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Report from Tunisia : what happened, why and what more could happen

samedi 11 juin 2011, par Samuel Albert

I. Great things

Great things have happened in Tunisia.

The greatest thing is that Tunisians, kept down first by the French and then by more than half a century of autocratic government subservient to France and other foreign capital, have awoken to political life in a way that happens only in special moments in history. They cast off passivity and routine’s chains and sought to take the destiny of their country in their own hands. In fact, the masses of people were able to seize the political initiative countrywide – how often has that happened in today’s world ? – and impose changes that the Tunisian ruling classes and France and the US might or might not be able to accept but definitely did not want.

Zidane El Abidine Ben Ali ruled over Tunisia for 23 years. On 14 January 2011 he fell so unexpectedly and suddenly that the world was stunned, including Tunisians themselves. Since then they have brought down two successor governments and are challenging the third. The country remains in a rare state of effervescence.

Bourguiba avenue in Tunis is a grand, French-style boulevard with two rows of trees in the middle and cafés and expensive shops lining the sidewalks. Almost every evening since 14 January people of all walks of life gather to discuss and debate the issues of the day. The crowds are thickest on Friday and over the weekend. Knots of university students and older unemployed workers often listen to each other. Sometimes everyone shouts at once about this or that government proposal, about whether or not people should quiet down and go back to work and let the authorities take charge, or about Islam and the role of women in society. It’s not unusual to see a woman loudly proclaiming her views to dozens of surrounding men. It seems to be a rule that everyone gets to speak.

Tongues have been untied. What a foreigner hears over and over again, from young and old, men and women, is this : "We’ve been kept silent all our lives. Now we are going to talk and nobody can make us shut up. We’re going to be heard. Everybody’s going to have to listen to us now."

People in the neglected smaller cities and dusty towns of the country’s interior gather in squares and the cafés where men drink tea, smoke and argue from morning to night. They want to make sure that the country is still listening to them. There have been several violent social explosions over the past several months. Unemployed youth in at least two towns are on hunger strike, continuing to send the message that a young street peddler conveyed when he burned himself alive on 17 December and set off the revolt : they’d rather be dead than go on living this way.

Everywhere, one of the most contentious questions is whether or not there has been a real revolution. The current government says there has been, and that it is the revolution’s representative. The armed forces say that there has been, and that it is the revolution’s protector. In the streets and cafés, opinion is divided. An immense number of people are far from satisfied, especially the youth in general and the lower classes, and various parts of the middle classes, including the intelligentsia. What they have done so far has demonstrated their potential strength and made them hungry for more.

The question now is this : Will what the people have achieved so far make it possible to bring about the kind of radical change that could satisfy the aspirations expressed in their revolt ? Or will the gains they have won through their self-sacrificing spirit be snatched away ?

II. How it happened

Sidi Bouzid, where it all began
Sidi Bouzid is the town in the country’s centre where the uprising began. It is the administrative capital of an arid governate (province) isolated from the world by wretched roads even though it is only a few hundred kilometres from the coast over flat land.

. A doctor (general practitioner) :
Sidi Bouzid is last no matter what parameter you use to measure it. By law health care is supposed to be guaranteed for everyone, but there’s only one small, badly equipped clinic in this town and other towns have none. I’ve never heard of a woman from the countryside coming in for a prenatal check-up. The public dispensaries have no medications – the supplies are sold illegally to private clinics.

There are no gynaecologist/obstetricians. Why would a specialist come to live in a province that has 413,000 inhabitants but not a single cinema ? People are scattered in the countryside and small towns. There’s no industry to concentrate people, no cultural life and it’s hard to get to the big cities. Only 10 percent of the population is connected to the sewer system. There are 140,000 unemployed university graduates in this country of ten million, and ten percent of them, 1,400, are in this town of 45,000 people.

. A primary school teacher :
I was one of the first to pass by in front of the building after Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself, about 1 in the afternoon. A few men and women were demonstrating, mainly family members.

I called comrades and told them what happened and how it was the fault of the authorities. There are about 6,000 school teachers here. We’re the biggest union, and we’re also the intellectuals most closely in touch with the youth. Other activists came, including lawyers.

About 10:30 the next morning, lots of police came from Kasserine (the nearest city, towards the Algerian border). The battle began and continued for two days. About 8,000 gendarmes were brought in from all over the province. Ninety bus-loads of them, plus motorcycles (two-man teams, one to drive and the other to beat people). The whole town was throwing stones and fighting them – women, youth, elderly. We didn’t burn and loot because it’s our town, after all.

On the fifth day people came from other towns and villages to demonstrate. Other towns of 5-10,000 people erupted. It spread to Gabes on the coast, and then back to larger interior cities like Mederine. Then to Sfax, on 12 January, and the other big coastal cities. We didn’t go to Tunis until after Ben Ali fled on 14 January...

. An older schoolteacher’s union leader and political activist associated with the Patriotic and Democratic Labour Party (PT)
Most of the people in this region are small farmers. They tend livestock – especially sheep, and grow olives and other crops. Some land is irrigated, some not. There are no big landowners here. Families hire seasonal labourers during harvests, mostly women from neighbouring areas. There are some tomato canneries and an air conditioner plant, but not many factories. Aside from the top local government employees, living standards range from OK to pretty bad. Many farmers can’t sell their crops in the coastal cities because there’s no transport, and the buyers here rob them. The government programmes and other institutions like co-operatives are run by corrupt people with ties to the regime. Instead of helping the peasants they bleed them.

The poor peasants take out credit to buy a small truck or other equipment, and often can’t pay back their loans. The interest is high. They end up going bankrupt and have to leave the country. When someone else buys up their land – and here there are few big capitalists and even fewer foreign investors – they irrigate it and grow crops for export like grapes, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers and melons. Because we’re so far south, crops are ready for market early in the year, long before Europe and even northern Tunisia.

There isn’t a single large store. There are lots of cafés because it doesn’t take much capital to open one up and there’s nothing to do but drink tea in a café. Some people buy and sell alcohol illegally.

Until now, hardly anybody was interested in politics, society or culture. Traditional holidays and folkloric events were organized by the regime for its own political purposes. Tribal relations are dying out because so many people are moving to big cities. In some places in this province 50-90 percent of the population have gone to look for work in Sfax, Monastir and Tunis, or immigrated illegally to Italy and France.

What we have here are lots of schools – 313 primary schools, 170 middle schools and several high schools. Education is compulsory and free. Among other reasons, peasants send their children to school because they don’t have enough land to divide it up among their children. There’s nothing else for kids to do but go to school. But the schools are in terrible condition and don’t have much modern equipment.

