'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tunisia (Part 2) 

Esam Al-Amin summarizes the events that brought down the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia:

On December 17, Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed graduate in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire in an attempt to commit suicide. Earlier in the day, police officers took away his stand and confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling because he lacked a permit. When he tried to complain to government officials that he was unemployed and that this was his only means of survival, he was mocked, insulted and beaten by the police. He died 19 days later in the midst of the uprising.

Bouazizi's act of desperation set off the public's boiling frustration over living standards, corruption and lack of political freedom and human rights. For the next four weeks, his self-immolation sparked demonstrations in which protesters burned tires and chanted slogans demanding jobs and freedom. Protests soon spread all over the country including its capital, Tunis.

The first reaction by the regime was to clamp down and use brutal force including beatings, tear gas, and live ammunition. The more ruthless tactics the security forces employed, the more people got angry and took to the streets. On Dec. 28 the president gave his first speech claiming that the protests were organized by a minority of extremists and terrorists and that the law would be applied in all firmness to punish protesters.

However, by the start of the New Year tens of thousands of people, joined by labor unions, students, lawyers, professional syndicates, and other opposition groups, were demonstrating in over a dozen cities. By the end of the week, labor unions called for commercial strikes across the country, while 8,000 lawyers went on strike, bringing the entire judiciary system to an immediate halt.

Meanwhile, the regime started cracking down on bloggers, journalists, artists and political activists. It restricted all means of dissent, including social media. But following nearly 80 deaths by the security forces, the regime started to back down.

On Jan. 13, Ben Ali gave his third televised address, dismissing his interior minister and announcing unprecedented concessions while vowing not to seek re-election in 2014. He also pledged to introduce more freedoms into society, and to investigate the killings of protesters during the demonstrations. When this move only emboldened the protestors, he then addressed his people in desperation, promising fresh legislative elections within six months in an attempt to quell mass dissent.

When this ploy also did not work, he imposed a state of emergency, dismissing the entire cabinet and promising to deploy the army on a shoot to kill order. However, as the head of the army Gen. Rachid Ben Ammar refused to order his troops to kill the demonstrators in the streets, Ben Ali found no alternative but to flee the country and the rage of his people.

On Jan. 14 his entourage flew in four choppers to the Mediterranean island of Malta. When Malta refused to accept them, he boarded a plane heading to France. While in mid air he was told by the French that he would be denied entry. The plane then turned back to the gulf region until he was finally admitted and welcomed by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime has a long history of accepting despots including Idi Amin of Uganda and Parvez Musharraf of Pakistan.

Al-Amin also exhaustively documents the complicity of the US and European governments, so it is worth reading his article in its entirety. The French were so supportive of Ben Ali that the foreign minister of the Sarkozy government, Michele Alliot-Marie, offered the assistance of French security forces to put down the rebellion. Meanwhile, President Obama avoided any substantive comment on the situation until the outcome was decided. Or, as As'ad Abukhalil ascerbically said:

The funny announcement by Obama yesterday has clear conclusions: the US administration is thus officially in support of its dictators around the world until the time when they are overthrown. So Obama continued to support the Tunisian dictator until the time when he left the country.

Apparently, the US wasn't that concerned with the fact that the Ben Ali regime had killed between 150 to 200 people since the uprising began on December 17th. Perhaps, it was because the US considered the Ben Ali regime an important ally in the war on terror:

The Tunisian Government is an important ally for the U.S. in its resource-driven colonial wars with Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. A United Nations report on secret detention practices lists Tunisia as having secret detention facilities where prisoners are held without International Red Cross access. Intelligence services in Tunisia cooperated with the U.S. efforts in the War on Terror and have participated in interrogating prisoners at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan and in Tunisia.

And, then, there is the disappointment that the US may lose the ability to continue to persuade future Tunisian governments to impose policies of austerity as Ben Ali did:

. . . Tunisia -- more than almost any country in the region -- has followed the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting structural adjustment programs in privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of free trade. These policies have increased rather than decreased unemployment while enriching relatives and cronies of the country's top ruling families. This has been privately acknowledged by the U.S. embassy in a recently-released wikileaks cable, which labeled the U.S.-backed regime as a kleptocracy. The U.S. has also been backing IMF efforts to get the Tunisian government to eliminate the remaining subsidies on fuel and basic food stuffs and fuel and further deregulate its financial sector.

Predictably, the meticulous lenin provides us with the factual and analytical details of this embrace of neoliberalism by Ben Ali:

Globally, the dictatorship aligned itself with neoliberal institutions, acceding to GATT, then joining the WTO. Throughout the 2000s, it forged a closer relationship with the EU, under an agreement removing all tariffs and restrictions on goods between the two. France and Italy have been its main export and import partners in this period. Given his zeal in prosecuting the war against terrorism throughout the 1990s, which mission he took to the UN and the EU, Ben Ali was an obvious candidate to be a regional ally in the Bush administration's programme for reconfiguring the Middle East in America's (further) interests in the context of the war on terror. Ben Ali thus joined Team America, alongside other lifelong democrats such as Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah.

