Tunisia Breaks Free


The events unfolding in Tunisia before our very eyes constitute a sharp break in world events, albeit a break that has emerged from years of grinding contradictions that have now come to a head. These events represent a break from US-backed “color revolutions,” feigned revolutionary upsurges by reactionary Islamists masquerading as harbingers of progress, and forms of reformist and guerilla-style revolutionary elitism. Popular self-organization from below has scored a victory that—although limited in nature—has had profound effects in transforming the consciousness of people around the Arab world and indeed globally.

The revolt in the streets of Tunis had their origins in the rural southern regions of the country, specifically in the town of Sidi Bouzidi. There, mostly rural workers took to the streets in December “with a rock in one hand and a cell-phone in the other” (according to Rochdi Horchani, a relative of Mohamed Bouazizi—the 26 year old street vendor whose self-immolation sparked the current round of resistance) to challenge the regime of Ben-Ali.

The challenge came after three decades of ruthless repression at the hands of Ben-Ali's Mukhabarat (secret police). The US and French support for the regime went very far as Tunisia was upheld as an exemplar of behavior considered acceptable to the interests of the American and French ruling classes. Tunisia was to be a place of robber-baron dictatorship (Wikileaks cables reveal that something like 50% of the economy was in one way or another under the control of Ben-Ali's family and 6 other clans). All of the repression occurred with the blessing of Washington and Paris, for as long as the people were docile and timid before their oppressors, no complaints about human rights abuses seemed to matter.

Unlike similar demonstrations against the regime that had broken out in the spring, the people of Sidi Bouzidi made a huge effort to get the news of their demonstrations out to a broader public. They succeeded dramatically. Images from the south were seen via the internet and pirated satellite television.

Then came more eruptions across the country—and the entry of thousands of urban working-class citizens into the battle. The explosion was more than the police could handle and so Ben-Ali called on the military to enter the mix with guns drawn: and the orders were refused.

We do not know exactly what transpired in the halls of power, but the ruling RCD party maneuvered for its own survival following the military refusal by pressing Ben-Ali to flee—and flee he did. First he tried to touch down in Paris, but the shrewd Sarkozy government refused him asylum, recognizing that inflaming anti-imperialist tensions was probably an unwise decision at this given juncture. Ben-Ali has taken refuge in Saudi Arabia now—though the new (second) interim government is trying to have him brought into custody.

Unlike recent “color” revolutions in Eastern Europe or Central Asia, millions of dollars of George Soros' “democracy promotion” aid did not contribute to the effort and no liberal opposition parties were significant participants. The dissension from the regime by the largest trade union confederation (which had previously been the handmaiden of the regime) turned the struggle from one isolated among youth and rural workers to a general uprising against the regime.

Popular forms of democratic organization—including neighborhood councils, elected committees at some work-places (especially journalistic enterprises), and street-level organizing—have played the leading role in events in Tunisia, not the Islamist Ennahada party or the Progressive Democratic Party (which has become the new ruling party in the interim government with the blessing of the army and has acted in concert with the former ruling RCD party and the army to try and diffuse the street protests). In fact, the only party of significance to have an active role in the revolution has been the Tunisian Workers' Communist Party. The party's leader Hamma Hammami has gained in popularity after being arrested shortly after the demonstrations began and after he spoke out publicly against any Islamist opportunism in the revolutionary process by the moderate Ennahada party.

The significance of Tunisia, like Kant said of the French Revolution, is in a sense not in its local character, but in the reverberations it has around the world. It is what the revolution in Tunisia means to the rest of the Arab world and indeed the entire world itself.

What does it mean?

It means that even in the most unlikely of places, in the quietest places, in the places that one would never expect—revolution can erupt. Revolutions erupt because of deep seated contradictions in society, contradictions that come to a head due to many idiosyncratic events (in the case of Tunisia, the self-immolation of the street vendor) but whose roots are deep, grinding and persistent.

Furthermore, the revolutionary process in Tunisia means that the world is not doomed to the pseudo-resistance of Islamist and other rightist factions masquerading as progressives via their “anti-imperialist” credentials. The Islamists have played next to no role in the revolutionary process of Tunisia; the unions, youth, and even the left have played a much more instrumental role in pushing things forward.

The emergence of the 14th of January Front is a promising development, but not as promising as the emergence of popular forms of democracy in the workplaces and neighborhoods. Multiple circumstances have been reported of journalistic staff removing their editors and creating popular committees to replace them; anecdotal evidence suggests this is more widespread than was first thought. These forms of popular democratic resistance stand in stark contrast to the elite-guerilla model of resistance (a vehicle of the left in the history of Latin America, for instance but quite rightist in the cases of Algeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.) which has dominated the region for quite some time, exemplified on a regional level by Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.

