Tunisia: A dictator falls, but what comes next?

AFTER FOUR weeks of mass demonstrations in nearly every corner of Tunisia, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee the country on January 14. With protesters surrounding the Ministry of Interior in Tunis that Friday, chanting “Ben Ali, thank you, but that’s enough!” twenty-three years of corrupt and repressive rule began to unravel. Ben Ali’s departure marked the downfall of a de facto dictatorship in Tunisia, where opposition to the ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD), had been systematically repressed and silenced.

The revolution in Tunisia immediately gave confidence to emerging protest movements in Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, and most importantly, Egypt. As Egyptian socialist and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy pointed out, grievances against the regime in Egypt already abounded, and local struggles and labor strikes had begun to challenge President Hosni Mubarak in recent years. But the success of the Tunisian revolt served as a catalyst, quickly helping to coalesce a national movement calling for Mubarak’s resignation. The historic lesson was clear: if Ben Ali’s regime could be taken down, so could Mubarak’s. Egyptian protesters in Suez have expressed their indebtedness to the successful Tunisian movement by raising the chant, “Follow [the revolution], Follow it.... The Tunisians put it on fire.”

The U.S. State Department was quick to mischaracterize the Tunisian revolution as an isolated, local revolt in order to distance it from struggle in Egypt and elsewhere. However, even Tunisia wasn’t supposed to be ripe for a revolution. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United States, and France touted Ben Ali’s regime as the prized North African example of economic “stability “ and “growth,” most clearly epitomized by a flourishing beachfront tourist industry replete with amusement parks and the glitziest hotels, built on a highly exploited force of service workers. A massive state security force of about 130,000–150,000 police—or approximately one security officer for every forty to fifty adults—maintained Tunisia’s “stability.” With two-thirds of the security forces in plain clothes, publicly raising grievances against the regime, much less openly organizing against it, would likely bring prison time. Furthermore, Tunisian writers lamented that younger generations were hopelessly apathetic and distracted by electronics and the Internet.

However, beneath this placid mirage of apathy, anger seethed over the regime’s abuses, rising food prices, and high unemployment. The path to Ben Ali’s final days began unexpectedly with a harrowing act of individual protest. On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate, took to the streets of Sidi Bouzid in order to sell fruits and vegetables to support his widowed mother and sister. After a police officer slapped him and confiscated his produce because he lacked a permit, Bouazizi committed suicide by setting himself on fire outside of the local municipal building.

Sidi Bouzid has an unemployment rate of 32 percent and, like most of inland Tunisia, has been left out of the profitable development of the country’s coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. Compounding the problem, food prices have skyrocketed over the past few months, as investors speculated in food commodities as a “safe” outlet for their capital in a still-unstable international economy. Not surprisingly, Bouazizi’s politically charged public suicide was not the first by a young Tunisian. However, this time his actions touched off mass protests, first in Sidi Bouzid, then in nearby towns. Over the course of the following weeks, demonstrations led by both women and men, young and old, spread to over twenty Tunisian cities, including the critical coastal capital of Tunis.

In a pattern of behavior now repeated by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali attempted to save his regime through a combination of hollow reforms and severe repression. Hoping to belatedly appease the protesters, he dismissed his ministers, announced that he would not seek another term as president in 2014, vowed to hold new legislative elections in six months, and promised to reduce the price of food staples and investigate the murder of protesters at the hands of the state police. Bel Ali simultaneously declared a nationwide state of emergency and granted security forces permission to shoot at any group of three or more civilians who did not disperse. Borrowing a page from the U.S. government’s script, Ben Ali had already declared the demonstrations “acts of unforgivable terrorism.” But the only real threat to human life was Ben Ali’s security forces, which killed nearly 200 protesters, injured thousands, and tortured unknown numbers during the course of the largely peaceful demonstrations.

Ultimately, Ben Ali’s words failed to placate the protest movement. After twenty-three years of autocratic rule, his verbal concessions rang hollow to most Tunisians. His desperate eleventh-hour promise of reform simultaneously showed Tunisians that the regime’s celebrated “stability” was on the verge of crumbling, and gave them confidence to return to the streets.

