Welcoming the Tunisian Revolution: Hopes and Fears

22 Jan

Almost six years ago, President George W. Bush’s otherwise inconsequential Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, gave a speech at the American University in Cairo that grabbed headlines. While lauding the autocratic leadership of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Rice indicated a new approach to the Arab world by the United States in these much-quoted words: “For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” Explaining further this new approach in Washington, she went on to say “[t]hroughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy.” Any close listener at the time should have wondered what was meant when at the same time she praised Mubarak for having “unlocked the door for change,” whatever that might mean. As it turned out, outlawing opposition parties and locking up their leaders seemed to remain the bottom line in Egypt without generating a whimper of complaint from the White House either in the Bush years, or since, in the supposedly milder presidency of President Obama.

And supporting “the democratic aspirations of all peoples” seems to have run aground for the White House after the Gaza elections of January 2006 in which Hamas triumphed, and the people of the Gaza Strip, regardless of how they voted, were immediately punished despite the internationally monitored elections being pronounced among the fairest in the region. It should be remembered that Hamas was enticed to participate in the political process as a way of shifting the conflict with Israel toward nonviolent political competition, and that when victorious in the elections Hamas immediately declared a unilateral ceasefire as well as indicated its openness to diplomacy and a long-term framework of peaceful co-existence. Maybe these Hamas initiatives were not sustainable, but they was neither welcomed, reciprocated, nor even explored. Instead, humanitarian assistance from Europe and the United States to Gaza was drastically cut and Israel engaged in a variety of provocations including targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders. In mid 2007 after Hamas seized control of the governing process from Fatah in Gaza, Israel imposed its notorious blockade that unlawfully restricted to subsistence levels, or below, the flow of food, medicine, and fuel. This blockade continues  to this day, leaving the entire Gazan population locked within the world’s largest open air prison, and victimized by one of the cruelest forms of belligerent occupation in the history of warfare.

There is another aspect to the Rice/Bush embrace of democracy that was disclosed by their avowedly disproportionate response to the indiscriminate bombing campaign unleashed in 2006 by Israel on population centers in Lebanon in retaliation for a border incident. In the midst of the carnage Rice observed at the United Nations that the Lebanon War exhibited “the birth pangs of a new Middle East,” while her boss in the White House described the one-sided assault on a helpless civilian population as “a moment of opportunity.” The point here being that when the people get in the way of imperial policies, it is the people who are sacrificed without even shedding a tear, really without even noticing. If their lives and wellbeing is so easily cast to one side in this callous geopolitical manner, surely the American posture of welcoming democracy in the region needs to be viewed with more than a skeptical smile. Supporting Israel’s aggressive wars initiated against Lebanon in 2006 and its massive assault for three weeks on Gaza at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 are clear demonstrations of the priorities of American foreign policy.

Actually, this pattern has far deeper historical roots. During the Cold War there were strategic excuses constantly being given by Washington that overlooked oppression and corruption in Third World countries so along as they aligned themselves with the United States in the ideological struggle against the Soviet Union and put out a welcome mat to foreign investors. After the collapse of the Soviet Union this geopolitical argument evaporated, but the economic and strategic priorities remained unchanged. This supposed American dedication to democracy has all along seemed schizophrenic, lauding its virtues, but often dreading its genuine emergence, especially if strategic interests associated with economic and military priorities are at stake as they usually are; consult the record of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in the Western Hemisphere carried out under the aegis of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) if any doubt exists. Turning back to North Africa, in 1991 when the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) in Algeria won hotly contested elections for legislative representation, the military intervened to impose its will, Washington was silent, and remained so during the ‘dark decade’ of strife followed in which at least 60,000 Algerians lost their lives. It is part of the reality in the region that American strategic and ideological goals point one way and the popular will of the people point in the opposite direction. It is thus either hypocritical or a sign of deep confusion for American leadership to advocate democracy in the Middle East without being willing to alter its grand strategy. As of now, there is every indication of continuity in the American approach to the region, signaled by its passivity in the face of Israeli extremism, its continuing military presence in Iraq, and the degree to which keeping Gulf oil reserves in friendly autocratic hands is an unquestioned goal of American foreign policy.

Given these considerations what are we to make of America’s cautiously affirmative response to the Tunisian Revolution, or as it often called, the Jasmine Revolution? It is certainly prudent to be wary of the words issued by our government in particular, and to keep an eye out for its contrary actions, although such a gaze may well be obstructed by reliance on covert activities, and only when the next Julian Assange steps bravely forward will the public get any real understanding of the realities that take refuge behind non-transparent walls.

