15 January 2011
(Updated Jan. 16) Tunisia's intifada topples tyrant: 'Yezzi fock!'
On January 14, the BBC reported that the mass uprising in Tunisia had toppled that country's Western-backed tyrant after weeks of protests and government repression, which has cost the lives of dozens of Tunisians. According to the BBC:
Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has stepped down after 23 years in power, amid widespread protests on the streets of the capital Tunis. In a televised address, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said he would be taking over from the president. A state of emergency was declared earlier, as weeks of protests over economic issues snowballed into rallies against Mr Ben Ali's rule. Unconfirmed reports say Mr Ben Ali and his family have left Tunisia. The reports suggest that the deposed president is looking for a place of asylum, with French media saying that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has turned down a request for his plane to land in France.
The articles below explain some of the background to the uprising.
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A communique by the Workers’ Communist Party of Tunisia
January 13, 2011 -- The leader of the Workers’ Communist Party of Tunisia (Parti Communiste des Ouvriers Tunisiens -- PCOT) Hamma Hammami was abducted on the 12th of January after he had issued a call to the people and the democratic forces to “unite for a common alternative to the tyrannical system”, calling for “the departure of Ben Ali and the dissolution of present institutions and the formation of an interim national government that undertakes the task of organising and supervising free and fair elections which leads to a constituent assembly that draws a new constitution for the country. This would lay the foundations of the new and real Democratic Republic that guarantees people’s sovereignty, freedom, democracy and respect for human rights as well as equality, dignity, and the implementation of national and popular economic and social policies which provides employment and the foundations of a decent life for our sons and daughters and eliminate corruption, cronyism and regional discrimination.”
Report: Hamma Hammami released
This report from Tunisian authorities on January 14 states that opposition figure Hamma Hammami, the leader of the banned Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party, was released three days after being arrested him, the party said.
“We’ve just heard that he’s been released. He’s at home”, party official Adel Thabet told reporters in Paris, after family members had expressed fears for the 59-year-old leftist’s life in government custody.
Hammami has been working underground to escape arrest since February last year, but in recent weeks has spoken to foreign media to support the protests against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime.
On January 12 his wife, the lawyer Radia Nasraoui, said he had been snatched from his home in Tunis by officers of the political police and was being held incommunicado and without charge.
By Rob Prince
January 13, 2011 -- Counterpunch -- "Yezzi fock!" (It's enough!), this slogan has become the theme of the nationwide protests in Tunisia which continue unabated. "Enough" refers to the high levels of unemployment in the country, the pervasive corruption, especially of the two ruling families and the decades of seething repression which has kept Zine Ben Ali in power now for 23 years. And with that, protesters in different parts of the country are tearing down President Zine Ben Ali's portrait, a harbinger of things to come perhaps.
Triggered originally on December 17, 2010, by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate who had had his unauthorised fruit and vegetable stand confiscated in Sidi Bouzid and who soaked himself with gasoline and lit a match. The protests have intensified, despite government attempts to suppress them continue.
If anything, the situation is deteriorating as the opposition is only intensifying in the face of growing, if not massive repression. As "Kerym", my unknown but insightful Tunisian correspondent comments, the demonstrations will continue because:
The people know very well that he's (Ben Ali) trying to cool things down, and once the situation returns to normal, he will betray them again … just like he did before. In other words, this people happen to distrust this weird man and his mobster gangs. Therefore quitting the protests now, means more repression and more arrests to be expected, and unemployment will remain an unsolved issue in Tunisian society. So far, the situation is snafu, but not without hope.
Among the confirmed reports, artists joined Tunisia's lawyers to take to the streets and joined the calls for an end to the repression and corruption, along with calls for the government to deal with the unemployment crisis. A number of the country's leading cultural figures – artists, rappers and leading intellectuals – have been arrested.
The trade union confederation in Sfax, Tunisia's second largest city after Tunis, have joined the protests, calling for a strike in the city. The Tunisian government has closed all the high schools and universities in the country "until further notice" in an attempt cool what started as a "youth rebellion" over unemployment, but which spread to broad sectors of the population.
At least some of the weapons being used against demonstrators are made in the USA, including tear gas.
Unconfirmed but worrisome
In Kasserine, where a number of people were killed by security forces last weekend, the government employed snipers on building tops who shot into the demonstrations, killing people at random. There are reports that the snipers are not from the Tunisian military but from a special unit of Ben Ali's security police called the Brigaude de l'Ordre Publique (BOP). Formed in the 1980s, the BOP is based upon a French model.
Demonstrations have now erupted in the interior agricultural centre of Beja, in Djendouba and the northern coastal city of Bizerte. According to one source, in Beja the police station, the local offices of the ruling party (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique) and a bank in which the ruling Ben Ali and Trabelsi families are part owners were burnt to the ground.
Some members of the Ben Ali/Trabelsi familes are leaving the country, in one case for Canada.
Although the protests in Tunisia began in opposition to the country's economic policies, they have more become political in nature, with growing calls for Zine Ben Ali, the country's dictator-president, to step down. Ben Ali refused, hoping to crush the opposition with the country's 180,000-strong security police. He combines fierce repression with promises of economic reform and a government jobs program.
Tunisians have heard these promises before. Three years ago, when a six-month long protest over unemployment and social decay in the country's mining district around Gafsa erupted, Ben Ali pursued a similar approach – repression and the promise of jobs. Virtually no economic development followed.
