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The rise and fall of Tunisia's Ceauşescu

Socialist Unity, January 17, 2011 -- Picture sent by Twitter from Al Jazeera journalist Ayman Mohyeldin. Protesters hold up signs outside a trade union office saying “Protests must continue”, rejecting the fake “national unity” government.

[For more on Tunisia in revolt, click HERE.]

By Richard Seymour

[This article first appeared on Seymour's blog, Lenin's Tomb. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission.]

January 16, 2011 -- The revolution in Tunisia that began on December 18, 2010, went from being almost completely ignored in the British newspapers to being a sensational story of bloodbaths, gang violence, Israeli worries about "stability", and pleas for "restraint" from the foreign secretary in the space of a few days. At the top of the agenda for many newspapers has been the implications for tourism, Tunisia's number one growth industry, and thus for holidaymaking Britons. No surprises here. Whitey's travelogues in Arabia form a mainstay of the Orientalist canon, and the reduction of Tunisia to scenery and troublesome natives is in keeping with tradition.

Tunisia's development since the days of the Habib Bourguiba regime has been of interest to Euro-American journalists and academics principally in terms of how well its elite has been trained by enlightened tutelage, how reasonably it has imitated the white intellect and internalises and articulates "Western political concepts" such as constitutional sovereignty, democracy and free markets, with the emphasis strongly on the latter. Bourguiba was approved for aligning with the US during the Cold War, opposing Nasser's leadership in the region, and for attempting to maintain a space for economic liberalism (i.e. private capital accumulation) even when the state had to constantly intervene to make up for a weak bourgeoisie. If he ultimately failed in his attempts to reform Tunisia's economy along neoliberal lines, and defeat the growing Islamist opposition, he is nevertheless fondly remembered, where he is remembered at all, in the newspapers and scholarly journals of the West.

Ben Ali has been the recipient of benediction in the US and Europe, first, for his role in using state terror to break up the old corporatist order, and brutally forcing neoliberalism on a recalcitrant working class, and second, for his pro-US stance in the context of the "war on terror". With Ben Ali overthrown in a revolt led by the organised working class, those ruling-class forces that have hitherto feigned an interest in Middle East democracy are worried by the potential consequences for Algeria, Egypt and the other pro-US dictatorships in the region, a concern they choose to express in the idiom of "stability". And their fear is justified. For it concentrates within it the elements of the twin crises of global capitalism and of US imperialism.

* * *

Ben Ali's dictatorship, as the above suggests, took power as part of a global reconfiguration in capitalist property relations, as well as in response to specific domestic problems for the Tunisian ruling class. The latter have roots in the weaknesses of the state and the corporatist system built up under the Sahelian lawyer Habib Bourguiba, with the Neo-Destour party at its apex. The Neo-Destour emerged in 1934, as a competitor to the liberal-constitutionalist Old Destour in resisting French colonialism. The Old Destour was too moderate, and too effectively contained by the colonial powers, to be effective. Bourguiba did not himself initially seek full independence. Autonomous government and equality between Arabs and Frenchmen would have been his preference, but this was not a policy that was commensurate with the colonists' ends. Every effort at moderation on the part of anticolonial elites, every attempt to form a rapprochement with the colonists, seems to have failed. Thus, more often than not, the nationalist leadership was forced into militancy that it did not really want.

As with most nationalist parties resisting colonial rule in the Middle East, the leadership of the Neo-Destour was initially comprised of a small section of the intelligentsia, university graduates who resented the colonial jackboot and the Tunis-based grand familles who connived with the colonists. These educated elites were offspring of the emerging Sahel bourgeoisie, who needed to mobilise the peasantry and the emerging proletariat, without fundamentally altering the relations of subjection and exploitation in which the latter were held. As usual, there was an emphasis on regenerating national culture, and modernising the better to resist colonial domination. But, there was also the particular element of hatred for the crusading policy of the French Catholic church under Cardinal Lavigerie, the French empire's supernal advocate. Thus, the Neo-Destours emphasised the protection of Islamic traditions, attempting to mobilise them as elements of the national identity they sought to "restore".

