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Tunisia: Bright anger amid dismal atmosphere
20 January 2018. A World to Win News Service. By Sam Albert. Demonstrations and fighting broke out across Tunisia for about ten days in January in the most important flare-up of popular anger since the toppling of the Ben Ali regime seven years ago. These events are all the more significant in that Western representatives and apologists for the current state of the world have held up Tunisia’s political situation as the most successful outcome of the 2011 “Arab Spring” – “successful”, that is, from the point of view of maintaining the status quo. Actually, this explosion of anger shows that the underlying factors driving that popular revolt in multiple Arab countries are still at work – factors also visible in the similar recent events in Iran.
About 800 people were reportedly arrested. In the first trials, two young men were sent to prison for burning a Tunisian flag, and eight more for setting up a burning traffic barricade during a protest. The authorities have described the protests as mainly violent, and yet the ten-day outbreak included both peaceful gatherings and marches, and fighting with security forces. A new movement of young people calling itself Fech Nestannaw (“What are we waiting for?”) called the first protests against proposed new sales taxes and tax hikes on consumer items like fruit and vegetables, cooking gas and phone and Internet use, on 4 January. Within 48 hours the government had about 50 suspected organizers round up and jailed, some for handing out leaflets. A week later, marches in the centre of the capital, Tunis, and other major cities called by the parliamentary left and other traditional opposition forces had to face off against massed police. Meanwhile, starting about 8 January, especially in protests taking place after dark, youth clashed with police in towns and cities in the country’s most impoverished interior regions and in several of Tunis’s poorest suburbs – the epicentres of the 2010-11 revolt. Businesses and stores (most notably a French supermarket chain) were burned, and police stations and other regime sites were attacked. Army troops were deployed to several small and medium-sized cities.
This was not a repeat of the December 2010-January 2011 uprising, and not just because none of the protests attained the scale of those days. It seems that this time, students and middle class people in the coastal cities have not embraced, to the same degree, the desperate anger of youth in the interior – who seem ready to risk death rather than face another day with no future (after all, the upheaval was triggered by the public protest suicide by fire of a young street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, whose merchandise had been confiscated by the police).
In the period seven years ago leading to Ben Ali’s downfall, millions of Tunisians of all social classes seemed to speak with one voice demanding that the rulers “Dégage” – Get out. The anger of the most downtrodden brought to life and gave backbone to many in the coastal middle classes, including (and maybe especially) professionals, and even people at the top of society unhappy with (or at least excluded by) Ben Ali.
Reports from contacts in Tunisia paint a picture of a different situation now. Many people do not feel that they understand what is going on and are suspicious and even somewhat cynical, unsure of what to do. The sides in the fighting are much less clear. Some people fear the protests are being manipulated by rival forces in the government (a coalition between the traditionally pro-French heirs of Ben Ali in various factions of the Nidaa Tounes party, and the country’s biggest party, the Islamist Ennadha). The former are said to be encouraging their youth followers to fight alongside the police, and the latter to be encouraging trashing and looting. Rumours state that government functionaries have been seen paying youth in poor neighbourhoods to attack property. No one seems sure whether the small bomb set off in a synagogue on the island of Djerba, the last remaining pocket of what was once Tunisia’s large Jewish community, was the work of Islamists or the government.
The situation is sharply contradictory. On the one hand, there is a profound disappointment and discontent across Tunisian society in the wake of “the revolution”, when the prevailing feeling was that political change (the end of Ben Ali’s regime) and reform (the end of the regime’s monopoly of power and the official stifling of dissent) would lead to a better life. Not only have living conditions deteriorated, especially for the poor and much of the middle classes, due in particular to rising prices as well as the lack of jobs and social services, but there is no longer much hope. As a woman commented, “We are tired of things always going backward, never forward.” Tired may be the key word here. Unlike the contagious euphoria of 2010-11 and the days after, reports from Tunisia indicate a great deal of cynicism and depression. As a journalist perspicaciously pointed out, while social media played a key role in spreading the 2010-11 rebellion, now “You can be in Tunis following Facebook and not really know what’s going on in the country.”
It seems that some in the urban middle classes are uneasy about the anger of those below, afraid of where unbridled revolt might lead – that it might strengthen the Islamists, or bring about a return of a Ben Ali-like openly repressive regime (definitely a possibility, according to the latest report from the Western government-supported think tank the International Crisis Group, the ICG). Both outcomes would mean an end to the freedoms these people in particular now enjoy, like being able to buy different books and discuss politics freely in cafés and other public spaces, participate in formerly forbidden cultural and social events (like the recent LGBTQ film festival) and conduct their private lives more or less as they please.
