By Andrew Williams
The mass uprising in Tunisia which overthrew the hated Ben Ali regime has inspired protests across the Arab world. The struggle now unfolding in Tunisia turns around whether the ruling class can reimpose the old regime, with a few very limited concessions to the masses, or whether the mass movement is able to push things further and impose more radical changes.
Whatever the outcome of this struggle, the mass movement in Tunisia has showed a truly tenacious willingness to mobilise and fight, despite armed repression. This demonstrates the continuing capacity for struggle across the semicolonial world, and has sent shock waves through right-wing regimes world-wide, especially in the Maghreb and Middle East.
The movement began as a series of protests against unemployment and price rises, triggered by the self-immolation of an unemployed man whose illegal market stand was broken down by the police. From this event on December 17th 2010, the mass movement grew to the point that in less than a month the government was overthrown and the president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, forced to flee.
The revolt, demanding action on price rises and unemployment, rapidly became focused on securing a change to the regime. The protests spread across the country, starting in peripheral towns, till they reached the capital Tunis, where demonstrations demanded the President’s resignation.
The regime’s attempts to crush the revolt were brutal, with reports that more than 150 unarmed protestors were killed by security forces.
The repression did not deter the popular mobilisations and appear to have divided the forces backing the regime. An important turning point was reached on January 12th when the army refused a Presidential order to open fire on protestors and soldiers started to defend demonstrators against the President’s security forces. With the army’s withdrawal of support, Bin Ali was overthrown within a couple of days and he fled to Saudi Arabia on 14th January.
On January 15th Tunisia’s Constitutional Council named the Speaker of Parliament Foued Mebezza as Acting President.
The revolution has reverberated around the Arab world. Newspapers, TV news, Twitter, and blogs across the region have praised the Tunisian people. Israel and the Arab ruling classes have been unnerved. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom expressed concern that the events could lead to regime change in other countries and Libya ’s Moammar Gadhafi condemned the uprising.
Elsewhere in the region left and anti-imperialist Islamist forces have taken inspiration. In Jordan, trade unions and Islamists, protesting high food prices and unemployment, called for the Prime Minister to step down and congratulated the Tunisian people. In Lebanon the resistance movement Hezbollah has praised the uprising and in Palestine Hamas has expressed its support.
Food price inflation
The background to the unrest in Tunisia, and elsewhere, is severe global increases in food prices, which have now hit a record high according to the United Nations’ food agency (FAO). Globally food prices rose by 30% in the six months from June to December 2010. This is well beyond the levels of 2008 when riots broke out in a number of countries including Egypt, Cameroon and Haiti. In recent weeks, rocketing food prices have sparked demonstrations across the Middle East and South Asia, with riots erupting in Algeria and protests in Jordan and India. Another factor stoking discontent in Tunisia is the high level of unemployment, particularly amongst youth where even official figures indicate it has reached 25%.
In the initial days after the toppling of Ben Ali, the Army appears to have intervened against police and other armed units allied to the former President that attempted to unleash a reign of terror to subdue the mass movement and allow a reconsolidation of the regime.
But, at the same time the political forces of the counter-revolution began to organise themselves, backed by the US, other imperialists and the Arab ruling classes. The week before Ben Ali was overthrown US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton was calling for increased democracy in the Middle East. Since his ousting she has been urging suppression of the people, calling on Tunisia’s government to restore order “as quickly as possible”.
On January 17th the Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi – a long time ally of the deposed President -unveiled what he claimed to be a “new” “unity” government. The government was neither new nor inclusive of popular forces. It included three ministers from the UGTT (the largest trade union in the country) alongside three ministers from the former legal opposition, while excluding the ‘illegal’ opposition parties such as the Communist Workers Party. The UGTT ministers have since withdrawn from the government. The ‘illegal’ opposition parties are all tiny, due to the repression and imprisonment of activists by the previous regime. Indeed one of the features of the militant mass movement is that there are no organised political forces playing a key leadership role. Protests and demonstrations have been spontaneously organised, particularly using Twitter and other forms of new media. However, this is a weakness when it comes to the negotiations and struggle around the new government as there are no political forces that have the legitimacy of the mass movement to insist on representation or a leading role. This has led Ghannouchi to attempt to form the “new” government around a core of the old regime. The previous ministers of defence, interior, finance and foreign affairs were all reinstalled to their former posts. Essentially it is an attempt to consolidate the old regime, but without the ex-President Ben Ali.
The revolution fights back
Responding to the composition of the government, particularly the inclusion of the minister of interior deemed responsible for killing protestors, mobilisations started again. In Tunis on 18th January demonstrators protested the domination of this “unity” government by members of the ousted President’s ruling party – the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). They called for its closure and complained that the previously outlawed Islamist and communists have not been included in the government.
The scale of this mass movement to sustain the revolution was sufficient to persuade the three trade union ministers to withdraw from the government less than one day after they had joined it. A further minister who had been part of the fomer opposition also resigned a few hours later as the protests against the RCD spread across the country.
In an attempt to confuse the mass movement the interim President Fouad Mebazaa, and the Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi later that day announced fake resignations from the RCD party.
The outcome of this revolution in Tunisia is yet to be determined. The release of political prisoners that has taken place will allow greater space for popular forces to organise. Whilst there is no organised coordinated leadership to the revolution at present, the communist and Islamist forces are giving it their support and the trade unions are in opposition to the counter-revolution.