Sunday 16 January 2011

Tunisia: A Domino Falls

There are moments when history speeds up, when mighty events are compressed into and play themselves out over a matter of hours and days. So it has been with the ignominious collapse of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's 23 year rule in Tunisia. No long and drawn out process. No gradual assumption of the president's power by parliament. The Tunisian masses took to the streets in the face of brutal repression and toppled Ben Ali's gang from high office. And now the dictator has fled to Saudia Arabia, long the Costa Brava of forcibly retired tyrants, Tunisia's remaining political and military elites struggle to funnel the uprising down the constitutional road.

Ben Ali's regime is the first to meet its end by revolutionary means since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer fella. Bu while the events in Tunis and elsewhere are inspiring is there a possibility Tunisia could be a retread of Eastern Europe's colour-coded revolutions? These were, to dust off a Trotskyist concept, political revolutions. Corrupt and authoritarian governments were swept from power by concerted mass action from below, but capitalism generally and the oligarchical spawn of mass privatisations particularly retained their class power and class privilege. They were very much a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss - albeit punctuated by a revolutionary interregnum.

The Tunisian revolution however significantly diverges from this "model". The Ben Ali regime was prepared to use violence, torture and repression against its own population to a degree not seen in Eastern Europe. This meant grievances and contradictions accumulated without outlet for a long period of time to the point where all of society was a tinderbox. What passed for liberal democracy was even more transparently fraudulent. Both meant the upwelling of anger was stronger and more self-sustaining than the colour code revolutions. And once the revolutionary tide rose and swamped the security apparatus, the military point blank refusal to put down the uprising.

This point is particularly interesting because of its possible strategic consequences. While the military are currently occupying key parts of Tunisia's infrastructure the agencies directly responsible for attacking demonstrations and murdering protesters have more or less dissolved. The head of Ben Ali's secret police has been arrested by the army-backed interim government, neighbourhoods are organising their own self-defence squads and, according to the Tunisia Scenario blog, all that is left of the police are the murderous elements most associated with the regime. Indeed, it appears the military has acquired some prestige because it appears to stand above society, helping push out Ben Ali when the writing was on the wall and making half-hearted efforts at protecting the people from death squads and other regime detritus.

If the latter interview with a CWI correspondent is accurate and no revolutionary opposition exists that can deepen the process at the moment, it seems unlikely the political revolution will pass over into social revolution. The stance of the military, whether by the general staff's deliberate design and/or
fear of a rank-and-file revolt may have the effect of dampening anger toward it and the Tunisian ruling class because of its disassociation from Ben Ali. But it is too early to say. Rising food prices were responsible for touching off a conflagration of the accumulating contradictions and were in turn amplified by Ben Ali's stupid brutality. At present the interim government have announced an election within the next 45 days but crucially the underlying grievances - spiralling prices, a slowing economy, mass youth unemployment - remain unaddressed.

Elections are traditionally a tool used by ruling elites to diffuse a revolutionary situation, but if underground parties like the Workers' Communist Party or legal but hitherto supine left opposition parties such as the ex-communist Movement for Renewal can merge with the masses and make their demands their own there's an opportunity a blow could be struck for democracy and the road be opened to a socialist future. If the nascent and ad hoc neighbourhood self-defence groups remain, the trade unions - driven from below - continue to press their claims, and the people carry on flooding the streets with protests and demonstrations the coming election could be a moment in the revolution's consolidation, not its dissipation.

Tunisia could light a touch paper that spreads like revolutionary wildfire across the Arab world and beyond.
Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt can already feel the flames licking at their feet. Even Saudi Arabia has experienced a rare protest! The overall balance of forces are beginning to shift across the region. With sustained struggle and determined action, the dictatorial obscenities of the Middle East could be entering their final days. Let despots everywhere tremble as the revolutionary gale howls about their ears.


bob said...

Very good post Phil. (Except maybe the phrase "merge with the masses". How do vanguard parties do that? ;)

Phil said...

Ah, some official vanguard parties are/were mass parties. In the hot house atmos of Tunisian politics you can't rule out the TWCP or the Movement for Renewal managing to pull it off!

David Ellis said...

Didn't know you were a state capitalist. The orthodox trot position would surely be that Yeltsin headed a social counter revolution?

Anyway, the only way the revolution in Tunisia can be consolidated is if it goes over into a proletarian one. Of course if the working class are not at this moment in a position to take power through whatever ad hoc governmental forms have been thrown up by the revolution (and no doubt they are not) a stop gap demand will be for free elections to a new constituent assembly. But we should be clear that liberal democracy cannot survive long in semi-colonial nations before counter-revolution in one form or another finds its feet. Stalinism will settle for the democratic revolution and hand the power to the national bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie and through it to imperialism and a very unpleasant regime of a different kind perhaps a la Khomeini (the feudal theocracy at the head of the petty bourgeois masses) in 1979 which butchered workers in their thousands and thousands especially the oil workers who had led the anti-Shah revolution.

Prospects are better (i.e. we may have a bit of time) in Tunisia today I think for two reasons: Islamic fundamentalism murdered its way through tens of thousands in this region in the 90s and is unlikely to gain a hold on the petty bourgeoisie and Stalinism doesn't have the backing of the Soviet Union to frank its misleadership.

Phil said...

You got your wires crossed, David. The East European revolutions I was referring to were of course the colour coded overturns in Ukraine, Serbia, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Whatever one thinks the USSR and its satellites were what happened there cannot be described as a political revolution.