The country's official unemployment rate stands at 14 per cent. However youth unemployment for people between the ages of 15-24 is at least double that, and in some parts of the interior, as high as 50 per cent. Furthermore the main areas of job creation – tourism, textile manufacturing targeting the European market in "free trade zones" and what is left of Tunisia's agricultural sector – are producing low-wage jobs. In response to International Monetary Fund and World Bank pressure, government subsidies continue to be reduced or eliminated from food and fuel; even those with jobs find themselves having difficulty making ends meet.
None of the current economic problems weighing on Tunisia are new. High unemployment (plus low-wage jobs and growing unemployment for the country's university graduates) has been plaguing the country for some time, as has Ben Ali's longstanding policies of repressing dissent of any kind, in the name of course, of countering " Islamic radicalism"; this despite the fact that Islamic radicalism, while it exists, has less of a base in Tunisia than virtually any other Arab state.
The economic rut in which Tunisia finds itself is a result what has long been its strategic role in the global economy as primarily a peripheral country whose mission has been to provide cheap manufactured products – and now cheap holidays – to the core countries, especially in Europe...
Tunisia began opening up its economy, privatising elements of it, opening the country to foreign investment with fewer and fewer strings in the early 1980s and has, as a result, paid the price. The economic sectors which were modernised – textiles, mining – did not produce enough domestic capital to invest in new technologies and take the country in new directions, despite its highly educated work force. Foreign investment, let loose with fewer and fewer regulations, as in Thailand, concentrated in real estate, the financial sector and tourism, none of which help development that much...
If one looks closely at Tunisian society on the eve of independence in 1956, it is rather striking. There was most definitely what is referred to today as a highly developed "civil society" with participation of most sectors of society in the political movement that led to independence. But that civil society was first seriously weakened by the country's first president, Habib Bourguiba, who saw it as a threat to his personal power. Then it was smothered by Ben Ali – or more accurately, Ben Ali tried to snuff it out. And yet despite everything, under the surface it has continued – until it erupted once again full force after the death of Mohammed Bouazizi.
So why is it now that the country as a whole has been pushed over the edge if these trends have been in play for so long?
In the end one never knows why it is that objective social conditions erupt into revolt. More often than not they do not. But still, there are a number of factors which might explain the current unprecedented protests.
Income distribution has sharply polarised in the past few years. As Basel Saleh points out, the top 10 per cent of Tunisia's economic ladder control 32 per cent of the national income. The top 20 per cent control nearly half. Tunisia's income inequality is so severe that the bottom 60 per cent of the population control only 30 per cent of the country's wealth, again with 40 per cent of the population taking home 70 per cent of the national income.
At the same time, two families at the top, the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families, have come to dominate the country's economy. One Wikileaks cable from the US embassy in Tunis suggests that the two families have their hands in and on 50 per cent of the country's economy. As the disparity between wealth and poverty increases, the corruption of the two ruling families has come more into focus.
There are regional disparities too, well known in the economic literature, with the northern and coastal cities benefitting much more from Ben Ali's economic policies than the interior and the south, which have long suffered. It should not be surprising to anyone who has followed Tunisian events over the past 30 years that social unrest, protest and rebellion tend to originate in the interior and the south.
2009 was not a good year and Tunisia's economy suffered despite World Bank/IMF claims that the country has weathered the global financial crises better than many places. Tourism was down, as were textile exports to Europe, only aggravating the already existing socioeconomic crisis
But the straw that broke the camel's back in this case is the growing distrust and distaste among the broader population for president Ben Ali's wife, Leila Trabelsi and her siblings, who have been scrambling to dominate whatever sectors of Tunisia's economy they could, dominating the IMF-pressured privatisations that have marked the country's economic transition. It appears rather likely that Ben Ali was positioning his wife to "take over" the country in four years' time, when he supposedly would retire. The thought that Zine Ben Ali would turn over power to Leila Trabelsi – and that the corruption at the top would thus be blessed and institutionalised that much more only added to the seething anger about to explode.
However else the situation in Tunisia plays out, the likelihood that the Trabelsi family will replace Ben Ali has all but gone up in smoke. Mohammed Bouazizi, the young unemployed man whose suicide by fire started this protest movement, has inadvertently taken one of Tunisia's richest families, the Trabelsis, along with him.
The first result of the Tunisian intifada is to delegitimise that clan so that politically speaking they are dead. It was not just Mohammed Bouazizi who went up in a ball of flames but the Trabelsi family's political future in Tunisia. Let us see what other lessons unfold.
[This article, abridged here, first appeared at the radical US-based Counterpunch website. Rob Prince lectures in international studies at the University of Denver.]
Tunisia's political earthquake
By the editorial board of Marxy.com, the Arab website of the International Marxist Tendency
January 8, 2011 -- For the fourth week straight, Tunisia is continuing to witness a popular mass movement. The uprising began in the region of Sidi Bouzid in the center of western Tunisia on December 17, in solidarity with young Muhammad Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in protest against the confiscation of his fruit stand. Since then, the movement has spread like wildfire to the rest of the cities and regions of Tunisia, and raised multiple demands, first among them the right to work and liberty. These protests have included setting fire to a number of government buildings, as well as the headquarters of the governing party and police stations. The movement has acted as a pole of attraction for various groups in society dissatisfied with the existing system: the unemployed, political and human rights activists, trade unionists, students, professors and lawyers. This proves the seriousness of the movement and its enormous potential.
