Following on from our posting of the Gaza Manifesto, Roy Ratcliffe, a leading figure across three decades in youth and community work and a long-standing activist in the Palestinian Liberation Movement, has sent his thoughts on the tumultuous situation in Tunisia.

As ever comments and criticisms welcomed.

He begins:

1. The background.

The recent explosive events in Tunisia were triggered in December 2010, by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate. Although the full reasons go back much further. Still jobless after graduating, Mohamed ran a fruit and vegetable stand which was confiscated because he lacked of an official permit. He was part of the growing international army of jobless and low-paid young workers, created by the global system of industrial, commercial and financial capital. In the case of Tunisia youth unemployment had been rising, at least since the IMF intervention in the late 1980’s. It can now be as high as 50% in some areas of the country and in the present global crisis, can only creep higher. In periods of inflation, an addition problem for those in Tunisia, was that wages in tourism, textiles and agriculture, were and are, invariably low. As in most other capital dominated countries, the contrast between poverty and extreme wealth in Tunisia is glaring. A recent Wikileaks cable from the US embassy in Tunis, for example, suggested that the prime Minister Ben Ali, and his oligarchy had their hands in and on 50 per cent of the country’s economy.

When this brutal oligarch delivered a speech on the twelfth day of the revolt to promise (as he had done on many previous occasions), that he would allow democratic elections, nobody believed him and the masses responded that the protests would continue. The government ordered the closure of schools and universities and the police to physically quell what they considered was simply a flash in the pan by rebellious youth. Dozens were shot in various towns but this only had the effect of bringing more people into the fray, such as Trade Unionists, some Islamists and Communists. The President only ordered a halt to the beatings and shooting, when it became obvious, that any further slaughter by the police would provoke a mutiny in the army ranks which might also occur even at the senior military level. When Ben Ali later secretly left the country he was following something of a tradition set by previous fleeing discredited politicia

2. The participants.

The first participants were the unemployed youth who initially demonstrated and were later were joined by workers from industry, university and school students, teachers and even lawyers. Eventually the national leadership of the sole legal trade union confederation, the UGTT, which initially denounced the movement (“unlike some of its local and regional bodies“) was finally obliged to give its official support. Young people played a new and important role in the communication and organisation of the protests through their frequent and skilled use of modern technology in the form of mobile phones, the internet and in particular Facebook.

It has been often suggested, that such protests in North African and Middle Eastern countries, would inevitably fall behind the banner of Islamic fundamentalism. So far, Tunisia indicates that this is not necessarily the case. Although there was a large movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, including a Youth Wing, in Tunisia, in the footage of the protesters, shot by the BBC, Al Jazeera and other news media, Burkas and long beards, (the frequent but not exclusive) indicators of fundamentalism, were conspicuous by their absence. Nor were placards or wall slogans calling for a return to Sharia Law. It was reported by one solidarity demonstrator in Brussels that an old Tunisian women now resident in Brussels noted this and asked a rhetorical question: “Have you seen men with long beards at the demonstrations in Tunisia? She answered herself. “No!” However, it remains a fact that a number of opposition parties and their leadership, are in fact in exile so their participation in the events is not visible, but exists largely through written statements communicated through the internet and other networks.


3. The demands.

Slogans on the street, such as the following collection, have been identified so far:

Work is a right, band of thieves”, “Hands off the country corrupt band”, Work, freedom, dignity”, “Liberty, freedom and non-life presidency“, ”Down with the party of thieves, down with the torturers of the people“, “the right to work”, “the right to a fair share of the nation’s wealth” and “the fight against corruption and nepotism”

Some are beginning to reason that a change in the constitution is required first before elections are held. A representative of one banned group summed up their interpretation of what the people of Tunisia want;

The masses want freedom, they do not want the shuffling around of ministers, they want freedom, freedom of association, freedom to protest, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression; they want to put an end to injustice, they want respect and dignity… The unemployed want action against unemployment, they want unemployment compensation, they want free treatment, they want free public transportation. People want concrete action against the high cost of living. They want to improve wages and income.” (Hamma Al-Hammami, spokesman for the Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party, in a speech published on youtube)

All of which are calls for reforms of the existing Tunisian system of governance, and suggestions that Tunisia should move toward the democratic norms of governance ‘enjoyed’ by the workers in the advanced capitalist countries. The logic of such a demand will be considered later.

