[News] Tunisia’s revolution: Self-organization for self-emancipation

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 27 18:36:21 EST 2011

Tunisia’s revolution: Self-organisation for self-emancipation

Horace Campbell
2011-01-27, Issue <http://www.pambazuka.org/en/issue/514>514

The full explosion of the Tunisian revolutionary 
process is now taking root across Africa, far 
beyond the town of Sidi Bouzid, from where 
Mohammed Bouazizi had sent a message to youths 
all across the world that they should stand up 
against oppression. The overthrow and removal of 
the dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 
January 2011 was an important stage in this 
revolution. When this dictator (who was a top 
ally of the USA and France) fled to Saudi Arabia, 
dictators and corrupt party leaders all over the 
world trembled as the popular power in the 
streets found support in all parts of Africa, the 
Middle East and parts of Europe. This revolution 
in Tunisia is a typical example of the 
self-mobilisation of ordinary people for their 
own emancipation, independent of a vanguard party 
or self-proclaimed revolutionaries. The iteration 
of the Tunisian revolution in other parts of 
Africa and the Middle East is fast becoming a 
pattern that speaks volume about the nature of 21st century revolutions.

At the time of writing this piece, the revolution 
is going through the third stage where the 
popular forces are seeking a drastic change in 
the politics of the society and demanding new 
order in Tunisia based on freedom, democracy and 
social justice. In short, the people were calling 
for a form of popular democracy that moves beyond 
alienation, and beyond the separation of politics 
and economics. The first stage of the revolution 
started with the self-immolation and 
self-sacrifice of Mohammed Bouazizi in the region 
of Sidi Bouzid. The unemployed graduate Bouazizi 
set himself on fire to protest police brutality 
after they harassed and stopped him from selling 
fruits and vegetables, which was his only means 
of a livelihood. The second stage involved the 
mass organisation and the deployment of new 
networks for revolution among the youth and the 
working people, leading to the popular overthrow 
of the dictator. The third stage involved the 
merger of the caravans of liberation into Tunis, 
the capital with the break in the ranks of the 
forces of coercion. It was at this stage that the 
true revolutionary character of the 
self-organisation started to emerge. At this 
third stage, the prolonged popular protest of the 
organised poor emerged, with women and youth 
taking the lead in calling for the arrest of the 
dictator and for a new government of the people. 
It is at this delicate stage of this revolution 
that it is most necessary for revolutionaries all 
over the world to stand together with the 
Tunisians, and to draw the positive lessons that 
can spread the revolution like a fire to burn off 
the corruption and destruction of capitalism and neoliberalism.

The capitalist classes have been wounded in 
Tunisia and they want to do all within their 
power to contain this new wave of revolution. 
However, their ability to undermine this 
revolution will depend on the vigilance and 
support of revolutionaries internationally. We 
must remember that revolutions are made by 
ordinary people and that there are millions who 
want a new form of existence where they can live 
like decent human beings. In another era of 
capitalist depression and war, it was C.L.R. 
James who commented that, ‘That is the way a 
revolution often comes, like a thief in the 
night, and those who have prepared for it and are 
waiting for it do not see it, and often only 
realise that their chance has come when it has passed.’

James was referring to the Chinese masses who had 
led the way in the revolutionary process in 
China. The real point of Tunisia, as in China, is 
that in every revolutionary situation it is the 
real action of human beings taking to the 
streets, defying the police and fighting with 
courage and imagination that changes society. 
Revolutionaries should grasp the epoch-making 
process that is now underway in the world. How 
this epoch-making process will mature across 
Africa, Europe and Asia will depend on the 
politics and organisations that shape the 
movement in the coming weeks and months. 
Revolutionaries must learn the positive lessons: 
the new pattern of 21st century revolution, the 
new forces of revolution and the new tools of 
revolutionary struggles that are being fashioned 
by those who are making sacrifices for a new mode of social existence.


