January 2012, Week 2


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Fri, 13 Jan 2012 21:49:44 -0500
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The Bouazizi Spark: The Beginning of a Long
Revolutionary Process

by Gilbert Achcar
Published Tuesday, January 10, 2012

It is great honor for me to join you in celebrating this
first anniversary of the beginning of the Tunisian
revolution in this very city of Sidi Bouzid, the city of
Mohamed Bouazizi, from where the first spark of the
revolution was ignited that spread like a wildfire
throughout the Arab world, wonderfully illustrating the
famous Chinese saying, "a single spark can start a
prairie fire."

I was pleased to notice in the invitation letter from
the Committee for the Commemoration of the First
Anniversary of the 17 December 2010 Revolution that the
group chose to name the Tunisian upheaval the "December
17 Revolution" after the day of the first spark, instead
of naming it the "January 14 Revolution" after the day
when the despot Ben Ali fled.

In the discussion now developing in Tunisia about which
of these two designations is the most appropriate -
excluding the misleading and Orientalist "Jasmine
Revolution" already used for Ben Ali's coup in November
1987 - I am strongly in favor of naming the revolution
after the day it started, just as the Egyptians named
their own revolution the "January 25 Revolution."

My preference is due to the same reason that led me to
characterize what we are witnessing in the Arab region
as a long-term revolutionary process, not a completed
"revolution" that some people would like to reduce
simply to the ousting of the old regime's chief.

In reality, Ben Ali's flight on January 14, much like
Mubarak's resignation on February 11, was nothing but
one stage in an ongoing revolutionary process, which may
well continue for a long time much like the French
revolution. It began on 14 July 1789 and - according to
most historians - was only completed ten years later
with Napoleon Bonaparte's coup of "18 Brumaire" (9
November 1799).

Socioeconomic bases of the Revolution

To be sure, my assertion that we are facing a long-term
revolutionary process does not stem from any propensity
to project the French model upon the ongoing Arab
revolutions. I very much hope that our own revolutionary
process will not lead to coups by the likes of
Bonaparte, though such outcomes are possible indeed in a
part of the world that has seen so many military coups
in contemporary history. Rather, my insistence on the
long duration of the process is based on a fact that
should be obvious to anyone who contemplates the current
uprisings - that they are fundamentally driven by deep-
rooted socioeconomic issues, even in countries where the
popular movement fought or is still fighting for
democracy and political freedoms against a despotic

This reality comes out clearly if one considers the
current revolutions within the context of the rise in
social struggles that paved the way for them during the
preceding years. It should also be abundantly clear to
anyone who contemplates the true meaning of the
revolution's first spark here in Sidi Bouzid.

For, it was not primarily Bouazizi's discontent with the
nature of political rule in Tunisia that led him down
the path of martyrdom, but the miserable living
conditions imposed upon many young Tunisians like him,
forced to resort to marginal and precarious sources of
income in order to get by. These conditions are now well
symbolized by the stone-carved monument representing a
street seller's cart that has been erected in Sidi
Bouzid's central square in memory of the man.

This reality was best expressed by the slogans that
prevailed in the first days of the mass uprising in this
province, and afterward in the neighboring impoverished
provinces that constitute what a Tunisian newspaper
aptly called yesterday the "revolutionary basin." The
uprising's slogan in Sidi Bouzid - "Employment is a
right, you band of thieves!" - was a direct echo of the
2008 uprising in the Gafsa mining basin that centered on
the issue of employment.

Moreover, if we consider the tripartite motto "Work,
Liberty, National Dignity" that encapsulated the
Tunisian revolution's agenda on the pattern of the
French Revolution's famous motto "Liberty, Equality,
Fraternity," we find that what has been achieved until
now is only liberty, however important it may be. As for
the first demand regarding employment, its fulfillment
does not even appear on the horizon, and while getting
rid of Ben Ali's despotic custody over the people partly
achieved "national dignity," there can be no complete
dignity without a dignified life free from the
humiliation of unemployment and poverty.

Unemployment and the Arab Revolutions

Two main features that distinguish the Arab region from
the rest of the world emerge when one tries to identify
the causes of the huge revolutionary upheaval that is
sweeping all our countries. The first is fairly clear.
Our region is home to the world's highest concentration
of despotic regimes in a single geopolitical space. By
contrast, the second feature is often overlooked. For
many decades, we have had the world's highest rates of
unemployment (including graduate unemployment, which in
the case of Tunisia went from 5 percent to over 22
percent since Ben Ali took power in 1987).