There is no doubt that during the more than 23 years of cruel dictatorial rule of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, the United States Government, despite the words of Rice, the ‘democracy promotion’ schemes of the Bush presidency, and the new approach to the Islamic world promised by Obama, found nothing to complain about, ignoring report from respected human rights organizations. As Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist and activist dedicated to the Palestinian struggle has written of the American response to the violence directed by the police during the Tunisian uprising: “Not one word of condemnation, not one word of criticism, not one word urging restraint came from Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton as live ammunition was fired into crowds of unarmed men, women, and children in recent weeks.” Compare the strong denunciations of Iranian authorities when they used similarly brutal tactics to suppress the Green Revolution in Iran. The point is that geopolitics calls the tune in Washington, and this means double standards and the repudiation of the rule of law.

Indeed, Tunisia under Ben Ali exemplified what the United States seems to believe serves its interests: a blend of neoliberalism that is open to foreign investment, cooperation with American anti-terrorism by way of extreme rendition of suspects, and strict secularism that translates into the repression of political, and even religious, expressions of Islam commitments and of leftist politics. The Arab regimes throughout the region that seem most worried by the regional reverberations of the unfolding story in Tunisia, while each different, all resemble the Ben Ali approach to governance, including dependence in various forms on the United States, which is usually accompanied, as in the Tunisian case, by aloofness from the Palestinian struggle for self-determination that is so symbolically significant for the peoples in these countries. There is no way for any government in the region to follow the Ben Ali path without becoming beleaguered and for the sake of its survival forced to rely on extreme repression, denial of rights, abuse of political prisoners, police violence designed to induce fear in the population and shield the privileged corrupt elites from accountability and public rage while exposing the mass of society to chronic joblessness, inflationary food and fuel price.

The spontaneous popular eruption in Tunisia that followed the tragic suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi in the central Tunisian  city of Sidi Bou Zid on December 17, 2010 was the spark that lit the revolutionary fire. This flame surge only could have occurred in an environment of acute grievance that was felt deeply and widely by ordinary Tunisians, so deeply and widely that in a few weeks time it shifted the locus of fear from the oppressed to the oppressed. This shift was signaled by the abdication of Ben Ali on January 14 to the sanctuary of Riyadh, a pattern repeating the departure of another bloody dictator, Idi Amin a few decades earlier. But the main lesson here is that oppressive regimes alienated from their populations are vulnerable to political bonfires that can be started by an insignificant spark in a faraway part of the country. Facing such a prospect can only make rulers dependent on force both more insecure and more inclined to extend the reach of political firefighting so as to achieve the impossible: spark prevention!

The martyrdom of Mohammed Bouazizi epitomized the plight of many young jobless and tormented Tunisians. This impoverished young vegetable street seller set himself on fire in a public place after the police confiscated his produce because he lacked a permit. Such an act of principled and spontaneous suicide is not common in Arab culture where suicide, if it occurs in a politically relevant mode, is usually a deliberate instrument of struggle, relied upon by Palestinians for a while and currently by parts of the opposition to developments in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Such forms of political suicide are usually, although not always, targeting civilians, and are inconsistent with basic ideas of morality and law. Bouazizi’s acts were expressive, not aggressive toward others, and recall practices more common in such Asian countries as Vietnam and Korea. When Buddhist monks set themselves on fire on the streets of Saigon in 1963 it was widely interpreted within the country as a turning point in the Vietnam War, a scream of the culture that was outraged by both oppressive Vietnamese rule and by the American military intervention. The intensity of Mohammed Bouazizi’s emotional funeral on Janurary 4 was intoned in these words exhibiting sadness and anger: “Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep.” In the end one hopes that these almost inevitable sentiments of revenge, however understandable given the background of suffering and injustice, do not become the signature of the revolution.

