Expecting too much from the Tunisian crisis.

datePosted on 16:43, January 22nd, 2011 by Pablo

The lack of understanding of what the Tunisian political crisis represents has been alarmingly evident in the media coverage of it. Journalists have said such inanities as “until a couple of days ago Tunisia was a beacon of stability in the region…” and raised the possibility of a so-called ripple effect spreading from Tunis to other North African states. They have called the popular uprising against the ousted president Ben Ali the “Jasmine Revolution,” thereby demonstrating their profound ignorance of what a revolution really is. The truth is that Tunesia was a small powder keg waiting to blow but no one wanted to state the obvious about it, and when it did blow the reaction has been to over-estimate its magnitude and repercussive effects. 

Let me dispel some of these misrepresentations. First, the uprising in Tunisia is not a revolution. A revolution is an overthrow of the state by a mass-based, ideologically-driven and collectively organised armed resistance movement that results in parametric change in the political, economic and social institutions governing society. In Tunisia what occurred was sometimes violent popular demonstrations against an unpopular and corrupt long-serving despot which precipitated an inter-elite crisis that resulted in the exile of Mr. Ben Ali, his family and close allies. The regime did not fall, the military has re-gained control of the streets and the protests have not coalesced into an organised, focused, counter-hegemonic opposition that poses itself as an alternate sovereign and has the capacity to engage in a war of maneuver against the repressive apparatuses of the state. All the demonstrations and protests have done is allow the Tunisian regime the opportunity to reform-monger in order to placate popular discontent while shifting the focus of blame on the disgraced former president. The “opposition,” such as it is, has no plan for taking control of the reigns of state, has no program for governing, and is in fact mostly made up of jobless youth aimlessly venting their rage at symbols of power rather than constructively organising am effective counter to it. Given those facts it is naively optimistic to expect that the crisis will result in major change of a democratic sort. It may be the impetus for a political opening, but it is no guarantee of it.

As for the “ripple effect” of the purported “Jasmine Revolution.” Undoubtedly the Arab street has taken notice of the Tunisian crisis and oppositions in places like Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Libya have been encouraged by the events in Tunis. But the elites in these countries have also taken notice and have no doubt shared information with each other on the nature and threat posed by their respective domestic oppositions. Largely disorganised and ideologically heterogeneous, Arab oppositions also often have overt Islamicist tendencies in incipient leadership positions (and in some cases, like Algeria, an active Islamicist armed resistance tied to al-Qaeda), something that will prompt Western backing for the political status quo in these countries even if they go about re-shuffling their own leadership cadres as a result of the warning provided by the Tunisian crisis. Where these oppositions do have an organisational core, it is more often than not undemocratic in nature and, in the case of Islamicists, explicitly opposed to democracy and supportive of a return to theocratic rule (in states that by and large have worked hard to promote a measure of institutional secularism that coexists with religious hierarchies operating in parallel spheres of influence).

Then there is the lesson of other so-called “colour revolutions” such as the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, Rose Revolution in Georgia and Tulip Revolution in Kyrygyzstan. These have resulted not in democracy in these states but in the emergence of electoral authoritarian regimes that, if better than the former Soviet republics that they replaced and certainly more pre-Western in nature,  do not come close to offering the full measure of voice, representation, transparency and accountability that their adherents so fervently hoped for during the heady days of street protests that ushered in regime change in each.

Thus a sober assessment of the Tunisian crisis should see it for what it is: a wake up call to the Tunisian and other Arab political elites that ignoring simmering popular discontent and failure to engage in macroeconomic and socio-political reforms will ultimately cause tensions to boil over, and such popular boil-overs pose the risk of regime change if well-organised and supported in the face of regime paralysis. It also means that just because a regime is pro-Western does not mean that a blind eye should be cast on its excesses and exclusions, if for no other reason than doing so will encourage the type of leadership behaviour that gives ideological ammunition to extremists who otherwise would not gain the support of the majority.

For Arab oppositions, the lessons are also clear. “Spontaneous” revolts may garner media attention, but nothing substitutes for ideological consistency, collective organisation and the cultivation of mass appeal in preparation for the moment when what Rosa Luxemburg called the “mass strike” is to be launched. And that, of course, is exactly what the Arab political elites are already keenly focused on preventing with the aid and assistance of their Western counterparts, all under the guise of the so-called “war on terrorism.” Even so, the intelligence failures, particularly by the French and the US, to even remotely predict the unrest in Tunisia speaks volumes about Western lack of understanding of the real dynamics on the ground in North Africa. I mean, how hard is it to assess that a long-lived, openly despotic kleptocracy with repressive contempt for its own citizens would engender popular resentment against it, especially with unemployment levels running at 15 percent of the adult population and more than 20 percent for males under the age of 30? Or does being “pro-Western” absolve such regimes of all sins? Is this what passes for “stability” in the myopic eyes of the Western press and diplomatic corps, or is the mere lack of an organised opposition that gives such regimes a mantle of legitimacy they neither deserve or have in practice? In other words, does the absence of a viable opposition by default grant authoritarian regimes legitimacy (at least in the eyes of the West if not their own people)?

