Revolution #243, August 21, 2011

From A World to Win News Service

Report from Tunisia: why the revolt happened

May 30, 2011. A World to Win News Service. Following is the second instalment of a report written for AWTWNS by Samuel Albert. The first instalment described what the revolt in Tunisia achieved and how it took place. This instalment discusses the underlying and triggering factors behind this revolt. 


The Internet and the global web of economic and political relations 

If poverty alone were enough to set off revolt, Tunisia would have been one of the last Arab countries to explode. It is among the most socially and economically developed of the non-oil exporting Arab countries. Few people go hungry or have nowhere to live. Tunis has nothing like the slums of Cairo—nor its displays of wealth. Yet Tunisia is also a country where the minimum wage is about $216 a month and many people wish they could make that much, if they can find work at all. 

A lot more people have Internet connections than have flush toilets in Sidi Bouzid, the town in the interior where the revolt began. About a quarter of the slightly more than 10 million Tunisians have some Net access, and there are two million Facebook accounts. Images of Sidi Bouzid and the spreading uprising were brought to nearly every home by Al Jazeera. 

Many Tunisians are directly connected to the rest of the world, and they are acutely aware of what the modern world has to offer that is denied to them. They want to know why.

Tunisia's place in the international network of economic, political and social relations is what constitutes the stage on which the various actors in the revolt played their part. Like other Third World countries, its economy is organized according to the needs of the world market, which is not a flat playing field but an expression of the division of the world into monopoly capitalist countries and the oppressed countries whose economies are subordinated to foreign finance capital. Because of the domination of capital based in New York, London, Paris and so forth, instead of developing national economies where the various branches of industry and agriculture more or less fit together, the different parts of their economies are more connected to the international market than to each other.

Tunisia, considered a model by the IMF, has had the highest growth rate in Africa, an average of about five percent over several decades. But its economic subordination has held back a far greater potential development, and the distorted development the country has experienced is a major source of the people's misery. 

A central question in Tunisia, as in other oppressed countries, is agriculture. In Europe and the U.S. farming is subsidized because food self-sufficiency is a prerequisite for an independent and balanced national economy. In ancient times Tunisia fed much of the Mediterranean world. Now the best land in the region along the coast is used for a handful of export crops and the rest neglected. 

Investment goes to where it can be most profitable, to plunder resources for export in industries like phosphate mining that contribute little to overall development, and to the coastal region (where roads aren't needed because goods are shipped abroad by sea), while most agriculture stagnates for lack of resources, even phosphate-based fertilizer. Whole sections of the people in the interior are pulled into the coastal cities to work in export-dependent light industry and call centers and other services provided to Europe, while the rest of the people and country are left to rot. The market-driven international division of labor and organization of the global economy determines development in every corner of Tunisia, both where investment reaches and where it doesn't. The relative underdevelopment of the interior that is a result of the dominance of imperialist capital makes investment more profitable by bringing down the cost of labor throughout the country. 

Now once again tourism is being promoted as Tunisia's salvation. Even if the rate of a million tourists a year could be sustained—let alone vastly increased—in today's global economic situation, this "industry" has already proved itself a destroyer of nations.

The prostitution that has inevitably accompanied it is the ugliest facet of a trade whose basic reason for existence is not Tunisia's natural beauty or its archaeological wonders but the inequality that makes it cheap and turns its people into servants instead of offering them the opportunity to contribute and develop their talents. The more tourism grows and gobbles resources, the worse it is for the environment and a balanced national development that could make possible the all-around development of human beings.

In fact, one of Tunisia's main exports is its people. At any given moment one in ten Tunisians lives abroad, half of them in France and the rest in Italy, Libya and other countries. Most are workers, sometimes in services because of their language skills. They also include teachers, technicians, engineers and other professionals who are a bargain for the countries where they work, not only because of salary inequality but even more because the cost of their education is borne by Tunisians. It is an advantage for Tunisia that so many of its people know the world, but this situation is also a huge drain on its potential and one of the many sources of national humiliation.

Since Ben Ali fell and the security services began to falter in patrolling Tunisia's shorelines and coastal waters, tens of thousands of Tunisians have embarked in small boats trying to escape a dead-end life. Probably thousands have drowned or died of thirst trying to reach a Europe that is still eager to exploit them there, although in far smaller numbers than before the current financial crisis. These deaths are a dreadful human indicator of how much the international market and the oppressive economic and political relations it represents have imprisoned Tunisia, and how much the country's development has come at the expense of its people.

