In the wake of the ousting of entrenched Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Horace Campbell reflects on events in the country, regional implications and the inspirational example of the Tunisian people in organising for a new future.
The full explosion of the Tunisian revolutionary process is now taking root across Africa, far beyond the town of Sidi Bouzid, from where Mohammed Bouazizi had sent a message to youths all across the world that they should stand up against oppression. The overthrow and removal of the dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011 was an important stage in this revolution. When this dictator (who was a top ally of the USA and France) fled to Saudi Arabia, dictators and corrupt party leaders all over the world trembled as the popular power in the streets found support in all parts of Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe. This revolution in Tunisia is a typical example of the self-mobilisation of ordinary people for their own emancipation, independent of a vanguard party or self-proclaimed revolutionaries. The iteration of the Tunisian revolution in other parts of Africa and the Middle East is fast becoming a pattern that speaks volume about the nature of 21st century revolutions.
At the time of writing this piece, the revolution is going through the third stage where the popular forces are seeking a drastic change in the politics of the society and demanding new order in Tunisia based on freedom, democracy and social justice. In short, the people were calling for a form of popular democracy that moves beyond alienation, and beyond the separation of politics and economics. The first stage of the revolution started with the self-immolation and self-sacrifice of Mohammed Bouazizi in the region of Sidi Bouzid. The unemployed graduate Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest police brutality after they harassed and stopped him from selling fruits and vegetables, which was his only means of a livelihood. The second stage involved the mass organisation and the deployment of new networks for revolution among the youth and the working people, leading to the popular overthrow of the dictator. The third stage involved the merger of the caravans of liberation into Tunis, the capital with the break in the ranks of the forces of coercion. It was at this stage that the true revolutionary character of the self-organisation started to emerge. At this third stage, the prolonged popular protest of the organised poor emerged, with women and youth taking the lead in calling for the arrest of the dictator and for a new government of the people. It is at this delicate stage of this revolution that it is most necessary for revolutionaries all over the world to stand together with the Tunisians, and to draw the positive lessons that can spread the revolution like a fire to burn off the corruption and destruction of capitalism and neoliberalism.
The capitalist classes have been wounded in Tunisia and they want to do all within their power to contain this new wave of revolution. However, their ability to undermine this revolution will depend on the vigilance and support of revolutionaries internationally. We must remember that revolutions are made by ordinary people and that there are millions who want a new form of existence where they can live like decent human beings. In another era of capitalist depression and war, it was C.L.R. James who commented that, ‘That is the way a revolution often comes, like a thief in the night, and those who have prepared for it and are waiting for it do not see it, and often only realise that their chance has come when it has passed.’
James was referring to the Chinese masses who had led the way in the revolutionary process in China. The real point of Tunisia, as in China, is that in every revolutionary situation it is the real action of human beings taking to the streets, defying the police and fighting with courage and imagination that changes society. Revolutionaries should grasp the epoch-making process that is now underway in the world. How this epoch-making process will mature across Africa, Europe and Asia will depend on the politics and organisations that shape the movement in the coming weeks and months. Revolutionaries must learn the positive lessons: the new pattern of 21st century revolution, the new forces of revolution and the new tools of revolutionary struggles that are being fashioned by those who are making sacrifices for a new mode of social existence.
SELF-IMMOLATION, SACRIFICES AND SELF-ORGANISATION
Within a month, the narrative in the international media on Tunisia has changed completely. Prior to the present uprising against the capitalist classes and the dictator, Tunisia was represented in the Western media as a stable free-market economy that was a symbol of the success of capitalism, a top ally of the USA in the war against terrorism. Tunisia was the choice destination for European tourists as the same European states shut their doors to migrants from Africa. Behind the image of Tunisia as a stable tourist resort where Europeans could relax was the reality of repression, corruption, censorship and massive exploitation of the people. The concentration and centralisation of wealth and power in the hands of the ruling family alienated even members of the capitalist classes, who were locked out of the inner circles of opulence and obscene wealth. In the midst of struggle, there was unemployment and suffering. Mohammed Bouazizi, a youth who had sought to dignify his existence by becoming a fruit and vegetable seller, decided to make a sacrifice to make a stand against oppression and made a break with the politics of obedience.
Mohammed Bouazizi, like millions of youths across the world, wanted a new world. He had studiously gone through school only to find that the economy did not have a place for him. He created his own space by becoming a fruit and vegetable vendor in the town. But even in this capacity, the society had no room for the creativity of the youth so the police harassed him continuously and on 17 December 2010 confiscated his vegetable cart. Bouazizi was the principal breadwinner of his family and decided to make a stand against oppression. After unsuccessfully complaining to the local authorities, he burnt himself as an act of protest. He did not die immediately and his sacrifice acted as an inspiration for others to resist oppression and to popularise his action.