Another more hopeful direction was captured by a slogan that was said to draw inspiration from the French Revolution: “bread, freedom, dignity.” To be worthy of the sacrifices of those who took to the streets, confronting the violence of the state without weapons during these past several weeks, any new governing process must attend to the material needs of the Tunisian masses, open up the society to democratic debate and competition, and assert the protection of human rights as an unconditional commitment of whatever new leadership emerges. Not many revolutions manage to carry out their idealistic promises that infused the period of struggle against the established order, and quickly succumb to the temptation to punish wrongdoers from the past and imaginary and real adversaries in the present instead of improving the life circumstances of the people. It is not a simple situation. Such a revolution as has taken place in Tunisia is likely to beset by determined efforts to reverse the outcome, although a favorable factor has been the refusal of the army to side with the government. Powerful and entrenched enemies do exist, and rivalries among those contending anew for power will produce imaginary enemies as well that can discredit the humanistic claims of the revolution by tempting the leadership to launch bloody campaigns to solidify its claims to run the country. It is often a tragic predicament: either exhibit a principled adherence to constitutionalism, and get swept from power or engage in a purge of supposed hostile elements and initiate a new discrediting cycle of repression. Will Tunisia be able to find a path that protects revolutionary gains without reverting to oppression? Much depends on how this question will be answered, and that will depend not only on the wisdom and maturity of Tunisians who take control at this time, but also on what the old order will do to regain power and the extent to which there is encouragement and substantive support from without. As Robert Fisk pointedly observes “Tunisia wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Undoubtedly, Tunisia faces formidable challenges in this period of transition. As yet, there has been no displacement of the Ben Ali bureaucratic forces in the government, including the police and security forces that for decades terrorized the population. There were an estimated 40,000 police (2/3 in disguise mingling with the population to monitor and intimidate). It was said that friends were afraid to talk in cafes or restaurants, and even in their homes, because of this police/mafia state atmosphere– omnipresent surveillance, thuggery, and not knowing who was on the payroll of the state. So far most prisoners of conscience have not been released from Tunisian jails, sites that daily exposed the brutality of the Ben Ali regime, although some releases have occurred and more are promised. Heading the interim government are longtime allies of Ben Ali, including Mohammed Ghannouchi, his main aide, regarded as being more aligned with the West than with the Tunisian people, although these days promising to step aside as soon as order is restored. But even if such an intention is carried out, is it enough? At present, protests continue throughout the country, especially in the capital city of Tunis, demanding that the remnants of the Ben Ali era leave the government, including especially the cabinet ministers and Mr. Ghannouchi.

We know that the revolution came about because of the courage of young Tunisians who took to the street in many parts of the country, faced gunfire and vicious state brutality, and yet persisted, seeming to feel that their life circumstances were so bad that they had little to lose, and everything to gain. We know that the flames of revolution spread rapidly throughout, and beyond the borders of Tunisia, by interactive reliance on the Internet, many throughout the Arab world replacing personal pictures on their Facebook page with admiring pictures of revolutionary turmoil on Tunisian streets or as a sign of solidarity, posting pictures of the Tunisian flag. There were even suicides of regime opponents in several Arab countries. What we don’t know is whether a leadership can emerge that will be faithful to the revolutionary ideals, and will be allowed to be. What we cannot know is how determined and effective will be internal and external counter-revolutionary tactics. We do know from other situation that elites rarely voluntarily relinquish class privileges of wealth, status, and influence, and that Tunisian elites have allies in the region and beyond who are silently opposed to the Jasmine Revolution, and extremely worried about its wider implications for other similar regimes in the region that stay in power only so long as their citizen is held in check by state terror.  We also know that policymakers in Washington and Tel Aviv will be particularly nervous if Islamic influence emerges in the months ahead, even if vindicated by electoral outcomes. Fisk reminds us that Ben Ali was praised in the past for keeping “a firm hand on all those Islamists,” which was itself code language for bloody repression and a terrorized populace. It may even be that if Islamic oriented political parties demonstrate their popularity with the Tunisian citizenry by winning the forthcoming promised election for a new democratic selected leadership, then the counter-revolutionary backlash will be particularly severe.  There is some reason to believe that Islamic political forces currently enjoy great popularity in Tunisia, and that the main voice of the most important political party with an Islamic identity, Ali Larayedh (imprisoned and tortured for 14 years; and harassed for the past six years by Ben Ali’s secret police), articulates a moderate line on the relation of Islam to the future of Tunisia that resembles the development of recent years in Turkey rather than the hard line and oppressive theocratic developments that have so deeply tainted the Iranian Revolution. The role of the long repressed labor movement, and its Communist leadership, is not known, but it was clearly a presence in the demonstrations, giving a secular edge to the revolutionary fervor.

The future of the Tunisian Revolution is filled with uncertainty. It remains at this moment a great victory for the people of the country, and those of us in sympathy with the struggle for ‘bread, freedom and dignity’ must do all in our power to honor these goals and preserve this victory. A Palestinian journalist living in Norway, Salim Nazzal, put the situation well:  “..Arab observers agree that even if it is difficult to know where things would go in the future what is sure is that the Arab region is not the same after the Tunisian Revolution.”

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17 Responses to “Welcoming the Tunisian Revolution: Hopes and Fears”

  1. Haykel AZAK January 22, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    Excellent anlyse. BTW, the egyptian president is named Hosni Mubarak and not Mumarak.

    Kind regards from Tunis
    Haykel AZAK

    • Richard Falk January 22, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

      Thanks for your encouragement, and for pointing out the spelling mistake.

  2. Joanne Landy January 24, 2011 at 9:14 am #

    Thank you for your thoughtful and inspiring article. You and your readers may like to read the Campaign for Peace and Democracy statement “We Support the Democratic Revolution in Tunisia” which is on the CPD website at http://www.cpdweb.org/tunisia.shtml
    –Joanne Landy, Co-Director, Campaign for Peace and Democracy, New York, NY

    • Richard Falk January 24, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

      Thanks, Joanne. I will whenever it seems appropriate.

