Tunisia and the Jasmine Revolution

Tunisia was considered by many as the most stable place in the Arab world and the less likely to get hit by unrest. Over the past decade, the economy grew at a speed of 5% on average. It is considered the second most competitive country in Africa and it has the second largest revenue per inhabitant in the North of the continent. Its main industries include an important industrial sector and mines provide source of natural wealth. But as social movements don't follow any path imposed by the outside, but rather are the fruits of deep underlying causes, they manage to awaken a submitted population without the need of any leader. It is in Tunisia that a mass strike movement has emerged (although actual strikes are limited) and spread to the Arab region.

Unfortunately, Tunisian wealth is not organized democratically in order to meet social needs but rather for the profit of foreign multinationals and the local elite. Privatisations and the effective start of a free trade agreement with the EU (mainly France, Italy and Spain) on January 1st 2008 reinforced the status of an exporting country, highly integrated in the world capitalist economy (since the crisis of 2008 the GDP growth rate has slowed down as demand from Europe decreased), where workers' low pay opened the way for further exploitation as compared to the one prevailing in Europe.

It is the poorest that pay most of the flows of this economic model and in particular the youth. The latter was encouraged to study but its unemployment rate was 31 % in 2005 (it is surely worse after the outbreak of the global crisis) while the overall rate goes up to 14% and precariousness and poverty became the general life conditions of young people and their families.

The case of Mohamed Bouazizi is symbolic of this situation. This 26 years old graduate but unemployed had no other choice than become a street vendor of fruits and vegetables in Sidi Bouzid, in the rural heart of Tunisia. His goods were seized by the authorities because he didn't have a license nor did he bribe them to make them change their minds. This was the only source of revenue for his entire family. He therefore went to the prefecture to get his belongings back but all he got was a refusal accompanied by insults and physical violence. As a desperate act of outrage, he set himself on fire in front of the official building. This took place on December 17th 2010 and was to become the beginning of a strong rebellion that led to the ousting of the dictator Ben Ali.

The majority of the population recognized itself in the experience of Mohamed Bouazizi and understood his anger at the flows of the social system summarized in this event : poverty, corruption and authoritarianism from the State. On the very same day, dozens of shop owners and students gathered in front of the prefecture in solidarity and demanded to meet the local governor. This initial demonstration was, just like almost the entire revolution so far, spontaneous and independent from any existing party or union. The movement reached in a few days other cities near Sidi Bouzid but was already attacked by authorities since its outset. According to the information we have gathered, the first demonstrator killed was the 18 years old Mohamed Ammari in Menzel Bouzaiane. This did not undermine the protesters' determination and what were peaceful demonstrations turned into open confrontations in which official buildings and headquarters of the RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally, the ruling party) were attacked. The State repression was not the only cause of deaths we got to deplore. Like Mohamed Bouazizi, several people of all ages took their lives, in different regions of the country but also in Algeria, Egypt and other countries where oppression and poverty are the rules, development the exception. The first life lost was the one of Houcine Neji, a 24 years old unemployed who electrocuted himself in order to denounce the social injustices. At the age where hopes should fill our minds, Capitalism pushes people over the edge so as to keep “freedom” for the ruling minority.

By Christmas, the rebellion reached the capital Tunis. In spite of this, the first official reaction of Ben Ali was to undervalue the strength of the movement. During his first speech since the beginning of the revolution, on December 28th, he claimed that it was due to a minority of extremists and that it was not representative of the situation in the whole of Tunisia. He decided to intensify the State violence against protesters.

Like with his other speech that would take place in the days after, this only helped the development of the actions. As a second attempt to calm down the population, symbolic decisions were taken so as to personalize the problems and hide their social roots in simultaneity to an intensification of repression : the governor of Sidi Bouzid got fired on December 30th ; on January 12th the same occurred with the Interior minister and a commission charged with fighting corruption was promised. At the same time, Ben Ali had asked a top commander of the army to open fire during demonstrations. His refusal led to his removal but also to a higher popularity of the army, even though it had brought support to the brutal police.

This same recipe, State violence mixed with personalization of problems, will be followed by the government after the ousting of Ben Ali so as to channel the movement into a basic support of different members of the ruling class.

But one of these measures did represent a major victory : jailed protesters were freed on the 12th of January. Few days before, while calling rioters “terrorists”, Ben Ali promised that 300 000 jobs would be generated in 2011 and 2012. During his last speech, the day before his fall, he promised lower prices on food, allowing less limited Internet access and political freedom.

This was not enough to fool the revolt. On January 14th, Ben Ali left power, with the help of the army who had secured the airport, after stealing 1,5 ton of gold from Tunisia.
From the very beginning, what united the movement as it spread to the entire country were economic demands against unemployment and high cost of living, mainly basic food products in the midst of a peak in their prices in the world markets . These demands were the same ones put forward by other spontaneous movements in Algeria and then Jordan, Yemen and Egypt and that are currently shaking the foundations of these authoritarian regimes.

These demands were not only defended by the youth but also by the entire working class, that is those that have no other mean of subsistence than their work whether they are employed or not. The faces of the demonstrations were diverse and quickly evolved to represent the entire population. Women, men, young and older protested and stood up to the police in spite of the harsh repression, present since the start, and that claimed an estimated of 100 lives.

As the mobilization progressed, and surely also as a response to police violence, these demands turned into political ones. Opposition to the dictatorship, call for more freedom, for a genuine democracy, etc. came to complete the list of requests from the working population. As the government felt that it started loosing the battle, it accepted many of the initial demands but it was too late, the revolt was now asking for Ben Ali to step down. And so he did.

Since his fall, many positive reforms were announced so as to paralyze the movement, but in essence these are just temporary if the issues are not dealt with at their very roots and if the rebellion delegates their duty to develop its revolution. As the protesters kept their struggle on, police repression returned, showing up the true face of the new “democratic” governments that have taken the place of the previous one.

As our editorial puts it, the greatest challenge today is for the movement in Tunisia, just like in Egypt and elsewhere, is not to loose control of its own movement.

The movement was spontaneous not because it was disorganized but because only the masses could have made these changes possible. A popular spontaneity is not a religious dogma nor an opposition to organizing. It is rather a requirement for the start of a movement and an opportunity for organizing democratically, from below, without giving the chance for self-declared leaders to corrupt its aims.

Tunisians workers, after seeing what are the real objectives of the new power, have an opportunity to attack the core of their troubles : capitalism. For this, they can only rely on themselves and create their own self-managed movement, open and democratic, putting forward their own demands. Local councils could elect delegates to regional or national councils so as to coordinate the movement across the country.

In this sense, it is very encouraging to see that in the cradle of the revolution, Sidi Bouzid, a local council was created in order to protect the revolution and run the affairs of the area. We don't have enough information on this, but it seems that, even though it doesn't (at least not yet) oppose capitalism (nor does it support it), it constitutes a great alternative to the present ruling power and a space for the democratic development of the struggle.

This movement is not just an inspiration for Arab workers, nor are the problems it confronts only limited to the region. Capitalism creates poverty and limits freedom all over the world. Just as solidarity must be developed on an international level, we can draw a lot of lessons from this movement so as to apply them to our local situations.