Anatomy of the Democratic Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt

February 12, 2011

By Yasser Munif. Contributor, Sanhati.

The author is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Three weeks ago, the tyrant Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee Tunisia and today Hosni Mubarak finally resigned. For lack of better references, some intellectuals asserted that the Tunisian uprising is an offspring of the French Revolution. Evidently, such a comparison is Eurocentric and misleading as it imposes a linear narrative in which Tunisia follows in the steps of a European nation with a delay of two centuries. A socio-historical analysis of the French and Tunisian revolutions, however, demonstrates the inadequacy of such comparisons. In contrast, other observers compared these democratic revolutions to the Romania revolution of 1989. Although Ben Ali and Nicolae Ceausescu extensively utilised security apparatuses to terrorise the people and both were supported by the West, the two had different relationship with the military. The Romanian army repressed demonstrators harshly and killed many but very quickly large factions of the military stopped obeying orders and supported the toppling and execution of Ceausescu. More importantly, the Eastern European revolts announced the end of the Eastern bloc and the uncontested rise of American supremacy; the Arab revolts signal the decline of American hegemony [i].

If these comparisons between Europe and Arab countries are inappropriate, how should we interpret these revolts? What is the best strategy to comprehend their complexities? It is too early to undertake a systematic analysis of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions but a preliminary examination can help us comprehend their general dynamics. I propose to analyze three dimensions of the revolution, namely the socio-cultural, socio-economic, and geopolitical dimensions. Instead of assuming the homogeneity of revolutions, it is productive to analyse its different dimensions. The examination of each dimension as an autonomous sphere does not imply overlooking the interconnections between them, although I do not venture in this essay to analyse these connections. Nevertheless, each one of these dimensions represents a social reality of its own with a measure of relative autonomy.

In particular, various social groups compete for resources and engage in struggle in each sphere. The relations of power between social groups and alliances between political organizations, moreover, vary from one sphere to another. For example, the socio-cultural revolution can be successful regardless of the outcome of the socio-economic revolution. For the sake of simplicity, I examine the similarities in both countries (i.e., Tunisia and Egypt). It is important to bear in mind that Egypt and Tunisia have different colonial histories and uneven post-independence narratives. Their socio-economic realities are structurally different. Despite these specificities, there are striking similarities.

A Socio-Cultural Revolution

The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings triggered a radical transformation in the cultural sphere. The semiotics of fear and the culture of violence have been radically altered. The foundation of these authoritarian regimes was premised on a politics of fear. To prevent Tunisians and Egyptians from participation in political processes, both regimes employed vicious techniques to terrorise their citizens.

The public space was saturated with symbols and pictures that reminded individuals of the risks of intervening in the public sphere. This does not imply that acts of resistance did not exist. No matter how totalitarian and coercive these regimes are, social actors often defied the hegemonic order. Indeed, in the past few decades, political groups and social movements in both countries have shown tremendous courage and determination by challenging the dominant narrative in public spaces. In Egypt, Kifaya (a coalition of liberal, leftist and Islamic groups), and The April 6 Youth Movement (a group of youth who supported the workers’ struggles since 2008) have helped fissure the iconic image of the despot by organising numerous rallies and demonstrations. The tearing and burning of Mubarak’s pictures and the confrontation with the police during the Mahala strike in 2008 has also reminded the regime of its own vulnerability. In the past few weeks, Tunisian and Egyptian protesters, through their courage and dedication have shown the limits of a regime rooted in a politics of fear. Civil disobedience and acts of resistance to state coercion shook the foundation of these authoritarian regimes. People’s struggle gave birth to a revolutionary culture that we can observe in Tahrir Square and many other spaces in Tunisia and Egypt. Democracy in action represented an act of rebirth for many protesters [ii]. It helped them transcend their fears and learn a new language of freedom.

This socio-cultural revolution represents a cataclysmic transformation at the psychological level. One of the videos circulating on the net captures this emblematic moment. The video shows a man who defies the curfew imposed by the army by walking in a deserted street and shouting from the top of his lungs, in an act of radical liberation: “Tunisian people got their freedom! Long life Tunisian people! O Tunisian people, you are free now. You got rid of “Ben Ali” the criminal, he escaped from the Tunisian people. Ben Ali the dog. Don’t be afraid, hold your head up high”. This event shows that the escape of Ben Ali has radically transformed popular imagination. Tunisians have discovered the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of a system based on fear, terror, and a cult of personality whereby each individual acts “as if” she is loyal to the despot. Citizens behave “as if” they believed in the regime’s “tired slogans and empty gestures” [iii].