How similar this glorious mass intifada is to an earthquake! For it has remained as it is, preparing its arrival slowly and silently over decades of apparent calm, and then it exploded. The epicentre was the town of Sidi Bouzid, but its aftershocks, which will open the door to the fall of all the crumbling castles of tyranny, spread rapidly to many other areas.
The repression was unable to stop the movement. On the contrary: the more intense the repression became, the more the popular anger flared up and fresh layers joined the movement and its struggle evolved. In the city of Haffouz (in the province of Sidi Bouzid), students from several campuses organised a demonstration which was joined by many unemployed youth, teachers and workers, and started from the headquarters of the local labour union to reach the headquarters of the government of the department. The protesters demanded the right to work, the equitable distribution of wealth, and general freedom. They also raised slogans in solidarity with the people of Sidi Bouzid and Tala. Reports indicate that demonstrators attacked an office of the forces of repression in the “Al-Saeeda” area in the “Al-Riqab” department in southern Tunisia (37 km from the town of Sidi Bouzid), and the authorities responded by firing live rounds, wounding at least five people.
As protests escalated on Friday, January 7, the teachers joined the strike call following the earlier strike call issued by the lawyers. The website of the Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party (Alternative albadil.org/) published a report about the spreading of the protests to Al-Hareesah, Al-Kal’a Al-Khusba and Tajeryoun in Kaf province. It also reported protesters in the city of Makthar (in the north-west, 160 km from Tunis, the capital) blocking the main streets of the city with tyres and rocks and continuing confrontations with the police. The demonstrators also set fire to the city hall and destroyed the adjacent building, a government registrar, as well as a number of other government offices.
The city of Boruiz (in the north-western province of Siliana) also saw protests break out on the initiative of the students of secondary and preparatory schools, during which there were clashes between the protesters and the forces of repression who attacked them. There were intense clashes on the night of Thursday the 6th of January, between the unemployed youth and the security forces that used tear gas grenades and rubber bullets. This drove the demonstrators to burn tires and set fire to the mayor’s office, the building of the ruling party, a branch of the peasants’ union, a part of the city hall, and one financial institution, as well as to deface the November 7 monument. A crowd of unemployed youth continues to occupy the provincial headquarters, demanding their right to work. The same thing was experienced in the city of Kairouan, which is considered one of the most important Tunisian cities (about 160 km from Tunis), where protests broke out at the initiative of the students and teachers at the Aqaba institute in Kairouan.
Protests also spread to Sousse province (70 km south of the capital, and 300 km north of Sfax), where in the city of Enfidha the students from the secondary and preparatory schools came out to the street last Friday morning to support the people of Sidi Bouzid and the city of Tala, and trade union sources stated that major security reinforcements had arrived from Sousse to control the situation.
In the province of Jendouba (far north-west, 200 km north of Tunis), in the border city of Ghardimaou, a mass rally was organised with the participation of the students of the Youth institute and the Ghardimaou institute and the other preparatory schools. The procession witnessed the intervention of the police forces, and the students responded by pelting them with rocks. Trade union sources reported that the security forces used tear gas grenades against the protesters.
In the city of Bou Salem, students from the Shareh Al-Bi’a institute came out in a demonstration after the strike that the teachers carried out on Friday morning, which brought out a significant section of Shareh Al-Bi’a. Students from the Bou Salem secondary school, however, were banned from leaving their school, with the gates of the institute being locked.
In the province of Kasserine (in the center of western Tunisia, at a distance of about 228 km from the capital) a student protest which began from the city’s schools took over the streets and turned into clashes between the police (who used their batons and tear gas grenades) and the unemployed youth and students. Eye-witnesses said that in the city of Fériana a massive march was held on Friday morning which took over the streets of the city, punctuated by confrontations with the forces of repression, with the demonstrators burning the offices of the ruling party and the municipality.
The working class city of Sfax (275 km south of Tunis) also witnessed a mass march which began from the Ali Al-Nouri preparatory school and went to the Mustafa Al-Fourati secondary academy before ending at the at the Abul Hasan Alakhmi Biskra institute, despite the road blocks set up by the forces of repression.
In the city of Jebeniana, for the fifth consecutive day, there have been clashes between students of the January 18 academy and the forces of repression that are surrounding the campus to prevent the students from coming out onto the street, but the latter have failed in attempts to storm the school and arrest student activists.
According to a statement of the Union of Communist Youth of Tunisia, on January 7:
Many colleges in the capital Tunis and other cities have witnessed, since the return to classes on Monday, January 3rd, a series of movements in solidarity with the social movement in Sidi Bouzid and elsewhere in the country, coming from the General Union of Tunisian Students through the general assemblies, slogans and red symbols graffitied on the walls, and protests in front of the center of the “campus security” which have led to clashes with the political police in more than one location, the most serious of which is the clash at the April 9 college in the capital and in the arts college in Sousse beginning on the 4th of January.
The police faced down every outbreak of the movement with total brutality -- using tear gas and batons and all manner of abuse from which no one was spared amongst the students, faculty and staff. As happened in the arts college in Sousse, where after the blind police repression, amongst the number of wounded we are told of Wael Nawar, Munther Aqiq, Iman Malih, Qais Al-Bazzouzi and Mourad Ben Jeddom who had to be taken to the emergency room, where they continued to be surrounded in the confines of the hospital, despite the presence of many civil society activists who were there to break the siege around them.
