1980s >> 1984 >> no-956-april-1984

Death on an empty stomach

RESULT OF RIOTS IN TUNISIA: AT LEAST 120 DEAD (Headline in Libération, 11 January).
MOROCCO: 150 to 200 DEAD ACCORDING TO SPANISH RADIO (Libération, 23 January).


How is it possible, in an age of potential plenty, when Common Market Ministers are discussing how to get rid of butter mountains, milk lakes and other food “surpluses”, that on the other side of the Mediterranean people are rioting against increases in the prices of basic foodstuffs and being shot down for doing so?


The answer is that we are living in a society which is geared not to serving human needs but to producing goods, or rather commodities, to be sold on a market with a view to profit. In these circumstances food, and indeed everything else, can only be obtained in exchange for money. Until now the governments of the countries of North Africa have heavily subsidised food prices as a means of keeping the cost of living — and so wages — down. But. in the current world capitalist crisis, this has become too expensive and the International Monetary Fund has put pressure on these governments to economise as a condition for continuing to bail them out. The governments of Tunisia and Morocco — and indeed of other countries subject to similar pressures, such as Brazil and Egypt — have thus been faced with the problem of how to further decrease the already low standard of living of the mass of their populations.


The Tunisian government chose to try to increase basic food prices in one sweep: prices of bread and other cereal products were to be doubled from 1 January 1984. It is doubtful whether the government really believed they could get away with this, since a similar austerity programme had already led to riots and deaths in January 1978. In other words, they were testing the situation. If the price increases were accepted without too much trouble, then so much the better; but if the protests proved to be too strong then, after shooting down some rioters, they could be withdrawn and re-introduced gradually over a longer period. In the event this was what happened, leaving, according to a provisional estimate of the Tunisian Human Rights Defence League, at least 120 people dead. Naturally the members of the government who decided and carried out this cynical test remain in their comfortable villas enjoying the best things in life.


Not that a more gradualist approach would necessarily have avoided riots (or will in the future) since this was the policy adopted by the Moroccan government, to no avail since riots broke out there too. The petty king of Morocco, Hassan II, was particularly upset by these riots in the Northern part of his kingdom as they coincided with the Conference of Islamic Heads of State in Rabat at which emirs, sheiks, tin-pot dictators and other nonentities were entertained in an extravagant style which reflected the contempt in which they hold the people they exploit and oppress.


Riots are endemic in this and similar relatively underdeveloped parts of the world. In May and April 1980 there were riots and deaths in Tizi-Ouzou in neighbouring Algeria and in June 1981 hundreds of people were shot down in Casablanca, the economic capital of Morocco. Rioting is in fact one of the few means of defence that these populations have against their repressive governments, be they republics (like Tunisia) or monarchies (like Morocco). But it is clear that all this does is slow a downward movement. In the end they cannot win. For them, as for workers in other more developed countries, the only way out is the establishment of world socialism.


Adam Buick