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Editorials 26 January, 2011

The great popular Tunisian revolution

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Azmi Bishara

General Director and Member of the Board of Directors of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. Dr. Bishara is a researcher and writer with numerous books and publications on political thought, social theory and philosophy, as well as some literary works. He taught philosophy and cultural studies at Birzeit University from 1986 to 1996, and was involved in the establishment of research centers in Palestine including the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy (Muwatin) and the Mada al-Carmel Center for Applied Social Research. In 2007 he was forced to go into exile after being prosecuted by Israel. In 2002 he won the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought, and in 2003 the Global Exchange Human Rights Award. He received his doctorate in philosophy in 1986 at Humboldt University in Berlin, having previously completed his master’s degree there in 1984.

Dr. Bishara has published hundreds of papers and studies in academic journals in various languages. His best-known publications include: On the Arab Question: An Introduction to an Arab Democratic Manifesto; Civil Society: A Critical Study; Religion and Secularity in Historical Context (two parts in three volumes); On Revolution and Revolutionary Potential; Is There a Coptic Issue in Egypt?; To be an Arab in our Times; The Army and Politics: Theoretical Problems and Arab Models; Essay on Freedom; Sect, Sectarianism and Imagined Sects; What is Salafism?; and The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh): A General Framework and Critical Contribution to Understanding the Phenomenon. Some of these books have become seminal works in their field.

He also produced a series of three books documenting the Arab revolutions that broke out in 2011: The Glorious Tunisian Revolution; Syria: The Painful Road to Freedom; and Egypt’s Revolution (two volumes). These books deal with the causes and stages of the revolutions in Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt. These books are a rich contribution to the field of contemporary history thanks to their combination of documentation and narration of the day-to-day details of these revolutions and sharp analysis making connections between the social, economic and political backgrounds of each individual revolution.

The beginning of the end:

  • A phase in modern Arab history come to an end. The long final chapter was about the disappearance of even so much as a gloss of Arab ideology and the evolution of Arab regimes into virtual clones of one another. The Arab regime is an amalgam whose composite elements are to be found in all Arab countries, whether republics or monarchies. These elements are a ruling family (with or without a ruling party), security agencies that are open players in the political arena, and an emergent class of business tycoons that interweaves with the political and security elites through a network of intermarriages, kinship relations and friendships. The amalgam gave rise to a new ruling class. For quite a while it seemed that this grim final chapter would drag on into a bleaker future.
  • The worst aspect of this last chapter was that seemingly perpetual and self-perpetuating Mameluke sultanate as one might term that pathetic ruling//authoritarian/despotic order. So smug and self-confident had the agents of this phase become that their corruption grew brazen (facilitated as it was by the overlap between politics, security and the economy and by the absence of any separation between the private and public spheres) and they set into motion plans for the hereditary succession (a phenomenon common to all Arab republics).
  • It was particularly disturbing and frustrating that it was still impossible to discern the contours of the next phase in Arab history and that Arab societies therefore appeared fated to remain prey to those ruling cliques that combine neoliberal economics (which in view of the prevailing nepotism and clientelism can only mean corruption) with authoritarianism. Never before had Arab horizons felt so dark and constricted as the consequence of despotism, want, poverty, corruption, the breakdown in productive societies and the rise in consumerist societies, the loss of sovereignty, and grovelling dependency on the West, in the course of which the Arabs have practically forgotten their sources of strength, which are many.
  • The people's revolution in Tunisia heralds the end to this miserable last chapter. More importantly, it has given us a glimpse of the latent possibilities of the coming phase. The darkness has begun to lift and the features of the horizon have come into view.
  • This great grassroots revolution was presaged by localised bread riots that erupted intermittently in the centre and south of Tunisia during the past two years. However, the most recent uprising lasted long enough and acquired sufficient impetus to spread to the cities and other parts of the country. The secret of its longevity was the heroic persistence of the people of the governorate of Sidi Bouzid, who were fired by economic need, anger and the defence of dignity. Their spirit was epitomised by the young native of that province who immolated himself because he could no longer tolerate the sense of impotence in the face of degradation. The revolution had its real beginning in a bread and dignity revolt, not just a bread riot. It was the dual rejection of deprivation and degradation that made the outpouring of anger so tenacious.
  • There had always been corruption, but never so brash and audacious. Events in Tunisia have shown that people abhor corruption, that they do not regard it is a form of mismanagement but rather as a form of tyranny. It rouses their fury more than poverty alone. People could reconcile themselves to poverty if they felt that it was not the consequence of injustice. It was conspicuous corruption more than anything else that convinced the people that poverty in their country was the product of inequity and deprivation.
  • As the revolution spread through Tunisia it met brutal repression. The toll was heavy, but once the masses realised their strength and discovered their courage, which had always been dormant, they became virtually impossible to stop.
  • Not all bread revolts can achieve the necessary impetus and dynamism to expand into a revolution. This one succeeded for several reasons, the most important of which are:

a) The state's disparagement of the people's intelligence and the security agencies' disdain for their lives.

b) Broad segments of Tunisian society had reached the breaking point as the result of discrimination and exploitation, the pernicious effects of economic growth without development, and a tourist economy that enriches and develops some areas while impoverishing others and that raises property prices without raising general standards of living. To compound these socio-economic ills, the small manufacturing industries that had exported their products to Europe lost their ability to compete when China entered the World Trade Organisation. The Tunisian textile and clothing industries quickly fell into decline and  unemployment rates soared.

c) Against such an economic backdrop even the achievements of the previous regime became a source of trouble to the Ben Ali regime. The levels of education had risen considerably in Tunisia because the Bourguiba regime had actually cared about education. But high levels of education become a burden to a regime when it cannot create employment opportunities for graduates and when it cannot meet the higher expectations of the educated classes. As a general rule, the level of frustration is as high as the level of expectations. Education raises levels of expectations and it also raises levels of political awareness and opposition to injustice and corruption. Moreover, the fact that these countries invest in education but whose economy depends on cheap uneducated labour, turns education into a source of unemployed educated youth.

  • The foregoing conditions exist in all Arab countries. To these we should add the population explosion and a burgeoning younger generation, which portends even more widespread unemployment in countries whose employment markets are incapable of absorbing the millions of new entrants into the labour market regardless of their level of education. The spectre of instability hovers over all Arab societies as the consequence of the current economic policies that are reproduced across the board. So what precisely distinguishes the Tunisian case? 


The properties of the Tunisian case:

  • Arab regimes, as defined by the amalgam described above, vary in their degree of despotism. Some permit for a token of political party diversity or a facade of pluralism of parties that are stacked with supporters of the regime and representatives of its various agencies. Some allow for a certain margin of freedom of the press, for which they compensate with the eyes and ears of the security forces and by co-opting a significant segment of the journalists. Some regimes give their people a degree of breathing space, others espouse a cause and an ideological rhetoric that coincide with the prevailing popular mood.
  • Tunisia was a police state par excellence. There was no freedom of the press. The few political parties that were tolerated would not have been tolerated if they had gathered more than three per cent of the vote. The regime not only refused to respect human and civil rights it used its security forces to systematically trample them, while deafening its ears to the pleas of Tunisian and western human rights organisations. These, incidentally, should be praised for their persistence in exposing the injustices of that regime, in spite of its friendship with the West whose governments found it convenient to turn a blind eye to its brutal abuses of human rights.
  • The regime in Tunisia left no space for persons or entities to mediate between the people and the state or even for a quasi opposition that could confuse and diffuse grassroots action with contradictory slogans, in the manner of Egyptian political parties, for example.
  • The Tunisian regime was also a regime without a cause. It was a grey dictatorship that was entirely out of touch with the popular mood or public opinion. It could not have cared less about Arab causes, engaged in relations with Israel since Oslo, and kept its political sights and aspirations openly fixed toward the north. It had nothing to boast of but its secularism, which blinded many intellectuals, artists and others to the true nature of that regime. Secularism in itself proves nothing. It is not a system of government or a socioeconomic policy. Tunisia's government and its socioeconomic policies wreaked their pernicious toll on ever widening segments of the populace, religious and secular alike.
  • Tunisian society is a homogenous one. Disputes cannot easily escalate into sectarian or tribal conflicts. Nor can class or political tensions turn into identity conflicts between organic affiliations, unlike in the more heterogeneous societies in which despotic regimes play on such social divides. Tunisia also has a large middle class and high education rates. The combination of these factors led me to anticipate, over ten years ago in Civil Society and, again, three years ago in The Arab Question, that Tunisia was poised for democratic transformation. The expectation, it should be stressed, was based on scientific analysis as opposed to wishful thinking. 