On the other hand, the police arrested some freedom fighters, amongst them a union leader of the General Union of Tunisian Students, Wael Nawar whom police violence left with a broken leg and who was abducted from his house on the morning of January 6. He was held in custody in the police station where he was once again subjected to beatings and torture before being referred quickly to be tried without the knowledge of his family and lawyer on multiple charges. Some of the charges date back to two old cases that have been following him for a while, now plastered with new charges against the backdrop of the latest developments.
It is worth remembering that these latest developments are not isolated, neither at the domestic nor regional level. From the point of view of the domestic situation, this intifada comes in the context of a mighty rise of conflict in the class struggle in Tunisia. The country has experienced a series of outbreaks of heroic struggles over the past three years, which faced violent repression, the most notable of which was an uprising in the mining area of Gafsa which broke out spontaneously against the results of a skill test required to obtain a job in one of the big companies and developed to become a protest against corruption and the lack of job opportunities. And these protests continued for many months through rallies, sit-ins and strikes, during which two were struck dead and an unspecified number were wounded as a result of barbaric repression, in addition to dozens of arrested who are facing unjust sentences after sham trials.
And in August 2010 the situation exploded again in the south-east in protest against the closure of the “Ras Al-Jadeer” commercial border crossing which is shared with Libya. There were violent clashes in “Bin Qurdan” during those protests which resulted in many injuries amongst the demonstrators and the repressive apparatus arrested more than 150 people.
At the regional level, specifically in the Maghreb region, these movements follow the overwhelming mass struggle of the working class and toiling masses in Morocco and Western Sahara and Algeria.
Tunisia and the Maghreb region as a whole have entered the stage of revolutionary storms. These movements in which the leading role is being played by the unemployed youth, the teachers and students, are an anticipation of the rising of the workers which Tunisia and the region in general will experience sooner or later. The movements of the youth are an accurate barometer of the extent of the pressures which are building up in the depths of society. The winds of change have begun to blow the leaves of the mighty tree: the unemployed youth, the students and the teachers, and it will inevitably shake the roots: the working class. The time has come where the old mole of the revolution which has been digging underground for decades shall pop his head up, and the whole world will leap to their feet and shout with joy: “well dug old mole!
Forms of the struggle
The movement broke out, as we noted above, against the backdrop of the young Bouazizi lighting himself on fire, and this incident was followed by the attempts of other youths to commit suicide themselves, in separate regions of Tunisia. This tragic incident is evidence of the extent of the frustration and discontent that is accumulating in the depths of the youth, because of the reality of terrible poverty, unemployment, exploitation, and of being gagged for decades by a blood sucking ruling layer. Just as it is also evidence of the barbarism of the capitalist system which imposes on young people miserable and unbearable conditions, pushing them to prefer death by drowning in the sea in a desperate attempt to escape to Europe, or suicide, or drowning in the swamp of crime and drug addiction.
And when they rise up for their political rights, the dictatorial regime does not hesitate from firing live rounds at the chests and backs of the protesters, and many victims have fallen so that the system of private property and capitalist exploitation is defended.
To the families of these youth, who committed suicide in despair and in protest, and to the Tunisian working class in general, we extend our deepest condolences on the deaths of these martyrs for freedom! We regret losing them in such a way. What a heavy loss that some of the best, most educated and qualified youth of the region, are pushed to resort to suicide!
We understand the motives that drove these youth to this method of protest, and we place full responsibility for this on the system of oppression, the dictatorship of the capitalist system. However, we do not think this is the correct method for protest and struggle. While we oppose these forms of protest, we do so because we consider them not conducive to the goal of overthrowing the capitalist system and eliminating hunger and unemployment.
The struggle against unemployment, poverty and oppression requires of us, the workers and youth, to organise our ranks in revolutionary workers’ parties. To organise our struggles through democratically elected workers’ councils and popular councils. And to organise in the trade unions to fight a revolutionary class struggle through general strikes and armed uprising and other forms of popular revolutionary struggle in order to bring down the capitalist system which is responsible for all we suffer from exploitation, unemployment and oppression.
The position of imperialism
The imperialist powers considered the Tunisian dictatorial regime to be their star pupil, and this is why they never stopped praising it as “a model for the region and beyond” as David Walsh, Assistant US Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in the Bush administration, put it (Al-Horria). And it wasn’t so long ago -- November 2010 -- that the current American ambassador noted the excellent relations between Tunisia and the United States of America (Tribune Mediatique). And in the same vein, Newsweek issued a study which ranked Tunisia first place on the continent of Africa as a part of its list of the “100 best countries in the world”!
This is why the imperialists have never stopped giving support and everything required for the suppression of the Tunisian people and the perpetuation of its slavery to domestic and foreign capital. Even when the popular mass uprising broke out beginning from the area of Sidi Bouzid and it was met with fierce repression by the dictatorial regime, resulting so far in the killing of two martyrs and an unknown number of wounded and arrested, the imperialist powers preferred to cynically stand by for more than two weeks in the hope that the dictator would be able to crush his people. The French foreign ministry, in its regular press conference on Friday, used the phrase “we are watching the situation closely” when referring to developments in Algeria, whereas no comment was forthcoming on the situation in Tunisia. And when two bloggers and activists who were arrested on Thursday, France has refrained from asking publicly for their release (Now! Lebanon).
But the intifada continued despite the repression, if it wasn’t even lit further aflame by that very repression. And so imperialism changed its stance in the same way that a snake changes its skin. And so American imperialism manoeuvred yet again: “the US State Department summoned the Tunisian ambassador in Washington and expressed concern about the handling of the protests by the Tunisian authorities … and the restrictions on freedoms” (Al-Jazeera).
