Tunisia, North Africa, and the Arab Revolution

Statement by Socialist Action (U.S.), Jan. 17, 2011

The year 2011 has begun with the heroic ousting of the dictator Ben Ali by the Tunisian people. The recent Tunisian uprising against rising food prices, unemployment, and political repression is not a new occurrence. The liberalization of economic policies in North Africa has had a devastating effect on living conditions of workers and peasants. As we know, the liberalization of the economy does not mean liberalized politics as was promoted by capitalist politicians such as Bill Clinton. In fact, it has meant more repression from Morocco to Jordan.

In the 1980s economic policies outlined by the IMF and World Bank met with fierce resistance first in Tunisia in 1984, and then again in Algeria in 1988 as well as Jordan. The resistance saw itself in the image of the heroic struggles of the first Palestinian intifada. Although these movements were brutally crushed, there is no doubt that the continuity in militancy in North Africa and the Middle East goes back to the height of the struggles for Arab nationalism.

After heavy-handed defeats it can often take time for workers to recuperate and build up their confidence. In North Africa, we first saw the return of popular political opposition in Egypt in 2007/2008, when mass strikes were conducted in several major industries—textile being the most significant.

According to research done by the Arab league and the UN, since the 1980s there has been no decline in poverty in the Arab world. Tunisia was a place where investors felt relatively safe to invest and exploit workers for cheap labor. The world economic crisis has certainly taken its toll on exploited nations. In Tunisia the “official” unemployment rate for youth is 50%, leaving many well educated young Tunisians furious with their situation. It was the tragic suicide of Bou Aziz that ignited decades of pent-up rage against the repressive and corrupt Ben Ali regime. It was revealed in WikiLeaks that the Ben Ali regime was so corrupt that even U.S. diplomats made remarks in disgust!

Bou Aziz, like many young Tunisians, was a university graduate who, unable to find work, turned to selling produce as a street vendor. When police destroyed his produce cart for not having a proper permit, Aziz could no longer stand it, and in a gesture that expressed the frustrations of the Tunisian people, set himself ablaze. Protests erupted on Dec. 19 in the West Central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid and quickly spread to the capital of Tunis.

The main union, the UGTT, pushed by rank-and-file workers, joined the struggle and organized local and regional strikes. Word spread quickly via the internet and mobile devices but government firewalls were quickly erected to block information. The world has seen both the strengths and the limitations of internet organizing first in Iran and now in Tunisia. We should be careful not to make a fetish out of internet organizing. Media outlets who claim this was a “cyber revolution” wrongly characterize this struggle by leading their audience to believe that one does not have to mobilize on the streets to make change. Ben Ali was ousted precisely because Tunisians mobilized by the millions. We’ve especially seen in the recent WikiLeaks disclosures how the government can and will shutdown the worldwide web if it is hurting their interests.

Throughout this struggle workers and peasants were treated brutally by the Ben Ali regime. Even with over 60 dead and many more injured the masses had shaken off their fear. They are no longer intimated by the government thugs who fired tear gas and live ammunition on peaceful protests. It should be noted that Ben Ali’s thugs were aided and directed by Sarkozy and French imperialism. It was reported that plainclothes police officers had organized a majority of the looting in an attempt to discredit the protesters.

Ben Ali was forced to take the troops off the streets because a section of the military had sided with the people and defended them from police. When the mass demonstrations reached the presidential palace the people and the soldiers embraced.

By Friday, Jan. 14, the situation was clearly hopeless for Ben Ali, who was back-pedaling to make concessions to quiet the people. As Alan Woods noted (www.marxist.com), “It is easy to concede that which is no longer in one’s power to preserve.” Ben Ali dissolved the government and fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia.

The Tunisian people have bravely overthrown the rotten Ben Ali regime. Undoubtedly, every effort will be made on the part of the international capitalist class to demobilize the workers. The capitalists will try to quiet them with empty promises of democratic elections, job creation, and lower food prices. This tactic is unfolding by way of the formation of a “unity” government. Heading this initiative is Interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who is deeply entrenched in the old corrupt regime. The so-called unity government will consist of the old regime and weak reformist and opportunist opposition parties. It’s hardly a grouping that has the Tunisian workers’ best interest in mind!

It is clear that Tunisians need a government that works in the interests of their people before the interests of international capital. To achieve this end it will be necessary to form committees based in the masses and representing the interests of the workers, peasants and soldiers.

There is no doubt that, whatever happens, this experience will have an immeasurable impact on the youth not just in Tunisia but of the entire Arab world. This is precisely why revolutionaries around the world need to pay attention to what’s happening right now in North Africa. North Africa and the Middle East are vital to the strategic interests of the United States and European Union. Shortly after events started heating up in Tunisia, protests broke out in Algeria, Jordan, and Morocco. For the first time in a long time the imperialists are nervous about their free-market set up in the post-colonial Arab world.

The French capitalists have been dealt a serious blow. Their ability to influence events in former colonies has noticeably dwindled since their inability to turn back the 44-day general strike on the islands of Guadalupe and Martinique—a struggle that won pay increases, education, and job creation for the islands’ youth. Most analysis on Tunisia has not taken into account all that has happened in resistance to the world economic crisis and how that may or may not have affected the workers in Tunisia—especially the resistance of Algerian and Tunisian communities in France.

This renewed struggle in North Africa can also have a significant impact on the situation in Palestine, as Gaza shares a border with Egypt. Egypt is a significant player in the struggle against Western imperialism. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak maintains a tight control by means of a massive security force and strong backing from President Obama. Last week, Egyptians in Cairo protested outside the Tunisian embassy, chanting, “Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him too!”

The working class in Egypt is one of the strongest and most militant in North Africa despite heavy repression. A revolution in Egypt would threaten not only the capitalists’ strong hold in North Africa but would also serve to embolden resistance movements in the Middle East. The failing Lebanese state and the upsurge of protests in Jordan are clear signs of a renewed workers’ struggle in the Middle East. The most conscious Arab workers will draw lessons from all these events and put forward a revolutionary program that will determine the future success of the Arab revolution.

Revolutionary-minded people everywhere couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring start to 2011. The events in North Africa seem to have taken the capitalists by surprise. Without a doubt, the U.S. capitalists are looking at this as an opportunity to exert more influence in Tunisia. The best response we can make now is to push forward and organize the largest opposition to U.S. wars and interventions abroad. The best support we can give to the world revolutionary movement is by putting a thorn in the side of U.S. imperialism. We can start by endorsing and building the call made by the United National Antiwar Committee (UNAC), for nationally coordinated bi-coastal mobilizations in New York City and San Francisco on April 9.

In solidarity with the heroic Tunisian people: end all U.S. wars and occupations, bring all U.S. troops home now—all out for April 9!

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