Tunisia – people power, but…
The new regime won’t be able to improve the lot of the population.
The lightning rapidity and relative ease with which Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was chased out of Tunisia in January, is a clear testimony not only of the power of the masses but also (though unknown to many) how vulnerable and cowardly many a dictator is. Hours before his ignominious flight, Ben Ali appeared on television visibly shaken and pleading with the people to give him time to address their problems. Too late; the masses were already up in arms. It is said that the capitalist system digs its own grave. But it does not do so willingly. It is an inevitable fate that it must fulfil; it developed the internet to enhance its insatiable crave for profits but, ironically, it is the same internet that the masses will use as a collective organiser to mobilise the exploited to bury the system. The present upheavals in the Arab countries are one such example.
Elsewhere in the Arab lands, this defiant action of the Tunisians sent frosty shivers down the spines of the other dictators and, apprehensive of a possible domino effect, some of these rulers started making jittery reforms to avert a similar (and deserved) fall.
In Tunisia, discontent with the government was deep and widespread, cutting across class lines. The low income earners had no hope of escaping poverty because the government had no way of providing them with jobs. The middle income earners had little chance to improve its lot because the government had so badly sapped the economy that there were few government services and the development of business was virtually impossible except for the few who had close ties with top officials. Many of those who did no more than merely question or complain about injustice were thrown into jail. Many useful people were turned into beggars.
These dramatic events in the Arab lands (and they are still unfolding) also reveal, in black and white, the negative role that the corporate media play in the struggle for the emancipation of mankind. On the eve of the uprising, one would have thought, going by what the media wanted the world to believe, that Tunisia was a kind of heaven-on-earth. For instance, in 2002, a number of ‘Special Reports’ on Tunisia were published in New African – so far the leading English language magazine in continental Africa – that need some paraphrasing and scrutiny here. They were, in the main, prepared by one, Anver Versi.
According to him, visionary political leaders like Ben Ali are saviours and so when Ben Ali took charge of the country 15 years ago, he called the process The Change. Many at that time took the words at their literal value; most at that time did not fully grasp what he meant. When one looks at Tunisia at that time and what it has become today, one feels the full, stunning impact of the words,
“These 15 years have seen one of the most remarkable transformations in modern history of the world. From a country teetering on the brink of social economic and political collapse, Tunisia today is on the threshold of entering developed world status. And this was achieved without any miraculous discovery of gold or oil. The country has also not borrowed heavily to finance its growth, neither has there been any ‘Marshall Aid’ from wealthy nations. Growth has been maintained at a steady 5% per annum despite a four-year drought. Industrial efficiency has been gained without the loss of employment. The infrastructure has quadrupled. Education is universal and incomes have increased by 400%. Eight out of ten households own their homes and there is hardly any poverty. The rights of children are protected by law. An advanced social security programme is in place.”
Versi wrote further that “in Tunisia the term ‘solidarity’ is not a political slogan for organised groups. It stands for the principle ‘one for all and all for one’. ‘Solidarity’ means that you are never alone; your problems are not yours only; you are not isolated but part of an intricate chain. Since a chain is as weak as its weakest link, it is everybody’s duty to ensure that the weak links become stronger with each passing day.” Versi added that according to Ben Ali, the National Solidarity Fund, which is the vehicle used to reintegrate marginalised groups, has been so spectacularly successful that delegations from virtually all corners of the globe arrive almost every week to study how it works. It is a remarkable journey undertaken at a dizzying speed. A miracle indeed!
The above pernicious adulation typifies the mercenary media’s manipulation of public opinion which, unfortunately, is swallowed hook, line and sinker by many. But even if that was actually the reality in Tunisia only a few years ago, how could the situation of the majority of the people be so messy today? To be able to reconcile this rather bizarre equation, one needs to consider the inner workings of the trap set for Tunisia (and indeed all peripheral states) by the capitalist system..
