The Revolt Shaking the Arab World

Eric Ruder Jan 27, 2011

Tunisians continue to protest the interim government that followed the fall of the dictator Ben Ali . PHOTO: Nasser Nouri/Socialist WorkerThe self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in a moment of despair on December 17 in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid has touched off a chain of events that is still unfolding, but has already rocked the Arab world.

It can’t be said for sure that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali–who fled Tunisia on January 14, toppled after 23 years of iron-fisted rule–is just the first head of state to be driven from power in an area where U.S. imperial interests are keen. But already it’s certain that the political terrain of the Middle East is being refashioned in the wake of a series of popular revolts.

For his part, Barack Obama is seeking to portray his administration as “welcoming” the protests and sympathetic to the struggle for democracy. But the U.S. government has a long record of support for dictators like Ben Ali–and other strongmen, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, whose fate is far from certain.

Kevin Ovenden, a British socialist and leading member of the Viva Palestina missions to break the Israeli siege of Gaza, spoke to Eric Ruder about the implications of the Tunisian uprising–for the U.S. and for the Arab regimes–and the lessons it holds for all those dedicated to the struggle for a better world.

Eric Ruder: Can you describe the dynamic touched off by events in Tunisia?

Kevin Oden: This is the first removal of an Arab autocrat by a popular mobilization or revolution, as opposed to a palace coup or an army coup, in more than half a century. It’s the first one in the wider region since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, so it’s hard to exaggerate its significance.

It’s almost always the case with such events that it’s only after they happen that we can look back and see this was a tipping point.

Tunisian acquaintances I had the privilege of meeting on the Viva Palestina 5 convoy last fall described at that time a small but perceptible uptick in conflicts and antagonisms around such things as price increases and clashes between the police and young, unemployed people being pushed around where they hang out. So these kinds of things were happening, but no one inferred from them the events that were to take place a couple months later. But looking back on it, their descriptions were extremely prescient.

Then two things happened at the turn of the year, which gave the growing climate of protest a more political focus. The first was the spontaneous advance of the demands, which started as sympathy with the events in Sidi Bouzid; calls for a reduction in food prices; and some calls for greater freedom and less repression. But these demands grew into directly identifying Ben Ali himself as the source of their grievance and calling for his removal.

The second was the breakaway, under pressure, of the main trade union confederation from the regime. In the 1970s and ’80s, the union leadership had been highly incorporated into the regime, and when Ben Ali came into power, they were incorporated on an even more corrupt basis.

I think this was a very important factor in accelerating the developments beyond confrontational street protests. It would be premature to say that the trade unions, or any clear organization rooted in workplaces, emerged as a leading body of the revolution, but it does appear that this is still one possible development.

The other form of organization that emerged was thrown up as a response to the repression itself. When the police and secret police began invading poor and working-class neighborhoods and even some middle-class areas in order to brutalize people, it necessitated people defending those areas. So people began forming street and neighborhood organizations, and they showed incredible bravery–armed with sticks in most instances, trying to defend their neighborhoods from rampaging terror by the regime.

The speed with which this took place was blinding. And now the surge of protest has filled people with confidence, and they are demanding more than just a reshuffling of the figures at the highest echelons of the regime.

This is the battle that’s opening up now, because to clear out everybody associated with the old regime would mean that the acting president, the acting current prime minister, a section of the ministers, the people in the bureaucracies of the ministries and so on would have to go. This would hit a significant chunk of Tunisian capital and potentially challenge the control of significant chunks of Tunisian industry.

For example, half of the telecommunications network is in the hands of the Ben Ali family. So, you can see how this question of clearing out the criminals begins to open up a wider question, both politically in terms of democracy and freedom, and economically in terms of addressing the plight of the people.

In this process, Western governments are really running to catch up. This has caught them completely unawares. Several years ago, George W. Bush privately asked Ben Ali to introduce some military reform. He knew that there was a huge amount of repression, and he wanted reform not for the sake of reform, but to try to give the regime some greater legs, some deeper roots.