4. The Methods of struggle.

At first the methods of struggle were demonstrations and protests, which were met by violent attempts to disperse them by the police. However, very quickly, as the situation deteriorated, further forms of defensive struggle were required. In recent weeks people in Tunisia have begun to organise neighbourhood committees, and groups have started to patrol the streets in order to protect their homes and communities. One BBC reporter questioned a Doctor who was patrolling the street with two rocks and a wooden club in his hand. The Doctor replied;

“Do you think I want to do this?” “Of course I don’t, but I have been out here night and day for the past 48 hours. There are gangs of criminals on the loose and I have to look after what is mine.” I asked him about the police – where they were, and shouldn’t they have been protecting his home? “The police are nowhere to be seen, and anyway, they are part of the past,” he said. “They were the foot soldiers of Ben Ali so no-one trusts them.” (

Another person the BBC reporter interviewed informed him that;

“Last night we surrounded our neighbourhood with roadblocks and had teams checking cars. Now we are in the process of lifting the roadblocks and getting life back to normal,” (ibid)

Clearly a situation like the one in Tunisia, following such an uprising, is a dynamic process and the forms and content of the struggle will undoubtedly change in response to how it unfolds. The self-organisation of people in their neighbourhoods, as was the case with the peoples assemblies in Argentina almost a decade ago, is a natural and positive social response to the crisis developing under the rules of international capital as promoted by the IMF and other global financial institutions. How far it will develop and have a positive outcome for ordinary people will have to be seen as the various political agencies seek to lead and control the outcome by proposing their various solution


5. Proposed solutions to the crisis.

Solutions are being suggested from a variety of directions within and without Tunisia. They range from what may be justifiably considered reactionary, through reformist to revolutionary. What follows is a provisional assessment of six of these suggestions.

a) The reactionary solution.

The full reactionary position, promoted by some, would like to manoeuvre for a period, wear down and defeat the aspirations of the majority through creating mayhem and chaos in the streets, and working toward the eventual return of Minister Ben Ali, and his oligarchy. This is unlikely. A partial reactionary position would also manoeuvre by replacing the previous regime with individuals of the same ilk in an interim ’unity’ government, using the same tactics and also once again promising reforms. Both these possibilities could be furthered and engineered by means of a military coup.


b) Liberal Democratic solution.

The liberal democratic suggestions will take the form of advocating a free democratic Tunisia which will be a safe haven for an elite political class and a safe basis for profitable investments. This suggestion is probably best illustrated by Prof Emma Murphy of Durham University who suggests this position would try; move the country towards a democratic future through meaningful political reforms, free and fair elections, a liberalised media and a new inclusive approach to rule..”

Of course this suggestion, as Emma Murphy also notes, could be utilised as a stalling tactic by the army and the regime elite in order to quell protests and then restore their grip on power.

c) Reformist Left solution.

The reformist left position is one which would have them returning to Tunisia and taking part in a joint project to build a political system based upon abstract notions of freedom, democracy and social justice. Something promised but never delivered under Ben Ali and members of the previous regime. Such suggestions will argue for a new democratic government which represents the national and popular will of the people and represents its own interests. This will include a new constitution that lays the foundations of democratic republic, with its institutions and its laws. This position is exemplified by the Tunisian Patriotic and Democratic Labour Party which among its 7 tasks saw on January 15, 2011 the necessity;

6)      To create a national commission on total reform of the electoral code, the press code and the law concerning political parties;

7)      To secure the legalisation of the Patriotic and Democratic Labour Party and other civil organisations.

d) The Communist Party solution.

We have read in section 3 the Communist Party synopsis of what they say people in Tunisia want. To obtain those aspirations they suggest the convening of a national assembly in order to coordinate at national and local level a set of concrete demands. Among these demands they list an end to repression, the release of all prisoners, the arrest of those responsible for repression and plunder, and;

The repeal of all restrictions on civil liberties, free expression, organisation and assembly. The adoption of immediate economic measures to alleviate unemployment and poverty. We demand income security, health care and the immediate recognition of trade unions.” (Source ‘Links’)

f) The Revolutionary Left solution.

I have so far only identified one Revolutionary Left positions. It is that produced by the International Marxist Tendency who say they understand the motives for the protests but;

While we oppose these forms of protest, we do so because we consider them not conducive to the goal of overthrowing the capitalist system and eliminating hunger and unemployment.” (Source. Statement published in Links.)

For this objective they consider it necessary to “organise our ranks in revolutionary workers’ parties.” They call for democratically elected workers’ councils, popular councils and “through general strikes and armed uprising and other forms of popular revolutionary struggle in order to bring down the capitalist system.” They also argue for the ‘right to work’ for all, demand a reduction in working hours, an unemployment subsidy, free public transport for the unemployed, raising the minimum wage and linking wage increases to the increase in prices. Alan Woods, also of the IMT, warns workers and youth to be on their guard and not to trust ‘fine speeches’. Workers and young people should only trust only their own self-organisation. He recommends that;

There should be an appeal to the ranks of the army to form soldiers’ committees to link up with the people. The workers and peasants must obtain arms for self-defence and set up a people’s militia in every factory, district and village to keep order and defend themselves against bandits and counterrevolutionaries.” (A. Woods. Source. Links)

6. The knock-on effect.

There is sure to be a knock on effect of the uprising in Tunisia among other North African and Middle Eastern regimes. Only the intensity of that effect cannot be predicted. Tunisia has Algeria on one side of its colonial boundaries, and Libya on the other, both of which are experiencing similar problems. Support has already been articulated and organised in Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Amman. Whether or not there will be a replication of the events in Tunisia in other parts of the world will depend not only on the particular situations in each country, but also on the outcome of the Tunisian struggle. The greater the success there, the more likely its replication elsewhere.