The results of Ben Ali's authoritarian neoliberalism for capital were impressive in their way: GDP on a par with the European periphery, low public-sector deficit, controlled inflation and renewed credit-worthiness. The financial sector was reformed and initially experienced a mini-boom. Significant sections of the public sector were turned over for profitable investment. A total of 160 state owned enterprises have been privatised. The stock market capitalisation of the 50 largest companies listed on the Bourse de Tunis was worth $5.7bn by 2007. Ben Ali's famously, corruptly wealthy family also made a mint from the boom. He himself became a darling of the EU and the US, conferring global prestige on his regime. The cost of all this to the working class, though concealed in some of the official figures, was just as significant. High unemployment, growing inequality, the removal of subsidies for the poor, rising housing costs and weaker welfare protections are among the added burdens of the Tunisian working class in the neoliberal era.

This does not mean that the average working class person has experienced an absolute decline in income throughout this period. In fact, the development of the cities has meant more people moving from the poorer rural areas to cities and towns where absolute poverty is less common. What it means is that wage growth has been suppressed by the government, and made conditional upon productivity rises. In the private sector, liberalisation means that the discipline of the market has been used to extract higher productivity from the workforce. The total effect is that more of the wealth that has been generated has gone into the pockets of the very rich. In simple terms, it means that the rate of exploitation has been increased. For as long as the political opposition was effectively suppressed, and for as long as the trade union movement was effectively subjugated, the old order could continue. But that in turn depended on the regime's ability to boast that it was creating a wealthier economy that would eventually benefit everyone. That is, the viability of the regime rested on the viability of neoliberal institutions, both domestically and globally - and that is exactly what has taken a knock.

lenin's exposition is enlightening because of his recognition that the so-called war on terror and the imposition of neoliberal economic policies are interrelated aspects of the same social process. It is difficult for one to exist in the absence of the other, as the invasion and occupation of Iraq demonstrated. Without the invasion, there would have been no subsequent attempt to incorporate the Iraqi economy into the neoliberal order. Meanwhile, elite support for the invasion was dependent upon this opportunity to privatize a heavily socialized economy.

Hence, the Ben Ali regime comes across as one that recalls Pinochet's Chile, one that actively participated in the repression of people considered enemies of the US, while serving as an economic laboratory for policies that the US would like to see imposed globally. Much as Pinochet proselytized against the leftist peril that he reduced to communism, prefiguring the rise of Reagan and Thatcher, Ben Ali was an anti-terrorism missionary, preaching his gospel prior to the creation of the Project for a New American Century and 9/11.

Indeed, the parallels between Operation Condor, a sort of Phoenix Program brought to the southern cone of South America by Pinochet and his regional allies in the 1970s, and the current war on terror are striking:

Operation Condor (Spanish: Operación Cóndor, also known as Plan Cóndor, Portuguese: Operação Condor), was a campaign of political repression involving assassination and intelligence operations officially implemented in 1975 by the right-wing dictatorships of the Southern Cone of South America. The program aimed to eradicate alleged socialist and communist influence and ideas and to control active or potential opposition movements against the participating governments. Due to its clandestine nature, the precise number of deaths directly attributable to Operation Condor is highly disputed. It is estimated that a minimum of 60,000 deaths can be attributed to Condor, possibly more. Condor's key members were the governments in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. The United States participated in a supervisory capacity, with Ecuador and Peru joining later in more peripheral roles.

So, like a mistress attending the funeral of her married lover, US officials present a public appearance of stoicism while privately shedding tears of sorrow for the passing of the Ben Ali regime. We can only hope that the rebellion succeeds in eradicating whatever the residual power of his supporters so that the archives of the military and interior ministry can be opened to scrutiny in order to discover what horrors US and Tunisia intelligence perpetrated. Given the military's astute decision to act against Ben Ali's supporters in the security forces, as described by Al-Amin, it remains doubtful that this will happen.

FOOTNOTE: lenin has also written several other excellent posts about the Tunisian situation, which can be found here and here and here. In the last one, he ponders the peril that the revolution may pose for other US allies in the region:

But if, as seems increasingly possible, the revolt spreads and takes down some other pro-American regimes in Egypt, Jordan or Algeria, then Obama has problems. One can well imagine him, despite his ongoing commitment to aggression in Afghanistan and Pakistan, going down as a Carter-style weakling if a few US embassies in the region start to look vulnerable. Which is why I would expect some sort of panicked intervention by the US and its local proxies to be going on even as you read.

If only someone in one these embassies would get in contact with wikileaks. Just imagine the valuable service that it could provide by releasing sensitive diplomatic cables related to US actions in Tunisia in close to real time.

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