How did the movement coalesce so rapidly and across such a wide segment of Tunisian society? It is hard to overstate the degree to which Ben Ali and his extended family easily became the focal point of demonstrators from various backgrounds and social classes. Tunisia’s “economic growth” has largely consisted of phenomenal profiteering by a small number of Ben Ali’s close partners, especially among the relatives of his wife, Leila Trabelsi. In cooperation with the IMF, the president privatized 160 national services and industries—many being sold off on the cheap to this tiny cabal commonly referred to as “The Family.” WikiLeaks recently released a 2006 memo from the U.S. ambassador in Tunisia providing a detailed picture of how each family member monopolized control of certain industries, establishing, in essence, personal economic fiefdoms. The memo estimated that half of the country’s economic elite was related to Ben Ali. Other reports have judged that the president’s extended family stole at least $20 billion from the country—an amount twice the size of Tunisia’s annual budget.

Fed up with this locus of intertwined political and economic corruption, protesters rallied around a common demand for an end to the rule of Ben Ali and “The Family.” During the mass protests, the U.S. media was quick to talk about cases of “rioting” and “looting” alongside reports of young people burning governmental buildings, banks, car dealerships, and grocery stores. Activists within Tunisia have discovered that the regime itself sent out undercover police to instigate many of these actions to justify further repression. However, protesters did set fire to certain deliberately chosen structures. In each case they explicitly targeted blatant symbols of the ruling clique—whether police stations or private stores and enterprises owned by the Trabelsi family.

While the initial protests appeared to arise without any precedent, in many cases they built upon prior discord with the regime. As Palestine solidarity activist Kevin Ovenden recounted at SocialistWorker.org after Ben Ali’s fall:

Tunisian acquaintances I had the privilege of meeting on the Viva Palestina 5 convoy last fall described at that time a small but perceptible uptick in conflicts and antagonisms around such things as price increases and clashes between the police and young, unemployed people being pushed around where they hang out. So these kinds of things were happening, but no one inferred from them the events that were to take place a couple months later.

In many cases, demonstrations built upon neighborhood organizations already in place, as well as local bodies of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), which helped bring together protests of the employed and unemployed. National union leaders, with long-standing ties to Ben Ali’s regime, initially condemned or withheld support for the protests. The union’s general secretary continued meeting with the Tunisian president even during his final week in office. However, as local labor activists began to assist in organizing demonstrations, the UGTT’s national leadership was pushed to back the actions of their members. As Dyab Abou Jahjah wrote on his blog, the UGTT “played the role of the momentum regulator and political indicator. It was clear that as long as the trade union kept on declaring strikes, the battle was on, and that was the signal to the people to stick to the streets. Yet we cannot say that the trade union led the revolution; it rather synchronized with it, especially the last crucial two days.”

France, Israel, and the United States 
The Tunisian Revolution has been a huge embarrassment to France and the United States, which both shamelessly supported Ben Ali’s regime until its final moments. Only when it became clear that Ben Ali was on his way out did his Western allies finally abandon him. The Obama administration has been stumbling over itself ever since, disingenuously claiming that it supported the movement to depose the hated ruler. In fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her disdain for the democratic movement clear just one day before Ben Ali’s departure, declaring coldly: “We can’t take sides.” As Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist and Palestine solidarity activist reported, “Not one word of condemnation, not one word of criticism, not one word urging restraint came from Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton as live ammunition was fired into crowds of unarmed men, women, and children.”

For U.S. administrations over the past two decades, Ben Ali has been the heralded flag-bearer for neoliberalism in North Africa, implementing structural adjustment programs at the insistence of the IMF, and moving toward greater and greater privatization of public services. Already adept at imprisoning and torturing communist and Islamic political party activists, Ben Ali became a trusted ally of the U.S. “war on terror,” housing one of the CIA’s infamous secret rendition prisons in the Tunisian desert.

Thus, in spite of Clinton’s feigned neutrality, the U.S. has long taken the side of Ben Ali, even though the corruption and brutality of his regime was well known to the State Department. The diplomatic cables written by the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia in 2006 compared, in great detail, the economic control and violence of Ben Ali’s incestuous ruling clique to a Mafia family. This did not stop then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from celebrating Ben Ali’s regime as a “democracy” during a visit to Tunisia that same year. In 2009, the U.S. ambassador in Tunisia again made clear, in a cable revealed by WikiLeaks, that U.S. support for the autocratic regime was secure, stating, “we cannot write off Tunisia. We have too much at stake.”

