Some Reflections on the Unfolding Revolutionary Process in Tunisia
Without going into too much detail about Tunisia’s situation, let us make clear one thing:
The regime has not fallen, it is still in power–though it is in a precarious position.
Ben-Ali has fled (as has his hated, Marie Antoinette-esque wife), but the ruling clique that operated underneath his executive direction has remained in power. The military is in the streets, cracking down on any gatherings of 3 or more people (a state of emergency has been declared). There is widespread looting and gangs of armed men have wrecked havoc in certain areas–consequently, many of the neighbourhoods are self-organizing in much the same way that local democratic structures arose during the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871 (there are other examples but I think the classic one is important for those of us who do not have much knowledge about revolutionary politics in history).
An unnamed military source has told the media that the gangs of armed men are in fact Ben-Ali’s Mukhabarat–internal security services–carrying out violence in order to justify a more brutal military crackdown. In this vein, we must remember one of the major reasons for the success of the movement against the regime: Ben-Ali’s military commander, with pressure from the ranks of soldiers, disobeyed his order to use violence to disperse the protests and instead had the military pull back to defend government buildings. Scenes of soldiers and demonstrators embracing and kissing show us that the military is very seriously divided. Every major revolution–from the 1917 socialist Russian Revolution to the misdirected 1979 Iranian Revolution–has involved deep dissension within the ranks of the military (in fact, the shift in Cuba from a mass-based urban general strike-oriented movement to a special body of armed guerrillas occurred once the military, in lockstep, crushed a general strike–thereby winning over the masses of people to Castro’s view that only guerrilla war led by elite commanders could defeat the Batista regime).
So what we have is an incomplete political revolution, though there are still demonstrators in the streets. The demonstrations began in the rural south–now, in the same area, there are people taking to the streets demanding the resignation of the interim government–along with more radical demands. The urban middle class is involved heavily (50% of graduates are unemployed)…but even with all of these forces, there is simply not enough critical mass or leverage to make a serious difference. It is the working-class that has swelled the ranks of the demonstrations and replaced confused and somewhat spontaneous resistance with mass coordinated actions and general strikes.
People in the street have only symbolic power. In the end, if an army wants to, it can massacre those people–look at Tiananmen Square. When workers’ refuse to work, however, they cut the jugular of a society’s ruling elite. That is what has happened. It was not for nothing that the security apparatus snatched up the leader of the Communist workers’ movement once things began to escalate.
The protests have been going on for over a month. They have centered on demands for the government to address the 14% unemployment rate (the US unemployment rate is 17.5%), to tackle skyrocketing inflation (food, fuel, etc. going up while wages are declining–just like the US), and to put an end to government censorship and police state repression. The catalyst for their escalation came in the form of a young unemployed youth who set himself on fire in front of a government building following the state’s seizure of his unauthorized fruit stand–his only livelihood.
The same 7 clans that rule the government and command the greatest share of the economy remain in power, the Mukhabarat continues its repression and there are tanks in the streets. Without revolutionary organization, the street protests will end at the barrel of a gun, the state apparatus will remain firmly in power, an interim period before elections–which undoubtedly will be between elites, with middle-class elements dissenting from working-class ranks, dividing the previous national unity–will be overseen by the likes of French President Nicholas Sarkozy (not to mention the US role). The hopes of Tunisia will be extinguished by calls for moderation and the threat of the Jasmine Revolution spreading across the greater Arab world will dwindle as the security services of Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, etc. will take the moment to up the ante of repression.
This situation can escalate in the other direction, however. The self-organization of the neighborhoods is a promising start–it all depends on where the leadership of the working-class takes the movement: will they yield to elite promises of reform or to middle-class leadership, or will they push forward with a truly revolutionary purpose and look at completing the political revolution and perhaps even a social revolution that will undermine the very social relations that lie at the base of the economic and political crisis unfolding across their society?
These are the questions we ought to be asking. I implore everyone to learn from this experience, to enjoy the victories but to remain sober to the situation, and to understand that revolutions are very complex processes–not just lots of people in the streets. Let us stand in solidarity with our comrades suffering under the yoke of tyranny in the Arab world: neither bin Laden nor the US-backed regimes, but real people’s democracy.