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Tunisia, Egypt, and Beyond: Interview with Aijaz Ahmad


Aijaz Ahmad: The dictatorship is gone but the regime is still there [in Tunisia], tottering, hopefully on its last legs.  This is the last card that the old regime is playing, which is trying to keep the government under the control of the RCD, the ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally.  Actually most of the organized forces had accepted this formula.  There are different kinds of arguments being put forth by the opposition parties which have joined the government, the biggest one being that the most important thing to do right now is to restore stability, law and order, ensure fresh elections, and have a competent government.  One of the leaders of the opposition said that because of the dictatorship, because of the kind of political setup Tunisia has always had, all the competent people are in the ruling party, therefore we cannot break with the ruling party — all the people who can actually run the government are there. . . .

About the protest, let me say that Tunisia has had a recent history of protests, repeated ones, the last one was in 2008. . . .  The pattern of protests in Tunisia has been that they were mostly in the South and in the coastal regions, the poorer regions of Tunisia.  This time, for the first time, they came into Tunis.  They did not start in the capital.  They started in the historic homelands of protests.  But they came into Tunis.  That’s where it became a mass protest.  Otherwise, these were congregations of 300 people here, 500 people there, and so on.  So, that is what is new: that the city has risen.  Who has risen in the city?  To start with, professional classes, educated and employed.  Tunisia is a highly educated society, much more educated than any other Arab country, with a very fine education system.  So, it’s a very sophisticated educated class.  And yet, unemployment is running at about 25% or something for college graduates.  They were in the streets.  Professionals were in the streets.  Lawyers.  If you want to identify the main players in this, the organized ones, these are the union UGTT and lawyers including the bar association.  There was a general strike of the Tunisian Bar Association.  Some 95% of the lawyers came out in the streets, and in fact they threw in their lot with the protesters very early.  So, it was an uprising of the educated, professional classes.  The working class en masse came in much later, but now they are the ones who are dominating the protests, because in the professional classes there is a division now.  A part of the professional classes are saying: Well, look, stability is very important, so long as we get elections in sixty days or something, etc.  The other part of the professional classes are not.

The question that you were posing about the Left and Islamists: Tunisia has had a very, very powerful trade union movement that has always been the heart of the Left.  It has been much more advanced than left-wing political parties.  It was, in its heydays in the sixties and seventies, one of the world’s great trade union movements.  Very closely aligned, during that history, with the French CGT and so on.  That institution is not, now, what it used to be in the seventies and eighties, but that is one civil institution that exists — and exists to a very considerable degree — and is a significant institution in Tunisian society.  There was a very strong left movement, not a very strong communist party. . . .  By and large the Tunisian intelligentsia tends to be left of center, secular left of center, very much like the French Socialist Party, without imperial problems of the French Socialist Party.  So, it’s an enlightened, secular, very well-educated left-of-center intelligentsia.  It has had no organizational form recently.  It has had a very strong cultural intelligentsia in film and literature and things like that.  That is what the Left is — the trade union movement plus this.  All its organizational forms were suppressed and coopted by the Neo Destour, which was Bourguiba’s party and which transformed itself into the RCD.  But, in its fragmented form or whatever form, that Left exists.  Some of it has become a very high-profile human rights-oriented secular intelligentsia — some of the high-profile people are people who used to be very much on the Left, who still have left leanings, but who are now much more into the democratic movement, human rights. . . .  Tunisia is a country where, in both houses of parliament, there are 20% or more women.  It’s socially a very progressive society. . . .  There was an organized Islamist movement, and one of the few achievements of President Ben Ali, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who just left was to suppress that very successfully. . . .  Now, they will come back.  There is a political vacuum, in which all these forces will contend.  And other than the UGTT, the union, none of them had a powerful organizational form in recent years.  So, there’s going to be a free-for-all among these. . . .  The army and the UGTT are the only stable institutions.  The third one is the RCD, which is about to collapse.  Committees are arising across Tunisia, but things moved so fast that they have not had the time to gel — you know, neighborhood committees and various sorts of committees, which could become nucleus centers.  What would have been best for Tunisia, which I’m not really sure can happen, is for another force to emerge, which becomes a transitional force, some form of transitional assembly, which may include these other people, including parts of the RCD, but which then is dominated by this other kind of force, which then creates a constitutional assembly, which then holds the next elections, and so on — that’s the only guarantee that there will be free and fair elections and RCD types won’t come back.  Now, whether that would happen or not, we don’t know — things are moving very fast. . . .

