Liberty-Work-Dignity: Tunisia : The People’s Revolution

, by Rene Wadlow

Liberty-Work-Dignity: Tunisia : The People's Revolution

The people’s revolution is on the march. When the freedom-loving people march — when the farmers have an opportunity to buy land at reasonable prices and to sell the produce of their land through their own organizations, when workers have the opportunity to form unions and bargain through them collectively, and when the children of all the people have an opportunity to attend schools which teach them truths of the real world in which they live — when these opportunities are open to everyone, then the world moves straight ahead… The people are on the march toward ever fuller freedom, toward manifesting here on earth the dignity that is in every human soul. Henry A. Wallace, Vice-President of the United States, setting out US war aims in June 1942.

The wave of the people’s revolution has swept over Tunisia and pushed President Ben Ali to exile in Saudi Arabia. A month of popular manifestations starting on 17 December 2010 with the suicide-protest of the young Mohamed Bouazizi, a college-educated street vender, and the police repression at his funeral has brought to an end the 23 years of control on Tunisian political and economic life of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. He and his powerful wife Leila Trabelsi left Tunis on 14 January for exile in Saudi Arabia while other members of the extended family, who controlled large sectors of the economy, have arrived in Paris, and others were arrested within Tunisia.

Tunisia under Ben Ali was a police-state in the literal sense of the word. There was a constant presence of the police with arrests, lengthy interrogations, torture and for those with luck, exile. The press and other media were closely watched and in some cases owned by the Ben Ali-Trabelsi family.

Tunisia has had only two presidents since the end of the French Protectorate in 1956. The first was Habib Bourguiba and his Destourian Socialist Party. At independence, the literacy rate was about 15 percent, but many of those considered literate had received only limited education at traditional Koranic schools and could not read secular works. In 1958, Bourgiba initiated educational reforms and a vast program of building schools and universities leading Tunisia to having today a well-educated Middle Class. Bourguiba also stressed education and employment for women saying “Female workers must be trained and given jobs. Work contributes to female emancipation. By her labor, a woman or young girl assumes her existence and becomes conscious of her dignity.”

Jobs in government and the private sector opened to the newly educated by the departure of the majority of the French, Jewish and Italian populations between 1956 and 1966. There was also a significant possibility of migration to Europe, especially to France, until the mid-1970s after which it became more difficult to get work permits.

In November 1987, Bourguiba named Ben Ali Prime Minister. Ben Ali, a General, came from the military and had no well-developed ideology or policy. Thus he continued the economic and social policies of Bourguiba. Shortly after having been named, in what has been called a “medical coup”, Ben Ali said that Bourguiba’s mental and physical health had made him incapable of governing. Ben Ali auto-proclaimed himself president promising to revitalize the country which had fallen into stagnation as Bourguiba had become increasingly senile but refused to delegate authority.

Ben Ali continued Bourguiba’s major policies. An emphasis was placed on developing tourism, but this opened relatively few jobs for the educated and led to speculation on land. The agricultural sector, especially in the central and south of the country, had more people employed than needed for the level of production. From an economic point of view, there was a migration to the cities and larger towns of the coastal area in a frustrating search for suitable occupations. The unemployment rate was high, and among the educated youth, unemployment, lack of social mobility and the flashy life-style of those with links to political power led to demands for change.

The demonstrations of the past month seemed to have begun spontaneously, led by the young but with no previously known leaders. The demonstrations had no links to opposition political parties, most of whose leaders were in exile, and there were few opposition political structures. Islamic influence seems to have been completely absent from the demonstrations and from the demands of the demonstrators.

For most French commentators, the model was “May 1968” which led to the end of the government of Charles De Gaulle. Tunisia is a revolution of the people who wanted fundamental changes from the small political group governing, an end to wide-spread and highly-visible corruption, and the creation of jobs. Ben Ali, like De Gaulle, symbolized the system and so there was strong agreement on what everyone could agree upon: “Ben Ali must go”. Unlike General De Gaulle, General Ben Ali had done nothing very special before becoming President. Although he tried to develop a “personality cult” with large pictures of himself in the streets and ever-present praise on the TV, Ben Ali had no real personality around which to develop a cult.