Within a month, the narrative in the 
international media on Tunisia has changed 
completely. Prior to the present uprising against 
the capitalist classes and the dictator, Tunisia 
was represented in the Western media as a stable 
free-market economy that was a symbol of the 
success of capitalism, a top ally of the USA in 
the war against terrorism. Tunisia was the choice 
destination for European tourists as the same 
European states shut their doors to migrants from 
Africa. Behind the image of Tunisia as a stable 
tourist resort where Europeans could relax was 
the reality of repression, corruption, censorship 
and massive exploitation of the people. The 
concentration and centralisation of wealth and 
power in the hands of the ruling family alienated 
even members of the capitalist classes, who were 
locked out of the inner circles of opulence and 
obscene wealth. In the midst of struggle, there 
was unemployment and suffering. Mohammed 
Bouazizi, a youth who had sought to dignify his 
existence by becoming a fruit and vegetable 
seller, decided to make a sacrifice to make a 
stand against oppression and made a break with the politics of obedience.

Mohammed Bouazizi, like millions of youths across 
the world, wanted a new world. He had studiously 
gone through school only to find that the economy 
did not have a place for him. He created his own 
space by becoming a fruit and vegetable vendor in 
the town. But even in this capacity, the society 
had no room for the creativity of the youth so 
the police harassed him continuously and on 17 
December 2010 confiscated his vegetable cart. 
Bouazizi was the principal breadwinner of his 
family and decided to make a stand against 
oppression. After unsuccessfully complaining to 
the local authorities, he burnt himself as an act 
of protest. He did not die immediately and his 
sacrifice acted as an inspiration for others to 
resist oppression and to popularise his action.

The other youths in Sidi Bouzid took up his cause 
and carried messages of his self-immolation 
across Tunisia and beyond. As the youth mobilised 
and took to the streets with ‘a rock in one hand, 
a cell phone in the other,’ their message cracked 
the walls of censorship to the point where the 
dictator himself sought to mollify this rebellion 
by going to the hospital to try to contain the 
anger of the youth and blunt the rising protest. 
In an effort to gain support of the youth, the 
government decided to declare 2011 the year of 
the youth. But the youths were not waiting for a 
dictator to declare the year for them; they were 
bent on taking the year and making the break for a new decade.

Mohammed Bouazizi joined his ancestors on 4 
January, expiring from the self-immolation, but 
his act of sacrifice had acted as a spark to 
impress on the youths the importance of 
intentionality to make a break with the old forms 
of oppression. The rebellion that had been 
sparked by the action of Bouazizi took over the 
region of Sidi Bouzid and moved from spontaneous 
actions of solidarity to an organised resistance 
that brought in new forces who recognised the 
determination of the youths. From the spontaneous 
actions of the youths, the rebellion took on an 
all-class character as teachers, lawyers, 
workers, trade unionists, small scale 
entrepreneurs and other social forces joining in 
this first phase of the revolution. Within a week 
of the passing of Mohammed Bouazizi, the 
revolution had spread to Tunis and the masses had 
joined in the streets to topple the dictatorship.


Ben Ali was like so many other African leaders 
who had joined the anti-colonial struggles only 
to take over the habits and behaviour of the 
colonialists. Tunisia had become independent in 
1956 and the ruling party developed authoritarian 
principles as it sold itself as a base for 
Western capitalism. The more the society 
ingratiated itself with the West, the more the 
ruling sections of the political class felt a 
sense of impunity, believing that Western support 
could shield them from popular opposition. In the 
case of Ben Ali, he had not only supported a 
rabid form of corruption, his regime earned 
praise as one of the firmest supporters of the war against terrorism.

This support of France and the USA concealed the 
economic terrorism of capitalism, but as the 
global economic depression took its toll on the 
people, there were protests to reveal the extent 
of the terror and corruption of the dictator who 
had been in power since 1987. The ruling party 
was dominated by the national capitalist class, 
as well as the foreign multinationals and banks 
that cooperated to establish free-trade zones 
where workers could not organise. Unemployment 
and poverty among the youth had made them a pool 
of cheap reserve labour to be manipulated by 
religious and political leaders, but youths such 
as Mohammed Bouazizi had risen above the 
politicisation of religion. When the rebellion 
spread to Tunis by 10 January, the maturation of 
years of agitation immediately manifested itself 
in the slogans of the rebellion:

‘Down with the party of thieves, down with the torturers of the people.’