We talked about political players in Tunisia today.  There is a world food crisis.  This is the first, most successful food protest in the world, at one level, and the result is that all the regimes feel threatened: Libya, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Syria have immediately allocated huge amounts of funds to bring down food prices, to bring down fuel prices, to subsidize heating oil, and so on and so forth. . . .  There are a lot of things we could learn from.  This [India] is a country in which 200,000 peasants have committed suicides and nothing has happened; seven suicides in the Arab world on this issue, and the whole region is up in turmoil. . . .

Secondly, neoliberalism — what has completely disorganized the economy in Tunisia.  It has sustained 5% growth for 20 years.  Now, 5% sustained growth over 20 years is not bad growth, in a non-oil-producing Arab country.  It has the highest per capita income in Africa.  What happened is . . .  IMF-mandated privatization, which was very welcomed by the dictatorship, and their free trade agreements with Europe — all that privatization is what made it possible for the president and his wife Leila to grab the great heights of the Tunisian economy.  It was denationalized, privatized, and all came into the hands of these two families, so that one of the WikiLeaks cables from the Tunis embassy says that 50% of the national economy is either owned or controlled by these two families. . . .  So, in that sense you can also say that this is an uprising against the consequences of that privatization.  It is a consequence of free trade agreements.  It is partly a consequence of the European financial crisis.  Over the last two years, Tunisian exports failed, foreign direct investment came down, the tourism industry, which is one of their main foreign exchange earners, came down.  Europe transported its crisis into Tunisia.  Now all of these things are happening in those other countries [in the region] also and not only in those countries — Africa and West Asia certainly, but also in many other countries. . . .

The IMF, the World Bank, US aid agencies — they all have extensive documents — all are predicting that, in the year 2011, there are going to be worldwide food uprisings. . . .  Now this is the general background to what’s happening in Tunisia and what may or may not happen in other countries. . . .  Tunisia has a much higher standard of living than Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, or Syria, where the impact has been felt immediately.  There have been extensive food riots in Algeria, there have been food riots in Jordan. . . .  Will they lead to a Tunisian-style uprising?  I don’t know. . . .

My sense is that transition is coming, certainly, I believe, in Egypt. . . .  Unfortunately, the only political force that is really truly well organized in Egypt is Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood.  I don’t believe it commands anywhere near the majority, but there’s no other really organized force.  Other than that, what you have is these so-called civil society organizations and so on, which are not really politically organized forces to step into that breach.  There will be a democratic opening, and the events in Tunisia certainly undermine the dictatorship’s confidence in being able to control all that. . . .

My sense is that there is a very good chance, a very good chance, that in Tunisia something very progressive, left-of-center, enlightened will arise and it will undo a great many tendencies in the Arab world.  The Nasserist revolution, which was the best of those revolutions made by the military officers in the Arab world, one of its great failings was that it broke with the democratic, enlightened trajectory of Arab modernism . . . and clamped down an authoritarian regime.  It was a revolution in the sense that it overthrew a feudal system, it overthrew a monarchy.  The middle classes and working classes actually gained from that revolution.  It was a revolution.  But it broke from that progressive, modernizing Arab trajectory, and that trajectory stopped after that. . . .  Now, Tunisia is a very small country, but Tunisia can pick up from there: a modern, enlightened, progressive state based on the kind of social modernization and educational modernization that has taken place there.  And that is a contribution certainly of left movements from below, working-class movements, but also some kind of progressive, enlightened social liberalism of the Bourguiba regime.


Aijaz Ahmad is a Marxist critic.  The above videos were released by NewsClick on 21 and 27 January 2011.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview.




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