This is not to say that all opposition is futile. To the contrary. But incipient democracy movements in these countries need to refine their message into a clear ideological counter to the status quo, seek to establish broad based constituencies based upon coherent platforms for policy reform, and look to each other as well as viable interlocutors in the West so as to jointly press for substantive reform of their respective political systems while deflecting accusations of ideological extremism and inflexible militancy. Until they do so they will be seen as a rabble rousing mob rather than as a viable political alternative.

That is why the Tunisian crisis, while significant for both its domestic and regional implications, is more of a false hope than a first step in the democratisation of North Africa. For the latter to happen both elite and popular attitudes towards governance will need to change, and nothing in the character of regional oppositions or the tone of their approach to organised resistance, to say nothing of government responses to popular discontent, indicates that is about to happen anytime soon regardless of the immediate impact of the winter of Tunisian discontent.

32 Responses to “Expecting too much from the Tunisian crisis.”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lew, Lew. Lew said: On KP: "Expecting too much from the Tunisian crisis". Think it's a revolution? Don't believe the hype. http://arseh.at/3k5 [...]

  2. Quentin on January 23rd, 2011 at 06:15

    An engaging look into a demographic [trend] whereby the discontented seek resolve to their problems. When one looks at the TV news and sees a demographic similarity to other protests in despotic or more freedom based economies, then it is so obvious that there is an underlying cause for concern, particularly in past tense, and in future tense when analyzing countries for intel purposes. When I saw the first news clip on Tunisia, I thought “Here we go again!”

    I remember reading about the Vietnam War protests and thinking the demographic then represented a much younger generation; recently watched with interest the Iranian protests and the Thailand protests – the same demographic there too. Obviously, somewhere along the years, there seems to be no lessons have been learnt by protesters or elites. Each play a cruical role but the divide is now widening to horrifying gaps.

    I think the term you quoted “mass strike” is an appropriate one. Repression is the core concern but then how does one help a nation controlled, manipulated, oppressed, and self-servingly corrupt? I think we will see more of these situations and unfortunately its nearly all in the North Africa, Middle East, South East Asia region parallel to the Equator.

  3. Quentin on January 23rd, 2011 at 06:36

    Just found this to support my hypothesis:

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/01/18/the_next_tunisias

  4. Pablo on January 23rd, 2011 at 15:38

    Actually Quentin, I am trying to argue against such conventional wisdom here.

    All North African regimes are not alike. Some are more “liberal,” participatory and accountable than others; some are more strategically important than others, which means that foreign interests will be more involved in them; some have more democratically-minded oppositions than others; some have larger and/or more heterogeneous resource bases; and so on.

    I therefore find the notion that the Tunisian crisis is a revolution that is democratic and transferable to neighbouring states in the region to be more a case of wishful thinking that a pragmatic assessment of the facts on the ground. Oh, were it that it be so! Alas, it is not.

  5. SPC on January 23rd, 2011 at 18:10

    Well said Pablo.

    All I will add is that there may be a demographic factor, that applies in a number of countries in the wider region across to Iran, increasing numbers of young adults.

    Whether there is a democratic “dissident” leadership able to cultivate that to pressure existing regimes to “modernise” in a secular way is however problematic. While we would wish them well, the “glasnost” could be exploited by Islamists – so the wisdom required is to identify the path that mitigates that risk. One would be to ban political parties based on race or religion …

  6. Nicholas O'Kane on January 23rd, 2011 at 19:51

    Excellent post Pablo.

    The revolution that I think the “Jasmine” one in Tunisia will most ressemble is Romania in 1989.

    Listen to the story
    Small protests over incident in small city quickly explode (Romania Laszlo Tokes being removed in provincial city of Timisoara, immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia), situation quickly gets out of hand, army asked to intervene, initially does but sees that the only way popular protests can be crushed is with a massacre and a depening tyranny, elements of army if not bulk switch to protesters side or atleast decide not to intervene, lower figures in regime ask leader to step down and leave, leader flees (Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia, in a notable depature Ceasescu doesn’t resighn and flees inside the country, and is arrested and executed after a show trial), the secondary leaders take charge posing as democrats;]

    still to come (if Tunisia follows the Romanian route)
    semi-democratic elections are quickly held before opposition can organise and ex members of ruling party elected to hold office (Ion Illescu, Romanias 1st ex-communist president was once Ceausescus number 2) and not a huge deal changes but new regime more open and less authoritarian than the previous one.