As for liberal democracy, who says semi-colonial countries can't make the transition? It all depends on the balance of forces and It would be mistaken to rule anything out in advance. The career of every Trotskyist organisation is littered with cast iron predictions made a mockery of by reality.

David Ellis said...

Oops sorry on the colour thing.

On your second point: never say never of course you are right but from a theoretical perspective trotskyists would surely proceed in oppostion to a two-stage theory. In a world carved up by imperialism it is unlikely that a stable democracy can emerge in a semi-colonial state before it is crushed by counter revolution or external intervention. If it does survive it will be because imperialism is allowing it for whatever temporary interest it has to do so. I agree that in some of the semi-periphery states democracy was fostered or tolerated along with economic progress in the name of containing and encircling the Soviet Union (Brazil, India, etc) but that has been a costly policy for imperialism likely to be reversed.

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Boffy said...

In what way is Tunisia "Semi-Colonial"? It had a pretty disgusting Dictator in charge, but he was a Tunisian Dictator, and the political regime to follow will be made up of Tunisians. If by semi-colonial you mean that Tunisia isn't a first rank economic power, I fail to see how that makes it "semi-colonial", which is a political category not an economic category. In fact, Tunisia has been one of the more succesful North African economies of recent years.

Nor, is Trotsky's position on Stages Theory some simplistic as to rule out the possibility of democratic transformations short of Socialism. In reality, the last 40 years have shown countless examples of former colonies, and former Dictatorships being repalced by bourgeois democracy, and in many instances part of the reason for that has been pressure by Imperialism for sucha change in order to establish its favoured political regime for Capital Accumulation. How democracy in India or Brazil encircled the USSR I am at a loss to udnerstand, and if democracy was a temporary measure in India that it intended to reverse when its ends had been met, 65 years seems an awafully long interegnum!

Chris said...

“Tunisia has been one of the more succesful North African economies of recent years”

Tell that to the Tunisian people!

Imperialists backed this dictatorial regime to the hilt because it was good for capitalist accumulation. I am guessing Boffy would have included this regime on his list of Bourgeois democracies a month ago. What we are seeing now from the regime and its imperialist allies is the old art of revolution without any real change whatsoever. Though I suspect the old art of a few concessions for no real change whatsoever will soon be tried. After that fails, well???

As the WSWS correctly put it,

”As Trotsky explained, in opposition to Stalinism, social democracy and bourgeois nationalism, in the epoch of imperialism, the bourgeoisie in countries with a belated capitalist development are incapable of carrying out any of the basic tasks of the democratic revolution. Weak and dependent, tied by innumerable threads to foreign imperialism and native feudalist forces, the bourgeoisie of countries such as Tunisia is a thousand times more fearful of and hostile to the revolutionary force of the working class than it is to imperialism.
The history of Tunisia since independence in 1957 is a textbook example of the correctness of this historical prognosis. The national bourgeoisie has ruled with an iron hand, imposing poverty on the masses while opening up the Tunisian economy to the unfettered exploitation of the imperialist banks and corporations. The same is true in Algeria, where the National Liberation Front, which led the anti-colonial struggle in the 1960s, today attacks protesting workers and imposes “free market” policies for the benefit of the corrupt ruling elite and foreign banks and corporations.

Link here:

ModernityBlog said...

"The career of every Trotskyist organisation is littered with cast iron predictions made a mockery of by reality."

How true.

But you should have added that many Trots haven't taken the time to understand that particular point :)

Boffy said...

I have to agree with Mod on this point. Although, I disagree with the AWL on many points, the basic analysis of what they describe as "Idiot Anti-Imperialism", which began back in the early 1980's when I was a member, is one area upon which I still have considerable agreement with them.

What kind of lunatic would argue that South Africa, for example, made the transition from the regime of Apartheid to bouregois democracy without a socialist revolution? But, Latin America provides a similar array of transformation to bouregois democracy from Chile, to Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia and so on. You have to be congenitally stupid, or determined to not see reality when it contradicts your world view.

To answer the rhetorical question above we only have to look at some of the other contributions in this thread.

Boffy said...


The above sentence should read - what kind of lunatic would argue against the fact that South Africa, for example, had made the transition to bourgeois democracy without a socialist revolution?

Chris said...

Ok, I think Boffy is correct to say that one law cannot be applied to all the accidents, histories of all nations (if indeed that is what he is saying!) but South Africa is one of those exceptional cases that can’t be taken as a standard. For a start South Africa is a major global economy, the lunacy of Apartheid captured the world’s imagination and added to the internal pressure for change. I still think it is a truism to say smaller nations stand in relation to bigger nations how poor people stand in relation to rich people. And only a lunatic could possibly have failed to spot that imperialist nations are more than happy to prop up some of the nastiest dictatorships on the planet. Basically whatever serves their interests. And that isn’t always lovely bourgeois democracies! And imperialism and the bourgeois would love to see the back of Chavez and Morales!! Luckily people power is like a tsunami, no force on earth can stop it, if the will is there.

Astley Henry said...

Very interesting post. But I don't think this was a revolution. They got rid of a dictator and second tier hardliners moved to filled the vacuum. They are just trying to pacify the population by appointing opposition leaders to some minor posts and promising elections. Sad.

And Egypt and Saudi Arabia are far more capable regimes. Doubt we will be seeing anything similar there in the near future.

Boffy said...

Ah hem, you were saying something about Egypt, I think!