Not only does our region stand out for the highest
female unemployment rates in the world - a major feature
of our underdevelopment - it also has the highest youth
unemployment rates among men and women under the age of
25. The youth unemployment rate in what international
organizations call the Middle East and North Africa
(MENA) is about 24 percent, whereas it is no more than
12 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa and 15 percent in South
Asia, even though they are quite a lot more impoverished
and populated than our region. This is notwithstanding
the fact that these figures are based on official
statistics provided by states, and everyone knows that
they are far below reality.

Moreover, unemployment as counted here is limited to
those who claim to be seeking a job and do not report
even one hour of economic activity during the days
preceding the survey. This means that the large numbers
of those who have given up on finding employment, or are
engaged in marginal activities that can rightly be
categorized as "disguised unemployment," do not show up
on the radar.

It is this basic social reality that constitutes the
deep source of the revolutionary explosion that has
swept through our countries. Record unemployment results
from poor development and increases it in return, thus
entrenching our countries in a vicious circle that
produces social marginalization and misery, both
material and moral. Seen from this angle, the victories
in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are only the first stage of
a revolutionary process in three countries that lacked
freedom and democracy to varying degrees.

Money and politics

This first stage has consisted in winning political
freedoms and achieving a formal democracy predicated on
those freedoms. True democracy, however, cannot be
fulfilled unless equality is added to freedom - not only
equal rights, which remain strictly formal, but equality
in material resources as well.

Indeed, the principal shortcoming of Western democracies
- reflected in their deep crisis that translates in the
low proportion of eligible voters who actually
participate in the voting - is that they represent "the
best democracy money can buy," as one American critic
aptly put it. The electoral process in such a deficient
and illusory democracy depends highly on money,
including television which is the main propaganda tool
in our societies of the spectacle.

There are attempts to limit the gaping inequality
created by money in politics in a few Western countries,
where the state has put a ceiling on election campaign
budgets and participates in funding them, also granting
all competitors the chance to present their platform to
the public on television. These attempts have a limited
impact compared to the huge influence of money in
politics, but they represent at least an acknowledgement
of the problem.

What we have achieved thus far in Tunisia and Egypt is a
formal but deficient democracy that places little
restraint on the role of money in politics in keeping
with the unbridled form of capitalism that prevails in
our region. Both countries have held elections for a
constitutional assembly that have been blatantly
dominated by money resources. The funds received by
religious parties from oil countries in the Gulf played
a prominent role in the elections, in addition to the
privileged coverage that these parties get from the most
important Arab television network: Al Jazeera, whose
connection with them and support for them is known to

Money and television did not only profit religious
parties, however. It also played a decisive role in the
electoral results of lists such as the Popular Petition
in Tunisia led by Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi and the coalition
of the Free Egyptians Party led by Naguib Sawiris, two
entrepreneurs each of whom owns a major television

The religious parties enjoyed important resources in
addition to the prestige stemming from the fact that
they constituted the principal opposition force for the
last few decades (and managed to build an extensive
organization over the years in Egypt), not to mention
their religious demagogy and their playing on the
emotions of believers.

It is no wonder then that the primary goal for these
parties after the fall of the dictators in both Tunisia
and Egypt became expediting elections. They argued that
they want to speed up the consolidation of the
"revolution" and prevent it from being hijacked, but in
reality they are rushing to reap the fruits of the
revolution's labor before others get a chance to deny

Development without corruption

As a result, the basic problems that sparked the social
explosion and set off the revolutionary process in our
region, best epitomized by our record unemployment, were
almost non-issues in the elections, which were dominated
instead by the lures of identity - religious, sectarian,
regional and even tribal.

The forces that came to dominate the political scene
uphold "programs" (if one may call them that) that do
not differ significantly from the previous regimes' in
the social and economic realms, except for a few vague
slogans and false promises of the kind voters are
accustomed to on the eve of elections. These are empty
promises and slogans that are not backed up by any
serious plan of implementation; in fact, they are
premised on the ignorance of ordinary voters.