When this relationship between an authoritarian figure and citizens is fractured, there is an experience of salvation and jouissance. People in the streets of Tunisia, Cairo, and Alexandria unlearned their fears by demonstrating and facing the tanks with their bodies. Their actions triggered a profusion of micro-uprisings. The sequence of events very quickly spiraled into a democratic revolution. In the space of few weeks, protesters have undone thirty years of totalitarianism. The Tunisian uprising has caught dictators off guard in the Arab region.

Counter-revolutionary forces in Tunisia didn’t have enough power or time to save Ben Ali’s or Mubarak’s regimes. The current Tunisian government will try to restore a politics of fear by relying on security and the military apparatuses. In Egypt, Mubarak sacrificed key businessmen and marginalized his own son Gamal, in a failed attempt to give credibility to his regime. At the same time he made multiple concessions to the officer corps. This tension between the officer corps and the business branches is only temporary. Reconciliation between the two will follow after Mubarak’s resignation to constitute a counter-revolutionary front. The ruling class will also attempt to find new allies from the Egyptian opposition to consolidate its power. The challenge for the left and radical groups will be to prevent the split of the movement or the co-optation of its moderate elements by the old ruling class.

A Socio-Economic Revolution

The second dimension of these democratic revolutions is socio-economic. We will not be able to fully comprehend the socio-economic significance of the revolts until activists and historians of social movements write hundreds of stories from the battlefields. As Marx has shown in The Eighteenth Brumaire, the study of social classes during turbulent periods evades categorical simplifications. We should therefore abstain from making hasty generalizations about the current revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. I have no pretention to do so here; I only aim to provide some socio-economic context to the current uprisings. The global crisis of capital in the past three years has intensified economic problems in the Arab World. What is also clear from the past two decades of ultra-liberalism is that the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes have alienated large social groups. On the one hand, they have destroyed the middle class, which often played the role of buffer, during a crisis, between the ruling class and disfranchised classes. In a sense, through their economic policies, the ruling classes have made alliances between antagonistic groups within the opposition possible. On the other hand, the modern histories of both countries show that Mubarak and Ben Ali have built a fragile alliance between the army’s officer corps, a bureaucratic party, and a commercial bourgeoisie.

The modern history of Tunisia is about the emergence and consolidation of a neoliberal regime. After independence in 1956, Habib Bourguiba proposed a bourgeois-reformist economic program characterised by an emphasis on export-led growth and import-substitution. The Tunisian post-independence economy, unlike its Egyptian counterpart of the same period, was ultra-liberal. The Tunisian working class frequently challenged these policies; the antagonism between labor and capital increased [iv]. The struggles of the working class culminated in a general strike that the General Union of Tunisian Workers called for in 1978. The army responded by crushing the revolt and killing many (42 according to official figures [v] and more than 200 according to non-governmental sources [vi]). In the 1980s and 1990s, the government privatised state-run agricultural collectivities. By doing so, it penalised small-middle peasants and benefited large landowners. As a result of these liberal policies, food revolts erupted in the mid 1980s to which the government brought a short-term solution by temporarily lowering prices. In 1986, the government implemented a structural adjustment program, which consisted of privatisation, cutting the state expenditures, disciplining and lowering the cost of labor, and so forth. With the radicalisation of the working class and the intensification of their struggle, Ben Ali emerged as a strong leader, with experience on how to discipline workers and crush social unrest. To implement the neoliberal policies so opposed by workers, Ben Ali relied on police forces and security apparatuses. His reform and pro-democracy rhetoric was only a trick to consolidate his power. In the early 1990s, Ben Ali aligned himself with the center by promoting state unionism. At the same time, he declared war on the communists and Islamists. In the following years, he launched a more aggressive neoliberal program that decreased the social support for his policies and delegitimised this regime [vii].

