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Read the news reports coming out of Tunisia and you’ll see a chaotic outpouring of populist fervor, a generation of pent-up unrest suddenly unleashed against an avaricious dictator. But there’s more than meets the eye behind the turmoil in Tunis.
People power can take the credit for ousting dictator Ben Ali. But in the aftermath, as dissenting factions and the remnants of the old guard struggle to set up an interim government, the power of organized labor is harnessing the revolutionary foment on the streets.
The revolution was sparked by a single act of protest – the self-immolation of a young street peddler — but that was just a catalyst for a movement that had grown increasingly restive and forceful in recent months.
The media is abuzz with speculation on how the uprising will play out — who is behind it, whether the seemingly decentralized revolt will spread or collapse under its own momentum, and the role of social networking and Wikileaks. We do know a few things, though.
First, it’s clear that the explosion of dissent marked the culmination of years of mounting rage against corrupt authoritarian rulers; whether Wikileaks cables or Facebook enhanced the protests, the grievances people raised were based on the material and civic needs of a long-embattled populace.
Second, the movement has a decidedly secular bent, in contrast to Western stereotypes of ultra-nationalism or Islamic radicalism.
Third, the youth of Tunisia have generated solidarity with other movements in the region and beyond, as they envision a new social structure based not on an ideology or a demagogue, but real democracy. As Dyab Abou Jahjah observed, “The people had no leader but itself.”
Though the movement appears to be a mix of grassroots spontaneity and targeted direct actions, it has achieved political valence through the savvy of organized labor activists. In the days leading up to the uprising, unions were feeding the foment of the demonstrators by calling strikes nationwide, including an 8,000 strong lawyer strike that paralyzed the courts.
The BBC reported that the recent withdrawal of union organizers from the ad-hoc “unity” government shows that the movement is wary of being co-opted:
Mr Ghannouchi had hoped to placate protesters on Monday by announcing a government of national unity.
The line-up included members of the opposition but also retained members of the RCD in key ministerial positions including the defence, interior and foreign portfolios.
But first the junior transport minister, Anouar Ben Gueddour, and two other ministers, Abdeljelil Bedoui and Houssine Dimassi, decided to leave the government. All three are members of the [General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT)].
Earlier, the UGTT reportedly held an extraordinary meeting at which it decided not to recognise the new government….
“This is in response to the demands of people on the streets,” union organiser Abid al-Briki said.
On January 15, the UGTT issued a statement, or perhaps manifesto, of its demands and aspirations:
The Executive Bureau:
Greets the general public, for its struggle to oppose injustice, oppression, persecution and all forms of corruption and misconduct. …
Calls for the need to apply the Constitution, respect the chapters relating to the mechanisms to get out of the crisis and the formation of a national coalition government composed of intellectual, political and social figures and which should not include persons from the dissolved government. The task of this government is to work to protect the citizens and families of all forms of robbery and assault and to ensure their safety. …
Calls for a real freedom of the media through the dissolution of the High Council for Communication and the Tunisian Agency for External Communication and the formation of an independent commission to direct the media in our country. …
Affirms the right to peaceful demonstration and emphasizes the freedom of association away from any pressures or restrictions.
Labor has long been a tinderbox in Tunisia. Human Rights Watch recently documented systematic abuses against labor activists by an autocracy that tried to crush any form of dissent or independent civic activity. Especially at risk were “labor, student, and journalist unions” who challenged the regime and prompted authorities to invoke the usual tools of oppression:
The government has refused to recognize unions that have followed the required registration procedure for legal status, prevented members from meeting and holding events, and arrested and arbitrarily detained union activists, some of whom allege that security forces tortured them.
In the case of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, HRW reported, the government scored a two-fer by cracking down on free speech and the labor movement simultaneously:
[The union] reportedly provoked the government’s ire in 2009 by publishing a report critical of the lack of media freedom and refusing to endorse President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s re-election.
Union journalists described to Human Rights Watch the subsequent maneuvers by pro-government forces to oust the union’s independent board members, pressure members to sign a petition demanding new board elections, and organize hasty elections, a violation of the union’s bylaws. Pro-government members won handily.
But as the angry tide of youth crested this winter, the unions mobilized to get their just desserts.
Juan Cole on Democracy Now! described the pastiche that converged on the streets of Tunis this past week:
Well, it’s a revolution — you know, all revolutions are multiple revolutions happening at the same time. So there’s a strong element of economic protest. There’s a class element. Twenty percent of college graduates are unemployed. There’s extreme poverty in the rural areas.
And the regime was doing things that interfered with economic development. They would use the banks to give out loans to their cronies, and then the cronies wouldn’t pay back the banks, so they were undermining the financial system. And that made it — and the extremeness of the dictatorship, the demands constantly for bribes, discouraged foreign investment. So the regime was all about itself. It was doing things that were counterproductive. And it injured the interests of many social groups — the college-educated, the workers.
Now, the three ministers that pulled back out of the national unity government today were from the General Union of Tunisian Workers, which is an old, longstanding labor organization. So, it was a mass movement; it included people from all kinds of backgrounds.
The phenomenon of disaffected youth has been well documented across the Arab world, with anger rippling into spontaneous protest such as the recent demonstrations in Egypt, or maybe more disturbingly, a tendency toward destructive ideologies.
Just days before the uprising peaked in Tunisia, Lahcen Achy of the Carnegie Middle East Center noted parallels with Egypt’s dislocated youth:
Unemployment is the primary issue for Egypt’s youth, with a large mismatch between job opportunities and education provided by schools and universities….
The prevalence of patronage and nepotism makes the issue of unemployment even worse. Unlike youth from richer backgrounds who rely on dense networks, those from unprivileged families usually end up with a poor education and bad jobs. The social order in Egypt seems broken.
If the government does not intervene to give youth meaningful opportunities for advancement, Achy added, “this forgotten majority may either continue to feel detached from public affairs or be attracted by extremist groups who take advantage of their sense of despair.” Sadly, the Tunisian protests may be stoking their nihilism; several protesters have self-immolated in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania.
Fortunately for Tunisia, though, organized labor, youth activists, and civil society could channel widespread distress productively as the unrest reached a boiling point. The protests, lubricated by technology and creativity, crystallized into an organic movement, though it’s unclear what direction it will ultimately take.
If Washington adhered to its own rhetoric, it might well have cheered on the Tunisian protesters, but in reality, an independent rebellion and a fierce demand for self-determination looks awfully threatening to a superpower that prefers puppet regimes to non-aligned democracies.
So the rebellion unfolding in Tunis marks the birth of a new community, perhaps a new country, that is beholden neither to religious orthodoxy nor to Western hegemony. On their own, activists toppled the old guard, stunned and inspired their neighbors, and even surprised themselves a little.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.