The other youths in Sidi Bouzid took up his cause and carried messages of his self-immolation across Tunisia and beyond. As the youth mobilised and took to the streets with ‘a rock in one hand, a cell phone in the other,’ their message cracked the walls of censorship to the point where the dictator himself sought to mollify this rebellion by going to the hospital to try to contain the anger of the youth and blunt the rising protest. In an effort to gain support of the youth, the government decided to declare 2011 the year of the youth. But the youths were not waiting for a dictator to declare the year for them; they were bent on taking the year and making the break for a new decade.
Mohammed Bouazizi joined his ancestors on 4 January, expiring from the self-immolation, but his act of sacrifice had acted as a spark to impress on the youths the importance of intentionality to make a break with the old forms of oppression. The rebellion that had been sparked by the action of Bouazizi took over the region of Sidi Bouzid and moved from spontaneous actions of solidarity to an organised resistance that brought in new forces who recognised the determination of the youths. From the spontaneous actions of the youths, the rebellion took on an all-class character as teachers, lawyers, workers, trade unionists, small scale entrepreneurs and other social forces joining in this first phase of the revolution. Within a week of the passing of Mohammed Bouazizi, the revolution had spread to Tunis and the masses had joined in the streets to topple the dictatorship.
THE FALL OF THE ZINE AL-ABIDINE BEN ALI REGIME
Ben Ali was like so many other African leaders who had joined the anti-colonial struggles only to take over the habits and behaviour of the colonialists. Tunisia had become independent in 1956 and the ruling party developed authoritarian principles as it sold itself as a base for Western capitalism. The more the society ingratiated itself with the West, the more the ruling sections of the political class felt a sense of impunity, believing that Western support could shield them from popular opposition. In the case of Ben Ali, he had not only supported a rabid form of corruption, his regime earned praise as one of the firmest supporters of the war against terrorism.
This support of France and the USA concealed the economic terrorism of capitalism, but as the global economic depression took its toll on the people, there were protests to reveal the extent of the terror and corruption of the dictator who had been in power since 1987. The ruling party was dominated by the national capitalist class, as well as the foreign multinationals and banks that cooperated to establish free-trade zones where workers could not organise. Unemployment and poverty among the youth had made them a pool of cheap reserve labour to be manipulated by religious and political leaders, but youths such as Mohammed Bouazizi had risen above the politicisation of religion. When the rebellion spread to Tunis by 10 January, the maturation of years of agitation immediately manifested itself in the slogans of the rebellion:
‘Down with the party of thieves, down with the torturers of the people.’
These slogans of rebellion resonated with all sections of the oppressed and initially Ben Ali dismissed the demonstrations as terrorists as the police shot and killed unarmed civilians. Ben Ali called the demonstrations the work of masked gangs ‘that attacked at night government buildings and even civilians inside their homes in a terrorist act that cannot be overlooked’. This reflex of calling the bogey of terrorism did not scare the people, and by Thursday 13 January the anger of the families of those shot in cold blood was buttressed by the maturation of the popular resistance to the dictatorship. The president’s billionaire son-in-law ran away and by Friday Ben Ali, who had promised the masses that he would not stand for the presidency in 2014, fled the country. While in flight even his imperialist allies deserted him. It was only the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi who had the temerity to castigate the Tunisian people for removing Ben Ali from power. Gadaffi spoke for the other dictators across Africa and the Middle East when he said in a televised address that, ‘You [Tunisians] have suffered a great loss. There is none better than Zine [Ben Ali] to govern Tunisia.’
Gaddafi exposed the fact that the African unity that he represented was the unity of dictators. But even as he spoke the revolution was moving to the third stage as the caravans of liberation converged on Tunis as the ideas and principles of self-organisation and self-emancipation spread across Africa. Initially, other European leaders were silent, but as the gravity and seriousness of the Tunisian workers and youth became a force in international politics the government of Switzerland froze the accounts of Ben Ali and his family. Former allies of Ben Ali such as the leaders of the USA and France distanced themselves from his rule as the images of revolution from Tunisia spread through mainstream media rising from the networks of social media to the mainstream. In this information warfare, the news outlet Al Jazeera acted as a source of information connecting the struggles throughout the world of dictators and despots.
