Montag, 18. Februar 2013

Tunisia at an impasse

12 February 2013. A World to Win News Service. By Samuel Albert. The murder of the opposition leader Chokri Belaid has brought Tunisia to the sharpest crisis since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was kicked out in January 2011. The country had not seen this kind of cold-blooded assassination of a prominent politician for many decades, perhaps not since independence from France in 1956. People overflowed Bourguiba avenue in Tunis and the streets of other cities on the day of Belaid's funeral, 8 February, demanding the resignation of the current government led by the Islamist Ennahda party along with two smaller parties often described as "centre-left". They chanted the slogans that were so radical two years ago, especially "The people want the fall of the regime", and updated that movement's signature demand with "Ennahda dégage" (Ennahda get out"). But today is much more complex than back then, and this cannot be a replay of those days. One reason is that the idea that elections could serve as a neutral instrument used by the people to impose their will is not just an illusion about the future, as it was before, but a major weapon in the hands of the Islamists. While Ennahda won only about 40 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections in October 2011, it is indisputably the biggest party and has the right, within the bounds of the law that the opposition swears by, to lead a government. Thus Ennahda can smear its opponents as "undemocratic" even as it also utilizes illegal violence against its opponents, who are left calling for police and government protection that they never get. The real issue is not who can get the most votes but who will have power and what kind of society Tunisia is going to be. Ennahda seems to grasp this better than most of the secular opposition. Rached Gannouchi, the party's leader, has spent much of the last two years giving reassuring interviews asserting that he has changed since the 1990s when he was aligned with Algeria's bloodthirsty armed fundamentalists, and has come to see the need for "tolerance" and something less than a fully religious regime. Meanwhile, Islamist militias, including the League for the Protection of the Revolution, have been attacking all sorts of manifestations of ideas they consider contrary to Islam. The Ennahda government sometimes condemns these attacks, but has failed to move against the militias. Instead, in some cases it has punished the victims. In fact, many people call the League Ennahda's armed wing, although in the streets it's hard to tell Ennahda followers from the avowedly fundamentalist Salafists. For instance, a mob attacked the home of the head of the TV channel that broadcast the film Persepolis, which was then banned. Islamists also attacked the contemporary art festival Tunis Spring, assaulting people and destroying artworks. The government responded by issuing a complaint against the exhibition's organizers for insulting religious values. Recent attacks on meetings of women's organizations were prefigured even before Ennahda came to govern, when Islamists attacked an 8 March 2011 women's demonstration. Few, even in parties that call themselves leftists, cared to consider this a red line, and it went unpunished. Salafist imams who openly issue calls for the killing of opposition leaders have been left undisturbed in their mosques. The extremely widespread idea that Ennahda is at least indirectly responsible, if not directly implicated in Belaid's assassination is given credence by two facts. One is that a few days before he died, Belaid publicly warned that Ennahda was out to kill him. The other is that the Ennahda leading committee had just issued a demand for the release of two militiamen arrested for the beating death of another opposition leader, Lofti Naguedh, in the town of Tataouine, in the Tunisian interior, last October. At a time when people are filling the streets as never before since two years ago to demand the dissolution of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, Tunisia's president Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights activist and supposedly leading secularist, warned against jumping to conclusions as to who was responsible for Belaid's murder and called for unity among all Tunisians. The opposition demanded that the government dissolve itself and call new elections. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, an Ennahda leader given his position by that party, responded by offering to reshuffle his cabinet and replace his ministers with non-party "technocrats" pending parliamentary elections. (This would include the Justice and Interior ministries held by Ennahda – but not his own resignation.) For many people, including opposition parties, this was "too little too late" and a form of protecting Ennahda. Other Ennahda leaders, including Ganouchi, refused to accept such a move and demanded that nothing change. President Moncef's party first announced it would leave the government, then that it would stay. So did the other liberal party in the government, Ettakatol, implicitly arguing out the the only choice is continuing the coalition government with Ennahda or leaving Ennahda