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Turmoil in Tunisia: Rebellion Challenges Neoliberalism

By Farooque Chowdhury

14 January, 2011

Curfew covered Tunis, deployed troops, reported death of at least 66 protesters, demonstrators setting fire on government offices, mass protests, sacking of ministers have unmasked neoliberalism and its limits of power in seemingly politically stagnant Tunisia. Five suicides protesting unemployment and poverty have unplugged mass anger pent for decades against President Zine el Abindine’s corruption-ridden iron rule for over two decades.

The protests and demonstrations against the repressive regime spread out all over the country, from Kasserine, a remote farming area, to Gafsa, Regueb, El-Kef, to the city of Thala, to the capital city of Tunis, turned to a mass revolt against the repressive regime indulging with neoliberalism. As the demonstrations spread to the Mediterranean resort of Hammamet demonstrators smashed up a police station and holiday villas there, a town popular with the country's ruling class and Europeans. A villa owned by a member of the president’s inner circle was destroyed, with graffiti scrawled on a wall: “Death to Ben Ali” [the Tunisian president]. Vehicles and buildings were set alight. The dictatorship tried to desist journalists covering the protests. Demonstrations by thousands of workers were attacked in Tunis. Police also tried to stop a demonstration by workers.

Artists’ demonstration in the capital condemning excessive use of force was dispersed by police.
Security forces beat two actresses. Sana Daoud, one of them, shouted: “Shame on you!” Another was shoved to the ground. Jalila Baccar, actress, protested: “It’s our right to demonstrate.” Protesting bloggers hacking and blocking government websites were arrested. Government interfered with internet. Cyber warriors managed to shut down the government’s website, the national stock exchange site, and other sites. Their other steps include ensuring citizens’ scope to connect each other anonymously to the Internet and access information that the government restricts.

The protests began in Sidi Bouzid town, last December, after Mohamed Bouazizi, a young unemployed graduate, committed suicide on December 17. His protest triggered the country-wide protests and clashes with the police, touched off a wave of unrest rattling the government. Thousands of people vowing revenge attended the funeral of Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid. Bouazizi has become the symbol of the rejection and contempt. The funeral marchers chanted: “Farewell. We weep for you today, we will make those who caused your death weep.”

Despite his education Bouazizi found no employment. He used to sell fruits and vegetables on the street in the Sidi Bouzid to earn a living. Police confiscated his produce as he did not have a permit. As a protest he set fire to himself. To Bouazizi, it appeared that “there was no future for him or his family.” He found all paths blocked. Bouazizi died in hospital last week. Another suicide was reported in the same area: Allaa Hidouri, unemployed university student, climbed up an electricity pylon and electrocuted himself saying “No unemployment, no misery”. It was second of five suicides linked to the protests.

The suicides unequivocally tell the deep sense of frustration, desperation and anger, the hatred against the corrupt ruling elite that has amassed huge wealth. The US that supports the dictatorship described the family of President Zine el Abindine, according to a Wikileaks released cable, a “quasi mafia” and the Tunisian regime as a “police state”. The demonstrations were initially against the increasing unemployment, with the unemployment rate currently standing at around 15%, but rising food prices and frustrations with the ruling elite have since become major issues.

Students, workers, teachers, lawyers, artists, actors, hospital workers, journalists and other professional groups joined the unemployed, the demonstrating masses. Violent protests spread to the capital city after sweeping towns and villages. Thousands of people took to the streets, torched the local headquarters of the National Guard. The Guards’ gunshots killed an 18-year-old protestor.

The demonstrations spread to the suburbs of the capital city. For the first time troops have been deployed in the capital since unrest broke out in the south of the country in mid-December, 2010. Armored vehicles rumbled through the capital streets. All schools and universities have been closed for indefinite period.

Students have called for mass protests. The Tunisian Bar Association has called for a “general strike” to protest police brutalities. A call has been made for a protest demonstration in Tunis on January 26 and for solidarity protests in front of Tunisian embassies.