In many respects, the economic liberalisation of Egypt is similar to Tunisia. With the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, Sadat undertook the liberalisation of the banking sector, expelled Soviet experts, and implemented pro-Western policies that put an end to Nasser’s developmental project. Sadat proposed liberal economic policies in 1974 and announced a new era of open-door economy called Infitah. Like Ben Ali, he implemented a crackdown on leftist and Islamist parties. The Bread riots of 1977 were an important signal against Sadat’s liberalisation but he basically ignored it. After his assassination in 1981, Mubarak pursued a more aggressive liberalisation of the economy; in 1991, Egypt embarked on a structural adjustment program. The government’s neglect of agriculture during the 1980s and 1990s, moreover, impoverished small peasants further. In the past decade, a number of successful local and national strikes have demonstrated the militancy and radicalism of the working class. Since 2005, there have been a growing number of strikes and protests. The Mahala strike in April 2008 is only one example among many. Peasants have also defied the Egyptian regime by resisting eviction from their land and preventing influential businessmen from turning their fields into touristic projects [viii].

Both regimes relied on a traditional clientelist model to create allegiances but they also alienated large sections of the population. The Tunisian and Egyptian neoliberal agendas signified that the working class, the military’s rank and file, the small and middle peasantry, and large sections of the intelligentsia had to pay the price of these policies. Mubarak and Ben Ali surrounded themselves with a wealthy commercial bourgeoisie, bureaucratic and inefficient parties, and coercive armies, police forces, and thugs while at the same time, they tried to manage the conflict of interest between these different groups [ix]. They also outlawed certain political parties and co-opted others. These strategies had limits. In Egypt, the alliance between the radical left and the certain sections of the Muslim brotherhood shows that the tactics of the regime was hitting a wall [x].

The global crisis of capitalism is not necessarily going to intensify because of the fall down of Ben Ali and the end of Mubarak’s reign. The remains of the old regimes might build an alliance with the old bourgeoisie, Islamic groups (Ennahda Movement in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), and a larger fraction of the intelligentsia to solve the crisis of legitimacy they are experiencing. To preserve their dominance, they might also make certain concessions to sections of the oppressed classes. In the same vein, subaltern groups will realign themselves and create new alliances. Large portions of the working class (employed and unemployed), social movements, and radical intellectuals are trying to discern the weaknesses of the new neoliberal alliance and reposition themselves accordingly to stop the counter-revolution. If militant groups are successful in their struggle, not only can they prevent counter-revolutionary forces from dominating the scenes in Egypt and Tunisia, they could also deepen the crisis of neoliberalism on a regional and global level. The Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings show that both regimes were unable to produce a hegemonic ideology and back it with social and economic programs that justify their existence. Finally, the demise of two role models of the IMF, the World Bank, and USAID might have far reaching consequences on the politics of these global and semi-global agencies.

A Geopolitical Revolution

Finally, the current revolutions can also be analyzed at the geopolitical level. Egypt and Tunisia were two strategic outposts of US imperialism. Both countries are officially independent but do not enjoy much geopolitical autonomy (they are obviously not unique in that regard). Egypt and Tunisia were not able or willing to transcend their neocolonial condition. On the external front, Egypt played a strategic role in supporting US imperial policies in the region. It sponsored two devastating US wars against Iraq. It also supported Israeli colonial violence, and Israeli wars against Palestinians and Lebanese. Internally, it repressed demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq and the blockade of Gaza. Mubarak also recycled neoconservative discourses revolving around the themes of terrorism and security, and used them domestically. Ben Ali embraced similar imperial policies in Tunisia. The Tunisian and Egyptian Intifadas might put an end to, or at least decrease the intensity of neocolonial practices.

On a more fundamental level, the popular uprising exposed the hypocrisy of Western powers. Countless European and American intellectuals and politicians have debated the merits of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators in the past few weeks [xi]. These experts argued that Mubarak and Ben Ali are not dictators, and in any case, their regimes constitute bulwarks against Islamism. Journalists tried to evade the term “dictator” through rhetorical acrobatics. An article in The Guardian explains that Mubarak’s “rule was more akin to the semi-enlightened despotism of an 18th-century European monarch.”[xii] Numerous journalists avoided the harsh criticism of the Egyptian regime since Mubarak is considered a close ally of the West.