in charge by itself. The opposition found itself with little counterargument. Another factor complicating the situation is that whereas Ben Ali, despite his real mass base, was unable to bring his supporters into the streets to prevent his downfall, that is not the case for Ennahda. On 9 February, it brought some thousands of people out in Tunis in support of the government. While their numbers were dwarfed by the anti-Islamist demonstration the day before, still the Islamists are on the offensive and not afraid of a showdown. They are not about to flee the country like Ben Ali and his clique. The pro-Ennahda march brought out another extremely important factor: the Islamists are getting a chance to present themselves as the real Tunisian patriots. This is despite the fact that their programme and goals have nothing to do with the country's liberation from its present status as an outsourcing subcontractor for French capital and a pool of cheap manual and intellectual labour. What they seek is an Islamized society that would maintain the existing oppressive and exploitative economic relations between Tunisia and Western capital, and the existing economic and social relations among Tunisians themselves, including between the exploiters and exploited and, most unashamedly, men and women. But the liberals inside and outside the current government and the "left" parties united in the Popular Front (led by the murdered Belaid and others) have no real programme for a transformation of Tunisia either. Many are open in their hope that French and other Western imperialist investment (and tourism) will provide the way out of Tunisia's disastrous economic situation. Further, the Islamists were able to point out that the top leadership of the UGTT, the Tunisian trade union federation that called a general strike for the day of Choukri's funeral, had not called for action against Ben Ali until hours before he fled the country, and seemed to have some sort of tacit understanding with the old regime. (Although it is also true that local UGTT sections and the political activists who work through the unions played an important role in toppling Ben Ali.) Worst of all, it was the Islamists and not the Popular Front who raised the slogan "France dégage", pointing to what they called French interference in Tunisian affairs. French President Francois Hollande praised Belaid's "courageous voice". His Interior Minister Manuel Valls strongly condemned Belaid's murder and warned against the rise of "Islamic fascism". This label seems to be meant to designate political trends that go against French interests. France has never used such language against pro-West fundamentalist rule in places like Saudi Arabia, and all previous French governments, both rightist and "socialist" like today's, were quite comfortable with Ben Ali's pro-French regime, which imprisoned Belaid and many others. This supreme hypocrisy needed to be exposed and ridiculed. But it was the Islamists and not the "left" who, in response, carried signs reading, "Attention, Tunisia is not Mali." The fact that it is the Islamists who are waving the banner of opposition to French neocolonialism is a truly terrible situation that reveals the bankruptcy of the liberals and "left" and may further strengthen the religious fundamentalists. There is unquestionably an extremely strong current of opposition to Islamic rule, but what is being posed as the alternative? What can and should people fight for? The popular movement toppled Ben Ali, and later a series of sit-ins and other militant protests brought down governments that would have basically been a continuation of that regime, but now both the Islamists (Ennahda and the Salafists, who often overlap) and centre and left political parties claim to represent that "revolution" that in fact opened the doors of government to all of them. The opposition's call for new elections (scheduled for March anyway) and a new constituent assembly to replace the presently deadlocked body charged with writing a constitution is basically a call for a continuation of the status quo. They have no real change to propose, only an appeal to people's righteous opposition to the change the Islamists offer: a society based on the violent enforcement of Islamic law and morality. One of the great achievements of the movement that toppled Ben Ali was the unleashing of debate and discussion over major political and social issues at all levels of society. Many of the kinds of people who are not encouraged to speak in any exploitation-based society have been demanding to be heard. Political activists, intellectuals and all sorts of ordinary people are absolutely right to fear being told to shut up in the name of Islam, just as they were under the so-called secularist Ben Ali. But freedom of speech and even the most wonderful social ferment is not enough to change society by itself. There has to be a concrete vision of a real alternative that can begin to break through the unfavourable terms of today's Islamist/liberal debate and become a material force among the people. In objective terms, there are very favourable factors for revolution as well as difficulties. The fault lines that made themselves felt in late 2010 and 2011 run as deep or