George Joffe gave a fascinating talk yesterday about the Tunisian revolt, drawing on the historical development of the Tunisian state, and in particular the primary role in that development played by the ruling RCD, to explain why the uprising took the form that it did, and why – he thinks – it is unlikely to truly displace the regime in the short-term. I took notes, which I’ll reproduce here for the benefit of those who couldn’t make it there in person.
The background to the revolt were weeks of protests about rises in food prices, a global phenomenon. Food inflation has a disproportionate effect on those near or below the poverty line, and such people account for around a quarter of Tunisia’s population. Then on December 17 Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze when his wheelbarrow was confiscated on the grounds that he didn’t have a "license" (a pretext – the Tunisian state doesn’t issue such licenses – for extortion). In doing so he became a popular "symbol of a series of accumulated resentments" – protests were organised in solidarity, and they quickly spread.
How did they spread so quickly and so effectively? The puzzle stems from the fact Tunisia has no active civil society. It has human rights groups, but no tradition of political organisation outside the formal sphere. According to Joffe the precise mechanisms by which the unrest spread remain unclear; what is clear is the major organising role played by the trade union federation, the UGTT, which staged rolling strikes around the country. The UGTT has traditionally been an adjunct to and so under the control of the regime. It has long strained against the constraints imposed on it by the government, which undermined its effectiveness in advocating for labour. The regime has repeatedly brought it to heel by forcibly changing its leadership, but from its role in orchestrating the uprising, Joffe concludes that the union has finally broken away.
The wave of strikes was initially dismissed by the authorities as the work of ‘foreign agents’. The regime’s confidence was understandable, given the absence of an active civil society, but it proved misplaced. The crisis escalated, reaching the capital in January. Belatedly the regime realised it had a genuine popular uprising on its hands. On January 14 Ben Ali gave a confused speech in which he announced that he would not stand for re-election in 2014. After that he fled, eventually settling in Saudi Arabia.
Ben Ali’s escape initiated a new phase of "internal coups" – three, by Joffe’s count. First, immediately after Ben Ali left the Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, one of Ben Ali’s "henchmen" who has now quit the RCD, attempted to take his place on the basis of a constitutional provision. Within hours he was forced out and replaced by Fouad Mebazaa, the chair of parliament and leading figure within the RCD (who has also now left the party), on the basis of a different constitutional principle. At this point those closest to the former President – the security forces and the presidential guard – started looting and committing wanton violence in an effort to create sufficient chaos to enable Ben Ali to return and restore order. According to one report when it became clear that Ben Ali would have to flee, the head of the presidential guard – now under arrest – told him that maybe he would have to go, but Tunisia would have to burn. The security forces’ campaign of terror failed, when the army – which traditionally refuses to involve itself in political matters – intervened to restore order.
All of which brings us up to the present, and amounts to, according to Joffe, "the end of the beginning" of profound political change.
The forms the uprising took, and the manner in which the state responded, needs to be explained. In particular:
- the popular demonstrations and even the riots were characterised by a high degree of "civility", with barely any violence (except on the part of the regime’s security apparatus)
- despite being the most significant opposition force in the region, political Islam played a marginal role in the development of the protests in Tunisia
- the army did not intervene to defend the regime, and didn’t try to seize power for itself
In answering these questions Joffe emphasised the central role of constitutionalism within the Tunisian political tradition. Tunisia was the first Arab state to acquire a constitution (the 1857 ‘Fundamental Pact’) and its importance has resonated ever since. Rebellions have justified themselves as an attempt to restore the original constitution, and its significance is even reflected in the ruling party’s name (Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique).
Independence from France was achieved by the Neo-Destour under Habib Bourguiba. Bourgiba was ideologically "moderate" and envisioned Tunisia as secular and orientated towards the West, but under his control. He constructed a "liberal autocracy" – that is, the regime encouraged economic and social liberalisation along with political autocracy. Tunisians were to be highly educated and enjoy relatively advanced social rights (e.g. women’s rights), but would lack political freedoms and any meaningful civil society. The existence of these social rights go a long way, according to Joffe, towards explaining the ‘civility’ of the recent demonstrations. (He didn’t elaborate on this, which is a shame because the connection between the two is not obvious.)