The U.S. and France–despite years of turning a blind eye under Bush and then Obama, and under Chirac and then Sarkozy–are trying to say that they are in favor of “democracy.” And remember that the U.S. was fully aware of the repressive conditions in Tunisia–that’s why the U.S. made Tunisia an endpoint for its “extraordinary rendition” flights, in which people were lifted from airports in the U.S. and Europe and taken in “black flights” to the dungeons in the Tunisian desert.

The U.S. and France are now trying to say that they’re in favor of democracy, but of course, it’s a highly limited democracy. They’d like to turn to the Tunisian army to accomplish this, but it remains unclear which way it would go. The army is a third of the size of the police force and stayed out of the repression of the protests.

The government is trying to use the fact that the army has some credibility among the people–because in many instances, the army protected people from the rampages of the secret militias under the command of Ben Ali.

The army could move toward a more progressive position of clearing out the old order if the generals, who have been so far reluctant to play a more directly political role, choose to intervene more directly. There are various figures in Europe, in France in particular, who are encouraging the army to do that. The former French military chief and former ambassador to Tunisia, Admiral Jacques Lanxade, said recently that the army had emerged from this with its integrity intact and can play a very positive role in stabilizing the country.

So they are all desperate to try and bring this process to a halt in the name of stability, with as little further change as possible. But the most dynamic sections in society are saying that with upwards of 100 people having lost their lives in the course of the revolution so far, without winning further change, this bloodshed would be wasted.

ER: Can you describe how the toppling of Ben Ali and the mass protests in Tunisia are playing out regionally?

KO: People across the region are giving voice to their own economic and political grievances by modeling their actions on the Tunisian uprising. In Egypt, nine people have set themselves on fire as of now. From Mauritania to Yemen to Jordan, protests have broken out.

A young man in Mauritania set himself alight, and interestingly, he wasn’t from a poor family. He was from a reasonably well off, middle-class family. According to the family, his motivation was the sense of regional humiliation, and of the dysfunction and injustice within his own society.

This is very important to understand, because we’re not just talking about raw economic concerns. These concerns are important, but they’re also fused with the grievances of large numbers of people, highly educated, who see above them people in positions of authority, fabulously wealthy, driving the big Mercedes. These middle-class people are painfully aware that the jetsetter class is made up of people inferior to them intellectually, but who happen to be members of the right family.

They are painfully aware of the pimping of their countries to all sorts of interests around the world, at the expense of the cause of some kind of regional integrity and regional honor inside the Arab world and at the expense of, among other things, the cause of the Palestinian people.

But I don’t mean that people are being driven merely by abstract concepts. There is the sense that the Arab region has, in its totality, large amounts of fertile land and water, oil and gas, and yet the bulk of the people are fantastically impoverished.

The mere possibility that a mass movement might cohere around a demand to address this glaring injustice has sent a wave of anxiety through the region’s ruling classes. The deputy prime minister of Israel said in mid-January that the events in Tunisia don’t have an immediate impact on Israel, but were they to spread throughout the region, this could seriously compromise Israel’s security. And there have been similar comments from politicians in Europe–and indeed a caution, to put it mildly, inside the United States.

Importantly, this shows that the events in Tunisia are not simply a Tunisian or an Arab event. Tunisia is part of a global capitalist system, structured hierarchically by imperialism, and thus events in Tunisia have an impact on the fault lines of the system itself.

That means that when we in the U.S. or Britain speak of events in Tunisia, we’re not talking about a land far, far away–some exotic Oriental land. We’re talking about something which has lessons for us as activists, but also has a direct impact on the calibrations of governments and institutions like the IMF and so on which are based in the West.