Free trade with the EU
Tunisia was the first country to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. According to the terms of the Agreement, the EU and its Association partners would introduce a Free Trade Zone in 2010. This would mean that tariffs and other protective barriers would be eliminated. This was way back in July 1995. The Agreement provided that Tunisia would be given enough time and room to adjust its national structures to fit into the partnership. It would also not surrender its competitive advantages, such as its cheap labour. Naturally, a less developed nation joining an advanced economic market such as the EU has as many advantages accruing from it as there are dangerous pitfalls. One thing, however, is clear: removal of tariffs and deregulation always leads to the importing of cheap goods from the West which greatly damages local production.
But the Tunisian rulers, and that is always the bait, were made to believe that with time they could compete on an equal footing with their European counterparts. The Agreement also provided for a 12-year transition period after which it would come into force for the implementation of the free trade arrangement. However, Tunisia had started dismantling tariffs on industrial goods in 1996, two years before the agreement came into force in 1998. It would therefore be able to enter the Free Trade Zone by 2008.
The EU opened an office in Tunis and the grants started flowing in. A 40-strong team from the European Commission flew in. Its function was to carry out EU policies and co-ordinate with Tunisian authorities. They would work together with the Tunisian Ministry of Co-operation and Investment and provide technical management assistance to improve productivity. They were also to budget aid money against reforms and disburse funds after checking that targets had been met. They would also link with lending institutions like the World Bank for more loans. The office then proceeded to open up trade services such as insurance, banking and other commercial and professional set-ups.
That marked the beginning of the end. The government failed to understand that the tighter the grip of the capitalists on industry, the more intense is the poverty of the masses and the more marked are the riches of the few.
Coming back to the crisis, the demonstrations continued in spite of the ignominious flight of Ben Ali. This is understandable because those individuals who, in one way or the other, helped mess up the lives of the ordinary people were the same who came back as the interim government; a clear case of the decorated donkey still being an ass.
But one thing is obvious; no matter who are brought in to assume leadership of the country, the plight of the ordinary Tunisian will not see any significant improvement. The so-called opposition are no better than the likes of Ben Ali. At the beginning of 2002, for instance, the opposition parties and some civil organisations were invited to contribute to the framing of a draft constitution before it was put to the public to vote on. Later, the secretary-general of the Popular Unity Party (PUP) one of the six opposition parties, Mohammed Bouchiha, gleefully commented that the reforms marked the crossing of the Rubicon and signified a point of no return in the development of modern Tunisia. “The system has now been changed as we demanded,” he said.
On the issue of the reforms dropping the limitation on presidential terms, Bouchiha said, defending the open system, “That was an irrelevancy; the clause was brought in when President Ben Ali revoked the President-for-Life system introduced in the latter stages of Habib Bourghiba’s administration. But if the electoral system is fair, why should the public be denied the opportunity to vote in the candidate of their choice as many times as possible?”
Now, observers across the anti-capitalist spectrum may enthusiastically welcome the courageous action of the people but the fact is that the opposition is not a unified ideological entity. It is a random collection of (often irreconcilable) groups whose interest in getting rid of the government only happens to coincide now. Though such an amorphous group may be able to seize power, they can hardly help the masses as they do not have any common and well-thought-out agenda except that they want to see the back of the leader. And even if they are able to hammer out some sort of radical programme, they will soon be forced to make concessions to the same ruinous capitalist world around them as there is virtually no possibility that massive foreign aid will be offered them to alleviate the poverty of the populace.
Thus, the untold hardship visited on the masses and which necessitated the mass action can only be possible (and will always be so) under the capitalist system. This system is based on an insignificant minority of the world owning all the means of production and distribution of wealth i.e. land, factories, transport and communication networks, the media, etc. These few individuals control all the wealth of the world whereas the majority have nothing and have to work for the owning class to continue making their profits. It is this sort of relations that is the source of all the suffering in the world.
Therefore, it is only when this profit-driven system is abolished and replaced with a system that is operated on the basis of ownership of the world’s resources by the whole of humanity that such uncalled for situations in society can be done away with. But this cannot be achieved except when there is a concerted action on a global scale. Individual countries may rise up and chase away their leaders but it does not solve the problem. It is only when the majority of mankind and in particular the working class understand the capitalist system and, based upon this understanding, decide to do away with capitalism and replace it with a better mode of organising society (call it socialism) that the human race will be really human. For, such a socialist system will be run on the basis of collective ownership of the world’s resources for the use and benefit of all.