But the workers and youth of Tunis must be sceptical of these hypocritical pronouncements. Imperialism is the main ally of all the dictatorships in the region, it provides them with the weapons they kill us with, and it encourages them to remain perched on us. It is our enemy, not our friend, it is the primary enemy for the peoples of the whole world: in Iraq, Palestine, Venezuela and everywhere, and so we must not place any confidence in these lies, we must not be fooled by these reactionary manoeuvres. We must fight the attempts to sow illusions amongst our ranks, especially the illusion that we can rely on imperialist powers and their international institutions to stop the repression. An end to the repression can only come from our revolutionary struggle, the workers, the poor, and the youth, to bring down the regimes of oppression and exploitation, the agents of imperialism.
On the other hand it is our duty to orient towards the working class across the whole world, by issuing a call, for all those who share with us the reality of oppression and an interest in a better tomorrow, to stand with us and come out in solidarity with our struggle. Already signs are appearing and growing of a labour solidarity movement supporting our struggle, and it will gradually gain strength. No reliance on imperialism -- yes to internationalist workers’ solidarity!
The task of revolutionary worker activists
In order that these heroic struggles and heavy sacrifices are not be in vain, the militant activists, workers and revolutionaries need to organise themselves. The trade unionists and revolutionary working class activists need to put forward within the movement a transitional program springing from the most burning demands of the masses and expanding their horizons continuously by connecting them to the goal of elimination the root of injustice and oppression: the dictatorship of capital.
Recently, comrade Hamma Al-Hammami, the spokesman for the Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party, in a speech that he published on youtube, said the following about the movement and its demands and perspectives:
The masses want freedom, they do not want the shuffling around of ministers, they want freedom, freedom of association, freedom to protest, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression; they want to put an end to injustice, they want respect and dignity… The unemployed want action against unemployment, they want unemployment compensation, they want free treatment, they want free public transportation. People want concrete action against the high cost of living. They want to improve wages and income.
And this is correct! These demands and other democratic demands, “participation in the planning of the economy and the struggle against corruption, etc…” are what should be condensed, developed, and brought together in a program of struggle.
Of course we must raise the banner of a people’s trial for all those responsible for the killings and repression against the revolutionary masses, and all those responsible for plundering the wealth of the country, beginning with the criminal Ben Ali and the Mafia gang that surrounds him.
We must propose a program of struggle for the right to a job for all (women and men), work which is decent, stable and appropriate to the skills and training of the worker. No more precarious and limited contract labour, yes to permanent, stable and appropriate job contracts. Reduction of the work week to 35 hours, without loss of pay. And faced with the layoffs and corporate restructuring, working hours should be divided amongst all the workers without loss of pay! The demand should be raised for unemployment subsidy which is equal to the minimum wage, until a job appropriate to their qualifications and skills is provided. With social security and free public transportation provided for unemployed workers.
We must put forward the demand of raising the minimum wage, at the national level and in all sectors, without exception, with the imposition of the sliding scale of wages whereby wages rise in proportion to any increase in prices. And the elimination of wage discrimination on the basis of sex or age: same work, same pay! And limit the wages of state officials so that any official – anyone – is paid no more than the average workers’ wage.
We must raise the demand for the overthrow of the dictatorial capitalist system and its replacement with a system of workers’ democracy, based on the nationalisation of the most important companies, placing them under the control and management of the democratically elected workers’ and popular councils. Expropriate the expropriators!
This is how the mass intifada can be given a clear way forward, and we can ensure that the sacrifices were not in vain. This is how the Tunisian working class can avenge its martyrs and build its own system, where all the unemployment, exploitation, oppression, hunger and nightmares will be things of the past!
Tunisia has had three presidents in the past 48 hours.
A legitimate one: Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, re-elected in 2009 with 89.4% of the vote; an illegitimate one: Mohammed Ghannouchi, who took on the job on Friday even though the decision to do so contravened the Tunisian constitution; and now an interim one: Foued Mebazza, who as Speaker of the Tunisian parliament should have been given the job as soon as Mr Ben Ali was removed from office.
Now the interim President, Fouad Mebazza is working hard to put together an acting government ahead of elections which are due to be called within three months.
These are very uncertain hours in Tunisia. The country has been thrown into turmoil by a series of cataclysmic events which unfolded in the space of a few hours. That uncertainty is very apparent on the streets of the capital, Tunis.
In residential areas it looks as though mobs of stick-wielding thugs are on the loose, but on closer inspection it soon becomes clear that these are not hoodlums, but respectable, upstanding members of the community who have been reduced to desperate measures to protect their property.
I spoke to a doctor who was carrying two rocks and a wooden club in his hands.
"Do you think I want to do this?" he asked me. "Of course I don't, but I have been out here night and day for the past 48 hours. There are gangs of criminals on the loose and I have to look after what is mine."
I asked him about the police - where they were, and shouldn't they have been protecting his home?
"The police are nowhere to be seen, and anyway, they are part of the past," he said. "They were the foot soldiers of Ben Ali so no-one trusts them."
The immediate future of Tunisia is in the hands of the military. That is not to say they were part of the process that saw President Ben Ali flee. This was not a coup.
But his sudden departure, preceded by the dissolution of the government and the Tunisian parliament, has hurled the country into a crisis of unprecedented proportions and it needed some powerful institution to assert control. That is what the army is trying to do.
