand of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – one of the chief instruments of international finance capital – for the application of its Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), which produced massive redundancies, wage cuts and enormous extra burdens on the working class. It also translated into privatisation of large sectors of the economy to the benefit of international monopolies and a few families or relatives close to the Palace of Carthage.
The programme, while allowing imperialist corporations and the Tunisian agents of imperialism to grab the Tunisian people’s wealth, was accompanied by the imposition of unbearable burdens on the working class, and thus aroused discontent and resentment among vast swathes of Tunisian society, going far beyond the ranks of the working class – youth, women, lawyers, writers, artists and other progressive intelligentsia.
A family concern
In true mafia style, Ben Ali’s regime became a family concern, with corruption penetrating every corner of society at all levels, from the lowest state functionaries to the highest echelons of the state apparatus.
Although nominally Tunisia had a democratic façade, with regular elections contested by some opposition parties tolerated by the regime, in practice it was a single-party state in which the RCD spread its tentacles into every neighbourhood, business and government department.
The RCD boasted a membership of 2 million – a fifth of the country’s population. This is hardly surprising, considering that without an RCD membership card a farmer could not secure animal feed, a borrower could have no access to bank credit, and an employee could gain no promotion. Businesses were asked to make donations to the party – a request they would have been unwise not to comply with. During the elections, the RCD commandeered state resources, from transport to civil servants, to dragoon people into voting for it.
The RCD operated in the overall context of a police state in which the security services outnumbered the national army by three times – 120,000 to 40,000. As a crucial element to the machinery of repression, the RCD instituted ‘vigilance committees’ in neighbourhoods, whose remit it was to keep a sharp eye on residents and inform on those inclined to express dissent. The entire state apparatus became so suffocating that people were afraid to speak in coffee shops for fear of who might be listening.
Repression and the denial of basic civil liberties in Tunisia went hand in hand with rampant corruption. Ben Ali’s cronies and family, especially the family of his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, built vast business empires spanning aviation, hostels, insurance, banking, media, telecommunications, publishing, car dealerships, supermarkets, tourism and foreign trade.
According to US diplomats, as revealed by WikiLeaks cables last year, “seemingly half” of the Tunisian business community could claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage. Ben Ali’s family and friends, far from being ordinary businessmen, were simply a collection of thieves and looters of the state treasury and public assets, who were guilty of mafia-like practices, including coercion of competitors and compelling successful enterprises to hand over a portion of their profits. Unless connected to the family of the president, the ability of other businessmen to grow hit a ceiling, such was the greed of the Ben Alis and Trabelsis.
The Trabelsis are the most reviled and hated family in Tunisia. Belhassen, Leila’s brother, has a controlling interest in the Karthago Group, which is a big player in tourism, air transport, finance and travel services, and has expanded further into insurance and car dealerships – capturing the Ford, Jaguar and Land Rover licenses. Shaker-el-Materi, Ben Ali’s son-in-law, is the chief of Princess al-Materi Holding, a consortium with interests in banking, publishing, car dealerships and telecommunications.
The Mabrouks, a traditionally wealthy Tunisian family, one member of which, Marouane Mabrouk, married a Ben Ali daughter from a previous marriage, apart from having a big interest in the telecoms industry and a partnership with the French hypermarket Géant, have a large stake in Tunisia’s leading bank, the Banque Internationale Arabe de Tunisie (Biat).
During their 23 years’ reign, Ben Ali and his wife Leila had managed to bring under their control large areas of the Tunisian economy, manipulating the country’s political structures and using the state security apparatus to repress all opposition while they busied themselves with self-enrichment through theft, fraud, intimidation and such other dubious practices. And until very recently, everything appeared to by hunky-dory for both them and their imperialist backers.
Then, all of a sudden, as it were, events unfolded with the speed of an avalanche, as resistance to this thoroughly corrupt and brutally repressive regime burst through to the surface. No one – neither the regime nor its opponents, neither Tunisians nor foreigners – had the faintest idea that the seemingly impregnable regime of Ben Ali, which had stifled and repressed the Tunisian masses for a whole 23 years and ruled over them with a rod of iron, was so brittle and vulnerable.
The regime began to unravel on Friday 17 December 2010, when Mohammed Bouazizi, a young man from the village of Lsouda near the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire following the police refusal to let him sell fruit and vegetables without a permit and their confiscation of his stall.
The news of Bouazizi’s self-immolation quickly reached his neighbourhood, and the angry Bouzizis and their supporters descended on the prefecture. Hundreds of people thronged the streets during 18-20 December to vent their anger against unemployment and miserable economic conditions, while demanding the release of people arrested during the weekend protests. Mohammed’s suicide in protest against unemployment soon turned into a veritable revolt against exclusion, grinding poverty and the cost of living, as well as the Ben Ali regime’s shameless exploitation, corruption, injustice and tyranny.
Like wildfire, the news spread far and wide. Beginning with Sidi Bouzid, the revolt spread to all parts of the country in quick succession, since deprivation and tyranny, and the rage and indignation against them, were by no means confined to this town alone, being the common experience of Tunisian people the length and breadth of the country. By 27 December, the protests had spread to Tunis, the capital, where labour activists clashed with security forces.
Ben Ali’s regime attempted to crush the Tunisian people’s uprising through a mixture of disinformation and brutal repression, with the police firing on, and killing, demonstrators. This attempt at nipping the revolt in the bud and preventing its spread met with total failure, however. Its effect, on the contrary, was to give impetus to the rolling uprising and help it spread to all parts of the country, helping to turn what began as a protest against poverty and unemployment into a political movement for freedom and power through the overthrow of the Ben Ali clique.
On 27 December, Ben Ali made his first public statement since the beginning of the protests, saying that he “understood” the people’s anger, but adding that violence would not be tolerated. This barely veiled threat of violent suppression cowed no one, however, as was soon made clear by the determined response of the masses in continuing with their protests.
The slogans inscribed on the placards and banners the people carried were clear testimony to the awareness and understanding gained over the previous two decades of Ben Ali’s rule. Slogans such as ‘Work is a right, band of thieves’, ‘Hands off the country, corrupt band’, ‘Work, freedom, dignity’, ‘Down with the party of thieves’, and ‘Down with the torturers of the people’ were clear proof of the realisation by the masses that the regime by no means represented them. They understood that, on the contrary, it represented ‘a band of thieves’, a tiny handful of closely knit families, who had plundered the country, mortgaged parts of the economy to foreign capital, robbed the people of their liberty, subdued and humiliated them with the use of barbaric force and intimidation, and turned the country into a national prison and torture chamber for terrorising the people.
These slogans were expressive of the people’s aspirations for freedom, democracy and social justice – freedom from hunger, exploitation and tyranny – all of which could only be achieved through the overthrow, and on the ruins, of Ben Ali’s dictatorial regime, its constitution, laws and institutions, through a constituent assembly elected by the people in conditions of liberty and transparency.
Faced with the determined resistance of the masses, Ben Ali, the threatening bully of the early days of the revolt, quickly became a pale, quivering old man, pleading with the masses in his televised addresses to let him stay in the Carthage Palace a little longer – first for three years, then for just six months. Each time, the Tunisian masses thundered in response: ‘Not a day longer’.
On 12 January, in an effort to appease the masses, Ben Ali even sacked Rafik Belhaj Kacem, his much-hated interior minister, and called for the release of detained protesters, with his government promising to establish committees to inquire into corruption charges. But these belated actions and promises also proved futile.
In the end, having declared a state of emergency and dismissed his government, the 74-year-old executioner of the Tunisian people’s liberty, and his wife Leila, finally fled the country in the dead of night on 14 January, carrying with them £35m in gold. Having been denied entry into France, the pair found refuge in Saudi Arabia, while Ben Ali’s daughters sought sanctuary in Disneyland Paris hotels.