The demonstrations and wave of violent and unrest, almost rare in 23 years, have rocked Zine al-Abidine’s rule. Showing clear signs of retreat and compromise the shaken regime, “pledged” to create 300,000 new jobs on top of 50,000 already “pledged”. But the regime has already lost credibility after engineered elections over the years that produced the believe-it-or-not-votes: 97-99%. A number of ministers and the regional governors of Sidi Bouzid and of other regions have been sacked. But the president branded the demonstrating masses “gangs of thugs”. The world witnessed that a president actually tried to make comprise with the “thugs” by making new promises of jobs, etc.

The percentage of unemployed graduates is about double of the unemployed percentage. An estimated 55% of the population is under the age of 25. With Internet and Facebook, the Tunisian young generation today is more aware of the state of the society: increasing unemployment, ruthless privatization, withdrawal of subsidies for food.

Vigorous drive to liberalize the economy was a mark of the mid-’80s. More than 150 state enterprises were, fully or partially, sold out. Privatization has taken its social costs; unemployment and poverty levels rose. Despite the promising diverse economy with agriculture, mining, tourism, and manufacturing sectors poverty in Tunisia overwhelmed people as all the benefits accumulated in the pockets of a handful of elites.

Neoliberalism has been imposed by an alliance of army, business and civilian politicians that benefits the rich, part of the dominant pattern in this world system. Its politics is despotism and economy is the rich-poor great divide, and the two have produced an absolute failure in the society. The poor, farmers and workers pass days in poverty. In the “Tunisian Miracle”, as with other miracles, the masses dwell in well-designed impoverishment while the absolute minority – the rich – live in small islands named indulgence with theft and luxury. The wealthy minority with their links to the president and his family form a class-network that survives on loot, and gets patronization from their western friends, especially France, Italy and Spain. A significant portion of the youth’s only path to survival is the opposite shore of the Mediterranean. They make their journey by the so-called “death boats”.

Tunisians were dictated to forget political freedom in the sterile dead-democracy. Liberals, leftists, nationalists, all political dissidents, student activists, civil society were either put behind bars or dissolved. Organizations of all forms, even cultural and sports associations have been turned constituents of the rulers. Journalists were one of the worst victims of the rule. No other Arab country has imprisoned more journalists since 2000 than Tunisia. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists has declared the regime as one of the world’s 10 worst enemies of the press. Media rights watchdog Reporters without Borders ranks Tunisia 164th out of 178 countries in its press freedom index.

But high unemployment, rising food prices, high inflation, decreasing public sector, debt, social marginalization, hard-pressed middle class, outrageous level of censorship, restrictions on civil liberties, lack of transparency, particularly in the judicial system, and poverty have produced power that has pushed the masses to democratic actions in the country propagated as “an economic success story”. The dead stability has been made unstable by the masses demanding job, bread, better living conditions and a living democracy. Demonstrating masses are calling for radical reforms.

The clash is now with labor, students, youth, the unemployed. The government, a reliable US ally, is not now getting overt US support. Washington, as Hillary Clinton said, has not taken any side. It has called for a peaceful solution and expressed its deep concern at “the use of excessive force by the government of Tunisia.” The European Union, France and the UN have called for restraint.

The tyranny has finally produced nothing but an apparent political vacuum and a corrupt economy on the one hand, and seeds of turmoil on the other, a normal process of dead-democracy. The situation in the distort-democracy with narrowed down space for public participation and encroached public space is full with factors of explosion as the regime is losing control.

With a matured leadership this can usher in a new age of democracy for the people. An absence of matured leadership can produce chaos, and then, there will be a flow of old wine with new brand names. A matured leadership, not only rebellious acts and students’ role as vanguard, can challenge the ruling rich and bring significant change in the socioeconomy of Tunisia. Even, absence of a matured leadership and well developed organization will not make the rebellion a total failure. The flame of rebellion will light the future path, teach people, and will be remembered as the harbinger of transformation in the region.


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