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Tunisia in The Time of Revolution and the Speed of Light


Dr. Azmi Bishara


The Time of Revolution

The revolution in Tunisia is progressing from one achievement to another. Obstacles flee in the face of the peaceful and unified grassroots movement. One barrier after the other collapses at the sound of the footsteps of the revolution as it advances. The great civilian revolution has carried the country into a new dimension and hurled it to the speed of light.

Changes that people elsewhere pray occur before they turn old and grey are taking place for Tunisians in the blink of an eye. Events are unfolding at a breathtaking pace in Tunisia. The concept of time has changed there. It is the time of revolution.

When the Tunisian president fled he left abandoned an inverted pyramid, as the hierarchical structure of this type of regime stands on its head. So, after his flight the structure teetered, quaked and collapsed. The huge and fierce security apparatus was 130,000 men strong. There were 1.3 security men for every 100 citizens. That force could have undoubtedly suppressed the revolt or defended the regime more "effectively" than it did. However, it lost its balance. Without a head it lost its sense of itself.

Its internal cohesion crumbled because it had been dependent upon a nerve that was now severed from the head. Suddenly each individual policeman found himself alone as he faced the crowds. He naturally panicked and scrambled to save his own skin.

The prime minister assumed presidential powers the day after the deposed president made a beeline out of the country. The demonstrations continued. Within less than 24 hours the country's constitutional council confirmed him as prime minister of an interim government charged with organising new elections. Tunisians and the rest of the Arab world had by now thoroughly familiarised themselves with articles 56 and 57 of the Tunisian constitution and the difference between them.

It was as if each citizen became an expert in law. The demonstrators persisted. The ministers associated with the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) resigned from the government before it held its first cabinet meeting. The demonstrators kept pushing. The prime minister and other members of the government resigned from the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally Party (RCD).

The foregoing events took place in the space of four days, from 14 to 19 January, ushering in the decade of revolution. Still, the protestors pressed ahead with their demand for the resignation of the government or for the total change in its structure so as to ensure they would have a true national unity government.

As the demonstrations continue, political parties debate whether this government is an achievement and a necessary phase and whether it should exclude representatives of the RCD. What is particularly striking is that this debate is proceeding with remarkable civility and without treachery and violence.

With every retreat of the ruling establishment the grassroots movement moves a step forward. Every loss of ground on the one side is ground gained on the other; every concession exacted from the establishment is an accomplishment for the revolution. That the movement forges ahead and aspires to more does not diminish the value of what it has already achieved.

When a society mounts a struggle against leaders it rejects, any concession from the latter made to appease the masses is taken as weakness and encourages the people to push for more.

 No matter how many concessions the unwanted leaders make, the people will not be satisfied with anything less than their departure. Conversely, a regime that enjoys a certain measure of popular acceptance can persuade the people to halt their protest and, on rare occasion, it can convince them that it is unable to meet their demands. All is a matter of degree, of course.

The liberation experience

The revolution scored one inroad after the other without a central leadership. After some hesitation, political parties joined the grassroots uprising, and overtly so only after Ben Ali left the country. The parties had not believed, at first, that the revolution would last, let alone win.

They were governed by the ordinary mentality of political parties at their lowest ebb, the mentality that tells them, once they make any achievement, to apply the breaks. They could not bring themselves to adjust to the pace of revolution.

 The people's movement had no time for such timorousness. After every success, it set its sights on another goal and persisted until it reached it. Eventually the parties decided that they had better catch up with the street (though it should be added that many party activists had been in the street to begin with).

While political party institutions were absent from the protests, it should be borne in mind that years of political party activity, syndicate work under the umbrella of UGTT and campaigning by human rights organisations have left their imprint on the politics of the Tunisian people. The rhetoric and practices of the protestors reveal a cumulative experience, a storehouse of activism, and both a latent and active memory of struggle.

Consciously or not, these assets were clearly at work and manifested themselves in the ability to differentiate between what was proper and what was not, in the opposition to injustice, and in other politicised behaviour and language.

It was not long before the interim government issued a set of decisions in a single session that some countries take ages to come around to. Entire social components were liberated, reminding one of the world's epic revolutions (of which the Tunisian revolution will count as one). A revolution occurred in every street, neighbourhood, quarter and institution. People's committees were formed to protect neighbourhoods.

