By Rene Wadlow
The people’s revolution is on the march. When the freedom-loving people march — when the farmers have an opportunity to buy land at reasonable prices and to sell the produce of their land through their own organizations, when workers have the opportunity to form unions and bargain through them collectively, and when the children of all the people have an opportunity to attend schools which teach them truths of the real world in which they live — when these opportunities are open to everyone, then the world moves straight ahead… The people are on the march toward ever fuller freedom, toward manifesting here on earth the dignity that is in every human soul. Henry A. Wallace, Vice-President of the United States, setting out US war aims in June 1942.
The wave of the people’s revolution has swept over Tunisia and pushed President Ben Ali to exile in Saudi Arabia. A month of popular manifestations starting on 17 December 2010 with the suicide-protest of the young Mohamed Bouazizi, a college-educated street vender, and the police repression at his funeral has brought to an end the 23 years of control on Tunisian political and economic life of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. He and his powerful wife Leila Trabelsi left Tunis on 14 January for exile in Saudi Arabia while other members of the extended family, who controlled large sectors of the economy, have arrived in Paris.
Tunisia under Ben Ali was a police-state in the literal sense of the word. There was a constant presence of the police with arrests, lengthy interrogations, torture and for those with luck, exile. The press and other media were closely watched and in some cases owned by the Ben Ali-Trabelsi family.
From an economic point of view, there was a migration to the cities and larger towns of the coastal area in a frustrating search for suitable occupations. The unemployment rate was high, and among the educated youth, unemployment, lack of social mobility and the flashy life-style of those with links to political power led to demands for change.
The demonstrations of the past month seemed to have begun spontaneously, led by the young but with no previously known leaders. The demonstrations had no links to opposition political parties, most of whose leaders were in exile, and there were few opposition political structures. There were no known Islamic groups in the demonstrations, and Islamic influence seems to have been completely absent from the demonstrations and from the demands of the demonstrators.
For most French commentators, the model was “May 1968” which led to the end of the government of Charles De Gaulle. Tunisiais a revolution of the people who wanted fundamental changes from the small political group governing, an end to wide-spread and highly-visible corruption, and the creation of jobs. Ben Ali, like De Gaulle, symbolized the system and so there was strong agreement on what everyone could agree upon: “Ben Ali must go”. Unlike General De Gaulle, General Ben Ali had done nothing very special before becoming President. Although he tried to develop a “personality cult” around himself with large pictures of himself in the streets and ever-present praise on the TV, Ben Ali had no real personality around which to develop a cult.
Now the issue is what structures the people’s revolution will give itself. If all goes as the constitutional order indicates, elections should be held within 60 days, the interim government being under the leadership of the Speaker of the Parliament. Since political parties had been prevented from operating — even the party of the President had only a name but no real structures — we will have to see how political factions are created prior to the elections. There are a good number of different ideological currents in the opposition to Ben Ali, and there is no opposition leader who stands out as a “natural” next President. There is always the danger that if there is too much disorder, revenge killings or armed groups forming the Army could step in.
The disintegration of Ben Ali’s government and power base has been closely watched in the Arab world. Although Ben Ali was not particularly liked by his neighbors, political leaders in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Syria and Jordan can see the parallels without too much difficulty — a heavy-handed security state with diminishing popular support and growing demands from an educated, yet frustrated population.
Recent demonstrations in Algeriaand Jordanset off by higher food prices have been met by some government action to limit taxes of food. However, higher food prices are only one sign of broader socio-economic weaknesses that have led to high unemployment, high rents and yet a housing shortage.
Throughout the Arab world, governments have been unable or unwilling to open serious discussions on socio-economic policies and alternatives. Islamic-based groups have played some role in focusing protests but have not done much in presenting realistic alternative policies. The violence of some of the Islamic groups has served as a pretext for the governments to ban all policy discussions without too many protests from Western governments.
What is outstanding in the revolution in Tunisiais that Islamic groups played no part in the demonstrations and that none of the demands were expressed in Islamic terms. The people’s revolution in Tunisiawas based on the will of the people for change with a minimum of ideological coloring. It is likely that the people’s revolution in other Arab countries will also marginalize Islamic currents in favour of this-worldly reforms. Events will be closely watched both by those who hope and those who fear. People’s revolutions may be on the march in the Arab world.
Rene Wadlow, Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.