  3. Mark January 25, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Excellent writing Mr.Falk . I am with you and I also believe with passion that the attacks of 9/11 were orchestrate not only by the U.S.A government but also with helping hand from the Israeli Mossad .
    Will we ever know the truth ? Hope so .
    Take care and let’s keep up the good work .

  4. Goedkoopste autoverzekering January 26, 2011 at 12:26 am #

    great article

  5. Norm Depalma January 26, 2011 at 8:24 am #

    Richard, the Mainstream Media is reporting that you have been excoriated by Ban-Ki Moon for your blog remarks about 9/11 and that your career within the human rights world may be in jeopardy. I don’t understand.!

  6. Alessandro January 26, 2011 at 8:23 pm #

    Last week while watching the news I learned that the Tunisian people, spurred by rising food prices and police brutality, had forced their corrupt government out of office. From what I could gather, the movement was not too keen on embracing the incoming faction that was trying to come in and “manage” this popular struggle, either. I didn’t know much about the details and I still don’t know enough, but I immediately sensed that this was a cause for celebration!!
    I enjoy your blog and hope to leave a more thoughtful response to this article in the near future, but international readers may be interested in this very good analysis by A World to Win News Service, which I just read yesterday.
    Forcing a government out of office, though highly encouraging, is not yet a social revolution. But the events in Tunisia are still highly worth paying attention to and welcoming, as you put it.
    Thanks much.

    http://www.revcom.us/a/223/AWTWNS_Tunisia-en.html

    From A World to Win News Service:
    The good news from Tunisia
    January 17, 2011. A World to Win News Service. In a world sorely in need of good news and a Middle East that has seemed to be getting darker, a ray of light has broken through in Tunisia.

    Instead of accepting being pressed down and passive, the masses of people seized the initiative and toppled a hated head of state who had long administered the country for the benefit of France, the other European powers and the U.S., a man who was backed by all of them until the very end. While the Tunisian events are not like, for instance, Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. has suffered serious military setbacks, this is a movement where no reactionaries have hegemony, at least so far.

    This is rare in today’s world where imperialists and Islamic reactionaries too often monopolize the political stage. These events have brought hope not only to Tunisians but millions of other people sick of the unbearable status quo crushing the region and the globe.

    For this reason Tunisians face a very difficult situation as the enforcers of today’s world order and their present and possible future Tunisian underlings and allies maneuver to stuff the genie—the people—back into the bottle.

    In less than a month events moved at such a dizzying pace that each day brought about new and unexpected situations. The cork began to loosen last December 17 in the town of Sidi Bouzid. The police confiscated the fruit and vegetables Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed university graduate, was selling in the street. When his efforts to protest through legal channels went unheeded, he set fire to himself in front of local government offices. Security forces attacked demonstrating local students who put the blame for the young man’s death on the regime.

    This resonated deeply in a society where the schools have been churning out large numbers of graduates who seldom find a place in an economy subordinated to foreign investment, particularly tourism and low-wage garment and footwear manufacture for export. At first the protest movement was strongest in towns in the country’s disadvantaged central and western regions. By late December thousands of people in the capital and other coastal cities demonstrated in support of the youth in Sidi Bouzid. The demand for jobs quickly went over to a movement to topple the regime.

    The movement drew in the educated classes—a strike by 95 percent of the country’s lawyers and a demonstration by hundreds of them in front of the government palace in Tunis January 6 gave it impetus. But it also involved much of Tunisian society, including various classes, with little political differentiation. In January, especially during the second week, the protests became more confrontational. Demonstrators set up barricades and fought back against the security forces. In the working class Tunis suburb of Ettadhamen-Mnihla people attacked government buildings. Their chant, “We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are afraid only of god,” revealed both a new mood of daring and determination and the persistence of traditional thinking. For the first time the army was deployed in several cities. Many dozens of people were killed in clashes with the police over the next days.

    After first dismissing the crowds as “terrorists,” President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali began to try to save his regime by offering them concessions. He visited the hospital room of the dying young man who had immolated himself. On January 12 he sacked the Interior Minister, claiming that orders for shooting people at Bouazizi’s funeral and other demonstrators had been issued behind his back. The next day he promised not to run again in the 2014 elections. But the protests only became more defiant. On January 14 he fled, reportedly after the army chief of staff advised—or told—him to go.

    As his last act, Ben Ali told a long-time loyal henchman, his prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, to replace him as head of state. This was not acceptable to the protesters. In a desperate attempt to cover the new government with the cloak of the rule of law, the courts declared that the speaker of parliament, the Ben Ali henchman Fouad Mebazaa, should become head of state, according to the constitution that Ben Ali had put in place. Mebazaa turned around and made the ex-prime minister the new prime minister.