France, Tunisia’s former colonial ruler, was even more protective of the Tunisian dictatorship. After a meeting between both countries’ foreign ministers just before Ben Ali’s fall, the French government remained tight-lipped about the state’s deadly repression, choosing instead to praise the Tunisian government’s economic program—an arrogant slap in the face to Tunisians protesting in the streets over rising food prices and unemployment. Even during the final weeks of Ben Ali’s regime, the French defense, interior, and foreign ministries approved further exports of police equipment to Tunisia.

Spokespeople from President Sarkozy’s party tried to defend Ben Ali’s regime by warning that “al-Qaeda” or “terrorist-linked” governments would come to power if Ben Ali wasn’t supported. Invoking a completely imaginary threat, they turned to Islamophobic fear-mongering to cover for their support of an authoritarian government in the face of mass popular protests.

Finally, fearing the ramifications of continuing to cozy up to the deposed dictator, Sarkozy uncharacteristically refused to offer Ben Ali asylum when he fled Tunisia on January 14. Ironically, Ben Ali, the champion repressor of “radical” Islam, quickly found refuge with the Islamic Wahhabist monarchy in Saudi Arabia, another autocratic U.S. ally.

Not surprisingly, the Israeli government was also alarmed by Ben Ali’s fall, with Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom immediately voicing concerns that further democratic revolts in the Middle East might challenge Israel’s dominance in the region. Such contempt for democracy is nothing new. Israeli leaders have consistently and consciously undermined elected Palestinian leaders who challenge their policies, and they continue to deny equal rights to Palestinians, both within the Israeli borders and in Gaza and the West Bank. While Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian population is made possible largely because of U.S. financial and military support, Israel also works closely with many ruling regimes in the Middle East—including those that claim to be its enemy—to repress popular protests. Given that the vast majority of Arabs are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, Israel necessarily depends on alliances with undemocratic rulers in the Arab region who are able to ignore the sentiments of their respective populations regarding Israel.

Thus, for Israel, rebellion and democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia are things to fear, not to celebrate. In fact, the complicity of Ben Ali, Mubarak and other Arab leaders in supporting Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians has been a common grievance voiced by protesters across the region. A shift to popularly chosen governments in places like Tunisia, and especially Egypt, presents the possibility of creating much-needed breathing room and concrete regional solidarity with the Palestinian movement.

Since the fall of Ben Ali
Although Ben Ali’s ouster represents a dramatic victory for the vast majority of Tunisians, it is only the beginning of much longer struggle to uproot the remnants of his regime. Remaining RCD leaders have been quick to resign from the disgraced party, but protesters have dismissed this purely symbolic gesture and continue to press for an interim government free of all former ruling party politicians.

Mohamed Ghannouchi, an accomplice to Ben Ali, who has served as Tunisian prime minister since 1999, currently heads the interim government. Similarly, the new acting president, Tunisia’s speaker of parliament Fouad Mebazaa, is another former RCD leader. While Ghannouchi promised new elections in line with constitutional guidelines, his first interim cabinet reserved all major ministries for previous Ben Ali appointees.

Almost immediately, invited representatives from the UGTT and other opposition appointees resigned in protest. Unwilling to see the political system fall back into the hands of Ban Ali’s lackeys, Tunisians began a new round of daily protests, even breaking through police barricades and barbed wire in Tunis to march on Ghannouchi’s office. Former political prisoner and filmmaker Salem Ben Yahia’s statement to a Guardian reporter as he prepared to face police teargas summed up the popular mood: “We don’t want our revolution hijacked. We forced a dictator out the door and now he’s come back in the window. His old ministers are still in a majority in this transition government and that has to change. Police have already shot at us and beaten us to stop us protesting, but we come back again like a tide.”

Caravans of protesters from cities and towns in the interior of Tunisia descended upon Tunis in defiance of curfew regulations, and many have remained camped out in the capital, determined not to leave until all former RCD members have been banned from the government. Approximately 2,000 police officers have reportedly joined the demonstrations rather than fire on them. Tunisians have taken it upon themselves to empty the mansions of the former ruling family, spray-painting the façade of one with the words, “This is the people’s home.” State employees used steel cables to start ripping the letters off of the old RCD headquarters.