    In The Romanian example Illescu was defeated by a reformist coalition some years latter, but the reformist coalition achieved little and Illescu returned to power, and the current President is his anointed successor. Corruption and Poverty remain huge issues although living standards have improved. In Tunisia there is no need to undergo a radical shift to a market based economy and EU membership is unlikely, so its possible the RCD or some successor will retain power under a facade of democracy. I think they’ll keep the pretense but undermine the practice od democracy, maybe a Singapore style democracy where opposition is legal but tightly controlled in 10 years

  7. Pablo on January 23rd, 2011 at 20:40

    Thanks Nicholas, for adding more comparative depth to the analysis.

    I belong to the second (trained in the late 1970s-mid 1980s) generation of political scientists known as “transitologists,” people who study regime change/transitions as a form of fluid political dynamics rather than more static descriptions of political phenomena (which remains the mainstay of NZ political science approaches). This generation, its predecessor and those that have followed (including my own students), have come to realise that although general trends and patterns of change are discernable across regions regardless of the specific ideology of the regimes involved, they do not constitute defined “waves” nor are generalisable in the absence of uniformity of variables across time and space. That is to say, there is no universal formula for regime change even if commonalities exist between different instances of such.

    We are thus skeptical of those who read massive transformations into localised or otherwise relatively small events even if we do accept that a cumulation of small events can trigger a larger crisis that may have repercussive effects–although the direction of regime change is neither linear or determined a priori.

    But if the state of knowledge is that of the journalist I mentioned at the onset (from the BBC, who must have figured that a meteor hit Tunisia overnight and transformed it from a stable into an unstable place), then we will continue to get exaggerated explanations, expectations and pronostications rather than reasoned analysis of the realities of the moment as well as their implications.

    But I guess you know that already.

    As SPC mentioned, the problem of disgruntled idle youth spans the Middle East and was evident in the protests in Iran after the disputed election, and yet there was no revolution and the regime managed to quell the demonstrations without external assistance or appreciable loss of shape. It is guaranteed that quiet foreign assistance will be forthcoming in the event widespread uprisings were to occur in pro-Western ME autocracies, which is why the most important impact of the Tunisian crisis is to impress the importance of reform-mongering on other unpopular regimes.

  8. Quentin on January 24th, 2011 at 07:12

    My comparative analysis was to highlight change – not change to the idealized democratic kind. I fully appreciate Nicholas’ analysis, and believe the unrest in those countries similar of dissimilar to Tunisia are more about approaching politics non-ideologically, (although perhaps ideology drives the change?).

    The ‘West’ mush understand, in my view, the Middle East is far older than Democracy and that to shift to that, would in the end not work that well. Therefore, when I said there will be a ripple effect on the pond of Middle Eastern countries, I meant change that fits their culture, economy etc.

  9. WH on January 24th, 2011 at 10:01

    The ‘West’ mush understand, in my view, the Middle East is far older than Democracy and that to shift to that, would in the end not work that well. Therefore, when I said there will be a ripple effect on the pond of Middle Eastern countries, I meant change that fits their culture, economy etc.

    Quentin – what is your definitions and start dates for: the middle east and democracy? Because your statement has a sniff of ‘Asian Values’ see http://www.kiwipolitico.com/2009/10/the-false-promise-of-asian-values/

  10. Quentin on January 24th, 2011 at 13:05

    WH:

    Hardly Asian. I am meaning from a ancient historical point of view – there was nothing that reassembled the type of democracy that we denote as (and quite often I might add) American-style, which seems, as far as the Middle East is considered, the way we fix our view on the region. Yes I know, the Brits were in there too, but I am referring to the 20th century use of the definition. For example, look at the ancient history of Egypt, Persia (before Iran and Iraq), Saudi Arabia. These cultures were tribal mainly, and yet held a strong state centric apparatus in the form of Kings for instance.

    Pablo may say democracy can work in the region but will it really? Does it live up to the 20th century denote? I am not that convinced – especially the American style. You are essentially asking a region that is over 5000 years old to do the 363 year old democracy thing (if we use the Peace of Westphalia 1648, as start point). Like putting your nappies back on when you are 51. If anything, a more socialism styled governance model would be better perhaps? Which is why theocracy has been used of late.