However, this is not a problem exclusive to the media. European and American politicians’ handling of the uprisings was very disturbing. Their silences were haunting and their rhetoric alarming. The Obama administration refrained from uttering the “D-word” when journalists asked if Mubarak could be considered a dictator. Vice President Joe Biden clearly stated Mubarak is not a dictator, while Secretary of State Hilary Clinton explained there is no “[y]es or no answer to a very complicated issue”. The French government’s handling of the Tunisian revolution illustrates this neocolonial relationship. Nicolas Sarkozy and his government tried their best to protect their Tunisian lackey by avoiding public criticism of his regime. Even when the slaughtering of Tunisian demonstrators was saturating the global media, they abstained from making critical comments. The only odd voice that broke that silence was foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie. Two days before Ben Ali’s escape, she told French legislators that the French police should help the Tunisian police, and justified her proposal saying that the French have tremendous expertise and a long history in security. When she realized it was a political gaffe, she defended her statement saying that French expertise and tactics would have helped save lives in Tunisia. She denied the French government had the intentions to send material to suppress demonstrators. Few days later however, the media reported that the French government had indeed shipped material to subdue the uprising.

Towards a Conclusion

This neocolonial relationship between the West and Arab despots comes as no surprise for many Arabs. France kept a strategic relationship with its old colonies. It’s based on economic dependence and political intervention. The Tunisian situation shows that France is willing to deploy old colonial techniques to protect its economic and political interests in an old colony. French colonial and postcolonial practices are sadly strikingly similar. In 1961, the expertise of French police was deployed to crash an Algerian demonstration in Paris because protesters dared to call for the independence of Algeria. As a result more than two hundred Algerians were killed and many were injured. The same year, Frantz Fanon concluded in The Wretched of the Earth with the following words: “Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience.” These lines remind us that European rhetoric about democracy and human rights is unfortunately often used to dissimulate the smell of gunpowder.

I thank Taki Manolakos for his remarks and suggestions.

Notes

[i] Jonathan Schell. “The Revolutionary Moment.” Thenation.com. Feb 21, 2011.

[ii] “Asmaa Mahfouz describes Jan 25th and gears for the big Friday.” Youtube.com. Feb 9, 2011.

[iii] Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 152.

[iv] Richard Seymour. “The rise and fall of Ben Ali.” socialistworker.org. Jan 18, 2011.

[v] “January 1978 General Strike.” globalsecurity.org. Feb 9, 2011.

[vi] Clive Bradley. “Tunisia: behind the “jasmine revolution.”” workersliberty.org. Jan 22, 2011.

[vii] Christopher Alexander. “Authoritarianism and Civil Society in Tunisia.” merip.org. MER 205. Oct – Dec 1997.

[viii] Mona El-Ghobashy. “The Dynamics of Egypt’s Elections.” merip.org. Sep 29, 2010.

[ix] Paul Amar. “Why Mubarak is Out.” jadaliyya.com. Feb 1, 2011.

[x] Hossam El-Hamalawy. Comrades and Brothers. merip.org. MER 242. Spring 2007.

[xi] “Notre ami Ben Ali.” Blogs.mediapart.fr.15 Jan 2011. , and “Adler, BHL et Finkielkraut anxieux face à la perspective d’une Egypte démocratique.” By Pascal Boniface. nouvelobs.com. Feb 7, 2011.

[xii] Simon Tisdall. “Egypt protests: Mubarak shows his dark side.” Guardian.co.uk. Feb 2, 2011.

[xiii] “Tunisie : les propos “effrayants” d’Alliot-Marie suscitent la polémique.” . lemonde.fr. Jan 13, 2011.

[xiv] Steven Erlanger. “French Foreign Minister Urged to Resign.” Nytimes.com. Feb 3, 2011.

[xv] Frantz Fanon. 2005. The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press. p. 311.

2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Anatomy of the Democratic Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt”

  1. G. Aquitaine Says:
    February 13th, 2011 at 00:53

    I agree with you that the comparisons of the present revolutions in Tunisia and(now)Egypt with the French Revolution are rather specious. I presume they are made by those who point out the role lack of social and economic equity have had to play in the uprisings. I think comparisons with the U.S. in the late 60’s and the ‘velvet’ revolutions of 1989 are more fruitful—if inevitably incomplete. I believe we are seeing something like the long expected ‘4th Wave of Democracy’ taking place in the Middle East: a process that, I suspect, will not be easily reducible to Western terms in the end. We are seeing something like the end of Western geopolitical hegemony.

  2. Julie Kinnear Says:
    February 13th, 2011 at 18:33

    As far as the economic side of the revolution is concerned I think the Egyptian people were fighting for some kind of economic prosperity rather than democracy as such. And that’s why I believe the US was right not to intervene in the conflict because if this prosperity is not achieved these people could very easily accuse the Western world and especially the US of promising something which is impossible to obtain.

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