The roads are so bad, especially the farm roads, that children who come to town for high school can’t commute and have to find a place to live here. For university they go to the coastal cities. Many kids end up living with five or six other people in a garage. They drink wine, like most youth.

Isolated from their families and connected to the world by television and the Internet, craving a modern life style that unemployment and the lack of development won’t let them have, they grow distant from their families and traditions. This is a patriarchal society, but they don’t recognize their parents’ authority. They won’t even let their fathers find them a wife. That’s a big generational rupture.

My son has two years of technical university. He’s 29. I tell him, "I want you to have a wife and children like me." He says, "I can’t, papa. That’s too big a burden, too much responsibility." Some people are 40 years old and still haven’t started their own family.

On top of all this is the fact that the youth weren’t allowed to talk freely to each other and nobody would listen to them. Politics and political life was forbidden to them. Police were in the cafés to keep people from talking.

There were social explosions in 2006, 2008 and 2010 in the mining areas to the south and near the borders with Libya and Algeria. The government’s solution was the police and this aggravated the situation. Some brave people, especially teachers, were sentenced to long prison terms. The economic situation got worse ; peddlers selling contraband became numerous. The general mood among youth was very pessimistic and there were suicides.

Mohammed Bouazizi was typical of these youth. He wasn’t a university graduate like the media said. He had a pushcart selling fruit and vegetables. He didn’t have a permit, so a municipal agent confiscated his scale. Without a scale, he couldn’t make a living. He complained to the authorities, but nobody would listen to him. A woman municipal agent slapped him in the face.

I wasn’t there when he set fire to himself in front of the administration building on 17 December. His family staged a protest, and spread the word to other towns through tribal relationships. On the 18th and 19th we organized demonstrations. There were teachers and government employees, and soon most of the townspeople were in the streets. Our slogans held the regime responsible for Bouazizi’s death. The police encircled the whole city. We met in the offices of the UGTT (the union federation). The police wouldn’t let us out of there to demonstrate in the streets.

So the youth started protesting in their neighbourhoods. They fought with the police, especially at night when police cameras couldn’t take pictures.

Our first slogans were "Work is a right" and "Gang of thieves – where is our right to work ?" Then the central government sent in the gendarmes. We chanted slogans for freedom of expression and demonstrations and equality of development.

The media didn’t mention any of this. There was a total blackout for the first few days, even as the protests spread to nearby cities. Many towns were blockaded by the police and gendarmes. We made videos with our mobiles (cellphones) and posted them online.

"Let us tell you how we made the revolution"

. University student, Tunis (with half a dozen other students chiming in)
I’m a member of the Communist Party of Tunisian Workers (PCOT). I’ve been a student activist since 2000, when we were arrested for holding a demonstration at school. We were always getting clubbed by the police. When Bouazizi burned himself, students and high school teachers’ union members from Tunis went to Sidi Bouzid. The regime was trying to calm people down. Ben Ali gave Bouazizi’s mother money. We paralysed the city and used our mobiles to spread the news. Many comrades were shot in the head while fighting the police. Some of us stayed there ; others came back to Tunis to work Facebook and show people what was happening in Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine.

The demonstrations started to reach Tunis on 28 December (when artists and professionals, especially lawyers, protested), but not in a big way until 11 January, when there was a major protest in a suburb near the capital. The next day there was a demonstration in Beb El Khader, about a kilometre from the city centre. A youth was killed in another demo there the next day. Seven of us comrades went there. On the 14th we carried his body all the way through the city and down Bourguiba boulevard, calling on the people to revolt. People on the street were very respectful of us. We attacked the police. We didn’t want to have just another demonstration and then everyone go home. We were tired of seeing youth get beaten.

. A third year student :
For a long time I felt like I was the only one who thought like me. We started using Youtube and Facebook because it was the only way we could talk freely. Then two bloggers were arrested in mid-2010, and everyone got scared.

When friends called and told us what was happening in Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine, and the media wasn’t saying anything about it, we got mad. We had to express ourselves. About a hundred of us used Facebook to organize the first demonstration in central Tunis. On 13 January the police arrested me and other bloggers and held me for about three hours. I’d been clubbed before, but never arrested. They asked why we were demonstrating ; I said because of injustice.

When they let me go I went home to the working class neighbourhood where I live. On the Net I saw that other bloggers had been busted. We told everyone to come out into the streets the next day. That night Ben Ali gave a big speech saying that he wouldn’t step down. Some guys – nobody knows who they were – were driving around in cars without license plates and shooting people at random. I was scared to go out. A curfew was in force, but a few people were allowed to come to Bourguiba avenue to applaud the president. We heard that France and the EU were going to send Ben Ali help. I thought that was going to be the end of it.

The next morning, at 8:30, I was on the avenue. There were three or four thousand people in front of the Municipal Theatre. Everyone carried Tunisian flags and protest signs. For once, it wasn’t raining. By 10 or 11 the avenue was full ; there wasn’t room for one more person. I didn’t think the police could attack, because there were so many of us and the international press was watching. Nothing was happening, and then suddenly tear gas grenades were fired. People in the first ranks in front of the Interior Ministry began trying to back up. I thought that would be it for the day and we’d come back tomorrow. It was an unforgettable moment – people were crying as they sang the national anthem. The old people, children and some women retreated. The rest of us started fighting. We fought all day.

. Union members and leaders, UGTT regional headquarters in the Tunis industrial suburb of Ben Arous :
This town has half a million people. It has chemical plants, an oil refinery and many factories like electronic parts sub-assembly plants for foreign car companies and food processing. It’s considered attractive for foreign investment because of its educated and skilled workers and technicians and good infrastructure. Most of the workers here are originally from this region.

We were never a "normal" union. The UGTT was founded during the liberation struggle in the 1930s. We were doing political work for years, especially in the mining region of the south. The national union leadership supported Ben Ali, but the regional and local leadership were against that. Because political parties were outlawed, the leftist parties worked mainly through the unions, as well as human rights organizations and NGOs.

It’s true, like people say, that the revolution was made for liberty, not bread, but it’s also true that while we were suffocated by the Ben Ali mafia, people in the interior were suffering from extreme regional inequalities and unemployment.

We had our first rally here on 5 January, mainly union members and other workers. The police surrounded our offices. After that we held a mass meeting to decide what to do, and called for a regional general strike on 14 January from 10 am to noon.

Ben Ali closed the schools because of the unrest. The students came to meet in our offices because they had nowhere else to meet – the official student union was run by the regime. It turned out that there were no strikes because many factories didn’t even open that morning. Everything just stopped. So students and other people went to demonstrate in central Tunis. That evening Ben Ali resigned.