These slogans of rebellion resonated with all 
sections of the oppressed and initially Ben Ali 
dismissed the demonstrations as terrorists as the 
police shot and killed unarmed civilians. Ben Ali 
called the demonstrations the work of masked 
gangs ‘that attacked at night government 
buildings and even civilians inside their homes 
in a terrorist act that cannot be overlooked’. 
This reflex of calling the bogey of terrorism did 
not scare the people, and by Thursday 13 January 
the anger of the families of those shot in cold 
blood was buttressed by the maturation of the 
popular resistance to the dictatorship. The 
president’s billionaire son-in-law ran away and 
by Friday Ben Ali, who had promised the masses 
that he would not stand for the presidency in 
2014, fled the country. While in flight even his 
imperialist allies deserted him. It was only the 
Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi who had the 
temerity to castigate the Tunisian people for 
removing Ben Ali from power. Gadaffi spoke for 
the other dictators across Africa and the Middle 
East when he said in a televised address that, 
‘You [Tunisians] have suffered a great loss. 
There is none better than Zine [Ben Ali] to govern Tunisia.’

Gaddafi exposed the fact that the African unity 
that he represented was the unity of dictators. 
But even as he spoke the revolution was moving to 
the third stage as the caravans of liberation 
converged on Tunis as the ideas and principles of 
self-organisation and self-emancipation spread 
across Africa. Initially, other European leaders 
were silent, but as the gravity and seriousness 
of the Tunisian workers and youth became a force 
in international politics the government of 
Switzerland froze the accounts of Ben Ali and his 
family. Former allies of Ben Ali such as the 
leaders of the USA and France distanced 
themselves from his rule as the images of 
revolution from Tunisia spread through mainstream 
media rising from the networks of social media to 
the mainstream. In this information warfare, the 
news outlet Al Jazeera acted as a source of 
information connecting the struggles throughout 
the world of dictators and despots.


When the second stage of the revolution was 
maturing, the interim government closed schools 
and universities in an attempt to blunt the youth 
energy. After the universities reopened, there 
were new demonstrations across Tunisia as 
teachers and students called a general strike. 
The full expression of a worker–student alliance 
was beginning to take shape as workers occupied 
workplaces while setting up committees to run 
their workplaces. It is this advanced 
consciousness of worker control that is slowly 
taking shape as the revolution of Tunisia 
experiment with networks of networks beyond the 
old standards of democratic centralism and other 
worn ideas of revolutionary organisation and the 
vanguard party. Social media and social 
networking may represent one of the forms of this 
revolutionary process, but the character is still 
embedded in the self-organisation and 
self-emancipation of the oppressed. It is this 
powerful force of self-emancipation that is 
acting as an inspiration and beating back 
vanguardists, whether secular or religious.

In order to discredit this revolutionary process, 
the Western media has been running the bogey that 
Islamists would be the beneficiaries of the 
revolution. But the women of Tunisia have 
demonstrated clearly that they are not going to 
be sidelined in a revolutionary process. These 
women, inside and outside of Tunisia, have been 
organising for decades and will not be silenced 
in this moment of revolution. What was visible 
from the images in Tunisia was the centrality of 
women and youths in this revolutionary process. 
Women in Tunisia had been organising for decades 
against patriarchy and other forms of male 
domination. It was one of the societies where the 
women had stood firm against the fundamentalists 
who wanted to control the bodies and minds of 
women. These women made common cause with the 
youths and other sections of the working people 
to form the backbone of the revolution. Their 
presence and firmness acted as a barrier to the 
kind of vanguardism that could be claimed by 
sections of the opposition. Hence as Ben Ali 
fled, all of the socialists, communists, 
Islamists, trade unionists, human rights workers, 
rappers and other social forces emerged on the 
political stage of Tunisia. The placards and 
slogans that proclaimed ‘vive la révolution’ were 
a manifestation that all over the country, from 
south to north, there had been a burning desire for change.

