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Three Revolutions

The way I see it, there is not one revolution to be had in Tunisia, but three: the revolution against the dictator, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, which succeeded; the revolution for freedom of expression and new democratic institutions, which is ongoing; and a third revolution against the economic policies that created the social inequalities in the first place, which has not even begun. The danger, I think, is that Tunisians will win substantial concessions in terms of political expresion and representative government, but that the old economic structures will remain in place, albeit with greater transparency, because they serve the interests of local and foreign elites.

As I write this, the debate on the ground revolves around the transitional government, in which many of the old faces appear, particularly Ben Ali’s prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, and the ministers of finance, interior, defense, and foreign affairs. Three political parties from the “legal” opposition have also been offered ministerial posts, but one of those parties has since withdrawn from the coalition, under pressure from Tunisia’s national labor union, the UGTT. Ghannouchi and the other holdovers from the days of Ben Ali have resigned from their party, the RCD, which was effectively the only political force under Ben Ali, and have vowed to cut all ties between the party and the state. Ghannouchi himself insists he has no political ambitions, and will step down as soon as elections are held. He promises that his government is only there to prepare the way for democratic elections, and that major reforms are in store in the political arena. As a sign of his sincerity, political prisoners have been freed, censorship has been lifted, and the national television channel is broadcasting expressions of independent, popular speech. Previously outlawed politicial parties, both Islamic and leftist, are now legal, and political opponents of Ben Ali are being welcomed back from exile.

All this is not enough, however, for many Tunisians, and pressure from the street is ongoing. Among the demands being made are a complete disbandment of the RCD and return of its assets to the people; accountability before the law for those responsible for the corruption and repression of the previous regime; a transitional government made up of completely new faces with no connection to the Ben Ali era; and a constitutional assembly to create new political structures, with one popular demand being to replace the presidential system with a parliamentary one. The argument here is that the existing system favors centralized authority and the rule of a single party, and the people don’t want to replace Ben Ali with a “dictator lite.” There is also the problem that after years at the margins, in exile, or in prison, the political opposition will need time to organize, reconnect with the people, and adapt their platforms to current events before fair elections can be held. If the elections are held within 60 days as the Constitution demands, it is argued, this will give the advantage to the RCD or its successor, as the only political party with national structures in place.

So there is still a danger of the revolution, which remains leaderless, being hijacked by wily politicians committed to the old way of doing things. Ghannouchi’s government seems to be playing a game of appeasement, in the hope that popular anger will die down and they can go back to business as usual. Ot to put it another way, even assuming they are sincere in their desire for reform, their instincts are with stability and the status quo. But Tunisians are now well and truly awake, and there is an outpouring of desire for profound change. People have “lost their fear” and are speaking out, forming popular committees to protect their neighborhoods, embracing the army as the one national force that has remained above politics, and engaging in spirited public debates about the way forward. I’ve seen this described as cathartic, a therapy session on a national scale. After twenty-three years of silence, those who have been handed a chance to write their own history will not easily be persuaded to go back into a coma. I suspect that for this reason alone, and because Tunisians sense their opportunity to serve as an example to the whole Arab world, the changes to the political order will be real and profound, and a representative system of government will emerge from the current confusion.

One sign of how closely the demands for change are in tune, even at the “extremes” of the political spectrum, is the statement of the Tunisian Communist Workers Party:

    “All forces which played an effective and crucial role in toppling the dictator, whether political, trade unionist, human rights, or cultural, whether organized or otherwise, are, alongside the masses, to be involved in drawing Tunisia’s future and cannot be represented by any other figure or body in any negotiations or communications with the government.”

Meanwhile, the Islamic Annahdha Party is calling for:

    “…a Constitutional Council which represents all political tendencies and civil society institutions such as trade unions, the Association of Lawyers, and representative bodies of unemployed graduates who played an important role in the revolution, with the aim of building a democratic constitution for a parliamentary system that distributes and de-centralises power on the widest scale possible….”