III : Why the revolt happened

The Internet and the global web of economic and political relations

If poverty alone were enough to set off revolt, Tunisia would have been one of the last Arab countries to explode. It is among the most socially and economically developed of the non-oil exporting Arab countries. Few people go hungry or have nowhere to live. Tunis has nothing like the slums of Cairo – nor its displays of wealth. Yet Tunisia is also a country where the minimum wage is about 216 dollars a month and many people wish they could make that much, if they can find work at all.

A lot more people have Internet connections than have flush toilets in Sidi Bouzid, the town in the interior where the revolt began. About a quarter of the slightly more than 10 million Tunisians have some Net access, and there are two million Facebook accounts. Images of Sidi Bouzid and the spreading uprising were brought to nearly every home by Al Jazeera.

Many Tunisians are directly connected to the rest of the world, and they are acutely aware of what the modern world has to offer that is denied to them. They want to know why.

Tunisia’s place in the international network of economic, political and social relations is what constitutes the stage on which the various actors in the revolt played their part. Like other third world countries, its economy is organized according to the needs of the world market, which is not a flat playing field but an expression of the division of the world into monopoly capitalist countries and the oppressed countries whose economies are subordinated to foreign finance capital. Because of the domination of capital based in New York, London, Paris and so forth, instead of developing national economies where the various branches of industry and agriculture more or less fit together, the different parts of their economies are more connected to the international market than to each other.

Tunisia, considered a model by the IMF, has had the highest growth rate in Africa, an average of about five percent over several decades. But its economic subordination has held back a far greater potential development, and the distorted development the country has experienced is a major source of the people’s misery.

A central question in Tunisia, as in other oppressed countries, is agriculture. In Europe and the US farming is subsidized because food self-sufficiency is a prerequisite for an independent and balanced national economy. In ancient times Tunisia fed much of the Mediterranean world. Now the best land in the region along the coast is used for a handful of export crops and the rest neglected.

Investment goes to where it can be most profitable, to plunder resources for export in industries like phosphate mining that contribute little to overall development, and to the coastal region (where roads aren’t needed because goods are shipped abroad by sea), while most agriculture stagnates for lack of resources, even phosphate-based fertilizer. Whole sections of the people in the interior are pulled into the coastal cities to work in export-dependent light industry and call centres and other services provided to Europe, while the rest of the people and country are left to rot. The market-driven international division of labour and organization of the global economy determines development in every corner of Tunisia, both where investment reaches and where it doesn’t. The relative underdevelopment of the interior that is a result of the dominance of imperialist capital makes investment more profitable by bringing down the cost of labour throughout the country.

Now once again tourism is being promoted as Tunisia’s salvation. Even if the rate of almost seven seven million tourists a year could be sustained – let alone vastly increased – in today’s global economic situation, this "industry" has already proved itself a destroyer of nations.

The prostitution that has inevitably accompanied it is the ugliest facet of a trade whose basic reason for existence is not Tunisia’s natural beauty or its archaeological wonders but the inequality that makes it cheap and turns its people into servants instead of offering them the opportunity to contribute and develop their talents. The more tourism grows and gobbles resources, the worse it is for the environment and a balanced national development that could make possible the all-around development of human beings.

In fact, one of Tunisia’s main exports is its people. At any given moment one in ten Tunisians lives abroad, half of them in France and the rest in Italy, Libya and other counties. Most are workers, sometimes in services because of their language skills. They also include teachers, technicians, engineers and other professionals who are a bargain for the countries where they work, not only because of salary inequality but even more because the cost of their education is borne by Tunisians. It is an advantage for Tunisia that so many of its people know the world, but this situation is also a huge drain on its potential and one of the many sources of national humiliation.

Since Ben Ali fell and the security services began to falter in patrolling Tunisia’s shorelines and coastal waters, tens of thousands of Tunisians have embarked in small boats trying to escape a dead-end life. Probably thousands have drowned or died of thirst trying to reach a Europe that is still eager to exploit them there, although in far smaller numbers than before the current financial crisis. These deaths are a dreadful human indicator of how much the international market and the oppressive economic and political relations it represents have imprisoned Tunisia, and how much the country’s development has come at the expense of its people.

Tunisia and global economic crisis

Many, maybe most Tunisians blame Ben Ali for this situation, as do some international experts. It’s important to see what’s true and not true about that, especially if your viewpoint is how Tunisia could become radically different and not just how Humpty Dumpty could be put back together again.

The Ben Ali regime was based on a patronage system largely organized around family ties. Looking downward, this meant a system of political favours right down to the poorest neighbourhood. Whether or not you got a job or a health care card or other things depended on your ties to the regime and who you were related to (and being related to the wrong people, such as a regime opponent, would mean constant trouble). Looking upward, it meant that the biggest sources of wealth were in the hands of the family of Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi. Nothing could be done without bribes, and anyone starting a major business had to give the ruling "clan" a stake in their company. The importance of inherited personal relationships throughout this relatively developed economy and society seems to be a holdover from feudal and other pre-capitalist social relations.

Similarly to Syria and Egypt, when Ben Ali’s liberalization of what was once a state-enterprise dominated economy began to put old and new enterprises into private hands, more fully bringing market forces into play, that led to a greater concentration of wealth among fewer people – people associated with the dominant "clan".

This may have been a serious drag on capitalist development, since it made foreign investors reluctant to do business in Tunisia and held back and even locked out some major domestic capitalists. This is the opinion expressed by the US ambassador in a cable to Washington exposed by WikiLeaks last year. It may also be true, as some Tunisians argue, that there was a split between the capitalist and landowner "clan" associated with Ben Ali and the "clan" associated with Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president after independence, from whom Ben Ali seized power in a palace coup.

But it is not true that the concentration of wealth among an increasingly smaller circle ; the instability and deteriorating conditions faced by those who considered themselves middle class ; and the increasing inability of the country’s health care, educational and other social welfare systems to deliver on what Tunisians consider their rightful entitlements ; can be explained only or even mainly by "kleptocracy", the boundless greed of the regime "clan". These developments are common not only to the Arab countries and the third world but most of the capitalist world today. This kind of polarization is a general feature of capitalist accumulation under the conditions of the necessities and current economic crisis faced by the global imperialist system, even though this works out differently in different countries.

The dynamics of a political crisis

All this sets the stage for what happened, but it doesn’t at all mean that the masses were simply pawns in someone else’s game. The mass revolt intensified the development of splits within the ruling class, which in turn encouraged the development of the mass movement. One of the least understood and most important factors is the dynamical interaction of various sections of the people themselves.