deeper than ever before. One is the fact that Tunisia's place in the international "division of labour" dictated by imperialist capital and profitability has created an enormous chasm between the coastal cities and those of the interior, which have been left to rot in economic stagnation and hopelessness. Youth in Sidi Bouzid, the town where the self-immolation of the young street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi on 10 December 2010 set off the movement that brought down Ben Ali, have mounted violent revolts against the central government on several occasions recently, especially in the wake of the assassination of Belaid. The same has been true in Saliana, where a violent youth revolt against an Ennahda-appointed governor in late November revealed an enormous sense of anger at the frustration of the hopes inspired by the toppling of Ben Ali. Gafsa, a mining city in south-central Tunisia, has also erupted. As in other interior cities, people destroyed the local Ennahda offices. Some leaders of left parties (including people who used to call themselves communists) like to point to Gafsa's phosphorous as an export that could jump-start the economy, supposedly like oil for other countries. Yet in a manner typical of what happens in countries dominated by foreign capital, those mines have not produced many jobs, so that even "good times" for phosphorous aren't much help for most people. In the same way, the agricultural potential of some of the interior (Sidi Bouzid is a good example) has been wasted because it is more profitable to import food than to develop agriculture for domestic consumption. Thus places not very far from the coast are effectively cut off from the world by the lack of good roadways and other basic infrastructure. In the capital as well, there are huge numbers of people who have not found an acceptable life in the city. It can definitely be said that the country's existing industries and overall economy can neither free Tunisia from foreign dependence nor serve as the basis for a radical transformation of society in a way that would allow, and require, a flourishing of the people that is completely impossible today. For many Tunisian youth, "life is just trash", as one young man recently told BBC. There can't be much hope for the country's future if it remains polarized between Islamists who claim to represent an answer to the unacceptable humiliation, oppression and wasted lives imposed by the "West" while seeking to find a place in the global imperialist system, on the one hand, and on the other an opposition that cannot conceive of anything better than trying to live with and in fact rely on Western capital, accepting the political domination and the hypocritical values that go along with all that. The necessary ideological battle against Islamism cannot and should not be conducted by appealing to "Western ideals" (like those embodied by the French President and Interior Minister), including the idea of parliamentary democracy which France's monopoly capitalist class finds a perfectly acceptable way of ruling for themselves, although not always in the countries they bleed. The idea that Tunisia could become like France, and that France or other powers (like China) might even help that happen, is no less an illusion than the harmony among all classes promised by religion. For one thing, bleeding countries like Tunisia is a key part of how France got to be the way it is. It is no wonder that at least some of the people who have been most active in recent years are depressed and demobilized, in part because they fear that they cannot win the majority, while the Islamists, who are not the majority, seem to be going all out for political power. The prospect of more rounds of elections and more rounds of various governing coalitions should be unappetizing, because that is how the country got from the heady days of two years ago to where it is today. The question is not how to win elections, and in fact some people seem sick of what they call "the political parties" without much distinction. It is what are the most basic interests of the vast majority of Tunisians, what kind of society could meet those needs, what kind of political power could put Tunisia on a whole different road than where it is heading today, and how that could be made to happen. Tunisia and Egypt are very different countries in many important ways, economically, socially and psychologically, but there are important similarities in the dilemmas faced by people who wanted to carry out a revolution two years ago and still want radical change today. There is a need to recognize and reckon with the irreconcilable antagonism between the imperialist countries and the countries they dominate. And there is also a need to recognize and reckon with the kind of revolution that is the only real way out of the impasse that both the liberals and the Islamists represent: one that seeks real liberation from imperialism as a prerequisite for building a society based on the interests of the vast majority of people and humanity as a whole, and not profitability and the dictates of the imperialists and local exploiters and representatives of the world market.

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