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Tunisian Intifada Spreads like Wildfire

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Events are moving extremely rapidly in the region and so elements of this report may be slightly out of date.

Since the 18th of December an unprecedented wave of rebellion has swept many Middle Eastern and North African countries. The revolt has rocked many well entrenched, Western backed, dictatorships to their very core. The ‘intifada’ (‘uprising’ or ‘awakening’ in Arabic) began when Mohammed Bouazizi, a young university graduate, attempted to commit suicide by setting himself on fire after his vegetable cart was confiscated by Tunisian police. Bouazizi had been selling vegetables illegally after he had been unable to find work following his graduation from university. Tragically, Bouazizi would die from his horrific injuries a month later, however his act of desperation would provoke one of the most far-reaching revolts seen in many years.

Within days of the suicide attempt riots began breaking out in many parts of Tunisia, and by the 25th the demonstrations had reached the capital of Tunis. Although initially the demonstrators complained of a lack of jobs and opportunities – unemployment is as high as 25% in parts of Tunisia – the demands quickly began to embody a desire for the expulsion of the dictator Ben Ali, who has bloodily repressed the class struggle and faithfully defended the interests of Western capital for decades.

As the demonstrations spread around Tunisia workers begin organising strikes in support of the movement, with a strike by education workers on the 5th of January, a national strike by lawyers on the 6th and a general strike in the Sfax region on the 12th. The demonstrations, riots and widespread looting further disrupted the circulation of commodities in Tunisia and a state of emergency was declared on the 14th. Although Ben Ali tried to cool the situation by promising to hold elections within 6 months it was too little too late. The dictator, who only a month before lived a life of luxury and had a firm hand on power, fled the country in terror to the safety of Saudi Arabia. The Prime Minister Mohammad Ghannouchi, also a member of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), assumed control of the country.

The movement in Tunisia soon struck a chord with many in the region suffering similar grievances of poverty, joblessness and repressive governments. By the 29th of December demonstrations had erupted in the Algerian capital Algiers, and by the 6th and 7th of January had developed into fully blown riots across the country (despite the attempt by Imams to call for ‘calm’ at Friday prayers). In Libya people began demonstrating over a lack of housing on the 14th, and by the 15th hundreds squatted vacant lots and development projects, further escalating the protests.

From Tunisia the struggle has spread to many North African and Middle Eastern countries, with demonstrations being reported in Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Morocco and Egypt, as well as copycat suicide protests being reported in both Egypt and Algeria (four in Algeria alone).

However it is in Egypt that the demonstrations have reached a point comparable to those in Tunisia. Like the Tunisians, the Egyptian demonstrators complained of a lack of jobs, poverty and political repression, and by the 25th of January an unexpectedly large protest rocked the country demanding the President Hosni Mubarak stand down. Since then the movement has only gained momentum, and has been supported by a number of strikes, such as factory workers in the Suez region who have been striking since late January in solidarity with the demonstrators. Indeed, more so than any other country so far, it seems that the situation in Egypt is beginning to turn into open class warfare, as even the New York Times (a liberal newspaper which would generally shudder at the slightest mention of the word class) has been forced to concede. Popular committees have been established in working class neighbourhoods and are arresting all police officers and government agents; workers are occupying factories and in some cases are continuing production under their own self management. Furthermore working class militants have announced they will be forming a national federation of trade unions as well as committees in all factories which will handle the task of organising a general strike.

The wave of rebellion which has swept the region, or the ‘Tunisami’ as some commentators have called it, is fast approaching uncharted territory. The spread of solidarity across national borders has caught the local elites totally off guard, and has only emboldened the many demonstrators to do things that would never have seemed possible only days before. As this article is being written the demonstrations, strikes, riots and occupations continue and will likely have many wealthy business people, foreign and domestic, justifiably scared.

At present Mubarak is yet to stand down, and in Tunisia members of the RCD party still hold office, despite continuing demonstrations calling on them to leave in the Tunis. Although it is necessary to keep in mind that changing the names and faces of our bosses can never free us from the miseries of capitalist society (only their expropriation can do that) it is an important feature of these protests that they are not bound by the statist logic that the political demands themselves may represent. Each new demonstration serves to inspire more demonstrations in other countries; each protester who dies at the hands of the counter-revolutionary state forces only makes the protesters more resolute in their struggle. As working people throughout the region continue to defy their capitalist overlords – their arbitrary national boundaries, their control over production and distribution and their monopoly on power – these protests will only gain momentum. Power is slipping from the hands of the wealthy, from Amman to Cairo to Tunis, and it will not be taken back easily.

 

 - Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement