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– Why France intervened in Mali and why it can only be bad for the Malian people
– Tunisia at an impasse
Why France intervened in Mali and why it can only be bad for the Malian people
13 February 2013. A World to Win News Service. The French military intervention in Mali – taking the North of the country in a firestorm of imperialist arrogance and air power – has the French rulers and press gloating about easy victories and the apparent support of much of the Malian population and a majority of French too, arguing “There’s no other solution”. A small demonstration of Malians in the southern capital city of Bamako disputed this charade of “liberation” with hand-printed signs reading, “Down with imperialist interests, down with ECOWAS”.
This crisis in Mali reveals a maelstrom of contradictions in the entire region of West and North Africa known as the Sahel-Sahara that no imperialist army or state will even begin to solve. In fact their role is certain to accelerate the contradictions that have spun into a war and a multi-national occupation of Mali spearheaded by French imperialism. It is the imperialists who are largely responsible for the impoverished, very short and crushed lives most Malians lead.
The immediate war was triggered by the descent from the North of an alliance of armed Islamic forces who had seized control of the key northern cities last spring. In early January 2013 they advanced right up to the doorstep of the southern region where Mali’s central state is headquartred, 90 percent of the population live and most of its resources are to be found. Yet the crisis is long in the making, with French colonial and imperialist footprints, along with those of many others, all over it.
Last March 2012, just before national elections, junior army officers, some trained and equipped by the U.S., staged a coup d’etat and ousted Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré, allegedly because he hadn’t taken a strong enough stand against the most recent rebellion by the Tuareg minority in January 2012. Within a short time, the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), reinforced by a large number of defections from the Malian army itself, including some Tuareg officers, declared the North to be independent, under the name of Azawad. Touré fled to Senegal.
A friend of Muammar Gaddafi who supported the Libyan government and opposed France’s intervention there, Touré claims to have warned NATO that overthrowing Gaddafi would have destabilising effects in the region. The interim government that replaced Touré in Bamako has little legitimacy among the population. The national army, quickly overrun by the offensive in the North, was left weakened, dysfunctional and divided, just like the rest of the Malian state.
The French plan to intervene was already in preparation, but was speeded up when the jihadists descended towards the southern cities of Mali in a stream of 300 pick-up trucks. The French government had got a UN Security Council resolution passed in December 2012 to allow military intervention primarily by West African ECOWAS soldiers (Economic Community of West African States) that France would command and train. The neighbouring countries Niger, Burkina Faso and Nigeria were dragging their boots until the terms of financing this all-African ground force-for hire were spelled out. At the 29 January 2013 meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa, a first sum of USD 470 million was raised, mainly by imperialist powers.
The French enlisted the help of these West African troops under the guise of Africans “settling their own affairs” in order to “peacefully [!] restore the territorial integrity of Mali”. This meant, at least for public opinion’s sake, driving out the Islamist jihadists from northern Mali who reportedly had cast aside the Tuareg-based MNLA and imposed their authority. The French imperialists also clearly aim to prepare the ground for a reinforced central state apparatus in Mali, in line with strengthening French interests in its historical zone of influence. The alternative press in France is calling out Francois Hollande for his hypocrisy, since less than a year ago, during his successful campaign for the French presidency, he was heard insisting on an end to “FrancAfrique” (France’s privileged relationship with its former West African colonies and interference in their affairs).
Thus with U.S. and British intelligence and logistical support and the Algerian government’s agreement to let France use its airspace, the French moved into northern Mali on 11 January. In what they said was an act of retaliation, jihadist forces attacked a British Petroleum gas production site in southern Algeria, taking some 40 foreign hostages. The Algerian government wasted no time negotiating and brutally ended the operation in its southern desert, bombing the jeeps with hostages on board retreating to Libya and killing some 70 people. Many believe Algeria, which has the largest army in North Africa, is pursuing regional interests of its own.
On 11 February 2013, while French and Malian troops with some West African soldiers’ assistance had taken control of the northern cities – mostly through air superiority and little on the ground fighting – Islamic Mujao forces re-entered the city of Gao via boats on the Niger River and attacked the police station. The fighting lasted a few hours, backed by French airpower and, significantly, involved suicide bombers for the first time. French and Malian troops have moved into the mountainous areas in the eastern province of Kidal, to where it was assumed the Islamic forces would retreat. Much of the debate around the world has focused on the new “Sahel-istan”– in other words, the potential “bogging down”of the French army in Mali, with Hollande revising the schedule of French troop withdrawal on nearly a daily basis. Sound familiar?
Neo-colonial dependence governed by weak state
Mali – a large country sitting geographically at the heart of the French West African colonial empire and one of the world’s poorest – became formally independent from France in 1960 but has continued a dependent (if sometimes strained) relationship since that time, its economy straightjacketed by imperialist domination and international financial institutions. After independence the pro-Soviet “socialist-leaning” Modibo Keita took power. He was a close ally of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea’s Sekou Touré, with ties to Cuba and China, and the Algerian and other liberation movements in Africa. Keita was overthrown in 1968 and replaced by a more imperialist-compliant regime in the first of several military coups d’etat over the past 45 years, reflecting the weakness and instability of the Malian state. A multi-party constitution was adopted only in 1992, after student-led rioting against the government, and a Tuareg revolt had been brutally repressed in 1991 by Touré’s predecessor.
For the Malian people it’s been a story of overwhelming poverty rooted in neo-colonial relations of domination and dependence under the watch of client governments and the IMF. This has kept the development of the country’s productive forces at a very low level. Mali’s immense territory straddles the Saharan Desert in the North and Sahel grasslands in the South, and is divided by the Niger River Valley. Only 4 percent of the land is arable but 80 percent of the people are involved in agriculture, either growing crops or animal herding and fishing.
One feature of French colonialism was the cash crop policy of monocultures – peanuts in Senegal for example, and in Mali, cotton for France’s own textile needs. So instead of varied food crops for mainly local needs, peasant farmers are contracted to grow cotton even more cotton, in an effort to boost national export earnings, but in the process becoming chained to foreign distributors and volatile imperialist markets like so many countries in Africa and the third world. When world market prices for cotton crashed starting in the late 1990s, caused partly by subsidized dumping of cheaper European and American cotton, Malian farmers were the ones to suffer, and national debts mounted.
In the 1990s under IMF structural readjustment plans, Mali was assigned to the category of Highly Indebted Poor Countries, which after six years of belt tightening supposedly in exchange for debt relief – but in reality to cut the rich countries’ losses – ended up with even higher debt service payments than before. The 2006 independent film Bamako by Abderrahmane Sissako stages a mock courtyard trial of the IMF, World Bank and Western interests, showing the devastating effects of structural adjustment on Mali. (http://artthreat.net/2007/04/bamako-film-puts-the-world-bank-on-trial-and-wins/).
A relatively small bourgeoisie in and around the state has grown wealthy from gold mine profits in the eastern part of the country (although 80 percent are siphoned off, mainly by South African and Canadian multinationals, Mali is Africa’s third largest gold producer). They also benefit from the extensive donor aid and skim off profits from the vast networks trafficking drugs and other commodities. Yet the state itself has carried out very little infrastructural and other development in either the North or the South and has never had much support from the population. Of the some 15,000 kilometres of roads, less than 2,000 km are paved, for example. Healthcare is abysmal and life expectancy only 49 years (with only 2 percent living past the age of 65).
In the main, the tiny educated elite travel to Dakar, Abidjan or Paris for their studies and few new schools have been built over the decades, resulting in an astonishingly low literacy rate, especially among women. Less than 30 percent of the population vote in national elections. Keeping the masses illiterate and ignorant is partly a political strategy too, scholars argue: the state fears the rise of politically astute students and educated strata that are more likely to expose and challenge it.
So while many Malians at first welcomed the “rescue”by French forces from the reactionary and intolerable exactions, amputations and suppressions of basic freedoms under jihadist rule in the northern cities, it is important to understand the heavy hand of imperialism in Mali’s highly distorted economic development that has been long opposed and exposed by revolutionary and nationalist political movements against the regime and in the region.
Ethnic groups, the national question and Islam
The Tuareg minority, related to the Berbers of North Africa’s coastal mountains, is itself composed of several different tribal groupings. Together with people of Arab origin, Tuaregs are estimated to make up 10 percent of the 15 million total population and live primarily in the North. Since 1960 Tuaregs have led four separate rebellions against the central Malian government and its neglect of the northern region, centred around the demand for autonomy there. Mostly nomadic herders, they are spread across a more or less contiguous area in several countries – Algeria, Libya and Niger as well as Mali.
With significant investments in Mali and ties to both the Malian state and the movement for autonomy in the North, Gaddafi had also incorporated Tuaregs into the Libyan army. Thus after the imperialists invaded, led by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Mirage jets in March 2011, and Gaddafi’s government eventually collapsed, Tuaregs seized modern Libyan weapons and headed for northern Mali, according to numerous reports. Although this is likely only one reason for the plentiful supply of guns and equipment in Mali, it begins to explain why the poorly organized Malian army was easily defeated when the Tuareg movement took over northern cities and declared Azawad independent.
Then also heavily-armed and well-equipped jihadist forces, organized into groups such as Ansar-al-Dine, Mujao and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), took over militarily as the MNLA pulled back and reportedly offered to negotiate. The French maintain they are bombing only the jihadist groups (with numerous civilian casualties) and many within French political circles are arguing for talks with the MNLA, while others say they are only a political cover for the jihadists who settled in the main town of Timbuktu as well as Gao and others along the Niger River. Competing heads of clans still figure heavily in the social structures of the northern territory and are said to be another factor in what appears to be constant reshaping of alliances and splits between Islamic armed groups. Local residents apparently told reporters that the armed group who invaded and took over Konna last April 2012 was composed of lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs as well as blacks speaking several different languages from Mali and from the neighbouring countries of Niger and Nigeria. According to press accounts, Canadian and French citizens also were involved in the militias.
As soon as the French launched their air strikes in mid-January, driving the Islamic forces further into the desert areas, some emboldened Malian army soldiers carried out retaliatory acts against people they suspected of supporting the Islamists (perhaps this was not unrelated to the army’s having been routed by them a year ago). This helped fuel press reports that ethnic conflicts were behind the war. In addition, local residents furiously targeted mainly Arab businesses, many run by merchants from neighbouring Mauritania with a long history in Mali. When these stores were ransacked, large caches of ammunition where found in some of them that merchants had either stocked willingly or under pressure for the Islamic forces. This increased suspicion that Arab merchants had supported the Islamists during the 10-month occupation.
In fact imperialist meddling does stir up the possibilities for these divisions to take nasty forms among the people. The African Arab slave trade predating colonisation also left its mark on ethnic divisions between North and South. Many Malians are quick to say that they have lived for centuries with numerous different and languages and tribal groupings, mostly black-skinned, but also mixed (Peul) and lighter skinned peoples, and that these ethnic differences are not the main factor driving this crisis as the media has sometimes implied.
Ninety percent of the Malian people are Sunni Moslems, the remaining 10 percent mostly animist. Thus much of the local population in the northern cities initially did not see a strong distinction between themselves and the Islamists, and did not put up much resistance to them. However, reports say most people quickly turned against the fundamentalists who made life miserable for them by banning radio and television (including televised football events!), beating women, cutting off hands for “blasphemy” or “loose moral behaviour”, and carrying out executions under the new and much harsher version of Islamic law they rapidly imposed on the population.
In the process of the foreign grab for Africa’s land, resources and zones of influence that has also benefited small parasitic ruling classes and elites, imperialist relations of domination and organised dependence become mixed with remaining pre-capitalist social relations. In Mali, this includes a not-so-distant past of slavery, not legally abolished until 1905. Scholars describe a caste-like system in which some tribal/ethnic groups were vassals (often referred to as slaves) of others, including among the Tuaregs. There are reports that the current war has also created the social terrain for “masters” in the North to recuperate their former vassals, or their children, still recognised as belonging to inferior castes, thus stirring up further resentment.
Under Islam, the traditional social code of polygamy and child marriages as well as female genital mutilation represents a huge oppressive burden on Malian women. On top of this, when Islamic fundamentalists occupied the northern cities they began flogging women in public for not fully covering themselves with the newly-imposed veil, reportedly whether they were young girls, grandmothers or pregnant mothers. Suddenly women were not even allowed to talk to their own brothers in public.
Scholars argue that the Islamisation of the Malian state has in fact already been well underway for some time and that Moslem law in the form of shariah is already mixed in practice with “modern jurisprudence”. The absence of the state from the daily lives of most of the population, heightened by the 2012 coup d’etat, created a vacuum that “moderate” Islamic forces in the High Islamic Council have stepped into more vigorously, both providing services to the people and taking up a cabinet post in the government. The New York Times reports that they oppose the jihadists and have already played an important political role for the Malian government by negotiating the multimillion-euro ransoms paid for the release of hostages taken in the North by AQMI over the past decade.
Trafficking hub with state complicity fuels parasitism, warlords, and jihadis
In a word, the North is awash in money and guns, but has no paved roads or electricity. In addition to not developing the region, the deposed central government in Bamako is accused of tolerating organized criminal trafficking networks, from which it profited nicely. Customs officials are apparently generously compensated or rare in the porous border area that Mali shares with Mauritania, Algeria and Niger and some Bamako bureaucrats are said to have become rich on sources other than government salaries.
Centuries-old trading routes have become conduits for cigarettes, drugs and other forms of trafficking in the northern region, at the vortex of the southern Algerian and Libyan Sahara, Niger and west from Mauritania. In addition to cocaine, Moroccan cannabis resin and a significant amount of ransom “business” through hostage-taking in the past several years, trade has expanded into guns, through the changing political situation in North Africa. The control of smuggling also appears to be intertwined in the Tuareg political rebellions. At stake are large profits both from trafficking and from taxes numerous networks controlling the routes impose on each other as goods are moved through the region. To try to maintain its authority and keep control over the north, in 2006 the Malian government utilised these rivalries by pitting one group of Tuareg rebels against others.
Geopolitical stakes being played out in Mali
Mali shares borders with seven West and North African countries, all former French colonies and the dynamics of the conflict are clearly regional in nature. Stretching from Senegal on the western coast across the Sahel to Sudan and Chad, Islam is historically the main religion, and most countries have radicalised Islamic movements.
Whatever France’s stated immediate aim and belligerent means of achieving it, clearly France has been accelerating its efforts to shore up its influence in the Sahara-Sahel. Contrary to its image after refusing to join the war against Iraq initiated by former president G.W. Bush, the French state has not been idle militarily. Far from it. Sarkozky dispatched troops to Afghanistan and into the conflict in Ivory Coast, and recently special forces into Somalia. Deploying 2,000 Chadian mercenary soldiers in Mali’s North, who are not part of ECOWAS but have plenty of experience in previous conflicts in Central African Republic on France’s behalf, also figures into its strategic plans, experts point out. Despite the talk of ending “Francafrique”, the business daily Les Echos wrote that in Mali the stakes for France are its future presence in Africa.
A new political order and the role of the imperialist powers within it are being fought out and recast in the region. The crumbling of the old order of post-independence states in the Sahel-Sahara has been accelerated by the mass uprisings against the U.S.’s Mubarak in Egypt and France’s Ben Ali in Tunisia. There is also the instability and opening that Gaddafi’s fall in Libya created, together with other armed conflicts in the Sahel, notably Sudan. And the antagonism between Western imperialism and the political Islam shaping many developments in the Middle East is influencing the internal dynamics and struggle over this recasting of political configurations in West and North Africa as well.
Algeria, also a French colony until France lost a bitter war of independence, is considered by many a key player in the machinations behind the crisis in Mali. In worrying that France may finds itself bogged down in Mali like the U.S. in Afghanistan, Le Monde writes that it must rely on the Algerian army. At the same time Algeria’s links with the U.S. have grown steadily stronger in the “fight against terrorism” since the 1990s when the Algerian army carried out massacres of both civilians and armed jihadists following the Islamist electoral victory. This has included significant provisions of arms.
The U.S. is increasingly a major player in this geopolitical recasting of the region, through active intelligence bases in several countries, training soldiers and solidifying ties with the leadership of a number of West African armed forces. The US-Africa command, or Africom, was set up under George W. Bush in 2008 expressly for the purpose of monitoring Islamist forces and preventing their implantation in a West African state where they could find a haven. According to Rudoph Atallah, former U.S. director of counter terrorism for Africa, the Sahel is a “destabilized region with ethnic conflict that if not dealt with quickly many disgruntled groups will be recruited by Al Qaida”. He said that military intervention is one approach the U.S. is considering in Mali, while assisting France and helping to pay the bill. US drones are already flying in Malian skies. In fact it appears that the imperialists are actively destabilising the region for an outcome more to their liking, sometimes cooperating and sometimes acting on their own. Already huge camps of Malian refugees fleeing the fighting sprawl along the borders and are causing tensions with neighbouring states.
Economic interests and particularly exploring new energy sources also underpin the scramble to reshape states and political configurations in the Sahel. France is heavily dependent upon uranium deposits in Niger for its nuclear power. Several imperialist countries, together with Algeria, Qatar and China (a rising aggressive presence throughout Africa) have their eye on the untapped gas fields, oil and uranium deposits apparently lying under the northern desert sands in Mali. China recently constructed a third bridge in Bamako and in many African countries it has combined commercial penetration with infrastructure development.
For the people of Mali nothing good can come out of French imperialist military intervention, with or without West African or UN troops to project a different image, or out of religious rule. In fact, imperialist domination has provided the conditions for obscurantism to persist and grow in new forms. Both imperialism and Islamic rule maintain the Malian people in a position of continued subordination to dominant interests and the whole ensemble of economic and social relations they need to break out of to build a radically different society.
Tunisia at an impasse
12 February 2013. A World to Win News Service. By Samuel Albert. The murder of the opposition leader Chokri Belaid has brought Tunisia to the sharpest crisis since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was kicked out in January 2011.
The country had not seen this kind of cold-blooded assassination of a prominent politician for many decades, perhaps not since independence from France in 1956. People overflowed Bourguiba avenue in Tunis and the streets of other cities on the day of Belaid’s funeral, 8 February, demanding the resignation of the current government led by the Islamist Ennahda party along with two smaller parties often described as “centre-left”. They chanted the slogans that were so radical two years ago, especially “The people want the fall of the regime”, and updated that movement’s signature demand with “Ennahda dégage” (Ennahda get out”).
But today is much more complex than back then, and this cannot be a replay of those days.
One reason is that the idea that elections could serve as a neutral instrument used by the people to impose their will is not just an illusion about the future, as it was before, but a major weapon in the hands of the Islamists. While Ennahda won only about 40 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections in October 2011, it is indisputably the biggest party and has the right, within the bounds of the law that the opposition swears by, to lead a government. Thus Ennahda can smear its opponents as “undemocratic” even as it also utilizes illegal violence against its opponents, who are left calling for police and government protection that they never get.
The real issue is not who can get the most votes but who will have power and what kind of society Tunisia is going to be. Ennahda seems to grasp this better than most of the secular opposition. Rached Gannouchi, the party’s leader, has spent much of the last two years giving reassuring interviews asserting that he has changed since the 1990s when he was aligned with Algeria’s bloodthirsty armed fundamentalists, and has come to see the need for “tolerance” and something less than a fully religious regime. Meanwhile, Islamist militias, including the League for the Protection of the Revolution, have been attacking all sorts of manifestations of ideas they consider contrary to Islam. The Ennahda government sometimes condemns these attacks, but has failed to move against the militias. Instead, in some cases it has punished the victims. In fact, many people call the League Ennahda’s armed wing, although in the streets it’s hard to tell Ennahda followers from the avowedly fundamentalist Salafists.
For instance, a mob attacked the home of the head of the TV channel that broadcast the film Persepolis, which was then banned. Islamists also attacked the contemporary art festival Tunis Spring, assaulting people and destroying artworks. The government responded by issuing a complaint against the exhibition’s organizers for insulting religious values. Recent attacks on meetings of women’s organizations were prefigured even before Ennahda came to govern, when Islamists attacked an 8 March 2011 women’s demonstration. Few, even in parties that call themselves leftists, cared to consider this a red line, and it went unpunished. Salafist imams who openly issue calls for the killing of opposition leaders have been left undisturbed in their mosques.
The extremely widespread idea that Ennahda is at least indirectly responsible, if not directly implicated in Belaid’s assassination is given credence by two facts. One is that a few days before he died, Belaid publicly warned that Ennahda was out to kill him. The other is that the Ennahda leading committee had just issued a demand for the release of two militiamen arrested for the beating death of another opposition leader, Lofti Naguedh, in the town of Tataouine, in the Tunisian interior, last October. At a time when people are filling the streets as never before since two years ago to demand the dissolution of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, Tunisia’s president Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights activist and supposedly leading secularist, warned against jumping to conclusions as to who was responsible for Belaid’s murder and called for unity among all Tunisians.
The opposition demanded that the government dissolve itself and call new elections. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, an Ennahda leader given his position by that party, responded by offering to reshuffle his cabinet and replace his ministers with non-party “technocrats” pending parliamentary elections. (This would include the Justice and Interior ministries held by Ennahda – but not his own resignation.) For many people, including opposition parties, this was “too little too late” and a form of protecting Ennahda. Other Ennahda leaders, including Ganouchi, refused to accept such a move and demanded that nothing change. President Moncef’s party first announced it would leave the government, then that it would stay. So did the other liberal party in the government, Ettakatol, implicitly arguing out the the only choice is continuing the coalition government with Ennahda or leaving Ennahda in charge by itself. The opposition found itself with little counterargument.
Another factor complicating the situation is that whereas Ben Ali, despite his real mass base, was unable to bring his supporters into the streets to prevent his downfall, that is not the case for Ennahda. On 9 February, it brought some thousands of people out in Tunis in support of the government. While their numbers were dwarfed by the anti-Islamist demonstration the day before, still the Islamists are on the offensive and not afraid of a showdown. They are not about to flee the country like Ben Ali and his clique.
The pro-Ennahda march brought out another extremely important factor: the Islamists are getting a chance to present themselves as the real Tunisian patriots. This is despite the fact that their programme and goals have nothing to do with the country’s liberation from its present status as an outsourcing subcontractor for French capital and a pool of cheap manual and intellectual labour. What they seek is an Islamized society that would maintain the existing oppressive and exploitative economic relations between Tunisia and Western capital, and the existing economic and social relations among Tunisians themselves, including between the exploiters and exploited and, most unashamedly, men and women.
But the liberals inside and outside the current government and the “left” parties united in the Popular Front (led by the murdered Belaid and others) have no real programme for a transformation of Tunisia either. Many are open in their hope that French and other Western imperialist investment (and tourism) will provide the way out of Tunisia’s disastrous economic situation.
Further, the Islamists were able to point out that the top leadership of the UGTT, the Tunisian trade union federation that called a general strike for the day of Choukri’s funeral, had not called for action against Ben Ali until hours before he fled the country, and seemed to have some sort of tacit understanding with the old regime. (Although it is also true that local UGTT sections and the political activists who work through the unions played an important role in toppling Ben Ali.)
Worst of all, it was the Islamists and not the Popular Front who raised the slogan “France dégage”, pointing to what they called French interference in Tunisian affairs. French President Francois Hollande praised Belaid’s “courageous voice”. His Interior Minister Manuel Valls strongly condemned Belaid’s murder and warned against the rise of “Islamic fascism”. This label seems to be meant to designate political trends that go against French interests. France has never used such language against pro-West fundamentalist rule in places like Saudi Arabia, and all previous French governments, both rightist and “socialist” like today’s, were quite comfortable with Ben Ali’s pro-French regime, which imprisoned Belaid and many others.
This supreme hypocrisy needed to be exposed and ridiculed. But it was the Islamists and not the “left” who, in response, carried signs reading, “Attention, Tunisia is not Mali.” The fact that it is the Islamists who are waving the banner of opposition to French neocolonialism is a truly terrible situation that reveals the bankruptcy of the liberals and “left” and may further strengthen the religious fundamentalists.
There is unquestionably an extremely strong current of opposition to Islamic rule, but what is being posed as the alternative? What can and should people fight for? The popular movement toppled Ben Ali, and later a series of sit-ins and other militant protests brought down governments that would have basically been a continuation of that regime, but now both the Islamists (Ennahda and the Salafists, who often overlap) and centre and left political parties claim to represent that “revolution” that in fact opened the doors of government to all of them.
The opposition’s call for new elections (scheduled for March anyway) and a new constituent assembly to replace the presently deadlocked body charged with writing a constitution is basically a call for a continuation of the status quo. They have no real change to propose, only an appeal to people’s righteous opposition to the change the Islamists offer: a society based on the violent enforcement of Islamic law and morality.
One of the great achievements of the movement that toppled Ben Ali was the unleashing of debate and discussion over major political and social issues at all levels of society. Many of the kinds of people who are not encouraged to speak in any exploitation-based society have been demanding to be heard. Political activists, intellectuals and all sorts of ordinary people are absolutely right to fear being told to shut up in the name of Islam, just as they were under the so-called secularist Ben Ali. But freedom of speech and even the most wonderful social ferment is not enough to change society by itself. There has to be a concrete vision of a real alternative that can begin to break through the unfavourable terms of today’s Islamist/liberal debate and become a material force among the people.
In objective terms, there are very favourable factors for revolution as well as difficulties. The fault lines that made themselves felt in late 2010 and 2011 run as deep or deeper than ever before. One is the fact that Tunisia’s place in the international “division of labour” dictated by imperialist capital and profitability has created an enormous chasm between the coastal cities and those of the interior, which have been left to rot in economic stagnation and hopelessness. Youth in Sidi Bouzid, the town where the self-immolation of the young street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi on 10 December 2010 set off the movement that brought down Ben Ali, have mounted violent revolts against the central government on several occasions recently, especially in the wake of the assassination of Belaid. The same has been true in Saliana, where a violent youth revolt against an Ennahda-appointed governor in late November revealed an enormous sense of anger at the frustration of the hopes inspired by the toppling of Ben Ali.
Gafsa, a mining city in south-central Tunisia, has also erupted. As in other interior cities, people destroyed the local Ennahda offices. Some leaders of left parties (including people who used to call themselves communists) like to point to Gafsa’s phosphorous as an export that could jump-start the economy, supposedly like oil for other countries. Yet in a manner typical of what happens in countries dominated by foreign capital, those mines have not produced many jobs, so that even “good times” for phosphorous aren’t much help for most people. In the same way, the agricultural potential of some of the interior (Sidi Bouzid is a good example) has been wasted because it is more profitable to import food than to develop agriculture for domestic consumption. Thus places not very far from the coast are effectively cut off from the world by the lack of good roadways and other basic infrastructure.
In the capital as well, there are huge numbers of people who have not found an acceptable life in the city. It can definitely be said that the country’s existing industries and overall economy can neither free Tunisia from foreign dependence nor serve as the basis for a radical transformation of society in a way that would allow, and require, a flourishing of the people that is completely impossible today.
For many Tunisian youth, “life is just trash”, as one young man recently told BBC. There can’t be much hope for the country’s future if it remains polarized between Islamists who claim to represent an answer to the unacceptable humiliation, oppression and wasted lives imposed by the “West” while seeking to find a place in the global imperialist system, on the one hand, and on the other an opposition that cannot conceive of anything better than trying to live with and in fact rely on Western capital, accepting the political domination and the hypocritical values that go along with all that.
The necessary ideological battle against Islamism cannot and should not be conducted by appealing to “Western ideals” (like those embodied by the French President and Interior Minister), including the idea of parliamentary democracy which France’s monopoly capitalist class finds a perfectly acceptable way of ruling for themselves, although not always in the countries they bleed. The idea that Tunisia could become like France, and that France or other powers (like China) might even help that happen, is no less an illusion than the harmony among all classes promised by religion. For one thing, bleeding countries like Tunisia is a key part of how France got to be the way it is.
It is no wonder that at least some of the people who have been most active in recent years are depressed and demobilized, in part because they fear that they cannot win the majority, while the Islamists, who are not the majority, seem to be going all out for political power. The prospect of more rounds of elections and more rounds of various governing coalitions should be unappetizing, because that is how the country got from the heady days of two years ago to where it is today.
The question is not how to win elections, and in fact some people seem sick of what they call “the political parties” without much distinction. It is what are the most basic interests of the vast majority of Tunisians, what kind of society could meet those needs, what kind of political power could put Tunisia on a whole different road than where it is heading today, and how that could be made to happen.
Tunisia and Egypt are very different countries in many important ways, economically, socially and psychologically, but there are important similarities in the dilemmas faced by people who wanted to carry out a revolution two years ago and still want radical change today. There is a need to recognize and reckon with the irreconcilable antagonism between the imperialist countries and the countries they dominate. And there is also a need to recognize and reckon with the kind of revolution that is the only real way out of the impasse that both the liberals and the Islamists represent: one that seeks real liberation from imperialism as a prerequisite for building a society based on the interests of the vast majority of people and humanity as a whole, and not profitability and the dictates of the imperialists and local exploiters and representatives of the world market.
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