  11. Quentin on January 24th, 2011 at 13:11

    PS: If Saudi Arabia is so pro-western- why is it not a democracy?

  12. Pablo on January 24th, 2011 at 13:26

    Quentin:

    Please do not fall into the trap of putting words in my mouth. Besides the fact that I never said anything about “American-style” democracy being a preferred alternative in the ME, or that “democracy may work” in that region, one of my points in the post was to note the absence of democratic oppositions in many ME countries and hence the folly of seeing in the Tunisian crisis the makings of incipient democratic “revolutions” in them.

    As for historical legacies. The Greeks have something of a legacy when it comes to democracy and their values were widely spread through the Mediterranean during the height of their empire. But even if we discard all previous histories and legacies, there is the fact that in a globalised world with 24/7 telecommunications to all parts of it, the possibility of value exchange occurring across state borders and in spite of authoritarian regime attempts to prevent it cannot be discounted over time.

  13. Hugh on January 24th, 2011 at 15:38

    Quentin

    The peace of Westphalia as the starting point of democracy? Zuh?

    Also, I think you are quite wrong to identify the Middle East as having a strong tradition of centralism. The Ottoman Empire, for many centuries the dominant power in the region, was highly decentralised.

  14. Quentin on January 24th, 2011 at 16:29

    Pablo,

    I humbly apologize. I didn’t think through my last comment very well.

  15. dave brown on January 25th, 2011 at 07:02

    Its slightly sick to see Eurocentric ideologues preaching Athenian democracy at the Tunisian ‘idle’ youth. So you see we have this blueprint for what is progressive and if the idle youth don’t conform (like waste their lives in self-immolation) that’s a deficit for civilisation. To get to the future we have to go through Whitehall or else we end in Jail.
    I bet that the Greek ‘idle’ youth and their North African brothers and sisters have a lesson to teach the jaded cynical Pablo and his coterie of commentators in ‘Kiwipolitico’. And that is that ‘democracy’ is not a prize awarded to those who live up to the norms of Western Civilisation, but that it is something that is won in the streets against all that Western Barbarism throws at it. On the scale of civilisation ranked 10 out of 10 is the truth of Mahomet Bouazizi dying to live.

  16. Scott on January 26th, 2011 at 09:27

    It seems to me that very few of the events we commonly speak about as revolutions would fit the criteria laid out by Pablo near the start of this post. Certainly the French revolution, the Russian revolutions of 1905 and February 1917 wouldn’t fit the bill. The idea that revolutionary forces have to have some sort of clear and coherent programme and achieve a massive level of organisation and some sort of Gramscian hegemonic pull before the wheels of revolution start to roll sounds alright in theory, but doesn’t find an echo in the real world. Usually mass revolutionary organisations develop and revolutionary ideas spread after the revolution has broken out.

    In Tunisia the revolution began more or less spontaneously, but the counterblows of Ben Ali’s gangs of terrorists prompted the formation of a network neighbourhood defence committees, organisations which now, according to some accounts, are creating a situation of dual power in the country, as people wait and wonder whether the official government will follow through on its promise of free and fair elections. The labour movement and the socialist left are coming out into the open. We can assume there is a ferment of discussion amongst the populace about how to reorganise society. And all in a country which Bush and the neocons touted as a democratic and neo-liberal capitalist model for the Middle East!

  17. Pablo on January 26th, 2011 at 13:36

    Scott:

    We will have to disagree about this because I believe that your take on things is conceptually flawed. There have been two types of revolution in the last 400 years. The first, pre-20th century is known as the “tension-release” model and refers to the progression of spontaneous revolts into the armed overthrow of the state. In this model revolutionary vanguards wait until popular protests have become widespread to then appear, organise, take control and give specific focus to them, with specific emphasis on overwhelming the repressive apparatuses of the weakened state (which itself is rendered by inter-elite fractures). After a brief but violent purgative phase, ideological reconstitution is then begun and the new parameters of society outlined.

    The second, 20th century model is known as the “contention” model. Here counter-hegemonic forces organise well before armed actions begin, and often form United Fronts in order to add breadth to the revolutionary movement. They agitate, organise, begin the armed struggle with hit and run guerrilla tactics, and slowly over time begin to whittle away at the State’s capacity to either reform-monger or repress while building their mass support base. Eventually, in what is known as the strategic stalemate and strategic offensive phases, the revolutionary movement launches an all-out assault on the repressive apparatuses, moving from hit and run to seize and hold tactics that establish it as the new sovereign in the areas under its control. Ideological indoctrination occurs before the fall of the ancient regime, and once it falls a blood-letting occurs between the various revolutionary factions until one reigns supreme. The time span involved ranges from years to decades.

