revolution in tunisia… just the beginning

Camille Boudjak reflects on the revolutionary movement in Tunisia

Ben Ali, the dictator who once terrorised the Tunisian population, was forced to flee the country on the evening of Friday 14th January. Chief of state for 23 years, a kleptocrat and dictator, he spent six hours on a plane first trying to reach the France of his friend and supporter Sarkozy, then Malta and finally being welcomed by the reactionary Saudi monarchy.

At the time of writing the Tunisian population have still not won anything as regards their aspiration for freedom, nor the working-class demands against poverty and unemployment which in late December sparked the insurrection in the impoverished Sidi Bouzid region. The army patrols the streets and the cops of the Ben Ali regime continue to spread terror. No-one knows the future: the international history of our class is rich in betrayed and lost revolutions, but already the revolution in Tunisia represents a historic event.

For reasons of geography and common language, the Tunisian revolution marks the start of a new era in the Arab world. Neighbouring Algeria has also recently seen an upsurge of anger, expressed in riots in poor suburbs across the country. On 14th January as Ben Ali fled, thousands of workers protested in Jordan against price rises. The next day in Yemen a thousand students demonstrated through the streets of Saana to welcome the revolution in Tunisia and call for similar revolutions across the Arab world. From Egypt, also marked by working-class revolts in recent years, particularly in the textile industry; to the UAE where migrant building workers have launched a powerful strike over pay in spite of repression; to Morocco where there are numerous workers’ and students’ demonstrations; there is not a single Arab country whose eyes are not turned to Tunisia.

Often people only speak of a “democratic revolution” in Tunisia, but we must question  the class nature of the revolution. It started in Sidi Bouzid with a young unemployed man, dying of poverty, setting himself alight. It is a revolution against the dictatorship but also against unemployment and price rises, a revolution against poverty. Much as the recent insurrectionary riots in Algeria started in the poor suburbs, the revolution in Tunisia was created in the heart of the working class, with ferment already brewing in the Gafsa miners’ struggle. It was often the grassroots militants of the UGTT, the main workers’ organisation in Tunisia, who organised the protests, even if the bureaucracy collaborated with the regime.

Although less covered by the media than the riots, the revolution in Tunisia has also been marked by the traditional weapon of the working class, the strike. For example in Sfax, apart from the hospitals and bakeries, 100% of workers went on strike on 9th January. These strikes affected many sectors, in particular call centres outsourced by France-Télécom, Orange and SFR. It was the working class which launched the struggle and pulled behind it all the other parts of the population who wanted an end to the Ben Ali regime, linking strikes with insurrectionary demonstrations. There is nothing surprising in this: in Tunisia like elsewhere the working class is the only revolutionary class, with “nothing to lose but its chains”.

The revolution in Tunisia is a thousand miles from the “colour” pseudo-revolutions like in Ukraine or Georgia, false revolutions where everything was decided in advance and, supported by demonstrations, one faction of the ruling clique replaced the other. The dozens and dozens of deaths mean it is impossible to call the 2011 Tunisian revolution a “velvet revolution”, much as it was impossible to speak of such an outcome to the Iranian revolutionary crisis of 2009. This working-class aspect of the revolution worries not only North African and Middle Eastern leaders, but also those of Europe.

A few days before the fall of Ben Ali, the French Foreign Minister proposed sending aid to the regime to help it repress the revolt. The primary concern of the French state was of course to defend the interests of French capitalists who profited from a cut-price working class muzzled by the Ben Ali dictatorship.In turning him away, in spite of its tradition of welcoming fallen dictators, the French state showed its contempt for its pawns who fail to keep order. As long as the profits flow into bourgeois pockets and the order necessary for exploitation is maintained, the French state is not bothered with the nature of the regime. In Ivory Coast, for example, having militarily intervened to protect Gbagbo, French imperialism nonetheless continues to support Outtara. THe French state only supported Ben Ali as long as he could keep power.

In the case of a real revolution, and not just a palace coup, revolutions are often strengthened and radicalised with the departure of a dictator, as in the case of Nicholas II in Russia in 1917 or the Shah of Iran in 1979. On Sunday 16th January, after the fall of Ben Ali, 1,500 people in the small town of Regueb (population 8,000) demonstrated, chanting “We did not revolt to get a unity government with a cardboard opposition”. On Monday 17th fresh demonstrations broke out in Tunis, repressed by jets of tear gas, and in the working-class suburbs the residents organised themselves in self-defence against the cops and Ben Ali’s thugs, establishing district committees. The next day saw calls to demonstrate in Tunis and Sousse against the new government, with the slogan “the dictator has fallen, no more dictatorship”.

The “Tunisian revolution”, which is already more than a Tunisian matter, seems far from over. Although Ben Ali is gone, all the apparatus of his dictatorial state remains in place. The “national unity government” is 85% composed of members of the RCD, Ben Ali’s party, his former ministers and his yes-men. The members of the “opposition” brought into government are for the most part members of the former legal, official opposition, as well as one member of the Ettajdid (ex-Communist Party), which was banned even after having long supported Ben Ali. Of course there are promises and there is talk of freedom of the press and of parties; political prisoners like Hamma Hammami have been freed; and elections are promised to take place within six months.

With the fall of Ben Ali, the new government will of course make some concessions. The history of revolutions in Russia, Germany and Iran, for all their distinctions, show how the bourgeoisie can retreat in the face of pressure and abandon its most loyal servants; but if it can keep power and maintain its state apparatus in whatever form, it will do all it can to crush a working class who dared to revolt. Democratic illusions and alliances with this or that faction of the bourgeoisie in the name of “democracy”, “the nation”, “anti-imperialism” have always cost the workers a heavy price in blood. Once the revolutionary movement has begun, the only possibility is the victory of one class and the crushing of the other.

An abridged version of an article from