The transformation:

  • The Tunisian revolution took less than a month to reach the capital. Where and when did it start? In Sidi Bouzid or when it spread to other cities and developed into more than a bread riot? Or was it when it entered the capital and the army had to choose between loyalty to the regime and loyalty to the state? In fact, the actual starting point is not important. What matters is that it spread and sustained itself in spite of the sacrifices, and that society and the popular mood were in a condition that made them ready and willing to respond. It also mattered that army was able to distinguish between the state and the regime. This was why it chose not to follow orders and not to open fire on demonstrators in the capital, and only to protect public facilities. The army decided that it was better for the regime to fall than to start massacring civilians.
  • President Ben Ali fled leaving all his men behind him. He did not even try to stand with his party with its zero causes and 70,000 full-timers who, in turn, abandoned the ruling family and scrambled to protect themselves.
  • The colonial West, as represented by France, refused to receive Ben Ali and even his family members. The hypocritical American president hailed the courage of the Tunisian people, whereas until a month ago Washington hailed the Tunisian regime as a model of modernisation and development. Such responses to the uprising do no credit to the West. One cannot even claim that they are generally positive, their only shortcoming being that they came too late. There is nothing whatsoever that is praiseworthy in the French and American positions. They supported the dictatorship and its despotism when it was in their interests to do so, and turned their backs on their friend when things got awkward, as they had done with countless friends before him. Disowning friends in times of need is simply bad, regardless of the types of friends one has. But then anyone who imagines that western policy has friends is deluding himself. The same applies to anyone who thinks that the western politician is more than a petty opportunist who does what he can to stay in power, works to get himself reelected for a second term, and then retires to the homestead.
  • The Tunisian revolution started peacefully and spontaneously, it remained peaceful but it did not stay spontaneous. As the protest movement spread syndicates, rights organisations, political activists and student federations climbed on board. But even then, it did not acquire a leadership from any of the known opposition groups.
  • This does not mean that the political parties should not take advantage of the revolution in order to promote democratic change. That is their proper role. A revolution might start spontaneously and the initial chaos may, in fact, be one of its sources of strength. However, spontaneity can become a weakness and even a potential danger when it comes to the management of the affairs of a state and society, whose foremost concerns are personal and collective safety, and an orderly public life.
  • Opportunism and principles tend to intermingle in transitional periods. Everyone has to demonstrate that they stand against injustice and oppose the previous regime. This also applies to the former beneficiaries of the regime and even to its most zealous agents. Such phenomena are normal and, therefore, not worrying. Opportunists side with the victor. That is what opportunists do. The victor would not be victorious otherwise and they would not be opportunists. However care should be taken to keep them from taking control over the new establishment, especially the more experienced ones.
  • Chaos, on the other hand, is worrying. Chaos prevails in transitional phases and in all popular revolutions before the elites come to terms over the new rules of the game. It is essential that agreement is reached as soon as possible on the nature of the transitional phase, because if the chaos persists it will lead to a military coup. Alternatively, the elites of the existing regime might seize control on the back of the army, protect themselves through a power-sharing pact with other political forces (legal and illegal ones), and reach an agreement on the rules governing this new pluralistic arrangement. They would naturally seek certain guarantees and perhaps even the possibility of returning to power as an ordinary political party (probably one that carries a different name) in the framework of a pluralistic democracy. Whatever the case, it would be understood that this is an interim period to be followed by elections. An interim period is a time to negotiate over the nature of the new democratic order. If this occurs in Tunisia, it will be the first Arab state to make the concrete transition to democracy. In so doing it will forge a new history for itself and open a new era in Arab history.