When people can no longer live in the old way

For decades the regime remained unthreatened and nothing happened because it was "common knowledge" that nothing ever could happen. Most people were silent and passive because they thought everyone else would remain silent and passive. Then, when youth in the interior towns took Bouazizi’s tragic suicide as a signal that they, too, had nothing to lose, and teachers encouraged them in throwing stones at the police while lawyers and artists spoke up for them, that made students and other youth in the big cities, especially Tunis, much braver and determined to go over from the Net to the street. All this in turn reacted back on the provincial rebellions.

The 12 January demonstration in Sfax (the country’s second-biggest city but one disfavoured in comparison with other coastal cities) seems to have played a pivotal role in bringing the provincial revolt to the capital. This was the first big demonstration to openly demand that Ben Ali get out. But while it was the biggest protest up to then, it was still probably only about 30,000 people. Its political significance was far more important than its size.

Not only had the regime lost its legitimacy, it had lost its ability to terrorize a growing number of people, even in the country’s urban centres, and this of course made it lose even more legitimacy in the eyes of its own supporters and wavering elements. Suddenly instead of everyone at least tolerating the regime, "everyone" was against it.

It is remarkable that the regime party, which claimed to have a million members, was not able to organize more support. It has been argued that with privatization and the disastrous decline in public services, the ruling party became unable to deliver favours to the worse-off sections of the people who had been most dependent on them. According to some scholars, the lower classes were a more dependable base of support for the ruling party (RCD) than some of the better-off families who, for instance, might prefer to see a private doctor and thus not really need a state health-care card. An activist in Sidi Bouzid explained that the ruling party leadership was more used to deploying its supporters as thugs than as political activists. According to regime figures, 20 percent of the population of Sidi Bouzid were RCD members, one of the highest concentrations in the country.

The regime called for its masses in the capital to rally to its support on the morning of 14 January, and the police, unable to identify who was who, at first did not try to stop people from assembling on Bourguiba avenue. Even if the crowd might have included pro-regime people, it ended up solidly united against the police and their chief, Ben Ali.

Who led the revolt ?

In speaking with dozens of people, including some who said they were among the main organizers of these events, one of the most striking things is this : few people, if any, got involved in this movement with the idea that they were going to drive out Ben Ali.

It’s not that no one wanted to. Today nearly everyone says how happy they were to see him go. But very few people in Tunisia (and leading experts on Tunisia abroad) thought that the regime would ever fall in the sudden and dramatic way it did. What most people hoped for, at best, was a gradual opening, a process of gaining democratic rights. Few people, if anyone, openly called for the regime to be overthrown until close to the very end, or even after Ben Ali fled. The leader of the PCOT, Hamma Hammami, said that his party was "practically the first" to issue such a call, on 10 January, four days before the end, when the slogan "Ben Ali clear out !" suddenly swept the country.

Overnight, it seemed like a whole people were chanting it in unison, thrilled to be able to shout those words as loudly as they could and hardly able to believe their ears.

In a tumultuous mass interview in a café on Bourguiba avenue that began with a half dozen university students and younger teenagers and eventually involved many of their friends, they contended that they (some of them specifically, but more generally other youth like them) were the only ones to call for "the revolution", even though those who came to the biggest demonstrations involved a far broader sampling of society. Even their elders grudgingly admit that this was the case in Tunis, although they argue that support from lawyers’ organizations (a key force), artists and especially the trade unions gave the movement its power.

None of what happened was planned by anyone. Most of the left on a national level was held back by their belief that only gradual change was possible. Youth with less fully developed political views acted spontaneously and took the lead, not by "organizing" the movement but by setting its terms and pushing it ahead in the belief that they would win because their cause was just – without being at all clear on what "winning" would be.

There are antecedents to the revolt, notably an upsurge in the southern phosphate mining town of Gafsa in 2008, sparked by miners’ widows protesting the fact that jobs in the industry were going to people with regime connections instead of their sons. Interior cities like Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, Redeyef and Gafsa all saw sharp outbreaks during 2010. Police repression always followed. In the capital, while open political life, especially demonstrations, was not allowed and many people suffered arrests and other forms of persecution, and while the media and other forms of public expression were muzzled, still it seems that consciously or not, the opposition had achieved a certain modus vivendi with the regime, which refrained from fiercer repression as long as people kept their political work low-profile and their demands within certain bounds. Revolutionary work and any call for Ben Ali’s overthrow were definitely not allowed, but frankly, it seems that people who consider themselves revolutionaries went over to adapting themselves almost totally to what they were allowed to do.

Their idea was that by working through legal channels and organizations, raising and organizing people around legal demands that did not challenge the whole economic and political system, and not challenging traditional thinking and social relations, gradually the masses of people would become conscious of the need for political liberty, and once that was achieved, the conditions would be prepared for more revolutionary changes.

They thought that if they tried to lead a revolutionary movement before the masses of people were ready for that, they would be isolated. But then when a political crisis broke out and many people – a minority of the population but still a critical mass – decided that they could not live in the old way, the left was caught unprepared and could not fully connect with that opportunity. The youth, it turned out, suddenly became far more radical than the cynical leftists who thought they had a "realistic" plan for gradual change.

Some people abroad claim that the revolt in Tunisia was essentially a trade union movement, but that’s half wrong and half misleading. It’s wrong because the unions followed the youth, who had no organizations, and misleading because until nearly the end the main organizations that did take part were those of teachers and others members of the intelligentsia. Furthermore, the debate about how much the leftists working through the unions and other groups helped spread the revolt is beside the point, because all they did was help people do what they were already doing spontaneously.

What they did not do, and what no one did, was lead this movement in the sense of striving to impart a conscious direction, even in a limited sense of driving out Ben Ali, much less trying to transform the spontaneous movement into a conscious movement to seize power and begin the kind of revolutionary transformations that could actually satisfy people’s needs and demands.

There’s not much evidence for the claim that these events were the result of a gradual accumulation of organization and consciousness over the last few years, either among the majority of people, or even the few hundreds and thousands who first revolted and the hundreds of thousands who actively joined in during the last few days. It could be argued that yes, there were outbreaks and righteous struggles, but they were defeated, and wasn’t that a negative factor weighing on people ?

People’s desire for change, and especially whether or not they acted on that desire, was interrelated with whether or not they thought that was possible. There was a confluence of dynamically interacting factors that came together to produce a situation in which, almost overnight, the ruling classes could not rule in the old way and the people were no longer willing to go on living in the old way either, and these two conditions – which Lenin said define a revolutionary situation – reverberated back and forth.

