Tunisian Revolution: Twilight of the Jumlukes?
Every revolution, Marx remarked, begins with flowers. It is rather gratifying then that ‘jasmine’, rather than some insipid shade from the State Department sample book, is trending as the appropriate adjective for the Tunisian intifada. This is not just another of the Moor’s bon mots – he meant that every revolution begins with a moment of unity against the old regime, a joyful prising open of politics by the masses into which rush different visions of the possible new society, visions which will necessarily themselves come into decisive conflict with one another. Tunisia is undergoing just such an interregnum. Ben Ali has fled to Jeddah, so despised that pilots refuse to fly his relatives to France. The state remains, and it doesn’t know what to do.
The mukhabarat and the army are flailing violently around, surely aware of the fate that awaits them, while the regime remnants try to cling on by agreeing to a ‘coalition government‘ with parts of the opposition (who are not the moving force behind the intifada). This would lead to elections and then most likely to a side-step to neo-liberalism with a democratic face of the kind seen in Eastern Europe after 1989. This is only one possibility, however much it is pushed by the State Department and Ben Ali the torturer’s ‘Euro-Mediaterranean’ partners. It would also only exacerbate the unemployment and poverty that led to the explosion in the first place. ّWhat would deal with that, as the redoubtable comrades of the Cairo Centre for Socialist Studies, is an extension of the revolution to overthrow not just Ben Ali but the economic system he served, and the spread of that revolution to the other shop-worn dictatorships of the Arab world. Tunisia presents the possibility of the overthrow of what the PFLP used to call ‘Arab Reaction’ – and, might we hope, of permanent revolution?
Where is the licence for this optimism, intellectual as well as wilful? One can point first to the speed with which in Tunisia, as so often elsehwere, apparently solid structures of oppression have crumbled away to the astonishment of mainstream commentators and ‘analysts’. Going to the mosque in a suspicious way was enough to get you a visit from uncle Zeen’s unpleasant friends – and now people are doing this. It says ‘freedom’.
Second: this is, to an almost vulgarly Marxist degree, an anticapitalist revolt. It began, as most people know, with the attempted self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazzi, young man living in a provincial town and harrassed by police goons who tried to stop him selling vegetables. Further attempted protest suicide, then police homicide of protesters, followed. The political and economic demands of this movement have been fused from the beginning. As Larbi Sadiki, in an analysis tinged with Fanonism, argues :
It is not the Quran or Sayyid Qutb – who is in absentia charged with perpetrating 9/11 despite being dead since 1966 – Western security experts should worry about. They should perhaps purchase Das Kapital and bond with Karl Marx to get a reality check…The armies of ‘khobzistes’ (the unemployed of the Maghreb) – now marching for bread in the streets and slums of Algiers and Kasserine and who tomorrow may be in Amman, Rabat, San’aa, Ramallah, Cairo and southern Beirut
Indeed – but there is more to the Jasmine revolution even than just the rage of the dispossessed shabab. Proletarian organisation, rather than just dispossession, has also played a role. The Tunisian labour movement has had heroic chapters in its history from the days of French colonialism onwards but was then integrated into the state under Bourguiba. The leadership initially refused to call a strike in support of the demonstrations, although local activists seem to have been involved. A general strike was held on Friday the 14th leading to the demonstration that ousted Ben Ali. As Juan Cole rightly points out, ‘You don’t get massive crowds like the one in Tunis without a lot of workers joining in’. The lesson here is not lost on Mubarak, Assad, Abdullah and the rest – nor will it be on the Egyptian workers who have moved through cycles of revolt since 2007.
The potential for the rest of the Arab world, and especially its workers, to follow the Tunisian example is intoxicating and real. Algerian khobzistes have already taken up the challenge. Every country in the region has the same basic social situation as Tunisia: if anything Tunisia was thought of as rather prosperous. Once, ‘radical’ regimes overthrew the monarchs and promised ‘freedom, socialism, unity.’ They delivered none out of three. The ‘jumlukes’ – a combination of the Arab words for monarchy and republic, coined to desribe the regional convergence around the principle of hereditary despotism – are in trouble. Even Jordan (on which I will produce a further post later) has joined in. Last year brought some fighting spirit to the teachers’ union, port workers in dispute in Aqaba and talk of a ‘hot autumn’ around the predictably rigged elections. Now a ‘day of rage’ has been declared in Amman, and roadblocks set up around the towns. The demonstrators have been chanting ‘Ben Ali, send the plane back for Rifa”i’ (the Jordanian Prime Minister). Cairo has its own variant: ‘Mubarak, Mubarak, Saudi is waiting for you.’ The puns are different but the demands are the same. We may yet welcome two, three, many jasmine revolutions.