All the forces that dominate the electoral scene adhere
to the neoliberal principles prioritizing the market,
the private sector, and free trade, the very same
principles that led our countries to the current
quagmire in the first place. The grave problem of
development that our societies suffer from results
indeed from the type of capitalism that prevails in our
countries, along with the dominance of the oil rent over
our economies. It is a capitalism of quick profits, with
no incentive for long-term productive investment capable
of inducing intensive job growth, especially as it fears
the lack of stability that characterizes the Arab

The truth is that the revolutionary conditions that are
unfolding in our region, with the corresponding rise in
social demands, will only worsen the unwillingness of
the prevailing capitalism to engage in job-creating

The inescapable truth therefore is that our economic
development will not come about by relying on private
capital. It requires a clear break with the neoliberal
model in order to put the state and the public sector
back in the driver's seat of development, and devote the
country's resources to this major priority through
progressive taxation and nationalizations.

For all their drawbacks, the developmental policies that
were implemented in our region from the 1950s to the
1970s did have a better impact and social effects than
the neoliberal policies that followed. What is needed
today is a return to the developmental policies of these
times without their concurrent despotism and corruption,
whereas the regimes that replaced them have only done
away with developmentalism while keeping despotism and
taking corruption to a much higher level.

The fact that the masses have got used to making their
voices heard in the streets and squares ever since the
revolution started in Sidi Bouzid provides the key
condition for popular democratic control over the
concentration of the nation's potential in the hands of
the state. This is a necessary condition if the Arab
world is to finally tread the path of development
without corruption, after having experienced development
with corruption and corruption without development
successively since the 1950s.

The workers and youth movements

Because it is at the heart of the production process,
and combines the knowledge and expertise of the working
class, the worker's movement is the most qualified to
oversee state development policies - so long as it
remains independent and free.

We know the crucial role that the worker's movement
played in both Tunisia and Egypt in the revolution's
first stage, bringing down the dictators and sweeping
away the symbols and institutions of the old political
order. Nobody can ignore the fundamental role played by
the Tunisian General Labor Union in this respect, nor
the decisive role of the workers' strikes movement in
Egypt which began to expand in the days leading up to
Hosni Mubarak's resignation. These also led to the
creation of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade
Unions whose ranks swelled to nearly 1.5 million members
within a few months.

Herein lies the paradox of the revolutionary process
that we are witnessing. The men and women of the labor
movement paved the way for the revolutions in Tunisia
and Egypt, and played a decisive role in ousting the old
regime, but they have been completely absent from the
electoral stage. While the labor movement is arguably
the only progressive force that has popular roots and a
national reach capable of beating the conservative
parties and raising itself up to the leading position in
order to implement the necessary revolutionary change,
it was physically absent from the electoral battle, as
it lacked political representation. Hence it was also
absent politically, with the parties that dominated the
electoral scene almost completely ignoring the working
class's problems and demands, pushing them at best to a
very secondary position.

The same goes for the youth movement, with its
significant female component, which initiated the
uprisings and revolutions, and continues to stand at
their forefront everywhere. Yet, it was almost
completely absent from the electoral stage, which has
been dominated by political organizations led by older
men who advocate a puritanical moral regime and an
obscurantist cultural regression, far away from the
aspirations of the vast majority of the revolutionary

In short, we stand before a historical discordance in
social nature between, on one hand, the forces that
paved the way for the revolutionary movement, ignited it
and pushed for its radicalization, sweeping out the
institutions of the old regime; and, on the other hand,
the forces that came to dominate the electoral scene and
win the majority of parliament seats, all of which
joined the revolutionary mobilization after it had
already started and after having initially denounced
those who set it off.

It is a discordance in nature between, on one hand, the
deep problems that provoked the revolutionary explosion
and continue to afflict the workers, the marginalized,
the women and the youth; and, on the other hand, the
forces that have seized the political spotlight and are
trying to reduce the battle to a struggle between
"secularism" and "Islam." They claim to represent
"Islam," which they put forward as "the solution," thus
illustrating the appropriateness of the critique of the
use of religion as an "opiate of the masses" intended to
distract the people from facing the basic problems
afflicting them.

This discordance can only be overcome through the build-
up of the political representation of the workers'
movement and its entry into the electoral arena with the
aim of coming to power in alliance with the independent
youth and women's organizations. As long as this is not
achieved, the causes that provoked the revolutionary
upheaval will not fade away but indeed will get worse,
thus ensuring that the revolutionary process that was
first ignited in Sidi Bouzid on 17 December 2010 will
truly be a long-term process.

This lecture was delivered in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia on 18
December 2011 by invitation from the Committee for the
Commemoration of the First Anniversary of the 17
December 2010 Revolution.

Gilbert Achcar is Professor of Development Studies and
International Relations at the School of Oriental and
African Studies (SOAS) in London.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily
reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.


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