It is hard to write about these complex interactions without falling into simplistic literary devices, but the point is that the extremely powerful dynamics within such situations can transform individuals, whole sections of the people and the political landscape overnight.

When the ruling classes can no longer rule in the old way

French capital and France’s "political class" were very closely supportive of Ben Ali, just as they had been with his predecessor and fellow "strong man" Bourguiba. But as the American ambassador’s memos indicate, the US became quite willing to see Ben Ali go – and the US had acquired considerable influence in Tunisia, especially among the armed forces who are largely American-equipped. Such armaments are not just an expression of political support, but can also be a source of political influence, since they mean that the Tunisian military trains and works closely with their American counterparts.

Serious observers agree that what forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia on 14 January was not that the mass upheaval could no longer be repressed but that the armed forces refused to fully step in when the police and other security services could no longer do so. A Tunisian newspaper reported that Ben Ali asked the armed forces to bomb Kasserine in December, but they disobeyed. It is known that the army – at the top levels – refused to give the order for tanks to fire on demonstrators in Tunis.

Regime loyalists apparently tried to force the armed forces to intervene through deliberate provocations, including the snipers said to have fired on the crowds – many dead were reportedly shot in the head or chest from above – and the mysterious roaming squads that spread random terror in the neighborhoods on Ben Ali’s last night. If violence became generalized, they seemed to think, the army could no longer maintain its somewhat standoffish attitude toward the revolt. But in forcing the army’s hand, that hand seems to have struck at them instead.

What changed Ben Ali’s mind between the evening of 13th, when the 75-year-old went on TV to announce the previously unthinkable "concession" that he would not run for election again in 2014, and some time the following late afternoon when he and his wife were bundled aboard an airplane ? It has been widely reported, and never denied, that armed forces chief of staff Rachid Ammar told him that if the crowds marched on the presidential palace that day his safety could no longer be guaranteed. Some people think Ammar put it less politely. At any rate, it is hard to believe the general made that decision unless he was confident that the "international community" and particularly the US would go along with it. American representatives speaking from Washington and political and military bigwigs visiting Tunis have expressed warm support for the Tunisian armed forces ever since.

The US and certainly France did not want to see a representative of their interests fall and they especially did not want the common people to taste the blood of their oppressors, politically speaking, but they may have considered the alternative – a long and bloody struggle with unpredictable consequences in Tunisia and throughout the region – even worse.

The cohesion of the armed forces and their loyalty to their foreign paymasters gave the imperialists a certain freedom to dump Ben Ali, knowing that the heart of the state, its ability to enforce the prevailing economic and social relations through violence, would remain intact. At the same time, it was clear that if Ben Ali were allowed to cling to the presidency too long and the army supported him in that, its authority and legitimacy in the eyes of the people and maybe its cohesion would be in danger.

It is no disrespect of the people and their accomplishments to point this out, and even to point out that a movement with more revolutionary goals probably would have met with more resistance.

A regime, or the core of a regime, has fallen, but the economic and political system remains intact. The old political forces are desperately fighting for their legitimacy, but they are still strong, and they can count on the force of habit and the old ways of understanding the world among the masses of people. It is not widely understood that the armed forces are ultimately the local representative of imperialist domination and the enforcer of the imperialist world market, and their guns and fighting organization remain untouched. Even among those who were more advanced in terms of setting the terms for the revolt and in that way pushing it forward, not many people understand how Tunisia and the world could be completely different, so naturally they fall prey to ideas and political trends that basically seek a more or less different version of the world as it is.

IV. The present situation

People are worried – and "the people" are no longer united

It’s not every day that there exists such a thing as "the people". During the revolt, there was a "people" that made its will known, not in the sense of all ten million or even millions of Tunisians coming out into the streets, but in the sense that people of conflicting social classes and political and ideological trends were united in their determination to get rid of Ben Ali, on the one hand, and on the other, those who supported the regime or weren’t sure were no longer in a mood to speak out.

Now "the people" has begun to divide out according to the class interests of the various forces involved, even while nearly everyone’s thinking remains contradictory. Millions remain dissatisfied especially among the lower classes and the workers. That is very favourable for radical social change. But the factors that stand in the way of that change include not only the persisting strength of the world economic system and its local ruling classes, but also some elements in the thinking among the people and especially the lack of a clearer understanding of the basic problems that afflict them. Some of these conflicting ideas can be seen in what was said in interviews.

. Spetla, a very small town in the centre of the country, between Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid. Newspaper and refreshments stand owner :
There is no work in this town at all. If you don’t farm, the only way to make a living is commerce. People from here go down to the border with Libya, buy a few things made in China or Europe and bring them back here to sell. Before we couldn’t make a living because people were just coming back with a knapsack of smuggled goods while Ben Ali’s wife Trabelsi was having whole shipping containers full of merchandise brought into the country without paying customs fees. Local smugglers just couldn’t compete. But we never had any demonstrations here.

Now Ben Ali and the Trabelsis are gone but there’s a war in Libya and the border is closed. So people from here are going abroad to look for work. When you hear about all those "sea jumpers", Tunisians dying to make it to Italy in small boats, that’s us. We have liberty now but there’s no way to make a living.

. Unemployed older man, Bourguiba avenue :
I’ve been unemployed for ten years. I can’t tell you how I’ve managed to feed my family. I have a wife and two kids ; one works in the street and another is seven and will go to school next year. I don’t know how we survive. I studied in France and came back to a good job in the sanitation department. My brother-in-law was with the Islamics and I got fired for that. I haven’t been able to find work since. I’m very glad we have liberty now but my life is still lousy.

. Grizzled older worker and other strikers at a plant that makes reinforced concrete pipes, Ben Arous :
We’re poor. That means we don’t have any money. Yes, we did contribute to the movement that overthrew Ben Ali. When he saw the crowd on 14 January, he was afraid we would storm his palace, so he and his family got on an airplane and left. He was backed basically by the French and the US. France intervened militarily in Libya and the Ivory Coast but they never told Ben Ali to go.

At our plant they treated us like slaves. Paid us less than the minimum wage. Now we have liberty, so it’s only natural that we start a union and try to get the protection of the law. But the government is still a mafia, paid off by the US and France.

What do we expect from the revolution ? We hope for the best. So far we haven’t seen anything at all, zero percent change. In fact, things are worse economically, not better. The bosses are still ugly and hard-headed. We all want freedom – freedom to talk, freedom of the press, freedom of everything. Does democracy mean that the employers have all the rights ? The new government is the same as before. Ben Ali was a big thief, but we’ve been under the same system for 56 years (since independence from France). Democracy hasn’t changed that so far, but we want it to change.