    In all cases the key to victory not only lies in the actions of the vanguards and the support they receive, but in the cohesion of the challenged elites and the corporate unity and technical proficiency of the repressive apparatuses, as well as the amount of support both sides receive from foreign actors. Be it in Algeria, Angola China, Cuba, Iran or Nicaragua, it was this mix of factors that contributed to revolutionary victory.

    Although there is plenty of discontent, absolutely none of these critical factors obtain in Tunisia or elsewhere in North Africa. If there is regime change it will be in the form of a counter-revolutionary coup or elite restoration under electoral facade aided and abetted by foreign actors. The correlation of forces, to use a well-worn phrase, is currently gainst would be revolutionaries in the Arab world. Best then, as I said before, to put in the hard yards of organising, coalition-building and establishing foreign support networks of a non-jihadist kind if the prospects for a democratic “revolution” are ever to be realised. Here it is the protracted war of position, rather than the spontaneous war of maneuver or mass strike, that will be the key to success–at least if democracy is the preferred outcome.

    That brings up my final point. You might be right and we might be seeing a new 21st century hybrid revolutionary model in the making. But remember this: not a single successful revolution in the 20th century led to democracy. Not a one. What they did lead to was the imposition of a new form of authoritarian, often initially more popular but ultimately repressive rule. Where democracy did eventuate in modern post-revolutionary societies (a very rare occurrence), it took the eventual withdrawal or ouster of the revolutionary elite for that to happen. Which is to say, even if your optimistic assessment of events in Tunisia is correct, the prospects for democracy remain less than you hope for.

  18. Scott on January 26th, 2011 at 15:17

    Hi Pablo,

    I just can’t see how we can squeeze all of the diversity of all the revolutions which have taken place over the past four hundred years into two tight-fitting categories. How does your model accomodate the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the revolution in Catalonia in the ’30s, the Bolivian revolution of 1952, the revolution in East Timor in 1974, and the ongoing Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela? Are you sure you aren’t constructing a prescriptive definition, which states what you would like to see a revolution do, rather than what has actually transpired?

    I also think that you are using the concept ‘democracy’ in a somewhat restricted sense. What counts as democracy? Is the West to be the paradigm? Was Britain a democracy when it confronted Hitler, when 90% of the King’s subjects couldn’t vote or exercise elementary civil liberties? Were the representative forms thrown up by the revolutions in Russia and Catalonia less democratic than bourgeois parliamentary democracy in Britain or the US? What about the forms of representation thrown up by indigenous, pre-capitalist societies in East Timor in 1974, or during the Mau insurrection in Samoa in the ’20s? Is Venezuela, with its combination of myriad grassroots representative bodies and an authoritarian Presidency, less democratic than the US?

    I just feel that we need a little bit more conceptual nuance here…

  19. Pablo on January 26th, 2011 at 15:37

    Scott:

    I fear that you are now making a fundamental mistake by equating various revolts, aborted insurrections, wars of national liberation, coups and top-down elite transformations with social revolutions properly conceived. And while I agree that tight typologies as prescriptive devices are to be avoided, my use of two models (which are not my own) is based on the fact that they are derived from extensive analyses of all of the aborted as well as successful revolutions that have occurred in the last 400 years. To get a better picture of where I am coming from on that score, I would suggest reading Charles Tilly and Theda Skocpol on the subject, set against what Lenin, Luxemburg and Mao have to say on the issue.

    As for democracy. I prescribe nothing other than a regime based upon institutional transparency and accountability, universal suffrage, electoral openness, social toleration and equality of economic opportunity (as a broad stroke). Since I have written at some length on the subject of post-authoritarian democratisation and the difference between procedural and substantive democracy and the issue of contingent mass consent in the construction of the democratic ethos (some of which I have blogged on here at KP), I will not bore you with more than that. The issue is that it is not the point of departure or the particular evolution that matters. It is the end goal: a fair, egalitarian and tolerant society governed by freely chosen leaders accountable to their citizens.

    What I do wish to impress upon you is that democracy, in practice, is both a societal condition as well as a political form, and it is based upon that reasoning, as well as the other factors that I have outlined earlier, that I am less optimistic about the prospects for democracy in North Africa than you are.

  20. Scott on January 26th, 2011 at 20:53

    ‘social revolutions properly conceived’

    Well, it’s the ‘proper conception’ that worries me. I fear that this conception excludes virtually every event that anybody – including a lot of distinguished scholars – ever refers to as a revolution. Just to clarify, could you name a couple of revolutions that fit your bill? I’m struggling to think of one. I was imagining that you were referring to wars of national liberation like the ones in China or Vietnam, but I take it you’re ruling them out as well?