From this nucleus grew a mass party, incorporating the Tunis proletariat, the emerging bourgeoisie and peasants from the interior. By 1937, the party had 100,000 members. The full-time cadres tended, like the leadership, to be university graduates. But while the leadership were products of the Franco-Arab education system, the intermediate cadres were graduates of the Zaytuna mosque-university. The new mass party out-manouevred its old Destour rivals, and participated in mass anti-colonial riots in 1938 alongside the CGTT, the pro-Destour trade union federation set up in opposition to the CGT which was dominated by the French Socialists. The alliance between the Neo-Destour and the trade union movement resulted from the routine discrimination against Tunisian workers by colonial powers, thus giving their demands a nationalist aspect.

This alliance would last well into independence. The 1938 riots were met with extreme violence, as colonial police shot dead 112 people and wounded 62 more. Aside from repression, one feature of colonial life that made resistance difficult was the designs of the fascist power Italy on Tunisia. Mussolini had been encouraging Italian agents to scope out the prospects for hijacking nationalist resistance to French rule, and the Destourians were wary of such predation. One of the sordid betrayals of the Popular Front government of France was to refuse to free the colonies, arguing that it could not do so in the case of Tunisia because it would immediately be taken over by Mussolini. Bourguiba argued that a free Tunisia would readily make an alliance with the French against fascism. And while the betrayal of the French Socialists and Communist parties led many rank and file Destourians to sympathise with the Axis, the Neo-Destour leadership's hostility to the fascist powers prevailed throughout WWII. This ensured that even after the Italian fascists had freed Bourguiba from a French jail, he spoke out against any illusions in an alliance with the Axis powers to defeat colonialism. Instead, he declared his support for France, and called for an alliance with the Allied powers.

It should be said that this stance did not hasten the end of colonialism when the war ended. The colonial powers continued to repress the anticolonial front. Bourguiba sought and gained the support of the newly found Arab League, but otherwise diplomatic initiatives yielded little. The French authorities granted minor concessions, such as forming a new government with an equal number of French and Tunisian ministers under the formal sovereignty of the bey (monarch). But this was in keeping with the treaty of protectorate, not a deviation from it. The Destourists were compelled to launch a guerilla war against the French, beginning in 1952. Coupled with joint action by the trade union movement, the struggle finally won independence in 1956.

* * *

The new regime under Bourguiba and the Neo-Destour would be a self-consciously modernising, secular, republican one. Though it introduced some redistributive measures, the new regime was bourgeois reformist rather than socialist. The trade union leadership supported the regime, but on the basis of principles of tadamuniyya, essentially cross-class solidarity in the interests of the nation. This was in no way inconsistent with widespread capitalist support for Bourguiba, or with the general trend toward corporatist rule in much of the world, or with the version of nationalism which the Neo-Destour propagated.

Bourguiba's education had inculcated in him a romantic view of French nationalism, which he venerated and sought to reproduce in Tunisia. His conception of the rational state was Napoleonic in most respects, with the single exception that it was to be non-militarist, as Bourguiba and his confederates could see no way in which Tunisia could be an effective military power, even regionally. Its foreign policy alliances would be pragmatic but tend toward support for the US and Europe, as Tunisia's ruling class generally stood aloof from the Arab nationalism sweeping the Middle East and North Africa at the time. Bourguiba worked hard to rebuild relations with the old colonial power, even after the emergence of the European Common Market started to raise barriers to Tunisian exports.

The Neo-Destour party's platform initially consisted of a series of reforms designed to overcome the weaknesses inherited from France's predatory rule. The aim was to establish an independent centre of capital accumulation in Tunisia and, as had been the case with late-coming capitalist powers in Europe, this required strong state intervention to cultivate and nurture the very bourgoisie that would become the new ruling class. French colonists singularly uninterested in such goals had declined to develop an industrial base in Tunisia, instead focusing their surplus-extraction activities on agrarian and mining economies. So, the immediate course was to try to combine the necessary state control over utilities and direction of key assets, as well as the incorporation of organised labour into the state, with a certain amount of economic liberalism.