Faced with resilient demonstrations, Ghannouchi and his ministers have conceded a number of reforms to the protesters. Some of Ben Ali’s extended family, former ministers, and the former heads of both the police and presidential security forces have been arrested. All previously banned political parties have now been legally recognized, and the transitional cabinet has proclaimed a general amnesty for all political prisoners.

Thus far, interim Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi claims to have released over 2,000 prisoners, but activists are unsatisfied, as many thousands likely remain jailed under Ben Ali’s bogus “anti-terrorism” laws. Thus, when Chebbi attempted to appease protesters by declaring plans to extradite Ben Ali from Saudi Arabia in order to stand trial, family members of detained Tunisians managed to surround the minister, demanding the release of their loved ones.

Unable to quell protester’s demands, Ghannouchi reformed his interim cabinet, reducing the number of former RCD members from ten to three, and promised that he would leave politics as soon as new elections took place. While few Tunisians are satisfied with the continued involvement of leaders from Ben Ali’s regime, the announcement of the new interim government has caused the size of demonstrations to shrink for the time being.

Tunisian Army Chief of Staff General Rachid Ammar, popular for siding with the protesters during Ben Ali’s final days, has asked protesters to accept the newly announced cabinet. Thus far Ammar has declared that the Tunisian military will not directly intercede in the political process, but his appeal for calm is precisely the kind of intervention that will help Ghannouchi and his RCD allies maintain their positions within the interim government. With some other opposition leaders also encouraging Tunisians to accept Ghannouchi’s promises, the revolution now faces an important juncture.

Still, the demonstrations are far from over, as Tunisians continue to root out former RCD leaders on their own terms. On February 5, hundreds in Kef surrounded the city’s police station and demanded the resignation of its chief, a Ben Ali ally. Police shot and killed two protesters, but this time, the police chief was arrested, and protesters have vowed to continue their struggle to completely expel members of the old regime.

Popular self-organization
The vast majority of Tunisian people have displayed an incredible amount of solidarity and self-organization as they grapple for their future. During the forty-eight hours immediately following Ben Ali’s departure, Tunis and other cities became the sight of a bloody last-gasp attempt by security forces to sow confusion, fear, and division. Even those Tunisians uninvolved in the protests now became the target of beatings, shootings, and sniper assassinations at the hands of well-armed thugs still loyal to the ruling clique.

However, urban residents rallied together to defend themselves, especially in poorer neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the police backlash. Young men—along with some young women—worked together, setting up roadblocks in order to prevent intrusion by security forces. They exchanged cell phone numbers and worked in shifts, even during the state-imposed nighttime curfew. Wary of being harassed for violating the curfew, neighborhood activists in Tunis reached an agreement with sympathetic army soldiers: those at the roadblocks wearing white t-shirts would be allowed to remain out past curfew.

With municipal workers unable to perform their duties, neighborhoods again came together to organize collective street cleaning and garbage removal. Bakers in Tunis limited each customer to five baguettes, in order to prevent hoarding by their better-off customers, while fruit and vegetable sellers put up signs on their carts inviting passersby to “help yourself even if you don’t have money.” Farmers from outside of the capital began to go door-to-door offering each household a liter and a half of milk.

Within a week of Ben Ali’s fall, a spirit of collective responsibility and organization began to emerge on an even larger scale. Across the country small cities and towns, such as Siliana and Sidi Bou Ali, came together to elect provisional councils charged with organizing local affairs. Impatient to clear out the remnants of the former regime, these elections often took place at mass meetings of thousands in town squares, where friends and neighbors became nominees for various committees: liaisons with the army, cleanliness, logistics, and even awareness and orientation committees.

Most crucially, Tunisian workers have begun to assert control over key enterprises, especially those formerly under state control or owned by the Trabelsi family—a murky distinction in many cases. Within days of Ben Ali’s regime collapsing, the nearly 700 workers at the major Tunisian insurance company STAR (Société Tunisienne d’assurances et de Réassurances), went on strike and forcibly expelled their CEO from his office while singing the Tunisian national anthem. These actions were repeated by workers at Tunisia’s national oil distribution company SNDP (Société Nationale de Distribution des Pétroles), where the CEO was known to have granted the Trabelsi family control over a number of profitable gas stations. Executives soon found themselves escorted out of their offices at the National Agricultural Bank (Banque Nationale Agricole) and Tunisie Télécom.