Imperialist support for Ben Ali
The Ben Ali dictatorship was an amalgam of internal suppression and imperialist support. For years, his imperialist backers armed him and gave him political support. He was portrayed as a guarantor of ‘stability’, a fighter against ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, and a fine student of the IMF. Tunisia under his rule was advertised as a shining example of ‘modernisation’.
With Ben Ali’s downfall, a model of stability that rests on wholesale repression, denial of the most basic liberties, heaps of corpses, and thousands of prisoners languishing in dungeons and torture chambers can no longer be openly defended and propagated. As a result, imperialist statesmen and media have changed their tune, almost giving the impression of supporting the Tunisian people’s uprising, partly to hide imperialism’s dirty role in providing succour to the Ben Ali dictatorship while blubbering about human rights and democracy, and partly in the hope of influencing future Tunisian developments in a direction favourable to imperialist interests. It is, therefore, worth remembering that imperialism and its institutions gave every possible help to the ousted Ben Ali regime.
Regarding Ben Ali as a bulwark against Islamism, the French government offered savoir faire (knowhow) to his security forces just three days before he fled, then performed a diplomatic volte face (about turn) by denying the fleeing dictator entry into France.
In 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, spoke of Ben Ali’s Tunisia in the following glowing terms: “Certainly not everything is perfect in Tunisia. Not everything is perfect in France either ... but ... what country can be proud of having advanced in half a century on the path of progress, on the path of tolerance, and on the path of reason?”
Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, spoke of the Tunisian “economic miracle” and praised its human rights record.
French governments – both conservative and ‘socialist’ (ie, social democratic) – gave consistent support to Ben Ali’s police-state regime.
Ben Ali was a star in Europe, admired for developing the country and maintaining stability in a volatile part of the world. The EU ignored concern for human rights and democratisation, enshrined in Article 2 of its trade agreement with Tunisia, which was the first to sign an association agreement with it.
This agreement, signed in 1995, was the product of the ‘Barcelona process’, aimed at enhancing cooperation with the countries of the southern Mediterranean. In the 14 years to 2009, Tunisia received €1.7bn in EU financial assistance and €2.8bn in loans from the European Investment Bank, aimed at encouraging ‘reform and modernisation’. During this period, the EU turned a blind eye to the Ben Ali police state and the corruption of his family, whose motto was “What is yours is mine”, in the language of the leaked US cables.
The US, for its part, appreciated Tunisian assistance in the fight against ‘terrorism’. David Welch, US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, spoke in these lyrical terms in praise of Ben Ali’s Tunisia in 2006: “Tunisia has much to be proud of, and we are honoured to have been a partner with this country for 50 years of achievement and development that is highlighted by the impressive economy and social structure of this nation.”
Also in 2006, Welch’s colleague Donald Rumsfeld, then US defence secretary, described Tunisia as a “successful” country, which had created an “environment that is hospitable to investment, enterprise and opportunity for their people”. (All quotations above cited in ‘France regrets misjudgement over Ben Ali’ by Roula Khalaf and Scheherazade Daneshkhu, Financial Times, 18 January 2011)
Translated into ordinary language, Rumsfeld’s words simply meant that as Tunisian authorities had crushed all labour and political opposition, as they had opened the Tunisian economy to imperialist exploitation and plunder, and as they had deregulated the labour market and suppressed political parties that might question all of this, Tunisia had become “safe” for investment and unhindered plunder by imperialism – and by its favourite Tunisian family, the Ben Alis.
As long as Ben Ali had created an environment “hospitable to investment”, it was a matter of small inconvenience that he was running a police state, and that his coterie of corrupt family members and close associates were amassing enormous amounts of wealth at the cost of the Tunisian people.