So let’s be optimistic, even idealistic for a moment and assume that the second phase of the revolution succeeds. Within a few months, we will be looking at a new Tunisia which, for the first time in its history, has a vibrant multiparty democracy, representing all strains of political thought from the socialist left to the Islamic right, in a popularly elected parliament committed to rebuilding the nation in the best interests of all its citizens. Some leaders, by their eloquence and sincerity, will capture the imagination of the people, but this will not lead to the emergence of a new Mafia don in the Ben Ali style, because the people will reject any politician who distributes public resources as a point of personal privilege, and alternance and competition will ensure a balance of power. Cafés and internet chat rooms, public squares and workplaces will be alive with debate, journalists will take eagerly to their new role as watchdogs of the public trust, and in the towns and villages, people will press their claims with municipal authorities with a new pride of citizenship. Bribes and patronage networks will become a thing of the past — okay, maybe I’m getting carried away, but at any rate, profound changes are in store for Tunisia. Now that the people are awake, I have no doubt that in a few months Tunisia will be running according to very different rules, and this will keep the neighboring autocrats in Egypt, Algeria, and Libya on their toes, because the old tired excuses just won’t work any more.

This is where the third revolution comes in — the revolution of social justice, or to use that dreaded word, redistribution. Ben Ali was more than a cruel repressor of free speech and political dissent, he was a man who consumed the resources of a nation for the benefit of himself, his friends and extended family. Where will those resources go now? Even more to the point, he was a collaborator with powerful economic interests outside Tunisia, who were quite happy to hold up his system as a “success story,” a model for development in the Arab world. It is instructive to note that Habib Bourghiba, Ben Ali’s predecessor, first ran into trouble in 1984 when he tried to remove price controls for food under the guidance of the IMF, and that among Ben Ali’s first acts as president in 1987 was to push through a package of IMF-dictated reforms. Neoliberalism, the ideology promoted by the IMF for over a generation, calls for a radical cutback in state intervention in the economy, through privatization of national industries, slashing of government social spending, and throwing the doors open to foreign investment. This inevitably leads to a sweatshop economy, which is exactly what happened in Tunisia. Development failed to benefit the people as a whole, but rather private interests seeking cheap labor, cheap agricultural products, and cheap tourism. The system wouldn’t have held together as long as it has without massive support from Tunisians living abroad, sending their wages home to help their families.

Mohamed Bouazizi, the young vegetable seller who set himself on fire and launched the Tunisian uprising, was a victim of these policies. His region of Sidi Bouzid was underdeveloped because it had no obvious resources to exploit, no Mediterranean beaches, no industry, and no ports. Bouazizi was presented in early reports as a college graduate reduced to selling vegetables on the street when he found no better work, but his situation was even more basic than that. He’d been to high school, but he had no special skills, and his family was unable to support themselves when their land was repossessed by the bank. As his sister put it:

    “The worst thing was what happened to the land. We owned it with our neighbours and we grew olives and almonds. It was earning good money, but then things turned bad for a lot of people, our sales went down and the bank seized our land. I went with Mohamed, we appealed to the bank, we appealed to the governor, but no one listened. Other families had the same problem; people just ignored us.”

My point is that Tunisia is a symptom, a case model, of what is happening around the world due to globalization, which in its current form is concentrating more and more wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Ben Ali’s entourage was just an especially shameless example. This is the problem that the newly elected, democratic parliament of Tunisia will have to reverse, if they want to solve the problems that led Bouazizi to his final act of desperate courage. Already, the international community is giving clear signs that they care about stability in Tunisia above all else, meaning the appropriate environment for investment dollars to keep flowing. Moody’s, the bond rating agency, has already downgraded Tunisian bonds, which are needed for the financing of state programs, and the other major bond agencies are preparing to follow suit. I can easily imagine even a government with the best intentions, and a populist bent, finding themselves confronted with an ultimatum from the world of international finance — either you toe the line and keep Ben Ali’s business-friendly policies, or the money will dry up.