Tunisia and global economic crisis

Many, maybe most Tunisians blame Ben Ali for this situation, as do some international experts. It's important to see what's true and not true about that, especially if your viewpoint is how Tunisia could become radically different and not just how Humpty Dumpty could be put back together again.

The Ben Ali regime was based on a patronage system largely organized around family ties. Looking downward, this meant a system of political favors right down to the poorest neighborhood. Whether or not you got a job or a health care card or other things depended on your ties to the regime and who you were related to (and being related to the wrong people, such as a regime opponent, would mean constant trouble). Looking upward, it meant that the biggest sources of wealth were in the hands of the family of Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi. Nothing could be done without bribes, and anyone starting a major business had to give the ruling "clan" a stake in their company. The importance of inherited personal relationships throughout this relatively developed economy and society seems to be a holdover from feudal and other pre-capitalist social relations.

Similarly to Syria and Egypt, when Ben Ali's liberalization of what was once a state-enterprise-dominated economy began to put old and new enterprises into private hands, more fully bringing market forces into play, that led to a greater concentration of wealth among fewer people—people associated with the dominant "clan."

This may have been a serious drag on capitalist development, since it made foreign investors reluctant to do business in Tunisia and held back and even locked out some major domestic capitalists. This is the opinion expressed by the U.S. ambassador in a cable to Washington exposed by WikiLeaks last year. It may also be true, as some Tunisians argue, that there was a split between the capitalist and landowner "clan" associated with Ben Ali and the "clan" associated with Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president after independence, from whom Ben Ali seized power in a palace coup. 

But it is not true that the concentration of wealth among an increasingly smaller circle; the instability and deteriorating conditions faced by those who considered themselves middle class; and the increasing inability of the country's health care, educational and other social welfare systems to deliver on what Tunisians consider their rightful entitlements; can be explained only or even mainly by "kleptocracy," the boundless greed of the regime "clan." These developments are common not only to the Arab countries and the Third World but most of the capitalist world today. This kind of polarization is a general feature of capitalist accumulation under the conditions of the necessities and current economic crisis faced by the global imperialist system, even though this works out differently in different countries.

The dynamics of a political crisis

All this sets the stage for what happened, but it doesn't at all mean that the masses were simply pawns in someone else's game. The mass revolt intensified the development of splits within the ruling class, which in turn encouraged the development of the mass movement. One of the least understood and most important factors is the dynamic interaction of various sections of the people themselves 

When people can no longer live in the old way

For decades the regime remained unthreatened and nothing happened because it was "common knowledge" that nothing ever could happen. Most people were silent and passive because they thought everyone else would remain silent and passive. Then, when youth in the interior towns took Bouazizi's tragic suicide as a signal that they, too, had nothing to lose, and teachers encouraged them in throwing stones at the police while lawyers and artists spoke up for them, that made students and other youth in the big cities, especially Tunis, much braver and determined to go over from the Net to the street. All this in turn reacted back on the provincial rebellions. 

The  January 12 demonstration in Sfax (the country's second-biggest city but one disfavored in comparison with other coastal cities) seems to have played a pivotal role in bringing the provincial revolt to the capital. This was the first big demonstration to openly demand that Ben Ali get out. But while it was the biggest protest up to then, it was still probably only about 30,000 people. Its political significance was far more important than its size.

Not only had the regime lost its legitimacy, it had lost its ability to terrorize a growing number of people, even in the country's urban centers, and this of course made it lose even more legitimacy in the eyes of its own supporters and wavering elements. Suddenly instead of everyone at least tolerating the regime, "everyone" was against it.

It is remarkable that the regime party, which claimed to have a million members, was not able to organize more support. It has been argued that with privatization and the disastrous decline in public services, the ruling party became unable to deliver favors to the worse-off sections of the people who had been most dependent on them. According to some scholars, the lower classes were a more dependable base of support for the ruling party (RCD) than some of the better-off families who, for instance, might prefer to see a private doctor and thus not really need a state health-care card. An activist in Sidi Bouzid explained that the ruling party leadership was more used to deploying its supporters as thugs than as political activists. According to regime figures, 20 percent of the population of Sidi Bouzid were RCD members, one of the highest concentrations in the country.