This was interrupted by a brief period of "socialism", modelled on the experiments in Egypt and Algeria, during the 1960s. The party was renamed the Parti Socialist Destourien (PSD). A new minister of planning was appointed in 1964, with responsibility for creating a new economic policy based on agricultural cooperatives and industrialisation led by the public sector. The minister in question was Ahmed Ben Salah, former UGTT leader. The trade union leadership, which had longed pledged its support as a crucial element in the power base of Bourguiba's government, had always been happy to participate in corporatist rule, and these reforms promised to raise the bargaining power of labour as well as improving social welfare. In truth, as in much of the Middle East and North Africa, such avowedly socialist measures would have accelerated the development of a bourgeoisie, albeit one integrated into the state.

But those elements of the capitalist class and mercantile elite that had formed another crucial component of Bourguiba's coalition were aghast, and the reforms came to little. In 1967, Israel delivered a knock-out blow to Egypt and its allies, and a lynchpin of radical Arab nationalism was devastated. Globally, neoliberalism was starting to emerge as a plausible solution to the existing impediments to capital accumulation. Ben Salah was dismissed in 1970, and eventually jailed. Thus, the "socialist" experience came to an end -- but the corporatist order remained in place.

In the 1970s, the regime embarked on a bid to liberalise the economy and pursue export-led growth. Import-substitution programs didn't stimulate growth due to weak domestic demand, and capital fared poorly in international markets. Foreign direct investment was in capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive sectors, so did not tend to improve employment. The country was suffering from a serious balance-of-payments deficit, only overcome by the temporary expedient of borrowing and rising hydrocarbon revenues. Demand for well-educated, skilled Tunisian labour in Libya and the Gulf states also meant that labour remittances boosted national incomes. This was the reason for the attempted liberalisation program.

But as in other corporatist societies, a radical left-wing was emerging in the trade union movement, challenging the wage freezes agreed by the union bureaucracy through the "social progress Charter", and potentially posing a serious threat to the regime's hegemony. Left wingers in the party and elements of the state bureaucracy were also hostile to the reforms for different reasons. Thus, the neoliberal reforms foundered on resistance led by organised labour. A general strike in 1978 had to be put down by the armed forces. Further confrontations included the food riots in 1983 and 1984. As oil revenues dried up, demand for Tunisian labour fell, and Tunisia's debt credibility collapsed, the class basis of Bourguiba's corporatist state was fracturing.

The International Monetary Fund intervened in 1986 with a "stabilisation" program predicated on structural reforms such as privatisation. To achieve this liberalisation, the trade unions would be politically neutralised, and the state's relationship to labour would take a bureaucratic-authoritarian turn, in order to break the possible sources of resistance to the new order. But it would require the dictatorial rule of the former military officer, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, to impose this agenda. Ben Ali thus took power when a couple of medics attending Bourguiba conveniently declared him medically incompetent, and thus constitutionally incapable of continuing to rule. The former head of the Italian military secret police claims the credit for having organised this smooth succession, on behalf of Bettino Craxi's Socialist Party administration. But it could not have worked if Ben Ali didn't have the backing of a powerful faction within the state and, on the face of it, a saleable agenda. That agenda was democracy.

* * *

From the second his "bloodless coup" was consummated on November 7, 1987, Ben Ali pledged that under his rule the country would be democratised -- just as he has been promising for the last few weeks until his final flight to the welcoming arms of the Saudi monarchy, a longstanding refuge for beaten despots. He would respect human rights, he said, and insist on the rule of law where Bourguiba had flouted it. This was his serenade to a country, and a region, on the brink of change. It seemed at the time that Algeria was about to go through a similar process of democratisation.

Ben Ali revamped the ruling party, which he now called the Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique, and amnestied thousands of political prisoners in his first year. He ratified the UN convention on torture, abolished the presidency for life, relaxed laws on the formation of parties and associations, and formed a new National Pact with the leading political and social organisations in the country. This period of relative laxity lasted for less than the two years it took for Ben Ali to coordinate rigged elections in 1989, from which his party emerged with 100% of the seats.

The UGTT, meanwhile, was effectively coopted again. Worse than that, it was subjugated. Union salaries had long been paid for by the state, but one source of independent action was the autonomous budget, paid for by a 1% tax on workers' wages, given to the unions each year. This budget was withheld after the 1984-5 food riots. The leadership around Habib Achour was removed, the old guard purged. Under Bourguiba first, then Ben Ali, the union effectively became a technocratic partner of the government in a bureaucratic process of implementing policy, rather than a labour union bargaining over wages and conditions. Politically, the left-wing was defeated in favour of a centre-left slate, reflecting an accomodationist attitude after 1989.