For the most part, the military is respected in the country, unlike the police who are reviled. So Tunisians have some understanding and tolerance for the numerous military checkpoints that they now have to go through to get from one side of Tunis to the other.
The army is trying to limit the inevitable crimewave that follows on the heels of a government collapse. There is looting, theft and general abuse happening everywhere.
As we were driving into Tunis after a journey to Hamamet we saw dozens of youths carrying boxes of yoghurt across the motorway. They were stealing from a dairy that had been abandoned in the turmoil. Soldiers had just arrived and were firing in the air to persuade the thieves to stop.
Tanks have been parked outside the state television headquarters, next to government buildings and at many main road intersections.
'We have made history'
Despite the fear and uncertainty, there is a powerful sense of achievement and rejoicing - particularly among the young. At the start of the wave of protests in the country which began four weeks ago, few would have expected to topple a government and a president who had been in power for 23 years so quickly.
Mr Ben Ali has become so much a part of national consciousness that some fear there is still a risk he might come back, that he hasn't been written out of Tunisia's story completely. All I spoke to were determined not to let him.
I spoke to a young man, Alaedine Derbala, one of a group who were standing armed with sticks and stones to protect their homes.
"We have made history," he said, "January the fourteenth will go down as a great day for Tunisia, the day we changed the country for ever.
"We got rid of a hated man and his hated family. Now we have the possibility of creating a new country.
"We have martyrs who have died for this and we can't let them down. So we cannot allow this to falter."
Alaedine expressed a view I have heard everywhere: too much has been sacrificed and too much blood has been spilt to let the hope of a democratic future fail.
Exit Ben Ali - but can Tunisia change?
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali came to power in 1987 through a constitutional coup and he appears to have been removed from power through a constitutional coup.
The key here on both occasions was not the constitution but the army.
In 1987 the army moved to secure stability as an increasingly senile and paranoid President Bourguiba threatened to bring the country to a political and economic crisis.
Today it has moved to restore that same stability by removing a president whose person and family have become synonymous with corruption, growing wealth disparities, and political repression.
The question now is whether the interim leadership council will be used to move the country towards a democratic future through meaningful political reforms, free and fair elections, a liberalised media and a new inclusive approach to rule, or whether this is a stalling tactic by the army and the regime elite to quell protests and then restore their grip on power.'Ben Ali's man'
The signs are mixed. Mr Ben Ali's departure has been described by Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi as temporary. The prime minister himself is a technocrat who was an architect of the very economic policies which the Tunisian public believe to have failed them.
He has been at the heart of the Ben Ali regime since very early on. He cannot himself be seen as anything other than Ben Ali's man, for all his oft-discussed personal integrity.
For all his language of constitutionalism, he is still backed by a state of emergency, enforced by the army and internal security forces.
Without serious reforms - and even so not within the six months pending the election - it is hard to see how this leadership council can oversee the emergence of a fully-functioning, genuinely representative form of political activism which can lead to a truly new regime.
The alternative is national government, inclusive of the various legal political parties and perhaps one or two others whom the military do not consider a threat to the stability of the country and its relations with important allies such as the US and the EU.
But the legal opposition are weak, personalised, factionalised and compromised by years of collusion with - or submission to - the Ben Ali regime.
Can they deliver anything more for the Tunisian people?
Probably not. But if democracy is going to come, the leadership council needs to make very early indications that there will be substantial reforms to the political party system, the election processes, freedom of association, civil rights and the freedom of the media well in advance of the elections.
An early end to the state of emergency and some clear indication that the committee into corruption announced a few days ago will directly address the activities of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans would go a long way towards convincing Tunisians that, this time, the promises of constitutional rule will be fulfilled, that this time national reconciliation will really mean just that, and that the army, in defending stability, will not once more succumb to the defence of authoritarian rule.
Emma Murphy is a professor at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and an expert on Tunisian affairs.
Al Jazeera's senior political analyst comments on the timing, success and meaning of the Tunisian uprising.
Marwan Bishara Last Modified: 15 Jan 2011 07:54 GMT
Nationwide public protests since mid-December have led to the toppling of Tunisia's president of 23 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, from power and his hasty departure from the country.
Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst, comments on three crucial issues.
The recent dramatic change in Tunisia has come as a surprise to most. How do you explain its success, timing and speed?
The simplest and perhaps the most accurate answer was "provided" almost a century ago by Tunisian poet Abu Al-Qasem Al-Shabi (Schebbi), in his Defenders of the Homeland which became the most popular verse in Arab poetry, and used in the Tunisian national anthem: "When people decide to live, destiny shall obey, and one day ... the slavery chains must be broken."
Unlike the short-lived uprising in neighbouring Algeria or recent socio-economic protests in other Arab countries, the popular Tunisian uprising was immediately supported by all the opposition groups, from the Islamists to the Communists, as well as by the labour unions, which helped it spread to all major parts of the country, including the influential north.
Likewise, the great degree of pent-up tension after decades of dictatorship, especially the last quarter of a century of police state under Ben Ali, allowed the situation to explode once the lid was removed in the early days of the protest against unemployment.
How does such an unpopular oppressive regime stay off the radar of the international community?
The so-called international community has been traditionally silent about totalitarian practices and abuses within its member states, except in cases where certain Western countries or powers have invoked questions of regime oppression either as a tool of foreign policy or championing the cause of human rights for public consumption.
So that when those regimes, as in Tunisia, co-operated with their Western counterparts on economic or strategic issues, their abuses of power have been generally ignored.