The regime called for its masses in the capital to rally to its support on the morning of January 14, and the police, unable to identify who was who, at first did not try to stop people from assembling on Bourguiba avenue. Even if the crowd might have included pro-regime people, it ended up solidly united against the police and their chief, Ben Ali. 

Who led the revolt 

In speaking with dozens of people, including some who said they were among the main organizers of these events, one of the most striking things is this: few people, if any, got involved in this movement with the idea that they were going to drive out Ben Ali.

It's not that no one wanted to. Today nearly everyone says how happy they were to see him go. But very few people in Tunisia (and leading experts on Tunisia abroad) thought that the regime would ever fall in the sudden and dramatic way it did. What most people hoped for, at best, was a gradual opening, a process of gaining democratic rights. Few people, if anyone, openly called for the regime to be overthrown until close to the very end, or even after Ben Ali fled. The leader of the PCOT, Hamma Hammami, said that his party was "practically the first" to issue such a call, on January 10, four days before the end, when the slogan "Ben Ali clear out!" suddenly swept the country.

Overnight, it seemed like a whole people were chanting it in unison, thrilled to be able to shout those words as loudly as they could and hardly able to believe their ears.

In a tumultuous mass interview in a café on Bourguiba avenue that began with a half-dozen university students and younger teenagers and eventually involved many of their friends, they contended that they (some of them specifically, but more generally other youth like them) were the only ones to call for "the revolution," even though those who came to the biggest demonstrations involved a far broader sampling of society. Even their elders grudgingly admit that this was the case in Tunis, although they argue that support from lawyers' organizations (a key force), artists and especially the trade unions gave the movement its power.

None of what happened was planned by anyone. Most of the left on a national level was held back by their belief that only gradual change was possible. Youth with less fully developed political views acted spontaneously and took the lead, not by "organizing" the movement but by setting its terms and pushing it ahead in the belief that they would win because their cause was just—without being at all clear on what "winning" would be.

There are antecedents to the revolt, notably an upsurge in the southern phosphate mining town of Gafsa in 2008, sparked by miners' widows protesting the fact that jobs in the industry were going to people with regime connections instead of their sons. Interior cities like Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, Redeyef and Gafsa all saw sharp outbreaks during 2010. Police repression always followed. In the capital, while open political life, especially demonstrations, was not allowed and many people suffered arrests and other forms of persecution, and while the media and other forms of public expression were muzzled, still it seems that consciously or not, the opposition had achieved a certain modus vivendi with the regime, which refrained from fiercer repression as long as people kept their political work low-profile and their demands within certain bounds. Revolutionary work and any call for Ben Ali's overthrow were definitely not allowed, but frankly, it seems that people who consider themselves revolutionaries went over to adapting themselves almost totally to what they were allowed to do.

Their idea was that by working through legal channels and organizations, raising and organizing people around legal demands that did not challenge the whole economic and political system, and not challenging traditional thinking and social relations, gradually the masses of people would become conscious of the need for political liberty, and once that was achieved, the conditions would be prepared for more revolutionary changes.

They thought that if they tried to lead a revolutionary movement before the masses of people were ready for that, they would be isolated. But then when a political crisis broke out and many people—a minority of the population but still a critical mass—decided that they could not live in the old way, the left was caught unprepared and could not fully connect with that opportunity. The youth, it turned out, suddenly became far more radical than the cynical leftists who thought they had a "realistic" plan for gradual change.

Some people abroad claim that the revolt in Tunisia was essentially a trade union movement, but that's half wrong and half misleading. It's wrong because the unions followed the youth, who had no organizations, and misleading because until nearly the end the main organizations that did take part were those of teachers and others members of the intelligentsia. Furthermore, the debate about how much the leftists working through the unions and other groups helped spread the revolt is beside the point, because all they did was help people do what they were already doing spontaneously.

What they did not do, and what no one did, was lead this movement in the sense of striving to impart a conscious direction, even in a limited sense of driving out Ben Ali, much less trying to transform the spontaneous movement into a conscious movement to seize power and begin the kind of revolutionary transformations that could actually satisfy people's needs and demands.

