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Tunisia: patterns of revolt

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Alex Callinicos looks at the nature of the Tunisian uprising and the potential for it to grow into a challenge to capitalism
Issue 2236

The Tunisian revolution has dramatically interrupted what passes for normality in the Arab world. Despite huge economic inequality, the hated domination of US imperialism, and the occasional assassination, the region suffers from astonishing political stagnation.

The two most important Arab states are both ruled by men in their eighties. King Abdullah is the latest elderly son of the founding monarch, ibn Saud, to rule Saudi Arabia. Hosni Mubarak is celebrating his 30th year as president of Egypt, and grooming his son Gamal to succeed him.

“The Arab street” is widely invoked in political discussion of the Middle East, but brutal repression often keeps it silent. Now, in Tunisia, the street has spoken decisively.

The overthrow of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has followed a classic revolutionary pattern. His deeply corrupt regime ruled through a mixture of co-option and fear.

It is a victim of the global economic crisis that cut export markets and pushed up food prices.

The World Bank praised Tunisia for “remarkable progress on equitable growth, fighting poverty and achieving good social indicators”, but the official rate of unemployment has been stuck at 14 percent for the past decade.

Youth unemployment is estimated to be much higher, at around 40 percent throughout the region—a potentially explosive issue in Tunisia, where 42 percent of the population is under 25.

What transformed economic grievances into political crisis? As so often a small incident—the suicide of an unemployed graduate, Muhammad Bouazizi, in protest against the confiscation of his vegetable stall—was the trigger.

Economic misery fused with anger at the brutality and corruption of the regime. Mass protests spread.

The regime responded at first with repression. When this failed, it tried concessions. When these failed, Ben Ali promised to step down in 2014. A day later he resigned and fled the country.

Revolt from below split the regime. A turning point came when the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), hitherto incorporated into the ruling apparatus, broke away to join the demonstrations, blockaded the interior ministry, and called a general strike.

To save the existing structure of power, Ben Ali had to be sacrificed.

Ordered to fire on demonstrators, the army commander refused. It’s rumoured that he wouldn’t accept dismissal and forced Ben Ali out.

Now—once again following a classic pattern—the focus of struggle has shifted to whether that structure will survive. The protests continue, but now they are demanding that all the ministers belonging to Ben Ali’s RCD party are removed from the new “unity government” under Mohamed Ghannouchi.

Once again the UGTT is in the lead, calling protests and another general strike last Saturday.

According to the New York Times, “now the union is the biggest institutional force still pushing for the breakup of the interim government.

“The small, legally recognised opposition parties are represented in the cabinet, and the outlawed Islamist movement here is only beginning to reconstitute itself.”


What is the meaning of the Tunisian revolution? One thing’s for sure—this isn’t one of the pro-Western “colour” revolutions promoted by US neocons.

Ben Ali’s regime was a neoliberal poster boy.

There is a Facebook “Wall of Shame” full of statements praising him from worthies such as French president Nicolas Sarkozy, ex-US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon.

The Tunisian revolution is a blow to Western domination of the Arab world. Fear that it will prove contagious has gripped many regimes.

Students in Yemen demonstrated last weekend against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a US ally, chanting, “Oh, Ali, join your friend Ben Ali!”

Larbi Sadiki of Exeter University writes, “Western security experts should perhaps purchase Das Kapital and bond with Karl Marx to get a ­reality check.

“From Tunisia and Algeria in the Maghreb to Jordan and Egypt in the Arab east, the real terror that eats at self-worth, sabotages community and communal rites of passage, including marriage, is the terror of ­socio‑economic marginalisation.”

What is immediately at stake in Tunisia is a political revolution.

The protesters still swelling the streets want a change in regime—not just Ben Ali’s removal, but that of the political system over which he presided.

Political revolutions have been common in modern capitalism, from France in 1830 and 1848 to the revolutions of 1989 that overturned the Stalinist regimes in eastern and central Europe.

They leave intact the economic and social system—what Marx called the mode of production.

They represent a political reorganisation of the existing system, not a social revolution. Chris Harman, then Socialist Worker editor, described the 1989 revolutions as a “move sideways”, from one form of capitalism to another.

But will a change in political regime be enough to satisfy the Tunisian masses?


Tunisia is a small country, with a population of about 10.5 million. But it is highly urbanised, with most of the workforce in industry and services.

Material grievances made worse by the global crisis have helped drive the revolution. A new government and a democratic constitution won’t solve them. There is an umbilical cord binding together economics and politics in Tunisia today.

After the Russian Revolution of 1905, Leon Trotsky pointed to how the political uprising against the Tsar Nicholas II tended to “grow over” into economic struggles against the bosses.

This reflected the fact that the industrial working class was in the lead of the struggle to democratise Russia. Democratic political demands fused with the economic battle against capital, driving towards socialist revolution.

Trotsky called this dynamic “permanent revolution”. It culminated in Russia in October 1917, when the soviets, councils of workers’ and soldiers’ delegates, seized power.

It is too early to say whether Tunisia will experience such a process of permanent revolution. The fact that the UGTT is playing a central role is of great significance.

Of course, the union leaders who collaborated with Ben Ali aren’t seeking any kind of revolution.

But in pressing for a ­thorough‑going purge of the old regime, they can unleash forces from below that escape their control. When Ben Ali’s armed supporters tried to create chaos, neighbourhoods organised and linked together to defend themselves.

The attempt to clean up the state can itself push in a revolutionary direction.

The greatest revolutionary upheaval in western Europe in the past 50 years began in Portugal in April 1974 with a left wing military coup.

One of the first targets of the liberated masses was the PIDE, the old regime’s hated secret police. Workers used the newly won right to strike and were joined on the streets by soldiers.

In Tunisia, the police were in the frontline trying to crush the revolt, while the army held aloof. But last Saturday, over 2,000 police officers, along with firefighters and members of the National Guard, donned red armbands and joined the protests.

“They said they want to be with people now, they want to be part of the revolution,” Al Jazeera reported from Tunis.

The greater the divisions inside the repressive apparatuses of the state, the greater the chances of real ­revolutionary transformation.

But these chances also depend on the emergence of mass political organisation with the necessary understanding of the situation.

It is impossible for any outsider to say how likely this is. Western commentators are obsessed with the banned Islamist party seizing the initiative.

There is nothing inevitable about this. Tunisia has secular left wing traditions that seem to have survived the long decades of dictatorship.

The truth is that a revolutionary process has begun in Tunisia.

Its meaning—for the Tunisian people, for other Arab countries, and for the world—will be written in struggle.

Further reading:

  • The Permanent Revolution by Leon Trotsky
  • A Rebel’s Guide to Trotsky by Esme Choonara
  • Trotsky’s Marxism by Duncan Hallas

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