Already, we see a viral spreading of this–to Algeria, Jordan and most recently Egypt. The response from these governments has been to dig deep in their arsenal to blunt similar protests. First of all, they’ve sought to diffuse the regional anger over food price rises, so there’s been an increase in subsidies in Morocco, in Syria, in Yemen, in Sudan. Egypt is considering an increase in its subsidies, and similarly over oil and fuel subsidies.

There’s an unwritten social contract throughout much of the region that compensates for limited political freedom and limited economic opportunities for the mass of the people with at least being able to have bread on the table. And particularly in those countries that are oil-rich, there has been a policy of providing affordable fuel for cars. The cost of a gallon of gas in Kuwait or Libya is cheaper than a gallon of water, for example.

So these governments have attempted to reverse the food and fuel price hikes of recent years and promise jobs and so on. The problem they face, however, is they are being squeezed by the general crisis of the system–especially for the non-oil producing countries, which have to import oil. North African countries’ exports to Europe have trailed off because there’s a contraction of demand inside the European economy.

And so it remains to be seen how this will play out. They can’t indefinitely increase subsidies to try to head off this discontent without starting to impinge on the interests of capital or particular capitalists inside these countries, so it’s not a sustainable measure in the longer term.

And almost universally, we’re talking about regimes which are disliked or hated, not just for internal reasons, but because of their support for the U.S. to one degree or another in the American carve-up of the region in the interests of global capital, and American capital especially. So there are severe limits on what they can do.

The dynamic has already spilled outside of Tunisia, and this will continue. People are following events across the region, and talking and debating, and this has widened ideological horizons. This isn’t something that can be limited to a traditional transfer of power from one political block to another organized political block. This is something which has come from, as they say, “the Arab street”–and it’s thrown lots of the old ideological assumptions up in the air.

Here, it’s very important to get out of our heads the image of the region presented by the American media. We are not talking about people who are “medieval” and “backward.” We are talking about high levels of education, high levels of urbanization and a very high level of knowledge of about what is happening–from the Atlantic coast of Africa all the way over to Iraq.

You have families that sit down and watch the news here, and the discussion will effortlessly switch from Arab League Secretary General Amre Moussa talking about how there needs to be reform and economic rebalancing in the region, through to the latest in Iraq, through to the events in Tunisia. And large numbers of people will know the names of all the leaders in this region and the opposition figures as well.

ER: The U.S. has pursued alliances in the Middle East with what it considers “friendly Arab regimes”–by which it means friendly to U.S. interests, no matter how authoritarian they are with respect to their own populations. What are the implications of events in Tunisia and beyond for U.S. interests?

KO: The U.S. has constructed a series of alliances with semi-client regimes–not fully client regimes, because they do have their own interests–first of all during the Cold War, and then after 1989, the horizon expanded to the whole of the region. During the 1990s, this took the form of the first U.S. war on Iraq in 1990-1991, as well as the shoring up and stabilization of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia and so on.

You now have a second phase, lobbied for by the neocons and the Project for a New American Century, which came to a head and was activated at the beginning of the new century following September 11. It wasn’t just about invading Iraq in the wake of 9/11 to demonstrate U.S. power, end potential rivals around the world and send a message to the rising power of China.

They also had a view, which was full of hubris, that they could bring a so-called Western-style democracy to the Middle East–what I call a Florida-style democracy, where political power could oscillate between two safe, pro-Western capitalist parties, and where, like during the battle in 2000 between Bush and Gore in Florida, the outcome could be rigged to ensure one party won, but still rigged in a highly sophisticated way.

This would serve the interests of capital, which certainly could grow locally, but would be penetrated by Western interests–above all, U.S. capitalist interests. It’s difficult to remember, but we should recall that in 2003, they were talking about their hopes for a popular revolution in Syria, because Syria remained in opposition to the United States.

And on the wilder fringes of the neocons, there was even talk of a wave of democratization sweeping through Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf. So their vision was that the invasion of Iraq would have a demonstration effect, so they could bring about this wider change. But it would be limited, because it would be without the revolutionary process that has opened up inside of Tunisia.