Journalists rebelled, expelled the old managements from a number of press and media departments, and took over the operations themselves. The Tunisian media has been transformed into an open space filled with vibrant, civilised and rational dialogue. The participants are ordinary citizens, professionals, political activists, intellectuals and officials, and they are discussing the past, the future and the demands of the revolution. The new pluralism is not restricted to the satellite networks.

Tunisian television these days shows us living proof of an urbane society and a public space characterised by rational interchange between all players. In spite of its long duration and its inclusion of broad swathes of the public, the "people's power" movement was unmarred by violence, anarchy and vindictiveness, even at the fringes. It remained carefully restrained as it became increasingly organised. The few instances of violence that did occur were rapidly checked and surpassed, while the movement's discipline grew tighter and its organisation more sophisticated.

The revolution aimed to settle the question of power. Its purpose was to determine the fate of the regime. It was saying that it was not enough that the president leave; the whole old ruling order had to go.

Clearly then, the ruling party can not be allowed to return and run the country beneath a different guise or through different means. However, there is a difference between keeping the party from regaining control and a purge. A purge does not lead to democracy.

It certainly did not in Iraq. Purges deny millions of people who had been part of the ruling party, the police or the army the right to participate in public life under new rules and conditions. Not all of those people were criminals. Only those guilty of crimes should be prosecuted and their trials should be conducted in accordance with established legal procedures and on the basis of concrete evidence, not rumour and hearsay.

Total impotence in the face of despotism does not justify total unrestraint in the exercise of power when that becomes possible. All care should be taken not to let the euphoria at newly founded empowerment mutate into a mood conducive to the rise of a new brand of despotism that claims more innocent victims.

Once the revolution settles the question of the existing system, it needs to determine the nature of the forthcoming one. This requires a transitional period. Transitional periods by definition are not a shift from black to white, but rather a definitive seguing process. They are times when the influence of the old guard declines as new elites step forward. They are also times that offer ample scope to opportunists.

In a transitional period, the end of the old despotic order must be regarded as non-negotiable; however, there is room for rivalry, negotiation and deal-making between diverse forces over the nature of the new order. What is of critical importance is that the major political forces are included, whether previously banned or legal.

Moreover, their first order of business is to reach a consensus over the new rules that will govern the interaction between groups that will differ over so many other issues, not least of which will be who will or will not be allowed to compete in the electoral process. This, in turn, may require an overhaul of the constitution if not a new constitutional assembly.

It must be clear to all that the revolution was for the sake of liberation and democracy and that any party that wishes to participate must accept these goals. Liberation covers the already acquired civil rights for men and women. These can not be forfeited or subject to question in the name of ideological banners. The people of Tunisia will not accept the ideology of any party that would drag them backwards.

All parties and political forces need to look squarely in the faces of the demonstrators and reflect upon the events that took place. They will see people of all classes, of diverse backgrounds and of different political orientations. These people did not take to the streets in order to bring a particular political party with its particular ideology to power.

They were fighting for freedom, dignity and social and civil rights. Every party has the obligation to recognise these democratic principles and change itself accordingly if it wishes to participate in the management of the country and the democratic rotation of power.

The key word at this juncture is responsibility. Responsible forces are those that will seek to safeguard the accomplishments of the revolution and steer it clear of treacherous domestic or foreign shoals. It is not in the interest of the revolution to let Tunisia's relations sour with its Arab or non-Arab neighbours.

Even if some Arab leader or another issued statements offensive to the revolution and it demands, it is not in the revolution's present interests to create tensions with anyone. Safeguarding the accomplishments and propelling the country safely toward democracy entails an effort not to court needless problems abroad that could send security or economic tremors through Tunisia.

The new media

At a time of total state monopoly and control over the media, Arab satellite networks and the social internet media were crucial outlets for criticism, protest and discontent. What makes the social networking media so unique and effective is that the audience member is not merely a recipient but an active participant in forums that are akin to clubs or associations. They breed friendships, solidarity groups, communities.

They develop new uses of language and specialised jargon that enhance the users' sense of belonging to a group that has its own definitions of terms and concepts and its own codes of what is or is not appropriate.

The young and vibrant community that evolved through the social networking media presented itself as an ethical world and a mass catalyst at a time when political party life was smothered by dictatorship and the press was gagged.

The Internet forums with their jargon served as the substitute for official uniforms for the youth movements, and their dialogues, which produce consensuses on matters of taste, on what constitutes beauty or ugliness, on what constitutes justice or injustice, and other moral, ethical and aesthetic questions, took the place of ideological indoctrination.