  21. Pablo on January 26th, 2011 at 23:23

    Sorry Scott,

    but this is getting mendacious. I have already identified several social revolutions and differentiated them from wars of national liberation line Vietnam (the Chinese revolution may have used fights against imperialists and their lackeys in the question for victory but that was a revolution). A national liberation struggle may be a precipitant for regime change it is what happens after that defines its revolutionary content.

    Rather than argue about what times of armed struggle-induced regime change is a “revolution,” you would have been better served asking me if the regime changes in Easter Europe were revolutionary given the relative absence of collective violence and the parametric change that followed. That is a harder question to answer.

    But since you did not I shall merely reiterate what I said at the onset: we should agree to disagree given that each thinks that the other is wrong. But that is what robust debate is all about, is it not (at least until mendacity sets in)?

  22. Scott on January 27th, 2011 at 11:10

    Hi Pablo,

    I completely agree that robust debate is what it’s all about – but doesn’t the use of such restrictive categories as the ones you’ve offered impede such debate? I apologise for not having read what you’ve written on the subject of revolution, and I’m sure this writing is interesting, but what I was raising an eyebrow over was your confidence about what seems to be me a pretty contentious categorisation. I tend to go with EP Thompson’s argument in The Peculiarities of the English: different societies produce different revolutions, and it’s not worth the effort of dragooning them into a concept that is too restrictive.

  23. Pablo on January 27th, 2011 at 13:16

    Scott:

    The use of two broad analytic models to categorise types of revolutions, based on extensive historical case analysis, is not “restrictive.” It puts conceptual order and some degree of predictability on the phenomena in order for us to gain better focus on the variables and processes by which they occur (or do not). If I were to accept the EP Thompson scheme of things not only would we only know after the fact that a revolution occurred, but anything could be called a revolution simply because societies are “different” and can label political change anyway they see fit. Notions of real-time agency, opportunity, context and process get lost in such a view.

    Less it appear that I am simply being cynical and status quo supportive, my concerns here about the loose use of the word “revolution,” and the motivation behind the post itself, is that I fear that false hopes and unwarranted high expectations for democracy are being raised by the Tunisian crisis when in fact more modest and incremental change is about the best than can be achieved, and is not necessarily transferable to neighbouring countries as if by osmosis.

    Whatever the case, time will be the ultimate judge of my views.

  24. Milos on January 27th, 2011 at 15:31

    A good read. I also get frustrated at the wide-eyed, semi-informed reporters who exaggerate everything and just come off as clueless. It makes one more appreciative of thorough analyses such as this.

    You conclude that recent events in Tunisia constitute a ‘false dawn’ regarding the democratisation of North Africa, rather than a ‘first step’. I will try to argue the opposite. For those (not saying you are one) who adopt short-term perspectives and are hoping for a genuine democracy to emerge in Tunisia within the next couple of years, this may well turn out to be a false dawn. Maybe you are writing for this audience. I think that in the long-term though, recent events will be seen as an important road marker.

    The recent (and ongoing) uprising in Tunisia may not be correctly classified as a ‘revolution’ according to the accepted models you describe, but there is surely ‘something’ happening. Tunisians took to the streets in droves to show their opposition to an authoritarian regime, and at the very least took down a ‘strong-man’ president. This took much courage and organisation and is no mean feat. I believe some kind of extended historic moment is occuring where there exists an opportunity for regime change, either rapid in the short term (unlikely as you say) or managed over the next 10-15 years (still not likely, but a genuine possibility in my view). Many authoritarian-democratic transitions have occured slowly in this way, and this clear show of massive public dissatisfaction may be what starts the process in this case. While this may not be a ‘revolution’, it could be a hugely important process in the history of Tunisia and could have a preferable end result.

    The key reason I believe this is: the movement looks (as much as I can tell from the outside) like a genuine bottom-up movement with good grassroots organisation. I agree with you that the political opposition appears disorganised (thus making an elite-elite transision appear the likely outcome), but this may be because they have not yet worked out how to properly steer the movement, are trying to divide the prize before they have won it, or are hoping to manage the process entirely peacefully. Again, it’s hard to tell from the outside. However, the general discontent coming from the grassroots (particularly the youth) will not go away, nor will (most of) the underlying issues that caused it. So I doubt the Tunisian people will return to a state of acquiesence for too long under an authoritarian regime (unless that regime massively ups the repression and digs its own grave by doing so). The next government would be better off (as would the country as a whole) if they worked towards creating democratic institutions that will be viable in the long term.