    As things now stand, the situation is complicated. The police and armed militia that were Ben Ali’s personal gang have been using their guns to cash in on their loyal service by looting. Their rear-guard action, including sniper fire on crowds, has had a (perhaps intended) political effect. It spurred a popular demand for order—neighborhood self-protection committees sprang up—and helped divide those who now want stability from those still unsatisfied.

    Ben Ali had reportedly recruited militia members from among petty criminals, and the police are certainly extortionist thugs at best, in addition to their role as the main force imposing repression and torture. The army has arrested the former Interior Minister and Ben Ali’s head of security, accusing them of fomenting violence to prolong political instability.

    At the same time the army is also trying to make the people back down. While armed forces units were briefly withdrawn from the streets just prior to Ben Ali’s abdication and flight, reportedly because they did not want to use their tanks and armored cars against the crowds, they have moved back in force. On January 17 came the announcement of a “unity government” in which the six key portfolios went to seasoned members of the ruling party and three other senior ministerial positions were given to opposition parties legal under Ben Ali. Several thousand people, including many trade union members, gathered in front of the Interior Ministry to chant that this new government did not meet the people’s aspirations. They were attacked with clubs, water cannons, tear gas and warning shots.

    Unhappiness in the Western capitals

    This joyous explosion of the Tunisian people has brought unhappiness and deep concern to the Western governments. Nowhere is this more true than in France, where President Nicholas Sarkozy called an emergency meeting of his cabinet to plan what to do after the fall of Ben Ali.

    As the newspaper Le Monde and other media have abundantly detailed, France supported Ben Ali to the bitter end. (See the Facebook page “Ben Ali Wall of Shame”—more than a third of Tunisia’s 10 million people are said to have access to Facebook and Twitter.) Early on in his presidency, in 2008, Sarkozy feted the Tunisian tyrant with a super-delegation featuring Mrs. Sarkozy and seven ministers. IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who hopes to be the opposition Socialist Party’s next presidential candidate, visited to tout Tunisia’s economy as a “model for emerging countries.” Several French government ministers made statements supporting Ben Ali during his final days. The day before Ben Ali fled, Sarkozy’s Interior Minister Michéle Alliot-Marie offered to send French police to “share French skills” and train their Tunisian counterparts in handling “security situations.” Although in her statement for French public consumption she added that the police should preserve order and respect democratic rights, the official version of her statement left out this second clause, probably because it might embolden Ben Ali’s opponents. In Tunis, people commented that the last thing they needed in fighting a “police state” was French police.

    When the fleeing president’s private plane approached Paris, Sarkozy apparently gave orders that it not be allowed to land. Members of Ben Ali’s family, who had been waiting for him in a luxury hotel at the Euro Disney amusement park, were asked to leave. Finally, it was Saudi Arabia that gave Ben Ali shelter, probably to France’s great relief. A leader of the fascist National Front criticized Sarkozy bitterly for betraying a great personal friend and a friend of France.

    It could be said that the basic deal that kept Ben Ali in power so long was that France allowed him and especially his wife’s family to enrich themselves obscenely as long as he efficiently performed his role as manager of France’s Tunisian enterprise—not very different than a bank or other big corporation. In trying to protect France’s man, Sarkozy was continuing the policy of all the French presidents of the right and left who came before him.

    Tunisia’s ties with France are not only financial. In fact other European powers (especially Italy) and the U.S. have also profited from Tunisia’s enslavement to the world market and the economic boom under Ben Ali. But there are also political and cultural ties that have made Tunisia particularly pliable to Paris and therefore important to France’s regional and global efforts.

    France made Tunisia a “protectorate” by invading it in 1881 and ran it directly until 1957. But unlike Algeria, for instance, which France’s ruling capitalists considered an integral part of their country so that it had to win its independence through a long and hard-fought war, Tunisia became formally independent without a violent struggle (not unrelated to the war going on in much larger Algeria at the time), and was quickly turned into a neo-colony. Its first president, Habib Bourguiba, was also a close “friend of France” from independence until 1987, when the senile old man was overthrown by his security chief, the military leader Ben Ali.

    The U.S. did not see Ben Ali as their man the way France did, but Washington was not far behind in supporting him. The “Tunileaks” (WikiLeaks of cables to the U.S. State Department from the American embassy in Tunis) are very revealing in that regard. A report from the U.S. ambassador spread over a series of cables details the almost surreal degree to which Ben Ali’s family used its power to accumulate personal wealth, so much so that “50 percent of the economic elite” are members of his and especially his wife’s family. This is seen as making the regime more fragile than it would be with a broader-based ruling class. Yet the ambassador’s main complaints center around Ben Ali’s failure to support American initiatives that might soften the country’s ties with France, particularly in the educational and cultural fields.