The recent history of Tunisia furnishes yet another proof of Lenin’s observation that imperialism strives for domination, not freedom. (V I Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1917)
As is to be expected, the World Bank (WB) and the IMF consistently applauded Tunisia, praising its “success” in alleviating poverty, its sound economic management and, unbelievably, its “good governance”, demonstration of the “rule of law” and its “control of corruption”. Even the Financial Times was belatedly obliged to observe that the 2010 World Bank Country brief on Tunisia “looks surreal today”.
It would be more accurate to say that it was always surreal; only the Financial Times, like the leaders and ideologues of the US and EU generally, as well as those of the IMF and the WB, chose to ignore Tunisian reality in the interests of imperialism’s never-ceasing chase after maximum profit and domination.
The first sentence of the World Bank brief states that “Tunisia has made remarkable progress on equitable growth, fighting poverty and achieving good social indicators.”
It goes on: “Tunisia has consistently scored above its income category and the Middle East and North Africa average on most dimensions of comparative governance rankings and development indexes ... Tunisia is far ahead in terms of government effectiveness, rule of law, control of corruption and regulatory quality.” (‘World Bank country brief’, 2010)
Tunisians have launched a Ben Ali “Wall of shame” group on Facebook, which includes, among others, a video clip of Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General, praising Ben Ali for a presidential initiative that declared last year as the ‘International year of youth’. This was at a time when unemployment among young Tunisian graduates topped 20 percent.
“A more striking example of ... decay of the entire European [and American] bourgeoisie”, observed Lenin, “can scarcely be cited than the support it is lending to reaction in Asia [and everywhere else] for the sake of the selfish aims of the financial manipulators and capitalist swindlers.” (‘Backward Europe and advanced Asia’, 18 May 1913)
The proletariat in Europe has a duty to join the Tunisian masses in exposing the decadence and hypocrisy of the statesmen and hired hacks of imperialism, who, in the service of the selfish aims of finance capital, lend support to reactionary, dictatorial, medieval and autocratic regimes the world over.
Attempt to steal the revolution
On 17 January, following the flight of Ben Ali, prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced the formation of the so-called new National Unity Government (NUG), promising political and economic reforms. That this new government was a ploy to continue the Ben Ali dictatorship without Ben Ali was evident from the fact that it was stuffed full of ministers from the old regime.
The announcement of the new government, containing eight ministers from the RCD and in which all the important portfolios, including that of defence, foreign affairs and finance, were allotted to the same persons who had held them under Ben Ali, shocked the Tunisian people, who, seeing through this attempt to steal the people’s revolution, vented their fury in vigorous demonstrations.
When the police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators protesting against the NUG, four ministers resigned from the new cabinet within a day of its formation. On 18 January, in a desperate bid to stop a total collapse, the interim prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, and president, Fouad Mebazaa (until recently the parliamentary speaker), both of them long-term loyal servants of Ben Ali and prominent members of the RCD, announced that they were resigning their membership of the RCD.
Following them, other RCD ministers serving in the NUG withdrew from the party, and the Central Committee of the RCD was dissolved. Although the RCD is being wound up and its prominent members are busy renouncing Ben Ali, these actions are meaningless if the same figures occupy positions of power in the new government.
The NUG has been forced by the masses to recognise all banned political parties, and to free all political prisoners. Tunisian television was obliged to host a live programme within hours of Ben Ali’s departure, and has since been staging phone-in programmes, with citizens expressing joy at the downfall and forced exile of Ben Ali and members of his much-despised family.
The authorities have arrested 33 members of Ben Ali’s family, with the state television announcing that they were suspected of “crimes against Tunisia” and showing footage of vast amounts of gold and jewellery found in their possession. The arrests came hours after the Swiss authorities announced that they were taking steps to freeze the bank accounts and assets of Ben Ali and his family. Tunisian lobby groups based in Paris have filed a complaint with the public prosecutor there and asked for the assets held by the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families to be frozen.