Much of which explains Western leaders' silence or confusion regarding the Tunisian "uprising", but their rush to support the "uprising" of the Iranian opposition following the elections last year. Call it hypocrisy.
But what does Tunisia have to offer?
For US and European leaders, Tunisia's deposed president had been considered a staunch ally in the war on terrorism and against Islamist extremism.
As it is well known and reported by international human rights groups, he exploited this Western support to crack down on peaceful dissent.
During a 2004 visit by Ben Ali to the White House, in advance of Tunisia's hosting of an Arab League summit, George Bush, the then US president, praised his guest as an ally in the war on terrorism, and praised Tunisia's reforms in "press freedom" and the holding of "free and competitive elections".
The same was repeated in 2008 by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, who praised the improved "sphere of liberties" when human rights abuses were rampant in Tunisia. In once instance, at least 200 people were prosecuted against the backdrop of socio-economic protests in one southern mining town, Redhayef.
When certain European officials criticised Tunisia's human rights record, they generally praised its economic performance.
France is Tunisia's leading trade partner and its fourth largest foreign investor, while 80 per cent of the country's trade is with the European Union.
Arguably, the neoliberal economic opening to Western investments has played no small part in the deterioration of the economic situation in Tunisia and other Arab countries.
January 14, 2011 -- The Lebanese Communist Party issued this statement in the period immediately preceding Ben Ali’s flight calling for freedom for the Communist leader Hamma Hammani and for united action by Arabs against the repression in Tunisia.
The Lebanese Communist Party calls for release of Hamma Hammami, and united Arab action against the repression in Tunisia. The regime has continued its policy of aggression against the Tunisian popular movement’s claims for bread, democracy and human rights. The prison is the only means used by the government against the intifada of the poor and the protest movement directed by political forces of the Left, Democrats, trade unions, and representatives of the public who rebelled against the dynasty and corruption that has created the savage neoliberalism whose results are summarized by galloping unemployment and impoverishment, while the pockets of the rulers swell.
Despite the dismissal of Interior Minister and Chief of Staff, President Ben Ali of Tunisia did not keep his word on the search for adequate solutions to the ramp[ant crisis rampant. Rather the opposite: the force in power have continued the policy of repression, firing into crowds and jailing political leaders, trade unionists and students, especially the voice of the Communist Workers Party, the great activist Hamma Hammami.
The Lebanese Communist Party, closely following these very distrurbing developments affirm its solidarity with the Tunisian people and its leaders. It calls on the Lebanese people to demonstrate to put an immediate end to the massacres and political repression and detention.
It also calls for the release of all detainees, first Hamma Hammami, and for respect for democratic freedoms, particularly freedom of expression and opinion.
The News Frontier — January 20, 2011 02:05 PM
Technology’s Role in Tunisia
The easiest narrative isn’t the only one that matters
Last week, as years of frustration by the Tunisian people culminated in self-immolation, street protests, and the ouster of President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, the Western media was faced with the problem of how to frame the story. It’s a story with powerful implications for political stability and power throughout the region, a story rife with drama and rich in historical significance, but also a story that many American news readers were not previously familiar with. Too many journalists faced with this challenge took the easy way out.
“In days, social media ended 54 years of dictatorship,” declared a headline on a GlobalPost piece by Mort Rosenblum. “Social Media Gets Credit For Tunisian Overthrow,” said NPR. Similar headlines ran in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, ABCNews.com, and CNN, just to name a few. Other outlets emphasized other catalysts for revolt: the accounts of lavish spending by the Tunisian government revealed by WikiLeaks cables; the Ben Ali government’s attempt to block access to those cables by its citizens. “The First WikiLeaks Revolution?” asks a headline by Foreign Policy’s Elizabeth Dickinson.
Perhaps this should be the subject of a separate piece, but I have a real pet peeve for question headlines, a growing irritation that my future-of-news beat is doing nothing at all to alleviate. An op-ed on Al Jazeera English by Noureddine Miladi hedges its bets with not one but two questions, one in the headline and one in the sub-head:
Tunisia: A media led revolution?
Are we witnessing the birth of the second republic fueled by social media?
The piece is headed by two questions, and after a rambling missive, it ends with two more: “Will the January 2011 social unrests in Tunisia turn into the first peaceful revolution to be driven by social networking sites?… Will this unabated social activism lead to a real breakthrough in the country’s democracy, the birth of the Second Republic?” (I don’t know, will it? Shrug!)
Ethan Zuckerman wrote a great piece for Foreign Policy’s website that warns writers and opinionators not to fall for the easy narrative. (His post also has a question for a headline, but since he answers his own question in the subhed, he gets a pass.) An excerpt:
Pundits will likely start celebrating a “Twitter revolution” in Tunisia, even if they missed watching it unfold…. But any attempt to credit a massive political shift to a single factor — technological, economic, or otherwise — is simply untrue. Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration, not in reaction to a WikiLeaks cable, a denial-of-service attack, or a Facebook update.
But as we learn more about the events of the past few weeks, we’ll discover that online media did play a role in helping Tunisians learn about the actions their fellow citizens were taking and in making the decision to mobilize. How powerful and significant this influence was will be something that academics will study and argue over for years to come.