    Finally, when viewed in a North African context, Tunisia is a good candidate for the emergence of an democratic regime. It is relatively small, wealthy, educated, tolerant and has less radical influence. I agree that a ripple effect is unlikely, but if North Africa was to democratise, I believe that democratisation process would probably start in Tunisia.

    I haven’t touched on why I believe outside forces will be working hard to prevent it from happening, but this aside, overall I am a lot more optimistic about the prospects for democratisation in Tunisia, at least in the medium-term.

  25. Pablo on January 27th, 2011 at 16:36

    Milos:

    Thanks for that excellent contribution. I agree that this may a first step towards something better, and believe that if a move towards democratisation is going to take place in Tunisia it will be the result of an incremental dialectic between the emerging grassroots opposition and so-called “moderate” or “soft-line” elite factions (I have written a fair bit about the interplay between hard- and soft-liners on both sides in the context of Latin American democratisation, and think that the—-dare I say it–conceptual apparatuses developed by transitologists to explain the LATAM, Southern European and East Asian transitions could be of use in analysing the Tunisian case.

    Where I differ somewhat from your summation is on the degree of organisation and democratic focus of the emerging Tunisian opposition (I tend to think that it may be less than you infer), and on the role of the military (which admittedly you do not mention specifically but is obviously at the centre of your comment about repression), which I think may hold the key to the future of the regime and its sequels.

    That, among other things, is why I believe that the changes, should they occur, will be reformist rather than revolutionary.

    I also note your point about Tunisia being a good case for a bottom-up democratic transition. It certainly, from the outside, looks to have more potential than Egypt. Jordan, Syria or Lebanon, all of whose internal dynamics differ considerably and whose strategic position attracts the (untoward) attention of external actors in ways not evident in Tunisia.

    But my general impression is that you have nicely captured the situation even if our assessments differ in part.

  26. tochigi on January 27th, 2011 at 22:42

    i completely agree that there is a huge difference between a revolution and getting rid of a dictator or junta. in a revolution, the entrenched, discredited elite are removed and what they are repalced with has to have popular support, at least in the initial period, or the factional struggles will continue. in Tunisia you have the removal of the figurehead and some kleptocratic families but the existing power structure remains in place. has that power structure really been challenged thus far? it doesn’t look like it at the moment. but maybe it is the beginning of a longer, more radical process. it depends on how smart both sides are and the influence of outside actors, as others have already said.

    one of my candidates for recent revolution is Nepal, but this is still a work in progress. it will probably take another decade or two. as for ex-Soviet countries, clearly there was no Russian revolution in 1991-92. Czech Repub., Hungary and Poland? mmm, some room for debate… but i don’t see how the Iranian Revolution could not be called a revolution. anyway, just my 2 cents’ worth.

  27. dave brown on January 28th, 2011 at 10:44

    Revolution is a process. The national revolution began in Tunisia with de-colonisation. That process was interrupted by the national bourgeoisie taking power and imposing a neo-colonial regime. Imperialism can only survive by enforcing neo-colonial rule, hence the reactivation of the national revolution testifies that the break with neocolonialism requires a socialist revolution. The impact of a global economic crisis fuels the continuation of the revolution, since the masses see it’s “do or die”. The question remains open, the revolution will be completed only if the youth rebellions throw up new leaders who can grasp the logic of permanent revolution, as the seizing of power, and its democratic control in the hands of the oppressed and exploited classes.
    Of course to seize power the insurgent masses have to break away from all the siren songs of reformists, Maoists, fake Trotskyists, Stalinists, and other hacks, who preach ‘national unity’, ‘democracy’, ‘stability’, ‘reforms’, etc etc as a cover for yet another form of Bonapartist, clerical or openly fascist regime.
    They have to replace the corrupt power structures of neocolonial rule with popular power based on councils, militias, and the support of the ranks of the military, capable of holding onto power when the imperialists unleash their invasions, drones and cyberwars to defend their ‘democracy’ and ‘civilisation’.

  28. Scott on January 28th, 2011 at 11:04

    In some ways this discussion can be linked to the arguments about Marx in the thread on New Zealand Left Thinkers. One of the reasons Marx’s method is so useful is that it disposes of the necessity of creating rigid but inevitably porous ‘definitions’ of phenomena like revolution. The search for necessary and sufficient conditons and the desire to take widely-separated events out of their contexts and place them in some ahistorical category has enfeebled a lot of positivist and post-positivist work in the social sciences (and in the ’80s and ’90s it also crept into Marxism, producing the dreadfully dull texts of ‘analytic Marxists’ like Cohen and Wright).