I’m currently reading The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, and the story of Tunisia fits perfectly into her larger narrative. She shows how in nation after nation, starting with the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile in the 1970s and continuing to this day, neoliberal policies have been forced on an unwilling people either through overt repression, or through back-room deals in moments of crisis. Her point is that these policies, which are the opposite of redistributive development that seeks to spread prosperity as broadly as possible, can never win the consent of the majority unless they are in a state of shock. Both Islamists and leftists in Tunisia are likely to call for redistributive policies designed to help the rural poor and urban working class, which explains why it was precisely those groups that were banned, tortured, and imprisoned under Ben Ali. But even if they will now have a seat at the table, the international community is likely to deploy its considerable resources to promote “responsible centrists” and “non-ideological technocrats” willing to play the game of finance and profit. Continuity will be the watchword, and withdrawal of aid and investment will be the threat. The last thing the IMF wants is the emergence of a Tunisian Evo Morales, a democratically elected leader who was quick to nationalize his country’s resources.

Both Latin America and Eastern Europe have been touted in recent days as examples of how a democratic revolution in one nation can have a domino effect in other nations across the region. In the early 1980s, dictatorships fell across Latin America, and were replaced by popularly elected governments. A similar thing happened in Eastern Europe later in the same decade, as the Soviet empire came undone. This is inspiring for those who hope that Tunisia’s democratic changes will spread to other nations, but there is a warning here as well. As Naomi Klein makes clear in her book, the first elected governments in places like Argentina, Chile, and Brazil followed the same economic policies as their military-run predecessors, often with the very same individuals in charge. It was only twenty years later that Latin Americans felt secure enough in their democratic rights to choose leaders willing to stand up to the neoliberal consensus — people like Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, or Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil. In Eastern Europe, early hopes of finding some middle way between communism and capitalism, such as worker-owned industries, were quickly overwhelmed by a wave of privatization, in which the nation’s factories were sold off at bargain prices to international speculators. No doubt Tunisia will be facing similar pressures to reform its politics, but not to mess with the lucrative financial arrangements put in place by Ben Ali.

There are millions of young people like Mohamed Bouazizi, in Tunisia and across the Arab world. They have a single aspiration, to lift their families out of poverty through their hard work. So will Tunisa’s third revolution ever take place? Will Bouazizi have a revolution worthy of his name? Will factories be built in Sidi Bouzid, so that Tunisia can start to produce for itself what it now imports? Will workers have the right to fight for better treatment by their employers, and a minimum wage of more than $155 a month? Will Tunisia’s largest bank, owned by Ben Ali’s son-in-law, now be nationalized? Will foreign companies be required to reinvest a share of their profits in Tunisia? Will the nation’s largest enterprises be forced to pay their fair share in taxes? Will decent housing, electricity, clean water, free education and health care be guaranteed to all? Or will Tunisia remain a sweatshop nation, with one economy for the rich and another for the poor — only this time with a popularly elected government as enabler, because that is how the game is played all around the globe?

A month ago, I didn’t dare to believe that anything would come of the Tunisian protests — as if believing in it would somehow jinx it, and bring the revolution to a halt. But Tunisia has surprised us all, and Ben Ali is gone. The outpouring of solidarity and popular feeling that has followed impresses everyone who is there. Clearly, Tunisians are ready to build a society worthy of their hero’s sacrifice. So I believe they will have their second revolution, the democratic one, and full political rights will be won. This is already a historic accomplishment, because the right to organize, speak without fear, and hold one’s leaders to account has been denied to Tunisians for far too long. But for these changes to mean anything in the long run, a third revolution is needed. Economic justice is the goal, and Tunisia must find a way to improve the quality of life for all its citizens. A whole set of tools is available, such as tariffs, planned development, guaranteed wages, jobless benefits, subsidized housing, national health care, and progressive taxation. The world’s richest nations have used these tools in the past to build their economies, but if Tunisia were to try it today, they would fly in the face of the IMF and these same powerful nations. It will take an engaged public that understands they are the authors of their own future, and a political class willing to translate the people’s desires into policy. Above all, it will take a whole new economic mentality, one that puts the economy to work for all Tunisians. Just as I didn’t dare hope that Tunisia would ever be rid of Ben Ali, I don’t dare hope for this now. But perhaps Tunisia will surprise us again, and if they do, it will be an example for us all.

Cross-posted to Talk Morocco.


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