These are major companies, with SNDP and Tunisie Télécom ranked as the fourth and fifth largest companies in the country. The head of Tunisia’s tax office was booted by his employees, and at the Banque de Tunisie workers have prevented management from returning to their offices in order to stop the flight of bank funds and the destruction of incriminating documents and files. Journalists at La Presse de Tunisie, a newspaper formerly under the control of Ben Ali’s regime, have elected their own editorial boards from among their co-workers, and informed executives that they will no longer control paper’s tone or content.

By ousting their bosses, workers have not only scored important symbolic victories. They have also started to root out the former economic dominance of Ben Ali’s family, thereby simultaneously weakening the former cabal’s political influence over the new government. By taking these first steps toward democratic control of their workplaces, Tunisians are raising the possibility of a revolution that could provide much more than electoral freedoms.

Can the opposition offer an alternative?
These actions reflect a new level of confidence and militancy among Tunisian workers, many of whom are at least nominally organized under the auspices of the UGTT. Despite decades of complicity and accommodation with the regime on the part of the national UGTT leadership, the rank and file of the union federation has not hesitated to challenge their bosses or the regime over the past few months. The actions of the rank and file pressured the UGTT leadership to shift. At the moment, there appears to be an open debate within the Tunisian labor movement.

After Ghannouchi announced the formation of the new interim cabinet, UGTT leaders voted not to join the government, preferring to stay among the left-wing opposition. However, they simultaneously decided to accept Ghannouchi as the temporary head of the government. The UGTT has thus been pulled by its rank and file to maintain credibility by refusing to join an interim government overseen by a former RCD apparatchik, but has simultaneously pleaded with demonstrators to temper their protests against Ghannouchi. This willingness to compromise has been challenged by many local sections of the trade union federation. Despite the announcement, UGTT workers in Sidi Bouazid and Sfax moved ahead with plans for a general strike, and there is now a petition calling for the election of new national union leadership. With workers taking matters into their own hands and expelling the executives of major enterprises, it is likely that the UGTT will be pushed to continue to play a role in organizing protests and opposition to the interim government, at least on a local level.

Those opposition parties most brutally repressed by Ben Ali’s regime have been slowly regrouping; pushing for the dissolution of the RCD-dominated parliament, and the election of a new body to rewrite the Tunisian constitution, free of RCD influence. A call for a “constituent assembly” to begin this process has been made by the recently formed “January 14 Front,” a coalition of eight left-wing parties led by the Tunisian Communist Worker’s Party (PCOT). The PCOT’s adherence to a Stalinist political tradition is a critical impediment, but the direction and influence of it and other radical parties may shift in the face of a constantly changing political situation.

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the al-Nadha party, the main Islamic party in the country, has recently been allowed to return from forced exile. Upon arrival, he also called for a more thoroughly democratic reconstruction of the national government, including a new parliament and constitution. Despite the predictable U.S. hysterics about “Islamist” organizations, Rachid Ghannouchi has insisted that al-Nadha is committed to maintaining a democratic, pluralist state and legal system.

Ultimately, winning the material demands at the root of the revolt—an end to rising food prices and increased employment opportunities—will require deeper structural changes than what can be provided by any upcoming election. This is why the recent wave of workers expelling their managers, and the direct democracy taking place in town squares across Tunisia has created important new possibilities for the revolution. Whether radicalizing workers are able to discard the conservative leadership of the national trade union federation and whether the January 14 Front could come to represent the aspirations of the Tunisian working class and unemployed, is still undetermined. With former activists just now being released from jail and political breathing space existing for the first time in decades, new organizations are likely to emerge in the near future. The Tunisian struggle is still unfolding and is likely to continue to do so over the course of many more weeks, if not months. For the time being, momentum remains with the Tunisian demonstrators who continue to taunt the leaders of the old regime, chanting: “You stole the country’s wealth, but you will not steal the revolution.”


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

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Critical Thinking


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