This burning desire for change was most clearly 
expressed in the expressions of workers and poor 
farmers from the rural areas, who converged on 
Tunis as they chanted: ‘We have come to bring 
down the rest of the dictatorship.’ They did this 
in defiance of a curfew and state of emergency. 
They had travelled through the night in a caravan 
of cars, trucks and motorcycles from towns across 
the rocky region far from Tunisia's luxurious tourist beaches.

I was in West Africa as this revolution unfolded. 
Everywhere I went, youths and other workers were 
anxiously following the revolution as the mass 
resistance spread to Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and 
Yemen. In all of the societies I visited there 
were young people who wanted to know more about 
what was happening in revolution. Bouazizi’s 
action sends a major lesson to youths across 
Africa and the pan-African world. This lesson is 
embedded in the significance of his 
self-immolation. Bouazizi’s self-immolation 
signifies self-sacrifice, different from the 
actions of suicide bombers. In a world where 
disgruntled elements take to suicide bombing as a 
weapon of coercion and protestation, Bouazizi 
stands out as an oppressed and disgruntled youth 
who wanted to make a sacrifice for revolution 
without violence and the killing of innocent 
souls. Youths do not have to embark on 
self-immolation as a sacrifice for a better 
tomorrow. But ultimately, they must be ready to 
make some sacrifices for self-emancipation, 
instead of being passive or offering themselves 
as tools of manipulation and suppression in the hands of the ruling elites.

In a period when alienated youths are open to 
manipulation by conservative forces to shoot up 
innocent persons or to make themselves into 
suicide bombers, the action of Mohammed Bouazizi 
marked a new phase of youth action. This new 
phase was manifest in the statement by some 
Tunisian revolutionaries: ‘Mohammed Bouazizi has 
left us a testament. We will not abandon our cause.’


Far from retreating from the streets, the 
demonstrations and positive actions of the people 
have galvanised others in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, 
Jordan and Yemen. The more the Tunisians made 
demands for the arrest of Ben Ali and his family, 
the more Western leaders sought to limit the 
damage and call for stability and social peace. 
But what is really being called for is the 
protection of local and international capital. 
The Western capitalists fear the socialists, 
progressive feminists, trade unionists and youths 
who are determined to build a new basis for 
economic relations where the wealth of the 
society would be organised for the well-being of 
the people. Already, there is a discussion of the 
full nationalisation of the assets that were 
previously owned by the Ben Ali family. This 
discussion of nationalisation stirs fear in the 
ranks of other capitalists who want to inherit 
the politics and economic base of Ben Ali.

How this process will develop in Tunisia will 
depend on the politics and organisations that 
shape the movement in the coming weeks and 
months. As one socialist organ proclaimed:

‘Tunisia needs a new democratic government which 
represents the national and popular will of the 
people and represents its own interests. And a 
system of this type cannot emerge from the 
current system and its institutions or its 
constitution and its laws, but only on its ruins 
by a constituent assembly elected by the people 
in conditions of freedom and transparency, after ending the tyranny.’

Revolution is a process, not an event. The 
revolutionary process in Tunisia is maturing with 
twists and turns. Those progressive forces in the 
imperialist centres must organise so that the 
militarists in the West do not prop up the 
dictators to hijack the process as the people 
begin to register a new historical era. The 
people have risen with confidence. They want a 
break with capitalist exploitation and corrupt 
leaders. Self-organisation and self-emancipation 
for social and economic transformation will take 
the popular forces from one stage of consciousness to the next.


* Horace Campbell is a teacher and writer. 
Professor Campbell's website is 
His latest book is 
Obama and 21st Century Politics: A Revolutionary 
Moment in the USA', published by Pluto Press.
* Please send comments to 
<mailto:editor at pambazuka.org>editor at pambazuka.org 
or comment online at <http://www.pambazuka.org/>Pambazuka News.

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