This phenomenon is very important. No less crucial is not to mythicise it. The social networking sites have become a new arena for political action. It can reach entire segments of the population in an instant. It can break through the media quarantines of a whole state. However, if everyone just sat and stared at their computer screens, flicking through  twitter and chatting in chat rooms, there would be no demonstrations.

 Media are a communications tool, a means of raising awareness, and a means for gathering advocacy groups. However, participating in these media is not a revolutionary action or an act of protest. In and of itself, it does not topple regimes or generate substantial change.

The Internet spread the footage of Bouazizi aflame in front of a local government building and it disseminated the images of the popular outrage in Bouzid. Then there was synergy. The people in each area of protest saw the courage and stamina of the protestors in other areas in real time and knew that they were not alone.

They were part of a people that was on the move, in sync with a uniform national time. Modern communications helped to create the sense of belonging to a great people's power movement armed with the fortitude and resolve to move mountains.

The Tunisian people are experiencing a great process called liberation. It is an experience in which people rise above narrow horizons, personal interests and even above the temptation to crime. It is a moment when the public space brims with ordinary people, a moment of total politicisation when each individual senses his personal responsibility as a  citizen and a patriot. This sense even spread among the members of the army and the police. The moment of citizenship has come to Tunisia, which is on the threshold of becoming the first Arab civic state.

The "Tunisation" of the Arabs

While some doubt that the Arabs will ever have a popular democratic revolution and others stress that what happened in Tunisia is unique and unrepeatable elsewhere on the grounds that Tunisia, itself, is unique (due to its proximity to Europe, for example), the protestors in Tunisia are definitely chanting in Arabic.

When you listen you hear echoes of Palestinian chants and echoes of the demonstrations that erupted throughout the Arab world in solidarity with Iraq. The world is discovering a consistent Arab political message in the words of the Tunisian intellectuals and activists who throng the television screens. It is a sophisticated Arab political language we hear, shaped by decades of opposition and politicisation. It betrays no trace of a contradiction between Tunisian concerns and Arab causes.

Those who perpetuate the notion of a contradiction between domestic concerns and Arab identity are the same ones who would have us believe that our only choice is between continuing despotism or democracy at the end of a foreign gun. They have proved completely and utterly wrong. A grassroots democracy was born in Tunisia without foreign intervention. The people's power revolution put paid to false dichotomies.

Those who invented an abstract slogan about a general Arab cause and tried to impose it on all Arab countries without establishing a concrete link between this cause and the concerns specific to each individual country never made a revolution.

But nor did those who saw an antithesis between addressing a country's domestic problems and attention to its Arab affiliation. It was the people who sought an end to tyranny that made the revolution, and these people simultaneously stressed their support for Arab causes and cried out against Western policies and the loss of national sovereignty.

Arabs everywhere were affected by the Tunisian revolution. They felt that it was their revolution too and wondered when it would reach their country. So great was the general yearning that it led to numerous other cases in several other countries of persons setting themselves on fire as an act of protest.

Unfortunately, in addition to their poignant testimony to the desperation for change in the Arab world and to how deeply Arabs are affected by what happens in other Arab countries, the copycat self-immolations also testify to the extent to which the media spread a naïve and erroneous notion of how the Tunisian revolution started.

The revolution had hundreds of causes, but a young man's self-immolation was not one of them. If the conditions for revolution are not ripe, a dozen self-immolations will not spark one. Mohammed Bouazizi may well have remained unknown to the rest of the world were it not for the uprising in Sidi Bouzide. The Sidi Bouzide uprising could died down or been quelled before it spread to other areas.

Even the expanded uprising could have remained no more than a large scale bread riot that the regime could have overcome by responding to some of the economic demands or quelling it. However, the society was ready for revolution and the army was not ready to fire into the crowds. A widespread and sustained revolutionary spirit is what turned a local uprising into a popular revolution with specific aims. This was not caused by a person setting himself on fire or by a bread riot.

It was caused by a multiplicity of factors that brought the relationship between a state and society to the verge of revolution. This will happen in other Arab countries in other ways. Perhaps it will be inhibited elsewhere by factors that did not exist in the Tunisian case.

However, the general conditions are there together with an overwhelming Arab longing for change. The two will interact in a way that well let revolutionary change assume previously unimagined hues and shapes. But change is definitely at hand. We have entered the decade of the Tunisian revolution and the "Tunisation" of the Arabs.

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