. 23 year-old student, rally on Bourguiba avenue :
It’s very important to me that we have liberty now. That’s why we made the revolution. But when are the snipers who shot us down going to be brought to justice ? Who’s protecting them ? Why does the government deny that they even existed ? And why do the police have the right to stop me on the street and demand to know why I’m taking pictures with my mobile (cell phone) ? And here’s my big question : Why do bad people always end up on top ?

. Middle-aged high school chemistry teacher, shopping centre cafeteria :
I decided to wear hijab (in this case a "modern" head scarf) five years ago. My mother wore one of those old-fashioned white head scarfs but my family wasn’t observant. It was when I got older that I turned to Islam. I teach and my husband is a teacher and we share all the household tasks. I’m not someone who believes women should stay home or be paid less.

Why are people like me turning to religion ? When you’re frustrated and don’t have freedom you take refuge in religion, drinking or drugs. I hate to see all those kids doing nothing with their lives but hanging out in cafés and drinking beer. I don’t want to see so many university graduates without jobs. My daughter, who’s a chemical engineer, couldn’t find work here and had to go to France to teach. If the extremists come to power, they won’t let her work here or even go abroad. But under Ben Ali, I wasn’t allowed to cover my head in school.

I’m the one who decided to cover my head, and I’ll decide when to take it off. I believe in an indulgent Islam, one that believes in forgiveness. I define religious extremism as not wanting to allow discussion. What I want is a democratic, balanced country where people have values.

. Owner of a restaurant frequented by merchants in the Medina, the Tunis old quarter markets. Employs six people :
I’m an Islamic. But I’m against extremism. Islam means moderation in everything. What we need now is security. The laws should be changed so that they can cut off the hands of thieves.

It’s a good thing that the army didn’t shoot the people but this revolution isn’t working. Things have gotten out of hand and they shouldn’t have let that happen. People aren’t going to work and there are thieves everywhere. The garbage workers are on strike and the rubbish is piling up. Everyone should be working hard now, but they’re not.

I want three things ; security, order, everyone going to work. The old regime people are still running the government, business and industry.

God protects our country, but it could be better. It’s not really our country. The economy is very iffy – we have industry, even hi-tech, phosphate mines and agriculture, but things could go better. A new president means nothing. Belgium has gone without a government for a year and nobody cares. But we do need police and security.

When I’m at work I should be able to concentrate on business without worrying about my wife at home and my kids on the street. What I want to see is a country without iron bars. The day I no longer see iron bars on all the doors and windows is the day we’ll have law.

We fathers need more support as heads of the family. We need child subsidy payments so we can have more kids. And I want to pay less taxes and utility fees. In France, if you make minimum wage and spend it all on meat, you could buy 100 kilos. Here it would be only 15 kilos. And we pay relatively a lot more for health care than in France. Why is that ?

. Young woman activist, Ben Arous :
When we had an International Women’s Day demonstration on Bourguiba avenue on 8 March, the Islamics held a counter-demonstration. They didn’t physically attack us, like they sometimes do to "immodest" women in the cafés, but they were very aggressive. They chanted, "Women go home !" That’s their solution to unemployment : make all women quit their jobs and spend their lives taking care of their families.

There have always been Islamics among the workers and the union members, but now that the preachers can operate openly, more young workers are joining that movement, just like thousands and thousands are joining unions and political parties. That’s what freedom means. I’m afraid of the old regime making a comeback and I’m afraid of the Islamics.

. Teachers’ union official, Ben Arous :
First we battled the dictatorship, now we’re battling the fundamentalists. Since the revolution there’s been a lot of Islamic agitation, especially among the youth. They didn’t lift a finger during the revolution but at last night’s meeting they demanded most of the seats in our Committee to Defend the Revolution. But I know that the government won’t let them take over.

Where things stand now

On his way out the door on 14 January Ben Ali named his Prime Minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, the new head of state. This was seen as a last act of tyranny on his part, since it went against the procedure established by the constitution.

Veteran and new activists organized Committees to Defend the Revolution at open mass meetings in cities and towns throughout the country. Students, youth and others from Tunis were joined by youth who came from the provincial cities in a giant sit-in in front of the government office complex called the Kasbah, on the other side of the Medina from Bourguiba avenue, to demand the dissolution of a government made up of the "living dead", Ben Ali’s old ministers and notables.

To appease the people and demonstrate that Tunisia would now be a state of law, the head of the National Assembly, Fouad Mebazzaa, became president as prescribed by the constitution. Mebazzaa turned around and appointed Ghannouchi his Prime Minister.

Then on 25 February came a new occupation that lasted until Ghannouchi was replaced as prime minister by Beji Caid Essebsi, an 84-year-old man who had been prime minister under Bourguiba but was not so associated with Ben Ali. Eventually the youth from the provinces went home and the second Kasbah sit-in dwindled and came to an end. An attempt in March to organize a "Kasbah III" to depose Essebsi failed.

The new government successfully brushed aside the attempts of the Committees to Defend the Revolution to exercise a kind of dual power. Instead it proposed what Essebsi described as a "synthesis" between those advocating continuity and those fighting for a clean break with the old regime : a High Authority for the Achievement of the Goals of the Revolution, Political Reform and the Transition to Democracy, whose 155 members are nominated from below and approved by the state (hence the union leader’s statement that the government won’t let the Islamics take over). This body is to prepare for elections to a Constitutional Assembly, which in turn would write a new constitution and hold new parliamentary and presidential elections. Originally scheduled for 24 July, now it seems that these elections may be delayed until November.

This body has been joined by most (but not all) of the organizations that took part in toppling Ben Ali and some that did not, such as Ennahda (The Renaissance), a newly-revived Islamic party that says its aim is not an Islamic regime but what some people call "Islam lite" modelled after the governing AKP party in Turkey. Ennahda defends its failure to participate in the revolt as a tactic to avoid allowing Ben Ali to discredit the movement against him, but many people think it hoped for an accommodation with the regime. Considered the largest party now, it is among the most loyal supporters of the present government and consistently praises the armed forces.

These measures taken in the name of democracy have significantly lessened the participation of the broad masses in the political process. Many people feel that things are being decided behind closed doors in cynical negotiations between representatives of what they see as hard-to-define "interests" who don’t care what ordinary people think or want or need. Yet at the same time there is a still a tug of war between the regime’s efforts to stabilize and the continuing dissatisfaction.