Events in Tunisia have blown what remains of that apart. First of all, they retreated from even the rhetoric of democratization. Why? Because insofar as there were parliamentary elections in Lebanon and in Palestine in 2006, the wrong guys won. This has always been the flaw in their strategy–if you allowed a system in which the elected part of the state was at all reflective of the popular will, then this would bring parties to power which were not aligned with U.S. policy, and certainly not U.S. policy around Israel.

So they retreated from that, and hence they have this kind of hybrid strategy. On the one hand, they hope for some kind of limited reform within these states, but on the other hand, they don’t want to push it too far for fear of opening up something opposed to American imperial interests, and possibly bring to power political forces which wanted to use economic development in a different way.

Writing in the Financial Times, Zalmay Khalilzad, one of the more astute intellectuals of the neocon agenda, says that the lesson in Tunisia is this: First of all, we shouldn’t push democratization in the sense of early elections, because in most parts of the region, early elections will bring the wrong guys to power. But, he says, the West should do something because it’s clear that the pressures are building.

So what he suggests–his version of democratization–is to try to build up political forces which are pro-Western and certainly pro-capitalist before any kind of change in the political setup. They have in mind being able to divert popular change as we’ve seen in Tunisia, along safe channels.

The template for a lot of this is the intervention that was made around the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 in the ex-Yugolsavia–when a genuine popular revolt, with the help of many millions of dollars under the guise of “democracy promotion,” could be diverted along safe channels.

But I think the space for this strategy is extremely limited, and the thing that limits it above all is the ongoing destruction of the global economic crisis. There is a closing of the borders of Europe and a turn to anti-immigrant scapegoating, so people from countries like Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, who hoped either legally or illegally to enter Europe, are being shut out. For many years, this exodus had provided a safety valve for these countries, with lots of young people finding their way into Europe by one means or another, but now it is being shut off.

Remittances back home from people living in those countries are also falling off, and this idea that you can modify the structure with just the right amount of reform in order to head off Tunisia-style events is fraught with danger.

Most obviously, the offer of a tiny amount of reform can give way to the demand for greater reform, and not just over formal democratic rights and the end of repression, vital as they are, but on the economic and social conditions and also over regional political issues, such as the continuing humiliation and dispossession of the Palestinian people.

This is coming at a time when U.S. policy in the region is under severe pressure. Far from leading to greater U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, the invasion of Iraq has opened up the space for other actors, in particular state actors, to begin to play a more significant role. This is the case around Turkey, which is renegotiating its relationship with the United States.

It’s not a one-way process, and there are historic connections particularly to the military in Turkey, but the forging of a Turkish-Syrian-Iranian bloc has gotten stronger over the course of the last year rather than weaker, despite the sanctions against Iran.

This is also being played out in Lebanon now, where the U.S. has now had to watch yet another ally fall–the government of Saad Hariri, with his place taken by a Hezbollah-backed candidate.

So this popular revolutionary event in Tunisia is happening as the United States is geo-strategically weaker inside of the region than it was in 2003. And it has opened up new horizons for those people that would regard themselves as part of a wider resistance to imperialism and to Israel.

In other words, the Tunisian events have demonstrated the viability of a political challenge to a repressive regime, which can overthrow an autocratic ruler and simultaneously keep from becoming simply a plaything of the greater imperial powers. If we listen carefully, the events from Tunisia are speaking to anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist strategies and activists all around the region.

And that, I think, is very important in countries such as Britain and the United States where so many people, either from the beginning or later, came to oppose the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq in 2003, and where there’s a growing receptivity to solidarity with the Palestinians. These things won’t happen overnight, won’t change everything overnight, but there are new horizons and new reference points for all of us who will be involved in those struggles.

Transcription by Christine Darosa, Matthew Beamesderfer, Karen Domínguez Burke and Matt Korn.

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