Revolution in Tunisia: ‘We have the power’
The revolution that is ripping through Tunisia has led to celebrations across the Arab world and beyond.
Ordinary Tunisians, after 23 years of a brutal dictatorship, rose up and threw out the hated ruler, Ben Ali. They created a movement so strong that no amount of police and security forces could hold them down.
It’s the first time in decades that mass protest has forced out a Middle Eastern leader—and it has sent shockwaves across the world.
The unemployment, poverty and oppression that sparked the revolt are familiar to millions. Arab and Western rulers are terrified because they know any one of them could be next.
The old regime set up an “interim government” with a handful of opposition members in relatively powerless positions.
Hours later it collapsed—and Tunisians were back on the streets. Many people insist that any government that includes members of the old regime is not acceptable—and they are right.
Mohammed, a Tunisian socialist, told Socialist Worker, “People are saying it’s just more of the same. We don’t know what direction things will take, but we know that this is just the beginning.
“I think the overthrow of Ben Ali announced the end of an era in the Arab world.”
By getting rid of him, workers have shown the strength they have when they are organised. Tens of thousands of Tunisia’s poorest people came together to overthrow the regime.
They must now push the revolution forward to transform Tunisia and win real power.
Threatening the power of Arab rulers
Bassem Chit, a Lebanese socialist, explains how Tunisia shows that real change can be won on the streets
This is the first time in decades that the Arab world has witnessed an insurrection that brought down a dictator. The revolt started with demands for work, bread and water, but these soon merged with political demands for freedom and liberty.
The slogan for the rebellion became: “Bread, Education and Liberty”.
Across the Arab world, people held solidarity meetings and prepared for action in support of the Tunisian revolution.
The words “Inch-allah I-nna”, roughly translated from Arabic as “Hoping it happens here”, were repeatedly voiced in Arab streets.
In Algeria people made several attempts to protest at the Tunisian embassy, but police forcefully stopped and dispersed them.
Protests took place in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Protesters shouted slogans supporting the Tunisian revolution and for bringing down all Arab regimes.
In contrast, the Arab rulers stayed silent. Most media channels and papers in the Arab world blocked any coverage of the revolt.
Ben Ali went on national TV and attacked the protesters as terrorists.
The response from the street was fast—more people joined the rebellion.
On 13 January, the Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisien (UGTT) called a regional general strike at Sfax, the second largest city in the country.
The strike brought tens of thousands to the city to protest—a sight never seen before. Similar protests happened in Kairouan and Jendouba.
There were rumours of the army beginning to side with protesters and within hours Ben Ali had left the country.
That left Arab rulers and kings shaken.
Many on the Arab left and opposition forces took the opportunity to demand economic and social reforms.
As the speaker of the Tunisian parliament and prime minister declared themselves legitimate leaders of the state, militias were still attacking neighbourhoods and cities around the country.
These militias are affiliated with Ben Ali’s regime and family.
Trade unions and left wing parties called for people to organise local popular defence committees to protect the revolution.
These popular committees were able to limit the activities of the militias and in some cases arrest and prosecute its members.
The revolution has not finished and the battle has only just begun.
The remnants of the old regime are manoeuvring, trying to get control over the popular movement and consolidate their power.
In Tunisia, as in most Arab countries, there are two oppositions.
One is the recognised or “official” opposition, which most Tunisians see as a bunch of collaborators and too close to Ben Ali’s regime. The other opposition are the banned organisations, mostly composed of far-left political parties and radical social democratic parties.
This has been closely engaged in calling and organising the protests.
Many feel the movement could not have developed this far without the involvement of the trade unions.
One activist said, “It set the tempo for the movement. As long as the UGTT called for strikes, people knew that the battle continued.”
Islamists are another factor in Tunisian politics. They were not involved in the uprising, but are trying to capitalise on the power vacuum that resulted after the fall of Ben Ali.
Much of the “official” opposition, including the Islamists, are ready to make concessions with the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime.
Much of the real opposition, however, is calling for the formation of a constituent assembly that can put forward a new constitution for the country. Those in the real opposition think that an election under the current law would only re-establish the old regime and its allies in power.
The balance of power in Tunisia is still unclear.
What is clear is that the Tunisian revolution is highly significant.
For many across the Arab world, it shows things that once seemed impossible can be attained through a mass movement.
It shows that change can be carried out through activity on the streets—not through bureaucratic debates in the parliament or the cabinet.
And it shows that the battle for change still carries hope after decades of oppression and despotism.
Arab rulers know that the economic and political situation across all Middle Eastern countries has much in common with that in Tunisia.
It’s enough to give them sleepless nights.