However, the status quo is very unstable. Tunisia has gone through nine governments over the past seven years because of infighting between its constituent factions, each seeking supremacy rather than long-term coexistence. None of them have been able to achieve solid support or even legitimacy among broad sections of the people. Instead, the two major parties and the Popular Front grouping of traditional “leftists” (whose highest goal is more seats and authority in parliament, and whose most important function is to legitimize parliament) have become increasingly discredited. Many people don’t bother to vote. This political instability, labelled as dangerous by Western watchdogs like the ICG, is in itself fuelled by the country’s social instability and an economy totally incapable of meeting the stated demands of the “revolution” – bread, dignity and justice.
Millions of young Tunisians feel they have no acceptable future. This is clearly demonstrated by the once again soaring numbers of youth trying to cross dangerous waters to nearby Italy, and the many thousands of others who have gone to neighbouring Libya or other countries to wage war against what they perceive as the Western way of life, thirsty for vengeance against foreign domination and the oppressors’ hypocritical values. Whether harraga, “sea jumpers” ready to risk death by drowning, or jihadi eager to give their lives in “holy war”, what these two different paths have in common is that many young Tunisians still can’t accept the lives they’ve been given. This is a flagrant symptom of a lethal condition none of the parties can cure.
The immediate cause of the prospect of increased taxes that made people’s anger overflow was a decision by the International Monetary Fund. This financial institution was set up at the end of the Second World War (along with the World Bank) to stabilize the global financial system and promote “development” in the context of the imperialist system, where the wealth produced by human labour everywhere serves the accumulation of capital based in the imperialist countries that dominate the world. Because the imperialist powers were concerned by what might happen in Tunisia following the fall of Ben Ali and wanted to reinforce their grip on the whole region, the IMF extended large loans to Tunisia. Tunisia has now become one of the world’s most indebted countries. These loans are falling due, and its government needs more loans to pay off old loans, some going back to the time when Ben Ali’s cronies siphoned off considerable amounts of money.
Once again the IMF is offering a line of credit, on the condition that Tunisia increase its ability to reduce its massive government debts by increasing tax revenues, among other measures. In other words, the money meant to stabilize a government slavishly dependent on the IMF has made that government even less stable. The “solution”, for the imperialist powers, is not to enable a government that can meet the needs of the people, but to back and strengthen the repressive forces of the government deeply in their debt. Above all, this means building up the armed forces, especially by the U.S., alongside Tunisia’s former colonial master, France. The West considers the security forces and army the most reliable part of the state, and the possibility of ruling more directly through them is being openly discussed.
Both Ben Ali’s heirs and the Islamist Ennadha party have fully supported following the IMF’s strictures, claiming that development will solve the country’s problems. So has the UGTT, the trade union confederation that served as the tolerated opposition during the Ben Ali years, which itself is split between the political factions in the government. But it has been Tunisia’s development, or more precisely the form this development had to take, that has brought Tunisia to where it is today. The country whose wheat and olives exported to Europe made it the breadbasket of the Roman empire cannot feed its people without imported food. It pays for those imports by funnelling capital into export-oriented economic sectors that under the conditions of today’s imperialist-dominated world market can only heighten Tunisia’s dependency on foreign markets and capital, reduce its ability to support itself, and constantly deepen the economic and social chasms within the country, especially between the coastal cities and the interior.
Youth from poor families in the interior feel cut off from the modern world as it is enjoyed by some on the coast and people in the West in general. Their fathers work, when they can, wherever they can, in back-breaking construction, often far away, and their mothers in investor-owned fields producing export crops under the thumb of merciless labour contractors who act as if they own them. Workers in assembly plants and call centres near the coast are at the mercy of fluctuating overseas requirements. The educational system, especially in the technological fields, fills students with a narrow “input” of narrow skills they hope to “output” in a vocation promising a different life than their parents – until at last, emerging with diploma in hand, they tumble into the abyss of unemployment or mindless jobs with no prospects. Official figures put unemployment among young university graduates at 30 percent, twice the overall rate. For millions throughout the country, higher education is a fraud, a form of disguised unemployment. Further, because they are educated and have been able to see other lives through digital media, the situation they are trapped in feels all the more intolerable. The cruelly thwarted hopes all this produces have been and remain one of the sharpest fault lines in Tunisian society.