Tunisia’s state television has also stated that Ali Seriati, the head of the special presidential police force that protected Ben Ali, is to face charges for threatening national security and provoking “armed violence among Tunisians”, in a reference to the wave of attacks on property and shootings that terrorised Tunisians following Ben Ali’s departure for Saudi Arabia.
These attacks were the work of Seriati’s force, which was intent upon causing chaos. Its actions prompted young Tunisians, armed with knives, sticks and metal bars, to form defence committees and take upon themselves the protection of their neighbourhoods.
In an even more dramatic development, Tunisia’s once-dreaded police, who put into effect the repressive policies of Ben Ali, joined forces with the protesters on Saturday 22 January as they marched through the streets of the capital. Some non-uniformed officers, who wore red armbands to distinguish themselves from civilians, led a protest on Saturday and called for the creation of a police union and greater rights and pay.
The Tunisian government has issued an international warrant for the arrest of Ben Ali, accusing him of taking money out of the country illegally, and has asked Interpol, the French-based international police organisation, to arrest him and his wife and bring them back to Tunisia. The couple are also being charged with illegally acquiring real estate and other assets.
Such has been the extent of the revolt that 11,029 prisoners, about a third of the prison population of Tunisia, were able to escape their jails in the conditions created by the uprising.
Despite these welcome developments, the Tunisian masses are rightfully sceptical, that the actions of the new government and the discourse of the mass media is merely aimed at absorbing, and assuaging, the public anger of the people. In the words of Mutaa al-Waer, a student: “It [the media discourse] focuses on Ben Ali and his wife Leila, as if now that they are gone, all the problems have departed with them. The same people are in office and the same institutions are in control” (Quoted in ‘Media enjoy their new-found freedom’ by Heba Saleh, Financial Times, 19 January 2011)
Following the downfall of Ben Ali, angry masses have ransacked and torched properties belonging to Ben Ali, his wife, and their cronies. As members of the Trabelsi family fled the country over the weekend of 15-16 January, angry crowds moved into their homes, stripping away all furniture and fittings and setting fire to debris-filled interiors.
On Saturday 15 January, in the upmarket district of La Marsa, on the outskirts of Tunis, neighbours entered the house of Imed Trabelsi, Leila Ben Ali’s favourite nephew, surveying the charred remains and taking pictures. Current reports vary over whether Imed died in hospital of knife wounds or has managed to flee the country with his skin still intact.
“All this was bought with our money, with the money and blood of the Tunisian people,” said Samira, a health worker, adding “whoever comes next, for sure, will not steal as much as they did”. (Quoted in ‘Looters strip homes of Ben Ali’s relatives’ by Roula Khalaf and Heba Saleh, Financial Times, 17 January 2011)
The masses have targeted their wrath on the symbols of corruption – businesses owned by Ben Ali and Leila’s family, and by their close associates. On Saturday 17 January, the Géant store just outside of Tunis was pillaged and torched. Meanwhile, the main road into the town of Kasserine bears scars from the revolt of the people sweeping the country, with a large furniture store and the petrol station burnt and looted, the front windows of bank branches smashed, and government buildings and RCD offices torched.
The task ahead
Having overthrown Ben Ali, the Tunisian people have only partly realised their aspirations for genuine freedom and reform. The despot has gone, but the huge despotic state machine, which has grown monstrously since the country gained independence from French colonial in 1956, rule is still intact.
This apparatus of repression, whose foundations were laid by Habib Bourguiba, were perfected by Ben Ali, the general who inherited it. Smashing this monstrous machinery of repression will not be accomplished easily, but accomplished it must be if the Tunisian people are not to emerge empty-handed from their revolutionary struggle. This is the most urgent task facing them today.
Tunisia, though a small country with a population of only 10 million and few resources, is better placed than many an Arab country to complete a successful democratic revolution. Its people are largely urbanised and, compared with its neighbours, are highly educated.