The old union leadership was coopted, but could still put up a fight if pushed. The new union bureaucracy under Ismail Sahbani was not even capable of that. They were the Blairites of Tunisian trade unionism. The "National Pact" itself, though MERIP reports it as an example of inclusion in the early days, was part of this subordination. It required that the unions accept new conditions that would dramatically weaken their power, exposing their members to wage loss, insecurity and price rises. Only a union that had been suitably beaten could be incorporated into such an agenda.

Aside from the trade unions, the two main potential sources of opposition to the new regime were the communists and the Islamists, and the government did not waste any time in tackling them. MERIP reports that the state "stepped up its repression against an-Nahdha and the Tunisian Communist Workers' Party (POCT). Late-night raids and house-to-house searches became commonplace in some neighborhoods. Stories of torture under interrogation and military court convictions multiplied. The campaign to crush an-Nahdha intensified in 1991 following an attack on an RCD office in the Bab Souika area of Tunis and after the government claimed that security forces had uncovered a plot to topple the regime. Susan Waltz reports that the government's extensive dragnet hauled in more than 8,000 individuals between 1990 and 1992."

Vilifying their political opponents as "terrorist" was a singularly effective way for the state to disarm criticism of its repressive measures. Dyab Jahjah has written that protesters in Tunisia fear the state will unleash its repertoire of false flag techniques today -- indeed, there are rumours (more than rumours now) of agents being captured in the capital. The internal security apparatus was also continually expanded, long after any plausible threat had been neutralised. Opponents were hounded with the use of phone tapping, threats, beatings and assassinations. Torture was practised systematically, with hundreds of cases documented by domestic and international human rights agencies.

Despite this, Ben Ali still claimed to be interested in democratising Tunisia, over time. After the 1994 elections, again held in rigged circumstances that guaranteed the continued control of the ruling party, Ben Ali argued that democratic transition had to be done gradually, in order to make it compatible with the country's long-term development and to avoid letting the Islamists in. But, he insisted, democracy was still on his agenda.

Globally, the dictatorship aligned itself with neoliberal institutions, acceding to GATT, then joining the WTO. Throughout the 2000s, it forged a closer relationship with the EU, under an agreement removing all tariffs and restrictions on goods between the two. France and Italy have been its main export and import partners in this period. Given his zeal in prosecuting the war against "terrorism" throughout the 1990s, which mission he took to the UN and the EU, Ben Ali was an obvious candidate to be a regional ally in the Bush administration's program for reconfiguring the Middle East in Washington's (further) interests in the context of the war on terror. Ben Ali thus joined Team America, alongside other lifelong democrats such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah.

The results of Ben Ali's authoritarian neoliberalism for capital were impressive in their way: GDP on a par with the European periphery, low public-sector deficit, controlled inflation and renewed creditworthiness. The financial sector was reformed and initially experienced a mini-boom. Significant sections of the public sector were turned over for profitable investment. A total of 160 state-owned enterprises have been privatised. The stock market capitalisation of the 50 largest companies listed on the Bourse de Tunis was worth $5.7 billion by 2007. Ben Ali's famously, corruptly wealthy family also made a mint from the boom. He himself became a darling of the EU and the US, conferring global prestige on his regime. The cost of all this to the working class, though concealed in some of the official figures, was just as significant. High unemployment, growing inequality, the removal of subsidies for the poor, rising housing costs and weaker welfare protections are among the added burdens of the Tunisian working class in the neoliberal era.

This does not mean that the average working-class person has experienced an absolute decline in income throughout this period. In fact, the development of the cities has meant more people moving from the poorer rural areas to cities and towns where absolute poverty is less common. What it means is that wage growth has been suppressed by the government, and made conditional upon productivity rises. In the private sector, liberalisation means that the discipline of the market has been used to extract higher productivity from the workforce. The total effect is that more of the wealth that has been generated has gone into the pockets of the very rich. In simple terms, it means that the rate of exploitation has been increased.