Permanent revolution: how to win liberation in the Middle East
by Phil Marfleet
Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said he was glued to the news from Tunisia.
“Literally days ago the regime seemed unshakable,” he said. “I feel like we Egyptians are a giant step closer to our own liberation.”
Struggles like that in Tunisia have often stimulated mass protest in other Middle Eastern states—sometimes with revolutionary implications.
In the 1950s army officers in Iraq forced out a corrupt pro-British monarchy, thinking they would rule the country. But filled with new confidence, Iraqis made a revolution in their own name.
Peasants seized land, national minority groups declared for autonomy and workers’ committees proliferated.
A process of “permanent revolution” was underway, in which each advance by the mass movement generated further radical change.
The permanent revolution crossed borders and challenged imperialist control across the region. No wonder that, as the Iraqi revolution gathered pace, the director of the CIA declared the country “the most dangerous place in the world”.
In 1977 police attacked students in Iran who were challenging the despotic rule of the Shah. It was the beginning of a similar mass movement involving peasants, national minorities and—crucially—workers.
Within a year workers organised a general strike, bringing an end to the regime.
Just like the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, Iran’s Shah seemed cemented into power. His secret police, the Savak, were active in every town and workplace. His torture chambers had claimed thousands of victims.
The protest movement gave confidence to millions of Iranians to demand change.
Under pressure from below, the Shah’s generals and police chiefs began to desert him. When workers’ committees took control of key industries, the state fractured and then collapsed.
The Iranian Revolution removed the most important ally of Western imperialism in the region. There were soon further uprisings in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Syria. The oil corporations and the US government faced a nightmare—that mass movements could seize the region’s oilfields and use the wealth in the interests of the people.
Egyptians in particular are following events in Tunisia closely. Over the past five years a new workers’ movement has been growing, challenging the Mubarak regime and its Ben Ali-style repression.
Egypt is central to US imperialist strategy. Any change from below will have momentous outcomes. Ben Ali has gone—can others take steps towards liberation?
Tunisia: workers can transform the world
Revolutions often appear to come from nowhere. People living under a brutal regime who for generations have got on with their everyday lives—making a living, studying—suddenly revolt.
No one can predict how the struggle in Tunisia will develop. A revolution is never a single event. It is a process that unfolds over weeks and months, or even years.
There can be great advances but also dramatic retreats.
The revolutionary Karl Marx wrote that, “It is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph. Revolution is impossible without a nationwide crisis.”
Society can look tranquil on the surface—but that doesn’t mean that people are happy.
Rulers themselves are often the most taken in by the illusion of their popularity and seemingly unassailable position.
They live in a bubble of wealth and privilege surrounded by servants and advisers who only tell them what they want to hear.
But when the spell is broken and resistance breaks out, changes that might have taken years in “normal” times can happen in a matter of hours.
Fear of a heavily armed police force and army can dissolve as the mass of people become politically active.
Workers and students all around the world have been inspired by events.
Tunisia has been labeled another “Twitter revolution”, just as the mass demonstrations in Iran were two years ago.
And the ability to instantly communicate across the country has been a fantastic asset in recent struggles.
But we must not mistake a tool in the struggle for the struggle itself.
Twitter didn’t force Ben Ali to flee the country he had ruled for 23 years, no more than chalk on the walls or leaflets brought down the Tsar in Russia in 1917.
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 things.
Throughout history our side, the working class, has only ever won anything through such struggles.
Struggle can change the world—but it changes us too.
As we fight alongside other workers and activists we feel more than an isolated cog in a huge, anonymous system.
When we start to take control of our lives, assumptions about society are challenged.
Are the police neutral?
Is there really no money for hospitals and schools?
Is it best to leave important decisions to a handful of people at the top?
How this process will develop in Tunisia will depend on the politics and organisations that shape the movement in the coming weeks and months.
For example, will the local defence committees, thrown up to protect communities from the militias supporting Ben Ali, develop into broader forms of self-government?
Such committees could provide the seeds of independent political organisation.
Revolutionary movements have been derailed in the past when sections of the opposition are co-opted into government and turn away from the struggle.
Old regimes always try to cling to power by making a few concessions yet changing little in reality.
But Tunisia shows how fast things can change when years of pent up bitterness explode.
The global economic crisis means that ordinary people across the globe are suffering the same hardships and worries about the future.
The revolutionary movement in Tunisia has become a beacon for millions wanting to rise up and challenge their rulers.
The situation is ripe with potential for such struggles to move beyond winning a change of government.
Ordinary people have the power to challenge the very basis of capitalism—and build a socialist world that can meet the needs of everyone.
Donal Mac Fhearraigh