    Marx’s dialectical method means he can ‘abstract’ one piece of reality, label it, and then move onto another slice of the world. His concepts are context-dependant. In the second volume of Capital, for isntance, he at one point talks about a ‘capitalist class’, at other times speaks of ‘capitalist classes’, and at a certain point talks of bankers as a ‘class’. There need not be any inconsistency here.

    In The Civil War in France Marx at once point talks of the Commune as a ‘revolution’, and a very profound one at that, but at another point admits that, from a strictly economic point of view, the Commune revolutionised nothing. Marx was not being inconsistent: he was just using the term ‘revolution’ in different ways in different contexts. He thought that the Commune was politically revolutionary, because it showed that the working class could wield power, but that it was not at all revolutionary in an economic sense. If we try to construct a definition of revolution applicable to all contexts then we risk forsaking the subtlety Marx shows in The Civil War in France.

    If all this dialectics stuff seems like mumbo-jumbo to some readers, here’s a great explanation from Bertell Ollamn:
    http://www.nyu.edu/projects/ollman/docs/dd_ch05a.php

  29. Hugh on January 28th, 2011 at 12:39

    Dave:

    Throwing off foreign rule is not a revolutionary goal.

  30. dave brown on January 28th, 2011 at 21:31

    Hugh: If you mean that revolutions must overturn existingt social relations I agree with you. But colonial revolutions are revolutions – bourgeois revolutions, often incomplete, falling short of independent bourgeois nations for clear reasons.

    For example the American revolution was a revolution to establish an American bourgeoisie independent of Britain. But it didnt succeed in its other goals of replacing pre-capitalist social relations and uniting the federation until after the Civil War.

    Once the European powers and the US had united their nations and their economies had outgrown their national territories, they expanded to become imperialist states. That is, they dominated all the other nations in varying degrees, subordinating them to a divison of labour in which their raw materials were exchanged for manufactured commodities. This economic dependence, or backwardness, meant that they were incapable of completing their bourgeois revolutions and achieving national independence without a total break with imperialism.

    Thus the bourgeosies of the colonies, or even weak imperialisms such as Tsarist Russia, did not have an economic base to allow them to win wars of national independence. These bourgeoisies remained agents of imperialism while the task of completing the bourgeois revolution passed onto those classes who were superexploited by both imperialism and their national bourgeoisies.

    The proof of this was in the fact that it took socialist revolutions to break from imperialism, in Russia, China and Cuba. The Russian bourgeoisie remained tied to imperialism so it was necessary for the workers and peasants to overthrow them with a socialist revolution in order to break from imperialism. So the goals of the bourgeois, or national democratic, revolution was subsumed in the socialist revolution. These examples allow us to understand the logic of the current incomplete colonial revolutions.

    Tunisia’s national revolution against France was incomplete and the exploited and oppressed classes are now waking up under the whip of imperialist crisis which imposes terrible austerity on their lives. At the moment their goal is bourgeois ‘democracy’ because the examples of the USSR, China and Cuba appear to be irrelevant or worse. For that we have to thank imperialism that stranged these revolutions over many decades, and Stalinism for holding the workers down.

    Notwithstanding this, the sooner that the new generation of Arab fighters can see through all the imperialist ploys to pretend they can create a bourgeois democratic state, or the Islamics can create a clerical state, and fight for a popular workers and peasants socialist government, the better.

  31. Pablo on January 28th, 2011 at 21:40

    Dave:

    I am glad that we can agree on at least one thing: that the events in Tunisia do not–yet–amount to a revolution. Now if we could only agree on anything else!

    :-0

  32. Hugh on January 31st, 2011 at 03:43

    Dave

    I don’t want to say your definition of revolution is incorrect but it’s not shared by most academics, and seems inconsistent. You say that revolutions must overturn existing social relations, but then you describe the American “revolution” as one, despite the fact that social relations stayed the same.

    Tunisia’s -national- revolution against France is complete in that France no longer enjoys any particular influence over Tunisia. This is exactly the problem. A group are dominated by “foreign” capitalists, they’re told that the problem is that their oppressors are “foreign”, and that their replacement by local capitalists who will supposedly hold of on repression due to localist fellow feeling is a goal they should fight and die for. Unsurprisingly the local capitalists don’t do any better, but they’re able to divert attention by blaming everything on foreign capitalists who make sporadic attempts to contest the hold of local capitalists. So the issue remains one of foreign vs indigenous, not one of capitalism vs socialism. If the post-colonial revolutions had been truly national their banner would not have been “throw out whitey”, it would have been “equality”.

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