One of the most important of these tests of strength took place in May, when a recently-fired Interior Minister told a TV interviewer that he had been prevented from getting rid of former regime figures in the security services. He also said that the president and the head of the armed forces had discussed launching a military coup if they didn’t like the results of the Constituent Assembly elections. This swelled the ranks of the Friday march to the Interior Ministry on 6 May. Protesters chanted, "The people want a new revolution !" The police not only attacked it with special savagery, they rampaged throughout the city centre and into adjoining lower class neighbourhoods. They also hunted down and beat journalists, chasing some into the offices of a regime mouthpiece newspaper.

There are constant strikes (hence the restaurant owner’s complaints) and mini-"Clear out !" movements aimed at getting rid of petty tyrants linked to the old regime in schools, offices, hospitals and all sorts of institutions. But some activists now feel a discouraging sense of drift, a feeling that they don’t know where things or headed or exactly what to do about it. They also understand that "stabilization" doesn’t necessarily mean that things would stay the way they are right now. Facebook, Twitter and mobiles (cellphones) helped make the revolt possible, but their electronic records also mean that if the forces of repression regain the initiative, they would know who to round up and punish.

Who defines the goals of "the revolution" ?

Despite its name, most of what the High Authority is supposed to decide is not related to "the Goals of the Revolution", in the sense of the yearnings that drove people forward. It is true that the electoral code grossly favoured the ruling party (which never, however, skipped an election), and that the formulation of a new code and related matters will have consequences. But it’s like an interminable squabble over the rules for a discussion to avoid discussing the basic issues and hide the fact that they are already being decided.

Whether in the High Authority or elsewhere, there is little debate over the big questions that the country faces, issues that made themselves felt, even though not clearly understood : How is Tunisia going to recover its national dignity and become the truly independent country that more than half a century of political independence from France has not yet brought about ? How is it going to overcome the yawning regional disparities ? How will it have the kind of development that can provide not only jobs but the dignity of fulfilling lives to everyone ? How are the workers ever going to be anything but slaves ? How are people in the countryside going to be rescued from their living tombs and freed to become a long-term force for social transformation ? Are women’s aspirations for equality going to bring them more fully into the movement for social change, or are these aspirations going to become a target ? How can the education of so many youth become a force for that kind of transformation and not a cruel joke on them and their parents ? What kind of social and moral values and what kind of world outlook will prevail ?

Again, the question of "Who will lead" is not just an abstraction. Two visions are competing for the people’s loyalty, and neither is good.

Which do you want : the French or the Iranian model ?

Many people, including religious people, are terrified by the prospect of a fundamentalist takeover. This danger is far from a fantasy. In April, a man yelling "Allahu Akbar" swung an iron bar at the head of one of Tunisia’s most famous film directors, Nouri Bouzid, as he chatted with a student at a university. His 1992 film Bezness (the title combines French slang for sex and the English word "business"), about a prostitute who sells himself to tourists but insists on male domination in the family in the name of "honour", brought out the side of Tunisian society many people would rather not see. Other Tunisian artists and intellectuals took this as more of a warning than an isolated incident. In May Nadia El-Fani was threatened with death because of her new film Neither Master nor Allah.

In the 1990s, the Tunisian Islamic movement, led by Ennahda and the man who still leads it today, Rachid Ghannouchi (no relationship to Ghannouchi the prime minister), allied with fundamentalists in neighbouring Algeria in an attempt to foment and actually carry out an armed takeover in Tunisia.

It would be hard to exaggerate how traumatic that period was for Algeria, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab countries. The Algerian military canceled elections after an Islamic party won the first round. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in a convoluted civil war between the military and two rival Islamic trends. Who was killing whom became hard to determine and ultimately not the most important question. All sides massacred whole villages and urban neighbourhoods. Intellectuals and artists were murdered in such numbers that many fled the country.

In Tunisia, Ben Ali succeeded in crushing Ennahda by means of arrests, torture and imprisonment on a vast scale. He also used this as an excuse to crush all dissent for the next two decades. But the Islamics bore the brunt of the most violent repression.

Ennahda reemerged as a major force almost as soon as Ben Ali fell and its leaders returned from exile in the UK and France. There is constant debate about whether it has abandoned its goal of religious rule. It has strength among the lower and middle classes, from factory workers to shopkeepers and especially lawyers,who are divided between secular and religious tendencies. Meanwhile, a Salafist movement has also sprung up overnight. (Salafists are Sunnis who advocate a return to Islam as they believe it was practised in the early days.) Hizb al-Tahrir (The Party of Liberation) calls for an Islamic caliphate and the abolition of political freedoms. It has been able to recruit many youth, apparently from among the poor, and they go around looking for fights. The situation on the streets is complicated. Often, when "immodest" women and girls are treated as fair game, people say they aren’t sure who is doing it.

It can’t be ruled out that Ghannouchi sincerely has become a "revisionist Islamic", as some people call him, and would like to follow the path of the Turkish "Islam lite" AKP in becoming part of a pro-US, modernizing government. In a recent major report on Tunisia, the International Crisis Group, run by the cream of European and American diplomacy and government-friendly think tanks, is unashamedly enthusiastic about Ennahda. But it would be wrong not to recognize the contradictoriness and fluidity of the situation. Once religion has been accepted as the ground of legitimacy and truth, then "indulgent" religiosity can find itself at a disadvantage in relation to fundamentalism.

Bob Avakian has introduced the concept of the "two outmodeds" : "Jihad on the one hand and McWorld/McCrusade on the other", "historically outmoded strata among colonized and oppressed humanity up against historically outmoded ruling strata of the imperialist system." While "it is the historically outmoded ruling strata of the imperialist system" that "poses the greater threat to humanity", "if you side with either of these ’outmodeds’, you end up strengthening them both." (Bringing Forward Another Way) In Tunisia, it’s not that one side stands up and proclaims itself in favour of imperialist domination and the other opposes everything modern. But still, this quote accurately describes a trap that most people are falling into.

When pressed about their hopes for Tunisia, many activists and intellectuals as well as people from the lower classes answer that they want it to become like France, a stable parliamentary multi-party democracy with a social safety net. Many Tunisians have lived the harsh lives of immigrant workers, and they don’t think Europe is heaven. It’s just hard for people to conceive that anything better is possible, especially in today’s world, where even most of the Tunisian left has not really analysed the historical experience of the communist-led revolutions, and instead accepts the dominant thinking that radical change has proved futile. Further, while many ordinary people do have some sense that France could not be the way it is without the superexploitation of countries like Tunisia, they don’t have enough of a scientific understanding that the "French" model is actually impossible in Tunisia, again largely because they don’t see any alternative.

In turn, this posing of Tunisia’s possible future in terms of the French model or Islamic fundamentalist rule (what people not so scarred by the Algerian experience would call the Iranian model) provides more favourable grounds for Islamicism – and vice versa.