    The cables make the point that while Tunisia is small and without much regional influence, it is particularly useful to the U.S. in terms of its informal ties with Israel and its refusal to support the Palestinians, even in the purely rhetorical and hypocritical ways dear to some other Arab regimes. The ambassador also expressed appreciation for the regime’s westernized trappings (such as its adoption of French family law, including a ban on polygamy) and its apparent success in strangling Islamic fundamentalism. For these reasons, while continuing to express concern for what are seen as the regime’s self-inflicted weaknesses, a later cable advises the U.S. State Department to “dial back the public criticism” and continue efforts to strengthen U.S. influence in the country in the context of supporting Ben Ali.

    But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did have the very good luck to give a speech calling on Arab governments to reform the day before Ben Ali fell, and President Barack Obama was the first head of state to salute the developments. Under the guise of “promoting democracy” the U.S. will likely seek to advance its influence in Tunisia and the Arab world in the course of the present political turmoil.

    Still, turmoil in the Middle East is what the U.S., France and all the big powers are united against. Tunisia does not have the strategic value to the U.S. as other “friends” such as Egypt, Algeria and Jordan, as the diplomatic cables point out, but what has broken out there does pose dangers for regimes that are crucial to continued U.S. regional control. It is no accident that the focus of Clinton’s speech was the need to strengthen Arab regimes under the U.S.’s thumb in order to isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran.

    The bright spots and dangers of the current situation

    The best thing about the events in Tunisia is that for once the people themselves have stepped in and become the motor force driving events. As a reactionary Washington commentator pointed out, even if U.S. and Western interests are not necessarily threatened by the fall of Ben Ali in and of itself, those interests could be imperiled by the fact that he has been thrown out thanks to a popular upsurge and not allowed to go quietly in the kind of smooth transition that characterized the end of fascist regimes in Pinochet’s Chile and Franco’s Spain. (Anne Applebaum, Washington Post, January 17, 2011)

    Many commentators have said that the absence of a strong Islamic movement is one reason why the West is not more worried about what’s going on there and hasn’t tried to more directly intervene. Actually, there hasn’t been much opportunity or means for the West to do that so far. But it is also true that it is a very good thing that this upsurge has been able, until now at least, to steer clear of the deadly dynamic that has kept the terms of struggle in other countries confined to open capitulation to imperialism versus a reactionary Islamic fundamentalist movement that does not truly break with the imperialist system even while upsetting the imperialist order.

    Commentators have compared the events in Tunisia with the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran. The revolutionary process there had the advantage of a much longer period of political turmoil and fighting before it was aborted by the installation of today’s hated Islamic Republic. When the U.S. and the UK could no longer keep the Shah in power, they decided that an Islamic regime in Iran would be preferable to the uncertain and perhaps revolutionary alternatives, although they probably regretted that later. In the case of Tunisia, it is not impossible that the U.S. summed up those lessons and decided to pull the plug on Ben Ali before the situation became even more uncontrollable.

    Explicitly examining the Tunisian situation from the angle of how to pursue U.S. interests, the academic Steven A. Cook wrote for the Web site of U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, “Whether the [Tunisian] military leaders are democrats is not the issue; rather, their concern seems to be that graft, corruption, and the practices of one of the worst police states in the Middle East proved to be a threat to social cohesion and stability.” Cook deliberately overlooks the fact that U.S.-dependent regimes in the region like Egypt have killed and tortured many more people than in Tunisia. Probably he means that Ben Ali ran one of the most successful states in the region in terms of its ability to stifle opposition almost completely for 27 years—until a month ago, when these “practices” no longer worked. But his characterization of the role of the Tunisian military is both accurate and expresses the American imperialist point of view.

    While various clans have disputed over the spoils, the Tunisian army has always been and is still the backbone of a comprador (imperialist-dependent) state and the ultimate guarantor of a whole imperialist-dominated economic, social and ideological order. In fact, given the country’s geopolitical situation, it has little other reason to exist. If the army dumped Ben Ali and has tried to distance itself from his torturers and jailers, it is all the better to play that role. This is why one of the Wiki-leaked U.S. cables stresses the importance of American support for the “neutrality” of the Tunisian army vis a vis disputes among the “economic elite.”

    It is impossible to predict what concessions to popular demand the military behind Tunisia’s governments of the day may feel compelled to grant, and to what degree such concessions may succeed—or fail—at quelling people’s anger. It is very possible that they will have to allow more space for political debate and the people’s will to be expressed than they normally do. But it is absolutely certain that the Tunisian armed forces and the imperialists will focus on preserving the existing state power.

    The media are now arguing that this is the first Arab revolution. One reason why that is wrong is that so far, this has not been a revolution, strictly speaking, in the sense of bringing about fundamental change in social, political and economic relations, or even a thorough regime change. But lessons should be taken from earlier upheavals that toppled feudal monarchies (Egypt and Sudan, Iraq) and neocolonial republics (Syria). For instance, while the U.S. was at certain points somewhat favorable to the nationalism of Egypt’s Gamal Nasser, in terms of challenging British and French dominance of the Middle East, the U.S.’s objective was to make Egypt an American neocolony. Similarly, while the military coups in Syria and Iraq, with their nationalist trappings, created problems for some Western powers, neither of these countries experienced any liberation.