INTENTIONALITY, SELF-ORGANISATION, SELF-MOBILISATION AND SELF-EMPOWERMENT
When the second stage of the revolution was maturing, the interim government closed schools and universities in an attempt to blunt the youth energy. After the universities reopened, there were new demonstrations across Tunisia as teachers and students called a general strike. The full expression of a worker–student alliance was beginning to take shape as workers occupied workplaces while setting up committees to run their workplaces. It is this advanced consciousness of worker control that is slowly taking shape as the revolution of Tunisia experiment with networks of networks beyond the old standards of democratic centralism and other worn ideas of revolutionary organisation and the vanguard party. Social media and social networking may represent one of the forms of this revolutionary process, but the character is still embedded in the self-organisation and self-emancipation of the oppressed. It is this powerful force of self-emancipation that is acting as an inspiration and beating back vanguardists, whether secular or religious.
In order to discredit this revolutionary process, the Western media has been running the bogey that Islamists would be the beneficiaries of the revolution. But the women of Tunisia have demonstrated clearly that they are not going to be sidelined in a revolutionary process. These women, inside and outside of Tunisia, have been organising for decades and will not be silenced in this moment of revolution. What was visible from the images in Tunisia was the centrality of women and youths in this revolutionary process. Women in Tunisia had been organising for decades against patriarchy and other forms of male domination. It was one of the societies where the women had stood firm against the fundamentalists who wanted to control the bodies and minds of women. These women made common cause with the youths and other sections of the working people to form the backbone of the revolution. Their presence and firmness acted as a barrier to the kind of vanguardism that could be claimed by sections of the opposition. Hence as Ben Ali fled, all of the socialists, communists, Islamists, trade unionists, human rights workers, rappers and other social forces emerged on the political stage of Tunisia. The placards and slogans that proclaimed ‘vive la révolution’ were a manifestation that all over the country, from south to north, there had been a burning desire for change.
This burning desire for change was most clearly expressed in the expressions of workers and poor farmers from the rural areas, who converged on Tunis as they chanted: ‘We have come to bring down the rest of the dictatorship.’ They did this in defiance of a curfew and state of emergency. They had travelled through the night in a caravan of cars, trucks and motorcycles from towns across the rocky region far from Tunisia's luxurious tourist beaches.
I was in West Africa as this revolution unfolded. Everywhere I went, youths and other workers were anxiously following the revolution as the mass resistance spread to Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. In all of the societies I visited there were young people who wanted to know more about what was happening in revolution. Bouazizi’s action sends a major lesson to youths across Africa and the pan-African world. This lesson is embedded in the significance of his self-immolation. Bouazizi’s self-immolation signifies self-sacrifice, different from the actions of suicide bombers. In a world where disgruntled elements take to suicide bombing as a weapon of coercion and protestation, Bouazizi stands out as an oppressed and disgruntled youth who wanted to make a sacrifice for revolution without violence and the killing of innocent souls. Youths do not have to embark on self-immolation as a sacrifice for a better tomorrow. But ultimately, they must be ready to make some sacrifices for self-emancipation, instead of being passive or offering themselves as tools of manipulation and suppression in the hands of the ruling elites.
In a period when alienated youths are open to manipulation by conservative forces to shoot up innocent persons or to make themselves into suicide bombers, the action of Mohammed Bouazizi marked a new phase of youth action. This new phase was manifest in the statement by some Tunisian revolutionaries: ‘Mohammed Bouazizi has left us a testament. We will not abandon our cause.’
WHITHER THE REVOLUTIONARY PROCESS?
Far from retreating from the streets, the demonstrations and positive actions of the people have galvanised others in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. The more the Tunisians made demands for the arrest of Ben Ali and his family, the more Western leaders sought to limit the damage and call for stability and social peace. But what is really being called for is the protection of local and international capital. The Western capitalists fear the socialists, progressive feminists, trade unionists and youths who are determined to build a new basis for economic relations where the wealth of the society would be organised for the well-being of the people. Already, there is a discussion of the full nationalisation of the assets that were previously owned by the Ben Ali family. This discussion of nationalisation stirs fear in the ranks of other capitalists who want to inherit the politics and economic base of Ben Ali.
How this process will develop in Tunisia will depend on the politics and organisations that shape the movement in the coming weeks and months. As one socialist organ proclaimed:
‘Tunisia needs a new democratic government which represents the national and popular will of the people and represents its own interests. And a system of this type cannot emerge from the current system and its institutions or its constitution and its laws, but only on its ruins by a constituent assembly elected by the people in conditions of freedom and transparency, after ending the tyranny.’
Revolution is a process, not an event. The revolutionary process in Tunisia is maturing with twists and turns. Those progressive forces in the imperialist centres must organise so that the militarists in the West do not prop up the dictators to hijack the process as the people begin to register a new historical era. The people have risen with confidence. They want a break with capitalist exploitation and corrupt leaders. Self-organisation and self-emancipation for social and economic transformation will take the popular forces from one stage of consciousness to the next.
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