In the southern interior, the phosphate mines that bring much of the country’s wealth produce serious environmental problems and few jobs for the people who live around them. The coastal tourism “industry” touted as the country’s hope is driven by real estate speculation and prostitution, and the huge number of people trapped and tortured in prostitution reveals what values and future the West has to offer Tunisia. Dependence on tourism is both a symptom and a product of the country’s subordination to imperialism, and it has prevented the balanced development of industry and agriculture in a mainly self-sufficient economy that could serve as the basis for a radically different society. These production relations are still what define the lives of Tunisia’s people.
The question is not how to advance or at least preserve “democracy” in Tunisia. The bourgeois democratic form of rule (parliamentary democracy) and the Western imperialist governments that have historically promoted that form of rule are responsible for the horrors that billions of people now suffer in oppressed countries like Tunisia throughout the world. Further, even in an imaginary situation where Tunisia were not ruled by traditional and Islamic capitalists whose fortunes are entirely intertwined with the interests of the imperialist system, if somehow the people could freely vote to make basic decisions about their country’s future, they would be overruled by the workings of the imperialist system and its enforcers, as happened in Greece, where the hopes that saw the Syriza government elected have been brutally dashed. There is no way out of this situation except by uprooting and replacing the existing relations of production, the way people produce and exchange the material basis for life, how people work together and for what. This cannot be achieved by trying to use the institutions of the existing state like parliament that reflect, serve and reinforce those relations of production. No, a real revolution requires the overthrow of the state that represent these relations and the exploiting classes, and, because capitalism is a global system, aiming at eliminating classes globally, along with the production relations on which they rest and the social relations and thinking arising from those relations – a communist world.
This is not the point of view of Tunisia’s traditional “left”, particularly the Popular Front whose spokesman is Hamma Hamami. His group’s original position on the new budget before the protests was unclear to many people, but after the protests it has now clearly come out against it and tried to gain prestige (and votes in upcoming municipal elections) by calling for legal marches, while condemning what are commonly called the “night protests”. Although touting itself as the continuation of the 2011 “revolution”, which at least toppled a regime, ever since then the Popular Front has focused its activity on parliament, where it has become closely tied to pro-Western forces most openly slavish to the IMF while also making concessions to Islamism. It has also distinguished itself by its support for the security forces under the Ministry of the Interior and the army. They have learned nothing from the disastrous end of the period after the 2011 exit of Mubarak in Egypt, when in the name of opposing an Islamism whose hunger for power they could no longer conciliate with, the youth movements and “left” supported an army coup that ended up crushing them.
All the parliamentary parties are representatives of the production relations that define the lives of Tunisia’s people and will continue to do so until the overthrow of the state that enforces those relations and the establishment of a new kind of state that makes possible the development of the country’s industry and agriculture in a mainly self-sufficient economy that could serve as the basis for a radically different society and as a base area for world revolution against the imperialist system.
A Tunisian comrade wrote, “The protests are driven by socio-economic circumstances no matter how they were produced, and with the ongoing decline in our situation protests will surely continue. The people have tasted the power of the street and they are not ready to let it go yet.” It’s true that millions have tasted their ability to transform the political situation and thwart the will of their rulers. But the legacy of 2010-11 is contradictory. Millions today seem still determined not to “let go”, to continue fighting, but others have been discouraged by the bitter results of a “revolution” that decisively changed neither the state nor the circumstances of the people and the country. People are right to fear the dangers they face, but even if there is much manipulation going on amid the unrest, this movement’s demands have been just, its targets correct. At the same time, even in the most immediate sense, Tunisia’s young rebels face big problems that have to be solved.
The most central problem is that the reasons for the people’s misery have not been clearly enough understood and no real solution has been brought into sight. Without that, it’s impossible to begin to both unite people broadly and bring into being a core oriented by the most advanced outlook and method in today’s world, the science of communism that Bob Avakian has brought to a new level of development by deeply analysing the positive and negative experience of the communist movement and its thinking. To accomplish these tasks would be very hard, but there’s no other way to build a radical movement that can fight off interference by what people call the “lobbies” (ruling class and parliamentary factions), persist in the face of difficulties and ups and downs, and lead to a real chance for radical change. The radical explosions of anger concentrated among the lower classes and the unquenchable dissatisfaction throughout society, seven years after the magnificent toppling of Ben Ali that set off challenges to the status quo across the region, make the possibility and urgent need for that kind of revolutionary leadership all the more clear.
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