    There is also the example of neighboring Algeria in the 1990s, where the U.S. and the West at first backed political reform in order to achieve a more broad-based and stable comprador regime, and then dropped it when it became clear that Islamic elements would win elections. This helped provoke ten years of bloody and thoroughly reactionary strife in which both the regime and the fundamentalists slaughtered many thousands of people and both sides specifically targeted the intellectuals. The fact that many Algerians felt trapped and mortally threatened by both the comprador regime and its religious fanatic opponents played a major role in putting a damper on the popular struggles that had shaken Algeria in the 1980s. In fact, this experience had a big influence in bringing about a state of political depression in the Arab world.

    The media have also enjoyed throwing around the term “Jasmine Revolution,” in hopes that the Tunisian upsurge will take the path of the non-violent (on the part of the people) and totally non-revolutionary “color revolutions” in former Soviet-bloc countries, most recently in Ukraine, which have brought nothing but disappointment, disillusionment and a new plunge into passivity for the people. That is one possibility, and the one for which the enforcers of the world order will do their best to impose, but that is not the only one now.

    The Tunisian people have every reason to be happy and proud, but it’s no use pretending that they don’t face formidable obstacles. The imperialists and the various varieties of smaller reactionaries are going to interact with the people’s movement in complex and perhaps unpredictable ways, seeking to slam shut the door that the people have opened through their struggle and sacrifice.

    It is far from certain, but there are objective reasons to hope that the enemies of the Tunisian people will not be able to consolidate their grip for a while, and that this situation will continue to inspire and spur on other people and constrain the reactionaries’ regional efforts, especially if the movement that brought down Ben Ali develops in a way that gives expression to the independent and revolutionary interests of the people in opposition to the imperialists and their system. The world needs more open doors like the one the Tunisian people have given us, and it needs breakthroughs to the other side.

    (AWTWNS urges readers to translate and circulate this article on the Web. We hope readers in Tunisia and elsewhere will send us their opinions and help keep us informed and able to comment. news@aworldtowin.org)

    A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (aworldtowin.org), a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

  7. The Truth is Out There & In You! February 1, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    As a propaganda or talking-point observer of cable news, MSNBC, FOX, CNN, some Sunday morning shows, and CSPAN, I have never been so well informed over the last decade about the details of what is happening in this region of the world than by this one post of yours.

    I don’t trust these media outlets to inform me of much more than dualistic heads-tails political turf/ideology & personality debates. I’ve been totally dumb-downed by my mass media fake-news distractions, and I’m completely disillusioned politically by Bush’s wars & Obama’s “Change You Can (no longer) Believe In”. (I gave Obama my time, money, & campaign, neighborhood & national, personal phone call support too.) Obama ‘was’ hope and no change, political & financial. I am so biased against the Ivy-Media Leagues & their DC-NYC power centers.

    [As an aside, that's why 'they' truly secretly love & thank their power-gods for Sara Palin & Michele Bachmann & distort further with Tea-bag baiting giving these distractions as much bizarre hyper-attention as media (in)sane-elite as possible! The Natives are restless & may come for us!

    Now, Clintons' suck-up to NYC 'there' & Bushes slurp-oil down here but from 'there'. It's just less change & no hope Obama or another 'chosen one'; just more of their DC-NYC crowd. Thank god for Jimmy Carter in this respect, and he tried to overcome the foreign-domestic oil-interests pronouncing our urgent need for Energy Independence. Carter helped forge peace between Egypt & Israel. Our only wise Uncle(Sam) President that deserved the Nobel Peace Prize more than Obama could ever hope to imagine for.]

    I came of age during the accomplishments of the Moon Landings and the failures of Watergate, Cold Wars, and the Energy Crisis.

    I don’t trust my government, Republicans or Democrats, and I think we have to lead Internationally by example & principles clearly seen and believed by the World’s observers. We must first strengthen ourselves by significant time-committed citizenship & participation here before we can do much for the world’s dictatorships.

    I am hopeful for more leaders like Dennis Kucinich & Ron Paul & Ralph Nader & Tea Party members that are not co-opted by Republicans. Anyone for less global domination & more responsible nation building in the USA including the number one policy of Energy Independence with the Kennedy iron will of “going to the Moon before the end of this decade”.

    American citizens need to force our government to abandon our International Oil/Energy turf wars & develop our own US territory based Energy Independence with electric & domestic fueled vehicles all available within our homeland.