It’s no stretch to say that the fact that the government has blocked its citizens’ access to the Internet was an ongoing factor in public unrest. Reporters Without Borders has consistently given Tunisia low rankings in its world press freedom index, and Secretary of State Clinton named Tunisia as among the world’s worst for Internet censorship—along with North Korea, China, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Egypt—in a speech last January. A great post on Ars Technica by Nate Anderson goes into greater detail about the extraordinary lengths the Tunisian government went to, to try to slow down organization via Facebook groups and blogs: by hacking into accounts and erasing them and by arresting bloggers and journalists, for instance. And because Tunisian media was so limited by the government, it makes sense that savvy citizens would use alternate methods of communication.
So my argument here is not about whether Twitter “caused” the revolution or merely “facilitated” it as the most efficient means of communication at hand. (GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram wrote, “So was what happened in Tunisia a Twitter revolution? Not any more than what happened in Poland in 1989 was a telephone revolution.” Clay Shirky responded in comments, “No one believes social media causes otherwise complacent citizens to become angry enough to take to the streets. It’s a convenient straw men for the skeptics, because, as an obviously ridiculous narrative, it’s easy to refute.”)
Rather, my question is about why the press has been focusing so much on this narrative in its coverage of this complex story; why, in the first day or two after the situation heated up in Tunisia enough to enter the American mainstream consciousness, this narrative was the dominant one, echoed back and forth online throughout the past week. I don’t know the answer, but I’ll offer a few ideas:
Because the medium becomes the message. Social media is a part of the story, but it is also the way that we—meaning bloggers and reporters sitting in cubicles far away from the action—have a window into the story. We’ve been trained in the past few years to monitor Twitter all day for news tips, and then to use it to drive Web traffic to the stories we write. We’ve got social media on the brain. So when we see something happening on Twitter, it feels that much more important. Twitter is our conduit of information, and it often becomes the story. As Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy put it on PBS NewsHour on Monday night,
But it’s very important to remember that Twitter didn’t cause the Tunisian revolution. Rather, it gave us a front-row seat to what happened….
Because it’s an easy story to report and write. All over the Web we saw powerful quotes about the significance of bloggers in the Tunisian revolution from…bloggers in Tunisia. This is not to say that bloggers are not a significant force for change in Tunisia. But they are surely the easiest people to get in touch with when a reporter is looking for sources for a story. Likewise, this “social media creates change” narrative is also the easiest one to grasp for those who don’t have any background knowledge of the particular history and culture of Tunisia. When news breaks, it’s our impulse to fit it into the framework of the world we already know. (“This is just like Moldova!” or “This is just like Iran!”) We should be wary of frames that fit too easily around interchangeable countries and cultures. We should push ourselves to go beyond the first impulse, stick to the facts, and if we aren’t experts, find those who are. In fact, this story is yet another argument for the necessity of foreign bureaus.
Because it’s an easy story to read. Maybe editors were afraid that readers won’t be interested in the collapse of the government in a relatively small, Arab, Muslim country in Africa, a country that most people weren’t thinking much about before a man set himself on fire. But fresh-faced kids with smartphones taking down an oppressive tyrant? That’s a heartwarming, America-friendly story everyone can get behind! Jeff Neumann on Gawker had a smart take:
We should stop trying to fit the events in Tunisia into a Western context. It simplifies things, but it also overlooks the real forces of change at work in the North African country. This isn’t about Facebook, or Wikileaks, or Twitter — it’s about the people of Tunisia being fed up with decades of marginalization at the hands of a Western-backed kleptocracy, and taking charge of their own future. […] Did social media have an effect on events in Tunisia? Undoubtedly, yes. Is this a social media revolution? Absolutely not.
And while we’re bursting bubbles here, let’s remember that while the abstract idea of “saying enough is enough” and “taking to the streets” feels inspiring from a distance, it doesn’t completely account for the reality of tear gas, riot police, and the possibility of violent retribution from a self-protective government. A man (several men, now) lit himself on fire, for a start. Read Anne Applebaum’s excellent and nuanced essay on Slate, which begins:
Violent street demonstrations, followed by the toppling of a dictator, are an exhilarating way to bring democracy to an authoritarian society. They are not, however, the best way to bring democracy to an authoritarian society.
While watching Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” unfold, remember this: Street demonstrations can unexpectedly bring extremists into power, as they did in Iran in 1979. They can create unrealistic expectations and then unravel, as did the Orange Revolution that began in Ukraine in 2004. And they can end badly, with reactionary violence, like the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square.
The questions surrounding the moral imperative of—and various methods of—
protest against an oppressive dictatorship are, of course, the subject of a much wider discussion, as is the role of the Internet in affecting political change. Those are subjects of perpetual study and debate. Every country is different, every generation is different, and every political revolution will have different, long-lasting effects on the people who participate in it. Likewise, the implications of Ben Ali’s ouster and the rippling effects of these protests in other equally oppressive environments in the region will not be known for some time.
In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that the euphoria of the Twitterati watching from the West and cheering on their brothers-in-cellphones overseas isn’t the whole story. It’s just the easiest story to tell. Because it’s the easiest story to tell, it’s bound to be the first one that gets told.
As the story continues to unfold in Tunisia, ideally we will move beyond oversimplification and provide the historical and cultural contexts necessary to understand what happened there and what will happen as a result of it. But those first, simple stories deserve scrutiny, too—especially stories like this one, where many readers don’t have much background knowledge about the region. These stories don’t always have legs; Tunisia will soon drop from the front page, and likewise drop from readers’ minds. That’s why we must stay vigilant against the double dangers of oversimplification and easy narratives. When something happens that kicks a slowly-developing international story into the mainstream, as we saw late last week, the first frames are the ones that stick.