This is a society modern enough to have as many girl students as boys but where not only is there more than twice as much illiteracy among women than men in general, but even among today’s generation there are twice as many unemployed female university graduates as male. Secularist Tunisians are right when they point out that Tunisia’s 1959 constitution was more advanced than France at that time in terms of women’s rights, but it also makes serious concessions to Islam on this subject (women only inherit half as much as men and have less rights in other family matters). At any rate, the example of France should tell us something : women there are equal in legal terms but it is still a thoroughly male supremacist, patriarchal society, as the recent wave of support for the accused rapist IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn should make obvious, since the argument is not that he is innocent but that rape isn’t important. Male supremacist religion and patriarchal elements are still very powerful in Tunisia, reflecting the hold of reactionary traditions, beliefs and practices among the people, and the Islamics can gain an advantage by openly appealing to male supremacy rather than trying to cover it up.

Some people contend that a more radical stand against the "French model’ and the "Iranian model" would cut off political activists from the broad masses and especially the lower strata, but in fact fuzzy and wrong thinking on these questions is a major obstacle to being able to connect in a sustained way with those who have nothing to lose and unite these masses, better-off strata, the intelligentsia and others.

Further, clarity on these questions is the only way to provide a scientific understanding that can deal with a major source of depression among ordinary people and activists alike right now : when they look at the Tunisian regime, the army and the Islamics, and think about Algeria and the civil war between the French- (and American-) backed Algerian military and the Islamic fundamentalists there, many people feel that the question now is not whether things can get better but whether or not, one way or another, they are about to get much worse.

V. Now what ?

Political liberty – freedom of expression, protest, the press and so on – is not just for the educated middle classes. In fact, as can be seen in the concrete development of the revolt as people seized these rights through their own struggle and sacrifice, ordinary Tunisians have spoken up fearlessly, defied authority and produced a more profound and society-wide social questioning and ferment than seen since the 1960s in most "advanced" countries where such rights are enshrined in law. This is necessary for people to become fully alive and for real social change to take place.

But what to tell those whose lives will continue to be miserable ? Now that some relatively better-off people have gotten some of what they want, the "revolution" is over ?

The unspoken assumption behind the political arrangements now being put into place is that life – Tunisia’s relationship with the rest of the world and the economic and social relationships between Tunisians (the various classes, men and women, the regions) – is going to be like before, only a little better because now they have political rights and parliamentary democracy.

Whether or not people are fully aware of it, what they are rebelling against in Tunisia and throughout the Arab countries (and elsewhere in the third world) is the way imperialism dominates the organization of their economies and shapes their societies as a whole on that basis, and the political regimes that enforce that domination.

Tunisia is not necessarily doomed to the rule of an autocrat or a military junta, but it’s no accident that naked dictatorship has been so common throughout the third world, geographically and historically. (Latin America, sometimes held up as proof that those days are over, has actually known alternating periods of "democratic openings" and military clampdowns for the last century.)

They may have elections and constitutional rights (as opposed to arbitrary rule of the Ben Ali or other varieties), but these things tend to get restricted, when not just cut off. The local foreign-dependent ruling classes are smaller and weaker than the ruling classes in the imperialist countries, the middle classes are smaller and even less stable, the conditions of life more often impel people to rebel, and lopsided regional development often make centralized rule difficult. Persisting feudal and other pre-capitalist exploitative relations often facilitate imperialist domination, and the classes and forces that represent these relations are also bitter enemies of the people’s basic interests.

Most fundamentally, no matter what the system of government, the ruling classes of such countries are representatives of the imperialist relations, and the right of self-determination and the equality of nations is never on the agenda. It is not just that they are subservient to imperialism politically, although it is true that imperialist machinations and interventions play a major role in bringing governments into office and taking them out again. As long as their economies are organized according to the laws of capitalism, especially the pursuit of the highest rate of profit, in a world where the competing monopoly capital formations rooted in a handful of countries dominate the rest, or in other words, as long as they are dependent on the imperialist world market, they must bow to the interests and dictates of Paris, New York, London, Berlin, Rome, etc. This is the only logic capitalists and other exploiting classes can follow.

A development that would meet the needs of the people would require a whole different political system, one whose purpose was to free the people and the nation from the domination of imperialism and the Tunisian capitalists and other exploiters reliant on them, not seeing development as a goal in itself, which would simply open the door to old or new exploiters, but as part of a process leading toward the abolition of forms of exploitation and oppression and the overcoming of all inequalities on a world scale. As part of this, there would also have to be a process of breaking with prevailing oppressive social relations, customs and thinking, both those imposed by imperialism and those traditionally embedded in Tunisian society.

Tunisians are right to want to be able to express themselves, organize themselves, and enjoy other liberties, to be free of arbitrary rule, to recover individual and national dignity and take their country back. But they can’t be free unless they understand that the word "freedom" is meaningless and deceitful unless they ask themselves : freedom for whom, for which class ? Freedom for the imperialists and their local allies ? Or freedom from them for the people, freedom to have a decisive role in determining the direction of society and join with people worldwide to free humanity ?

These questions, even in the most immediate forms of why Tunisia and Tunisians suffer like they do and what can be done about it, are not being thought about deeply enough and debated in Tunisia right now. Instead, too many people are caught up in what seems possible at any given moment, even when they know or suspect that there is no way out for Tunisia unless it breaks the bonds of politics as it is now practised and people start figuring out how to make possible a real revolution.

In a word, the future of the revolt in Tunisia has not been settled. Today’s "democratic opening" can favour the training and preparation of the people for revolution ; but it can also disorient and lull them, leading to the loss of the revolt’s great gains : their political awakening, their widespread and acted-upon determination for some kind of radical change without which such change is impossible, and the political initiative they have seized out of the hands of their oppressors.

The point is to see the situation in Tunisia not just as it is, but as it could become. Some activists close their eyes and hope that history will always do the right thing, while others are prone to bouts of dark thoughts. Many are afflicted by both. The important thing is not to pluck up one’s courage but to see how what the masses of people have done has created a very favourable situation for the revolutionary work that has to be done.

No one can predict how long this situation will last. Nor can anyone predict how the regional and world volatility that Tunisians have helped bring about might react back on Tunisia.

So far the Tunisian people have accomplished amazing things on their own initiative. But they are facing obstacles that they can either overcome or be defeated by. The question is who will lead the people now – one or another sort of reactionaries who seek to drag the people backward, or comrades who break with reformist politics, seize the possibility of training themselves and many others in the most advanced understanding of the science of communism amidst the upheaval and confusion, and forge a revolutionary strategy.

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