The Bourguiba state was deeply hostile to political Islam, and this was to be his undoing. In the late ‘80s members of his own regime feared that his obsession with Islamism was damaging them, and so in 1987 his Prime Minister – Ben Ali – succeeded him in a ‘bloodless coup’ (again, the basis for the coup was constitutional – two doctors conveniently declared Bourguiba unfit to rule). Ben Ali oversaw a period of political liberalisation, but it was very brief. He permitted eight political parties to compete, but they were marginalised and had little popular support.
In 1991 and 1992 political Islam in Tunisia was dismantled through a legal process. Tunisian Islamists fled, mainly to Britain, where they continue to reside in Camden. This explains why Islamism played little or no role in the recent uprising. Islamist sentiment exists in Tunisia, but there was no institution or organisation to articulate and mobilise it.
What was striking about Ben Ali’s downfall was how quickly he was abandoned by the RCD. The reason for this is that, as with Bourguiba before him, powerful elements of the ruling class perceived Ben Ali as a liability and a threat to their interests. Over the past decade Ben Ali had become profoundly corrupt – half the private sector was controlled by elites directly linked to the ruling family. His wife – nicknamed ‘The Hairdresser’ after her previous job – was particularly despised for her extortion and exploitation. This corruption was not concealed, and it aroused the resentment of not only the masses but also elements of the economic elite. It also impeded foreign investment. In the face of a popular uprising, RCD elites chose to save the party over Ben Ali, who was made a scapegoat. The RCD can now claim that with the ‘bad elements’ of the party expelled, the ‘good elements’ can continue to govern.
And this is indeed what we’re seeing. All the key posts in the ‘new’ interim government remain in the hands of the old regime. The opposition has been given minor posts designed to lend the government a veneer of legitimacy, but there has been no real shift of power.
Joffe doesn’t think the regime will be overthrown in the near future, primarily because there is no other body in Tunisia that has the capacity to administer the country. As described above, from before the creation of the state the RCD has been the only organisation with the capability to run the country, and its services to population go beyond government provision. It is deeply embedded in the society, and not without popular support. Moreover, according to Joffe, the Tunisian population is not very politicised generally. It has a large ‘middle class’, which has some vested interest in the status quo, and has a tendency to accept limits on political liberty in exchange for the ‘quiet life’ (which was disrupted by corruption and poor economic management by the Ben Ali regime).
Joffe doesn’t see Islamism as developing into a potential alternative. Within Tunisia itself mainstream Islamism will be incorporated into the existing political system, Salafism is nonpolitical, and militant Islam has no tradition there. Previous attempts to construct a militant Islamist movement in Tunisia have failed – the 2002 attack on a synagogue was an isolated incident and was orchestrated from outside, and the attempt in 2008 to established an indigenous terror group was destroyed the security forces before it had managed to construct a single training camp. It is likely that Islamists will play a role in the future, but only as one tendency among many others, not as a dominating force.
The army isn’t in a position to take control either. It is very small – it has never seen military action abroad, and according to Joffe has only been used internally once (and even then it refused to fire on demonstrators). It intervened last week to prevent Ben Ali’s security forces terrorising the population, but there is little prospect of it seizing power for itself.
Joffe sees a stronger basis for opposition in the social democratic tradition, which has been a central force behind the uprising. The UGTT will likely articulate an autonomous social democratic position, though it won’t have the power to directly confront the regime. The elections, when they come, will be key. Joffe doesn’t think the regime will rig the results, presumably because everyone is expecting it and if it did the elections would have no legitimacy and thus lose their function. There is also likely to be high voter turnout. Tunisia has an active human rights sector, and a sizeable intelligentsia. If the UGTT and the two social democratic opposition parties, both of which are calling for the elections to be pushed back to six months from now, manage to use the interim period to organise effectively and develop convincing agendas, then the elections could produce real change.
The regime itself will likely introduce some liberal reforms, allowing more parties to compete and reducing restrictions on the press. It will try to create a new political environment that enjoys greater popular legitimacy without sacrificing RCD control. Its success will depend on whether the Tunisian people will accept, or at least tolerate, the continued rule of the regime, albeit with minor modifications. There are already indications the working class elements of the opposition, at least, will not. Protests have continued, and several opposition leaders have already resigned from the interim government. How this opposition develops will be key.
Tunisia as regional paradigm?
Joffe was sceptical about the possibility of the Tunisian uprising sparking a wave of popular revolt across the region (a scepticism shared by Juan Cole). Tunisia does share some common features with neighbouring states. But it also has many differences, the political culture and the strength of the regime among them. For instance, the Libyan state has no commitment to constitutionalism, and so will feel much freer in crushing popular demonstrations. An Egyptian minister recently commented that the idea that the Tunisian uprising will spread throughout the region, at any rate in the near future, is "ridiculous" – a sentiment with which Joffe agrees.