Now the issue is what structures the people’s revolution will give itself. If all goes as the constitutional order indicates, elections should be held within 60 days, the interim government being under the leadership of the Speaker of the Parliament. Since political parties had been prevented from operating — even the party of the President had only a name but no real structures — we will have to see how political factions are created prior to the elections. There are a good number of different ideological currents in the opposition to Ben Ali, and there is no opposition leader who stands out as a “natural” next President.

The first efforts of an interim “national unity” government have been hotly contested with continued demonstrations. It was felt that too many people who had served Ben Ali were still in the government. However, there are few opposition figures who have administrative experience. The internal Tunisian situation merits to be watched closely.

The disintegration of Ben Ali’s government and power base has been closely watched in the Arab world. Although Ben Ali was not particularly liked by his neighbors, political leaders in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Syria and Jordan can see the parallels without too much difficulty — a heavy-handed security state with diminishing popular support and growing demands from an educated, yet frustrated population. Recent demonstrations in Algeria and Jordan set off by higher food prices have been met by some government action to limit taxes of food. However, higher food prices are only one sign of broader socio-economic weaknesses that have led to high unemployment, high rents and yet a housing shortage.

It is in Egypt that, following the Tunisian example, people have taken to the streets demanding that Hosni Moubarak must go. The cries of the Tunisian revolutionary movement “Liberty-Work-Dignity” have been taken up by other nations. The repressive forces of the state are stronger in Egypt than in Tunisia where there was a division of policy between the less-politically-structured Army and the more pro-Ben Ali police and palace guard.

Throughout the Arab world, governments have been unable or unwilling to open serious discussions on socio-economic policies and alternatives. Islamic-based groups have played some role in focusing protests but have not done much in presenting realistic alternative policies. The violence of some of the Islamic groups in some countries has served as a pretext for the governments to ban all policy discussions without too many protests from Western governments.

What is outstanding in the revolution in Tunisia is that Islamic groups played no part in the demonstrations and that none of the demands were expressed in Islamic terms. The people’s revolution in Tunisia was based on the will of the people for change with a minimum of ideological coloring. It is likely that the people’s revolution in other Arab countries will also marginalize Islamic currents in favour of this-worldly reforms. Events will be closely watched both by those who hope and those who fear. People’s revolutions may be on the march in the Arab world.

The impact of the Tunisian revolution will be felt in Europe as well. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said in a 24 January press conference that “We in France probably underestimated the aspirations of the Tunisian people for freedom.” However the underestimation came from having turned a blind eye to the situation in Tunisia, not from a lack of information. There has been for some time a host of Tunisian political exiles living in France and providing information to those who would listen. Also France has a good number of competent North African specialists who follow events closely.

Likewise, the Tunisian Revolution should have some impact on the way that European Union foreign policy is made. As Judy Dempsey pointed out in an analysis in the International Herald Tribune “ Despite Mr Ben Ali’s repressive rule, the European Union has been negotiating ways to grant this North African country ‘an advanced status’ that would involve more aid and trade, economic and political contacts between Tunisia and Europe. Stefan Fule, the E.U. Commissioner for Enlargement and the European Neighborhood Policy, was unequivocal in his praise for Tunisia last May when Brussels agreed to set up a group to prepare such a status. ‘Tunisia is an important and reliable partner for the E.U. with which it has forged strong relations based on shared values and mutual respect and understanding. It is in many respects an example for the region.”

Of course, Judy Dempsey continued “It was never going to be easy or the Union to become a player in North Africa, where the former colonial powers, France, Spain and Italy rarely challenged the corruption, torture and wide human rights abuses in the region, while the United States pursued its own strategic interests. When the Union set up the Barcelona Process in 1995, which was aimed at fostering regional cooperation among the 14 North African and Middle Eastern countries and with Brussels, civil society activists say it offered aid and trade but little in the way of incentives for political reforms.”

Now that the people’s revolution is underway in the streets, the E.U. diplomatic corps may look again at how its analysis of human rights and the rule of law is made.

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