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February 24, 2011

Tunisia: A Revolution in Process

SS Interview


Socialist Solidarity talks to a Tunisian-Canadian democracy rights activist about the Tunisian revolution and its meaning.

SS: Can you describe Tunisia and the conditions that led to the uprising of December 2010?

Tunisiah: Tunisia is perched in the middle of the south Mediterranean shore, the closest African point to Italy. It is about one sixth the size of British Columbia, half of Tunisia is desert, and it has a population of ten million. The majority of the population lives in the developed coastal areas. The economy has few natural resources. People depend on agriculture, fishing, and tourism – and its human resources, i.e., migration to Europe and the Arab Gulf countries for remittances back to Tunisia.

Unemployment is officially 10%, but among new graduates it is over 40%. There are few jobs for university graduates and these are obtained by bribery. For example, if you want to land a high school teacher’s position you will have to pay a $20,000 bribe. That is why the youth who first revolted raised the slogan ‘Jobs Based On Merit’.

Due to lack of opportunities there has been a wide spread yearning – in the last 10 years - by the youth to migrate outside the country. Many take the Mediterranean waters in dangerous conditions to illegally migrate to Italy, hoping to reach the rest of Europe.

Another problem is debt. Many ordinary goods are bought on installment, even food.

The economy is corrupt. Take the loans for land program. The richer you are, the cheaper the interest rate. The average commercial loan is 9%, but the poor pay 12%, while the well connected rich pay, say the son in law of the ousted president, next to nothing. As well, you have to buy designated agricultural equipment. So the whole thing is a subsidy for the banks and manufacturers. When a person defaults, the court doesn’t send a notice on time, and the land is seized and auctioned off. There is only one buyer who gets the land extremely cheaply.

We have a saying in Tunisia, when the saw cuts going down, it also cuts going up. That’s how the ruling family works. They controlled half of the economy and prevented anyone from prospering without getting their cut. So many people tried not to look successful or they depended on their foreign partners for protection. The President’s wife tried to force a prominent businessman to sell his house to her. The only way he could save his home was to rent it to the Iraq embassy, backed by the United States.

SS: How did youth begin the revolution?

Tunisiah: It began following Bouazzi burning himself to death in December. In Tunisia Illegal migration is called ‘to burn’. The attitude is I am already dead so I might as well burn - as many have died trying to leave.

It made a lot of sense that the young began the revolution. They have been marginalized and consequently stayed untouched by the cancer of corruption that infected anyone who had anything to lose, even if it was an honest job.

Still it is surprising how they managed it. Not just that they were internet savvy, but it was more the language they used and the level of respect as to how they handled differences. They spoke directly, in a culture and language that communicates by telling stories – in embellishments by allegories and metaphors. They reviewed the facts and asked questions. For example they did not just say that they disapproved of certain ministers, they published the CVs of ministers, they showed what they stole, and asked the masses to judge for themselves if those ministers were thieves?

They called things by their names, exposed actions, and answered problems with proposed solutions.

And they organized. When the government collapsed and the police went away, they formed neighbourhood committees and self defense groups. They even all dressed in a similar color to show they were organized.

SS: What about the current situation, now that there is a coalition transitional government that has promised elections in six months?

Tunisiah: I hope the adults in Tunisia show that they can be as responsible and politically savvy as the young ones.

With the first transitional government, there were too few ministers from the other parties with ministers from the old regime holding major posts like finance and interior. There was a fear that the cronies of the old regime still in power would destroy the evidence of corruption and injustices and get things back to the way they were before the president was ousted.

So the demonstrations and strikes continued, and the Prime Minister’s office was occupied. Demonstrators came from all over the country even in trucks from the interior regions which had the least economic opportunities. The Prime Minister created a new coalition (the present government).

But the sit in continued to protest that the Prime Minister and new President are both members of the old regime, even though most people think they are personally honest. The national lawyers association mediated between the Prime Minister and the sit-in demonstrators but the police stormed the sit-in location. They tear gassed the occupiers, planted evidence that there was alcohol, and broadcast this on national TV. They sowed panic and then blamed those who panicked.

After that, there isn’t much trust left between the coalition government and the youth who championed the revolution. The youth continue carefully to watch what the government does and to use the internet to publish any abuses. For example when the government appointed new heads to Tunisia’s 24 districts, who did not have clean hands, the youths exposed them and organized a campaign calling people in their respective districts to force the newly appointed district heads out.

The head is gone (President Ben Ali), but what about the system? There is a committee to investigate corruption. But the head of the committee is the lawyer for the old ruling family. The interrogator should be in the interrogation chair.

There is a promise to hold elections in six months, and the current Prime Minister has pledged not to run for President, but nothing is final. The coalition government is still not showing even transparency for people to trust them.

The majority of Tunisians are nowadays caught up in seeking personal demands: increase of salary, improvement of work conditions, return of land stolen by the ex-ruling party, reversal of bribery based prison sentences, and the list goes on and on. Once the lid of silence and fear imposed by the old ruling regime was lifted all sorts of demands are emerging, which makes things very confusing and it is difficult to prioritize what comes first - a new constitution, a new type of government, free elections, persecuting the thieves that abused their powers and stole public money, cleaning up the police force from those who abused human rights, achieving peace and stability?

Tunisia’s road ahead to true Democracy is challenging and may prove to be long, but uncertainty, with hope for a better future, is better than the bleak certainty we had with the old regime. Tunisian youth need to learn to be patient and the adults need to be responsible, transparent and accountable.

SS: What is the significance of the Tunisian revolt in the Arab world?

Tunisiah: What Tunisia shows the Arab world is that at last there is hope that their (the Arabs) day is going to come soon. Most Arab youths, seeing what happened in Tunisia now believe they can change things in their countries, that they can get rid of their nightmare regimes.

SS: What can we do in Canada?

Tunisiah: The Canadian government has to show that Canada cannot be a refuge for cronies of the old regime fleeing just prosecution in Tunisia. Canada must apply the law and not make it easy for Ben Ali and his family to flee Tunisian justice.