All the Arab world, and perhaps the wider world as well, is amazed at the recent news that the Tunisian people have risen up and overthrown their dictator of many years, Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali. Ben Ali, who was known for holding ‘elections’ in which he invariably won with at least 90% of the vote, had ruled for about 24 years without interruption or meaningful opposition. During his reign, Tunisia underwent a period of steady economic growth and an influx of foreign tourism, while domestic opposition both of the left and of the reactionary kind was easily kept in check by Ben Ali’s security apparatus. Tunisia as a result was never known as a country with much serious chance of undergoing revolt, let alone revolution; it was praised by the hypocrites in the West as a fount of ‘stability’, that Holy Grail of Western policy, by which they mean the persistence of tyranny. But as Mao said, all reactionaries when it comes to it are paper tigers, and are easily blown away by the wind, no matter how strong they may look from the outside. This month in 2011 therefore marks the important date of being the first time in history that direct street protests and revolt managed to overthrow, and overthrow quickly and efficiently, an Arab dictator.
Of course, such a revolution never comes entirely out of nowhere. The immediate reasons for revolt are of two kinds. One is the rising unemployment in Tunisia, which had suffered gravely in the current global crisis and whose people, educated or not, have little prospect for the future; in that regard, the street revolt is similar to those seen in the banlieues of Paris, for example. On the other hand, there is the effect of the global crisis more generally and the effects of the shift of global economic emphasis back to the great powers of the East, as well as the results of climate change. These all combine to greatly increase the costs of food, which hits the vast majority of poor in the world especially hard, causing great political unrest and revolutionary potential throughout the world. In that sense, the events in Tunisia and the ouster of Ben Ali are just one link in a chain of political mobilization over the class effects of the current crisis. Both the small, but increasing urban proletariats of the Third World and their petty bourgeoisie faced with competition from abroad in times of crisis are severely negatively affected by the current economic constellation, and even if a certain shift in emphasis from Europe and the United States to China holds, this will offer little relief for the large section of the world’s population that falls into these categories. What makes the case of the Tunisian revolt so interesting is therefore that unlike many rebellions in these parts of the world in the past, this is a revolt directly based on the political opposition of an essentially urban population, which gives it potentially a more revolutionary and progressive coloring than the usual rebellions from neglected areas of the countryside. Here we see therefore the political meaning of the fact that for the first time in the history of mankind, the majority of its constituent members live in urban areas, even if this is loosely defined.
Since Ben Ali was considered one of the least threatened and most competent of the various petty tyrants that rule the Arab world, both the fact of his overthrow and the ease with which it was done will have a very positive reverberating effect on the rest of the region. As one Egyptian commentator wrote, “Every Arab leader is watching Tunisia in fear….every Arab citizen is watching Tunisia in hope and solidarity”. The ouster of Ben Ali is therefore not just a positive note for and by the Tunisian people, but also strengthens progressive tendencies within the Arab peoples altogether. There is much revolutionary potential there, provided the left can establish itself again as a real power and overcome its negative mirror image, the face of ‘revolutionary Islam’. Aside from the mere fact of ending the theft, corruption and oppression of Ben Ali and his clique as such, the wider ramifications of his defeat are to be apprehended by socialists everywhere with enthousiasm.