It is also clear that other repressive governments in North Africa, the Near and Middle East, will be monitoring the events in Tunisia and will be preparing tactics along two lines. First to strengthen and ready their forces of repression and second, at the same time, make some slight concessions, such as temporary political relaxations and economic subsidies. These will be prepared, if not already actuated, in order to undermine criticism and deflect or contain the possibility of similar events.

7. Conclusions.

It is undoubtedly true, that a parliamentary form of democratic government would be an advance upon what the Tunisian people and others in the Middle East, currently experience. However, it will not solve their basic demands and aspirations, for jobs and good pay. The reason is simple. The causes of unemployment, low pay and repression in Tunisia, as in all other countries, are to be found in the recurring cycle of global capital. This cycle is a ever repeating pattern of; 1, revival; 2, relative prosperity; 3, over-production; 4, crisis; 5, Stagnation; 6, relative inactivity and after a slump, back to 1, revival. We are currently moving through stage 4, in which we have witnessed a huge financial crisis due to the over-production of capital created during phase 3. This crisis is currently located in the banking and the financial investments sectors. In this phase the banks needed a bail-out by the tax-payer in order to survive and the financial investments sector need governments to guarantee the loans they make to them by executing drastic cuts in public services whilst increasing prices. At this stage of the economic cycle of capital there are no possibilities of improved employment, either in the numbers employed or in the wages and conditions for those in jobs. The International Monetary Fund recently said (with current unemployment rates already very high), that the region which includes Tunisia, needs to create close to 100 million new jobs by 2020. Yet industry, finance, and commerce has already globally reduced employment and wages during the phase (3) of overproduction. There is no possibility of such huge job creation schemes under the present capital oriented system, particularly in the present crisis-phase of its cycle. Parliamentary liberal democracy, in Tunisia and elsewhere only exists to continue to create favourable conditions for the expansion and the now violent and destructive spasms of capital. It cannot create in Tunisia, as it cannot in Europe and North America, the expansion of employment and conditions for the majority of working people – let alone deliver a ‘fair share of national wealth‘.

There are therefore, only two possible routes to realise even the limited aspirations that most Tunisian working people (and others throughout the world) desire. The first is to patiently endure the coming periods of stagnation and relative inactivity, along with the poverty it creates, and await the return of the stage of capitalist revival. The second is to utilise the economic crisis, which also coincides with an gigantic ecological and environmental crisis, to remove the barrier of the capital induced profit motive from the economic and social activity of human communities. The economic, political and social logic of the aspirations of working people and the welfare of the planet in the short and long-term, can only be achieved by the introduction of a post-capitalist society. In this regard, although the events in Tunisia have been hailed in some media as a revolution, this is not actually the case, at least not yet. The first three requisites for a movement of revolutionary transformation have commenced but it is as yet only an uprising. There is indeed; (1)‘sufficient wide-spread dissatisfaction‘; (2)the potential for collective action and co-ordination‘; and (3)‘the actual development of collective action (a co-ordinated uprising) along with co-ordinating centres. The latter will need further development. And after that there are two further stages for a successful revolution.

4. The dissatisfaction against specific issues need to be expanded and permeate sections of the ruling stratum.

5. Sufficient armed/military strength needs to go over to the side of the oppressed and/or the oppressive groups military forces become weakened or neutralised.” (R. Ratcliffe. ’Revolutionary-Humanism and the Anti-Capitalist Struggle. p 474)

The achievement of liberal democracy in Tunisia will still require the fulfilment of all the 5 above-noted pre-requisites, particularly the fifth, but even these will not deliver full employment or improvements in wages and conditions for young people, university educated or not. In order to realise these working class aspirations they will need to go further. These aspirations will need to cease being demands made upon a governing elite ruling over them and become the actual conditions created by the combined economic activity of themselves. This in turn can only be realised by achieving the collective ownership and control of the means of production. (Which is certainly not the same as the bourgeois ’nationalisation’ of assets that can be later sold back to them at knock-down prices.) And for that a real thoroughgoing revolution is necessary (which requires success in a further 5 stages) and one which is based completely upon their own self-activity. From previous warnings of history, any future post-capitalist economic and social system should not allow itself to be misdirected into the cul-de-sac of Stalinist-type State Capitalism, by following the sectarian proposals of self-styled vanguards, political or religious. We can only hope that the youth of this century will avail themselves of the knowledge required to avoid repeating the errors of previous generations who in an earlier period of substantial crisis, trusted ’vanguards’ and gave them governing power, instead of trusting themselves and introducing fully democratic, self-governing communities of producers and consumers.

Published in: on January 20, 2011 at 11:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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