Since Ben Ali was ousted, two opposing camps have emerged. The first of these aims at continuing the old regime under a new façade – basically recycling Ben Ali’s hated regime with a few cosmetic changes. This is the strategy of Ghannouchi’s NUG, whose interim government does not include any of the real forces representing the Tunisian people – communists, socialists, Islamists and liberals.
By including so many loathed figures from the RCD, the NUG gives the impression that it is oblivious to the revolutionary movement in the streets of towns and cities up and down the country. Ben Ali’s security apparatus is still in place, and the NUG is obviously intent on continuing the old order and stealing the revolution of the people with a few democratic-sounding phrases and a modicum of tinkering to the existing institutions.
Opposed to Ghannouchi’s strategy is the plan of the opposition to smash the legacy of Ben Ali and all the institutions of his regime, including the security apparatus and the RCD, and on its ruins build a truly democratic state.
This is the plan that is being striven for by, among others, the Communist Party of the Workers of Tunisia (PCOT), led by Hamma al-Hammami. In its striving to guarantee the victory of the revolution against internal and external enemies, who are attempting to deprive the Tunisian people of the fruits of the revolution, PCOT has initiated the formation of the 14th January Front, composed of several political parties and progressive and democratic organisations.
This front has set itself, among others, the following tasks:
• The bringing down of Ghannouchi’s NUG, or any government that includes figures from the erstwhile regime.
• The dissolution of the RCD and the confiscation of its assets.
• The dissolution of the House of Representatives, the Advisors’ Council and the Higher Council of the Judiciary, and the dismantlement of the political structure of the former regime.
• The trials of those who have been guilty of repression, imprisonment, torture and killings, as well as of those who have looted the people’s wealth.
• The confiscation of the property of the former ruling family, their close associates and officials who abused their position to amass wealth at the expense of the masses.
• The provision of employment, social benefits and medical services for all, as well as measures to increase the purchasing power of the masses.
• The construction of the national economy in a way which serves the interests of the masses, and the renationalisation of all those enterprises that were privatised by the previous regime to comply with the IMF’s neo-liberal agenda.
• The guaranteeing of basic liberties, such as the freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of belief, and freedom of the press.
• Opposition to normalisation of relations with the zionist state of Israel and support for all the national-liberation movements in the Arab lands and the wider world.
• Preparation for the election of a constituent assembly within a period of one year, the enactment of a new democratic constitution and the institution of a legal system that will regulate public life and ensure the political, economic and cultural rights of the people.
The reverberations of the Tunisian revolution are sweeping across the entire Arab world – from large cities to tiny hamlets and villages. A sense of euphoria is felt by the masses, for this is the first time in an Arab country that a despotic ruler has been overthrown by the popular masses without foreign intervention or a coup d’état.
While the Tunisian events have brought joy to the Arab street, they have stunned their reactionary rulers and brought them face to face with their worst nightmare. They are petrified at the thought of the Tunisian disease infecting their subjects.
Arabs under the age of 30 years comprise nearly 65 percent of the entire population of the 22 Arab countries. The convergence of the Arab youth bulge with economic deprivation and brutal exploitation across the region, with shared humiliation at the hands of imperialism and its zionist stooges, as well as at the hands of autocratic and repressive regimes, have combined with the introduction of modern communications, including the internet, and particularly social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, to become an explosive and potent mix, which threatens the rule of the reactionary Arab autocracies and dictatorships.
In Tunisia, Twitter provided second-by-second updates of events on the ground and acted as a medium of agitation and organisation. Facebook is enormously popular in Tunisia and was a major instrument for organising protests and uploading videos. Al-Jazeera, the popular Arab television channel, broadcast powerful images of the unrest and police brutality to millions of people who are not on Facebook and have never heard of Twitter. This combination of new and old media has shaken the Arab world to its foundations.
The rulers of Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and Saudi Arabia must be shaking in their shoes, for once the fear is gone, the machinery of state repression is powerless in the face of mass fury. The Tunisian revolution has knocked the stuffing out of the assumption about the durability of the middle-eastern rulers.