There have been demonstrations in other countries, including a wave of self-immolations. In Libya the regime has largely chosen not to intervene, choosing to let them burn out before reasserting control. Protests in Egypt over rising food prices and poor working conditions have been going on for years. But Egypt has seen huge popular demonstrations before in its history, and they were successfully crushed by the military. The Egyptian army continues to support the state, and Joffe doesn’t see it tolerating any significant popular attack on the regime. In Algeria the President has said nothing about the Tunisian crisis – or indeed made any public statement whatsoever for nine months. The elements for political change there exist, but the memory of the civil war looms large, and Joffe doesn’t think people will risk returning to a state of conflict by attempting to overthrow the regime. There will be riots, but no fundamental change.
The Jordanian state, however, is genuinely unstable, mostly because the King is incompetent and because of the peace treaty with Israel hanging around the regime’s neck. Demonstrations have occurred in five major towns over rising food prices, using slogans imported from Tunisia. In Jordan, then, there might be serious change in the near future.
If the Tunisian uprising did threaten to spread, it is not clear that external powers would tolerate it. France in particular has been supportive of the Tunisian regime since Mitterand, and Sarkozy has gone out of his way to praise Ben Ali as a "true democrat" (forced to deny Ben Ali refuge in Paris, he now looks very silly indeed). The French government has levers of control in Tunisia and the region, and it will not be a friend of the new regime.
The U.S. and the EU couldn’t care less about Tunisian democracy, but they do want regional ‘stability’ and they don’t like extensive corruption a la Ben Ali. The U.S. would not be too displeased if the uprising is confined to Tunisia; but were it to spread across the region the U.S. would likely intervene, overtly or covertly, on "security" grounds, probably through the EU.
Tunisia is also vulnerable to political interference from its neighbours. Libya has historically seen Tunisia as a potential hinterland, sponsoring an uprising against the government in 1980, and the Tunisian regime has traditionally relied on Algeria as its guarantor. Joffe thinks Algeria is unlikely to intervene in the current unrest, but Libya could well do so.
If the social democratic tendency within Tunisia does not successfully topple the regime, the basis for popular protest will remain. Quite apart from the lack of human rights and political liberty, underpinning the unrest was economic failure and high unemployment. Tunisia was a poster-child for the IMF development model, dutifully following the prescribed Washington Consensus policies. Tunisia is a small economy operating next to a large, sophisticated one (Europe). Even allowing for its still underdeveloped education system and for the corruption of the regime, Tunisia’s high rates of unemployment and poverty are inevitable consequences of its failure to protect its industry from foreign competition. Opposition to neoliberalism exists within Tunisia, partly because it is viewed as an external imposition (through the Barcelona Process). If a social democratic opposition doesn’t successfully challenge the neoliberal development paradigm this time around, the economic basis will remain for further uprisings in the future.
In the questions Glen Rangwala asked whether the main lesson the Tunisian regime would draw from the uprising was that Ben Ali hadn’t been ruthless enough in crushing popular opposition. Stephen Cook has similarly suggested that the reason the army didn’t intervene to defend the regime was because it wasn’t being paid enough. Joffe disagreed with this line of argument. Ben Ali was quite prepared to be ruthless, and frequently had been. His problem was that when it came down to it, the institutions through which he could have exterted his control – the army and the RCD – didn’t support him, for all the reasons described above. Instead he thinks that the lesson the regime will learn from this, if it is still around to learn it, is not the danger of failing to crush popular dissent with sufficient vigour but the danger of extensive and flagrant economic corruption on the part of political elites.
Joffe was also fairly dismissive of the role of social media – twitter and Facebook – in the uprising. He recalled demonstrations against the Austrian government 15 years ago, when protestors coordinated rallies using mobile phones. Social media technology is good for spreading information quickly about immediate events, but it is not a sophisticated tool – yet – for developing a coherent ideology of popular opposition. It may change, but for now, twitter et al. are a "marginal extra", not a core feature.
‘Authoritarianism and Civil Society in Tunisia’, MERIP
Three excellent posts by Richard Seymour, offering historical background and closer examinations of the roles of the army and the Islamists.
‘The First Middle Eastern Revolution Since 1979’, Juan Cole
Originally published at New Left Project