Tunisia and the Contagion of Revolutionary Movements

posted 15 Jan 2011, 01:30 by Admin uk   [ updated 18 Feb 2011, 12:29 ]
Tunisia and the Contagion of Revolutionary Movements  

Heiko Khoo and Nadim Mahjoub

The downfall of Tunisia’s President Ben Ali and his flight from the wrath of the street, may signal the opening act of an awakening of the poor and oppressed of North African and the Arab world. The rulers of these police states are traditionally propped up by the finance and support of either the United States or European allies.   

Tunisia was a French colony from 1881 until decolonization in 1956; France retains considerable interest in Tunisia through 1174 French companies. Independence did not bring the Tunisian people a say in their own destiny. The country was plagued by a police state run by a handful of ruling families living in obscene luxury. These families plundered their country with impunity under the protection of a repressive security apparatus, that the United States so kindly helped to establish.   

Today the economy is based on tourism; this provides a cash cow to those with their hands in the till, but leaves half the country underdeveloped. Tunisia has one of the highest living standards in Africa, providing universal free education and health treatment; however, the world economic crisis exposed all that is rotten and the carefully nurtured image presented by international institutions like the IMF. With slower economic growth the internal social contradictions came to an explosive head. In the last two years, European export markets declined, food prices rose, and life for the swelling ranks of the young unemployed became unbearable.

Tunisia’s street protests began in December last year, when an unemployed man killed himself by self-immolation after police shut down his market-stall. This spark captured the collective anger of the army of unemployed youth -some 40 percent of graduates are without work.

The protests spread from city to city, but despite dozens killed in clashes with the police, the rebellion increased in intensity. Socialist and communist factions lead some unions, including the postal workers. Strikes in the city of Sfax drew in powerful public sector unions and gained nearly total support of the workers. The protestors also count in their ranks university students, professors, journalists, lawyers, and in all probability they have sympathy within the lower ranks of the officer caste. No wonder Ben Ali was suddenly granted an indefinite holiday abroad!

The leadership of the military feared that their forces were unreliable instruments of repression. The army is based on universal conscription, including women; in recent protests the armed forces proved susceptible to fraternisation. In addition police wages are low and endemic corruption makes these forces unstable.

The Tunisian ruling elite will undoubtedly attempt to pacify the protests, most likely they will grant democratic elections and provide some space for greater political participation. However, as the social unrest is rooted in opposition to both economic and political dictatorship, demands for fundamental change may take a similar form to those in Latin America -where in recent years -the Constituent Assembly acted as a focal point to transform society.

Revolutionary crises and change often appear in similar robes regardless of the geographical setting. Isolated and separate local and national conflicts merge into common cause, contagiously forming into mass psychology and consciousness. A process Marx described as ideas becoming a material force.

The peoples of North Africa have observed a year of protests in Britain, Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and France; these events have undoubtedly had a big psychological impact. The demands of protestors in Tunisia and Algeria have been focused primarily on the socio-economic needs of the poor. Islamic fundamentalism has not played a significant role. We can expect that recent events in Tunisia will be repeated elsewhere in the region.