Equally, the modern Arab security state – so beloved of US and European imperialism for over half a century – has been punctured and deflated in Tunisia by the power of its own people. Similar events are bound to overwhelm the rest of the Arab world.
The Tunisian events have served to shatter two long-standing myths about the Arab world. First, that the power of the people is irrelevant to any change in the region. Second, that young Arabs will put up with autocratic rule and colossal corruption provided they are financially looked after. Tunisia’s revolution, though sparked by anger at unemployment, gained its momentum from the stifling of all opposition and freedom of expression, and from anger at the greed of the Ben Alis and Trabesis. The old assumptions, according to which economic development hand-in-hand with a powerful security apparatus could guarantee the safety of the rulers, has been seriously undermined.
Foreign banks released research in the third week of January that portrays the changing perceptions of the Arab world. The powerful Citigroup characterised Tunisia’s uprising as a wake-up call for investors and a “game-changing event”. In a report it said: “The Jasmine revolution ... could be the match that starts a slow-burning fire of change.” (See ‘Tunisia’s ‘air of liberty’ wafts through Mideast’ by Roula Khalaf and Heba Saleh, Financial Times, 21 January 2011)
Indeed, following demonstrations in Cairo and other cities, investors’ concerns have pushed down the Egyptian stock market to its lowest point since November of last year. It plummeted by a massive 10 percent on Thursday 27 January alone.
After the Tunisian uprising, everything is possible; things will never be the same again. The events in Tunisia have clearly resonated in several other Arab countries, where people are similarly frustrated and have been made equally desperate by grinding poverty, unemployment, corruption and state brutality. There have been copycat acts of self-immolation in Mauritania, Algeria and Egypt. Huge demonstrations are lighting the powder kegs of Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and Mauritania.
On Tuesday 25 January, inspired by the Tunisian revolution, tens of thousands of protestors seized control of parts of Cairo as mass protests broke out in Alexandria, the Nile Delta cities of Mansura and Tanta, the southern cities of Aswan and Assuit, and the rural Nile village of Mahalla, a centre of political and labour activism.
The government employed 30,000 riot police, who used tear gas, water cannon, batons and live ammunition to disperse demonstrators. However, the protestors took control of central Tahrir Square, close to parliament, threw stones at the police, chased them down streets and, in one case, commandeered an armoured vehicle.
In these protests, hailed as a national ‘Day of Rage’, the main demand of the demonstrators was an end to the nearly 30-year-old corrupt and autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak, who has presided over an Egypt that does the bidding of US imperialism while most of its people live in dire poverty. As we go to press, these protests are continuing, and, although the regime initially tried to ban the demonstrations, the latest news from Cairo is that Hosni Mubarak has performed a u-turn and announced his intention to hold discussions with the demonstrators,
Meanwhile, on Thursday 27 January, tens of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets of Sanaa (the country’s capital) to demand a change of government there too. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of 30 years’ standing, has been another faithful servant to US imperialism while half of Yemen’s 23 million people have to try and live on $2 a day. A third of Yemenis suffer from chronic hunger. Given the above bare facts, it is hardly surprising that a rival ‘demonstration’ organised as a face-saving measure by the government attracted just a few hundred people.
All over the Arab world, nervous rulers have hurried in with financial handouts in a bid to stave off the Tunisian malaise. Kuwait, for example, has given each of its citizens a $3,500 grant and free food staples. They are, however, bound to discover that the demands for change go far beyond the calls for economic betterment. The people are demonstrating that they will tolerate corrupt, arrogant and autocratic rulers no more; and no repressive state machine has the power to control the people’s fury once it is unleashed. This is the lesson of Tunisia.
In the light of the foregoing, it is clear that the Tunisian revolution is destined to serve as a harbinger of a wider Arab revolt against despotic, feudal, repressive and autocratic regimes and their US and European imperialist masters.
Victory to the intifada!
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