    Unless we get-off International Big-Oil for our transportation needs, then I think we are doomed as a nation & will never be worthy of our founding principles. Our political-corporate bound energy elites will continue to be sociopathic destroying & perverting our national & international moral & ethical principals. Why were the Bushes so War-bound to the Saudi’s & Kuwaiti’s? We are controlled & perversely co-opted at the highest levels of our government by these foreign-domestic conspiracy-oil interests! This is our enemy & it is US/us, our foreign-domestic oil “secret agents”. We have become their war-slaves in exchange for their dictatorships, and these energy-elites become the despised power-corrupt minorities everywhere, at home & abroad, destabilizing our very nation at its core principals & foundations! We need to ferret-out these unnecessary energies of Evils.

    Being a nation of international energy-trolls will destroy our country soon enough. We are going down this rat-hole of no-deposit no-return oil, and our children are sure to suffer much worse-off than we were the last 50 years! We’re screwed, presently imo, but will our children continue to be too?

    After the BP fiasco Obama had the second perfect opportunity to “go to the moon”, but he’s just another Bush-like lip-server… I heard this all before at the State of Our (dis)Union. It’s never action to goal completion! Obama had his first & greatest opportunity to seize the World’s greatest financial-crisis moment in a hundred-year storm with an American Energy Patriot named T. Boone Pickens in 2008-9 to spur-on our wind, electric, & nat-gas development, and make Energy Independence the central policy feature for economic recovery & foreign policy reform, etc., but President Obama doesn’t know how to lead with a Wall-Street of decades-long nationally failed (dis)Investment Bankers lending his White House to their usury interest(s). Goldman Sachs is going to save us from what, “doing God’s work”, and their kind of continuous destruction of our nation’s work?

    Aren’t these the same DC-NYC idiot-elites that have been destroying our country for decades now? Oil dependence in the 70’s & Banking-Wall-Street financial take-overs & liquidations of America’s industry & private property beginning in the 80’s with Farmers & S&L’s too… the same ‘old’, my bad.

    Until we have a no Bush-Obama President & our nation is totally focused on being energy independent, then we will be at the beckoning call of Foreign-Domestic Oil Interests & their controllers, their Foreign Wars, and their Foreign Dictators. Our nation’s principles & leadership will be corrupted with more and more Police State tactics with further foreign & domestic radicalization against these corrupt oil-elites.

    911 is just a blimp on this conspiracy-oily-screen, a connect-the-dot continuation, of this decades-long (our) ‘shared conspiracy’ of no energy-independence policy & leadership. Foreign energy dependence is the root-cause for our foreign and domestic terrorism and wars. It is the foreign-domestic control that is corrupting our national leadership. That’s why we support our favorite-son dictatorships, & why we become so despised by their failed-nation’s suppressed knowledge-elites & their impoverished less-literate poor. It’s why religious wars are becoming part of their political solutions to hate & terrorize America too!

    With a match now lighting the Muslim world will President Obama understand this salient point of the spear to lead us to Energy Independence? This is “the third time is a charm moment” to do this in his administration. Carpe diem President Obama.

    Btw, you write so eloquently with brilliant explanations that you should record by voice your blog posts too, and put these recordings on iTunes for free broadcast & download. (I will help you as a free technical volunteer if you don’t already do this.) Audio is a very important method of new-media information distribution, and you have such important knowledge & ideas… many millions can eventually hear & learn in this new-media way too!

  8. computer running slow February 2, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

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  9. Vertie Hammock February 10, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

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  11. lipitor where to get May 2, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

    I admit, I have not been on this webpage in a long time… however it was another joy to see It is such an important topic and ignored by so many, even professionals. I thank you to help making people more aware of possible issues.Great stuff as usual.

  12. NAJ Taylor (@najtaylor) July 20, 2012 at 5:09 am #

    What do you mean by this:

    “only when the next Julian Assange steps bravely forward will the public get any real understanding of the realities that take refuge behind non-transparent walls.”

    .. what “only when the next Julian Assange”?

    • Richard Falk July 20, 2012 at 6:32 am #

      I am not sure how you unearthed this assertion of mine some time ago, which I had forgotten about. What I meant then was that it is difficult to get a sense of political reality without some penetration of what governments, especially the USG, keeps secret, and requires a whistleblower and generally a kind of civil disobedience, and Julian Assange seems like an exemplary such person.
      Thanks for your comment.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tweets that mention Welcoming the Tunisian Revolution: Hopes and Fears « -- Topsy.com - January 22, 2011

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Haykel AZAK, سحر and Anna Dan-SamyLehrer, Hussam . Hussam said: Welcoming the Tunisian Revolution: Hopes and Fears (by Richard Falk) http://j.mp/frMR3k #Tunisia [...]

  2. World Spinner - January 25, 2011

    Welcoming the Tunisian Revolution: Hopes and Fears – Richard Falk…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

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