There's not much evidence for the claim that these events were the result of a gradual accumulation of organization and consciousness over the last few years, either among the majority of people, or even the few hundreds and thousands who first revolted and the hundreds of thousands who actively joined in during the last few days. It could be argued that yes, there were outbreaks and righteous struggles, but they were defeated, and wasn't that a negative factor weighing on people?

People's desire for change, and especially whether or not they acted on that desire, was interrelated with whether or not they thought that was possible. There was a confluence of dynamically interacting factors that came together to produce a situation in which, almost overnight, the ruling classes could not rule in the old way and the people were no longer willing to go on living in the old way either, and these two conditions—which Lenin said define a revolutionary situation—reverberated back and forth.

It is hard to write about these complex interactions without falling into simplistic literary devices, but the point is that the extremely powerful dynamics within such situations can transform individuals, whole sections of the people and the political landscape overnight.

When the ruling classes can no longer rule in the old way

French capital and France's "political class" were very closely supportive of Ben Ali, just as they had been with his predecessor and fellow "strong man" Bourguiba. But as the American ambassador's memos indicate, the U.S. became quite willing to see Ben Ali go—and the U.S. had acquired considerable influence in Tunisia, especially among the armed forces who are largely American-equipped. Such armaments are not just an expression of political support, but can also be a source of political influence, since they mean that the Tunisian military trains and works closely with their American counterparts.

Serious observers agree that what forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia on January 14 was not that the mass upheaval could no longer be repressed but that the armed forces refused to fully step in when the police and other security services could no longer do so. A Tunisian newspaper reported that Ben Ali asked the armed forces to bomb Kasserine in December, but they disobeyed. It is known that the army—at the top levels—refused to give the order for tanks to fire on demonstrators in Tunis.

Regime loyalists apparently tried to force the armed forces to intervene through deliberate provocations, including the snipers said to have fired on the crowds—many dead were reportedly shot in the head or chest from above—and the mysterious roaming squads that spread random terror in the neighborhoods on Ben Ali's last night. If violence became generalized, they seemed to think, the army could no longer maintain its somewhat standoffish attitude toward the revolt. But in forcing the army's hand, that hand seems to have struck at them instead.

What changed Ben Ali's mind between the evening of 13th, when the 75-year-old went on TV to announce the previously unthinkable "concession" that he would not run for election again in 2014, and some time the following late afternoon when he and his wife were bundled aboard an airplane? It has been widely reported, and never denied, that armed forces chief of staff Rachid Ammar told him that if the crowds marched on the presidential palace that day, his safety could no longer be guaranteed. Some people think Ammar put it less politely. At any rate, it is hard to believe the general made that decision unless he was confident that the "international community" and particularly the U.S. would go along with it. American representatives speaking from Washington and political and military bigwigs visiting Tunis have expressed warm support for the Tunisian armed forces ever since.

The U.S. and certainly France did not want to see a representative of their interests fall and they especially did not want the common people to taste the blood of their oppressors, politically speaking, but they may have considered the alternative—a long and bloody struggle with unpredictable consequences in Tunisia and throughout the region—even worse.

The cohesion of the armed forces and their loyalty to their foreign paymasters gave the imperialists a certain freedom to dump Ben Ali, knowing that the heart of the state, its ability to enforce the prevailing economic and social relations through violence, would remain intact. At the same time, it was clear that if Ben Ali were allowed to cling to the presidency too long and the army supported him in that, its authority and legitimacy in the eyes of the people and maybe its cohesion would be in danger.

It is no disrespect of the people and their accomplishments to point this out, and even to point out that a movement with more revolutionary goals probably would have met with more resistance.

A regime, or the core of a regime, has fallen, but the economic and political system remains intact.

The old political forces are desperately fighting for their legitimacy, but they are still strong, and they can count on the force of habit and the old ways of understanding the world among the masses of people. It is not widely understood that the armed forces are ultimately the local representative of imperialist domination and the enforcer of the imperialist world market, and their guns and fighting organization remain untouched. Even among those who were more advanced in terms of setting the terms for the revolt and in that way pushing it forward, not many people understand how Tunisia and the world could be completely different, so naturally they fall prey to ideas and political trends that basically seek a more or less different version of the world as it is. 

 It is precisely because of this complex and contradictory situation that the question of  leadership is so acutely posed in Tunisia.

To be continued


A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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