For as long as the political opposition was effectively suppressed, and for as long as the trade union movement was effectively subjugated, the old order could continue. But that in turn depended on the regime's ability to boast that it was creating a wealthier economy that would eventually benefit everyone. That is, the viability of the regime rested on the viability of neoliberal institutions, both domestically and globally -- and that is exactly what has taken a knock.

* * *

The first real signs of an independent civil society movement with trade unions operating separately from the state came on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Then, the trade union movement organised antiwar demonstrations -- relatively small in scale, due to repression and widespread arrests. There has also been activism in solidarity with Gaza, where some space to organise has been made possible by the regime's traditional two-state position. US power in the region has experienced a crisis with the occupation of Iraq and, to an extent, with the failed Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Had these ventures been successful on their own terms and at low cost, then the US might already have new client dictatorships in place in Iran, Lebanon and Syria. But this crisis helped rebuild oppositional movements across the region, and contributed, alongside domestic factors, to the emergence of a mass, militant working-class movement against Mubarak in 2007. It started to weaken the chain of pro-US rulers across the Middle East.

However, it was to be the global capitalist crisis, and its concentrated regional effects, that was to do for Ben Ali. The riots began in Sidi Bouzid when Mohammed Bouzazi poured petrol over his person and set himself on fire in protest at the police's confiscation of his fruit and vegetable cart. He was unemployed, and trying to make a living the only way he could.

Unemployment was already high during the boom -- it has exploded since the crisis began. In 2009, unemployment was officially estimated to be around 14%, far below the real rate. The suffering has spread beyond the working class and affected the growing layer of university graduates. The khobzistes (unemployed) responded to the suicidal protest of this poor man, saw their own fate in his, and exploded. Food prices have also been driven up by a number of factors -- wheat droughts, soaring oil costs, speculative bubbles. Millions of workers have been affected by this, another source of the growing protests.

But it is the intervention of the trade union movement, its bureaucracy hitherto prepared to act in conjunction with and as a tool of the regime, that decisively changed matters. The repressive response of the police to the protests, which had resulted in dozens of killings, was the immediate cause of the trade unions' involvement. The clampdown provoked the unions to embark on a general strike, contributing to the protest which resulted in Ben Ali's flight. But the repression itself highlighted all of the complex social conflicts that, with the application of bureaucratic violence, the police had been trying to solve. And it also exposed the weakness of the regime, especially when Ben Ali began to pose, once more, as a tireless friend of democracy, who was just about to bring about this new era of freedom if only people would have patience.

The trade unions thus demanded not only the freedom to organise, which is a huge step in itself, but also a "national dialogue" on the necessary economic and social reforms -- in other words, organised labour was asserting its right to have a say in the future development of the country in light of this crisis. You can say this is harking back to its Bourguibist days, but it's becoming far more significant than that.

Finally, sections of the military rank and file began to defect, and the rapprochement between the soldiers and the protesters indicated that the ruling elite was losing the battle. The social base beneath the Ben Ali regime had shattered, leaving him with only his security personnel and the super rich to support him. Probably, at that point, the ruling class pulled the plug, and Ben Ali escaped.

Now Jordanians and Algerians have joined the fight, motivated by many of the same issues. Palestinians are expressing hope and praise over this rebellion, as well they might. The forces of their oppression have been shaken, their regional allies emboldened. It can't be long before Mubarak has to face down another surging rebellion.

The Tunisian ruling class, however, is still in power. It is weakened, afraid, hesitant. But it is in power. US imperialism and its Zionist client retain the capacity to act, as does Saudi Arabia, one of the vanguards of reaction in the region. Ben Ali's internal security apparatus is unlikely to have disintegrated (looks like they're fighting with the army on his behalf even now), and it seems likely that he was forced out not only by elements of the state bureaucracy, but also by international players with an interest in Tunisia's development.

Still, the protests continue.... The revolution has an organised core of trade unionists and left-wing activists, not to mention some of the Islamists who have arrived late on the scene, but it has not yet convoked a new political leadership. What it has done, potentially, is begin the process that will clear out the repressive apparati, opening the way for the emergence of the kinds of mass movements that can overthrow not just Washington's row of dictators, but also the system which they uphold.

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