The possibility of working-class revolution has now been put back on the horizon, minus all the trappings of the Cold War system of containment (from the USSR and the US). This is happening in Tunisia, but it has already touched off serious convulsions in Algeria, Yemen, Egypt and non-Arab Albania. With an acceleration of this kind of struggle and the emergence of a regrouped, refounded and reconceptualized international left, the hope of worldwide social change can become a reality.

Let us be clear about what has happened: popular forces of Tunisia have led a political revolution, one that is still ongoing and could be pushed in a much more radical direction. This is not just any political revolution, however, it is a political revolution with a social revolutionary current that is extraordinarily strong—albeit with weak organizational forms in terms of revolutionary organization. The voices in the streets, especially from the youth and workers, are calling for vast changes to the social system and the government. Substantive equality (rather than formal) and popular democracy are on the agenda of the masses of people.

The army, popular with the people after its dissension from Ben-Ali and now seemingly from the interim government, remains the major arbiter between the popular organization of the masses and the elite opposition parties (as well as the RCD, the former ruling party). Further challenges to the political regime could lead to the dissension of middle-class elements from the ranks of protesters, not to mention the fact that these could trigger a reaction by the leaders of the armed forces. If the masses persisted, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the rank and file of the national guard would massacre the very people they were hugging and kissing before, but that remains to be seen.

The program of the 14th of January Front, printed below, is meant to address this impasse and to push things in a direction that will solve the root of this social crisis. We must be clear about limitations however: if radical workers' revolutions do not spread, they can be choked off and subject to reaction not only from without (France, the US), but also from within. This is not yet such a radical workers' revolution, but it has put the question back on the horizon in a way that has not been done for quite some time.

Founding Statement of the 14th of January Front (Tunisia)

As an affirmation to our involvement in the revolution of our people who are struggling for their right to dignity and freedom, whom their sacrifices resulted in dozens of martyrs and thousands of injured and detainees, and in order to complete the victory against the internal and external enemies, and in response to the ongoing attempts for plundering the people’s sacrifices, 14th January Front is formed as a political frame working on advancing our people’s revolution towards achieving its goals and to confront the anti-revolution forces. It includes the founding forces of political parties and progressive and democratic organizations.

The Front’s urgent tasks are:

Bringing down Ghannouchi current government or any government that includes symbols of the former regime.

Dissolving the RCD, the confiscation of its headquarters and property and Bank accounts as they belong to the people, and dismissing its members.

Formation of temporary force that enjoys the confidence of the people and the progressive forces of the civil society political, associations, unions and youth organizations.

The dissolving of the House of Representatives and the advisers council and all current false bodies, and the Higher Council of the Judiciary, and the dismantling of the political structure of the former regime, and to prepare for elections of a constituent assembly within a period that does not exceed one year, for the formulation of a new democratic constitution and a new legal system that will govern public life ensuring political and economic and cultural rights of people .

Dissolution of the political security and enact new security policy based at respect for human rights and the law.

Trial of all those who has been proven to loot the people's money and/or commit crimes such as repression, imprisonment, torture and killings, whether by decision making, ordering or/and execution. Trial also of all of those proven to have taken bribes and misconduct of public property.

Confiscating the property of the former ruling family and those close to them and their associates and all officials who took advantage of their position to gain wealth at the expense of the people.

Providing jobs to the unemployed and taking urgent measures for their benefit such as issuing unemployment benefit system and social and medical security and improving the purchasing power of the daily-wage workers.

Building a national economy which services the people by putting the vital and strategic sectors under state control and nationalising the companies that were privatised and drafting an economic and social policy that breaks-up with liberal capitalist approach.

Guaranteeing public and individual liberties and primarily the freedom of demonstration and organisation, the freedom of expression and the press and the freedom of belief and the release of all those under arrest and declaring a general amnesty.

The Front salutes the support of the masses and the progressive forces in the Arab world and the world for the revolution in Tunisia and calls upon them to continue their support with whatever means possible.

Opposing normalisation with the Zionist state and criminalising it and supporting all the national liberation movements in the Arab world and worldwide.

The Front calls upon the masses and the progressive and democratic forces to continue their mobilisation and their struggle using all legitimate forms especially street protest until their objectives are achieved.

The Front salutes all the committees, the organisations and the forms of self-organisation of the masses and calls for the broadening of their actions in public life and the running of all aspects of the daily life.

Glory to all the martyrs of the uprising and victory the masses in revolt.

Tunisia 20 January 2011

The League of Left Workers

The Uniting Nacerists Movement

The National Democratic Movement

The National Democrats

The Baath Movement

The Independent Leftists

The Tunisian Communist Workers Party (PCOT)

The National Democratic Labour Party

[Translated by Raida Hatoum and Nadim Mahjoub]

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