What do the Tunisian people want from their election?

The governments of the Soviet Union and its East European dependencies fell in 1989-90 with almost no loss of life. How could the most powerful and coercive bureaucracies the planet has ever seen collapse so quickly and utterly? They ruled in the name of equality through surveillance and fear, but their structures had been hollowed out. They no longer provided the means of life and people filled the void with their own initiatives based on kinship, religion, locality, the black market and similar informal practices.

Tunisia is a small country of no obvious strategic significance, but in post-colonial Africa and the Arab world, it pioneered the single-party state. After his medical coup d’état against Bourguiba, Ben Ali ruled through police violence and surveillance by the party. We are fortunate to have available a wonderful dissection of the techniques of repression deployed by the Ben Ali regime. Béatrice Hibou’s The Force of Obedience (Polity, 2011) was first published in French in 2006, but her analysis shines a bright light on the Tunisian revolt and its aftermath.

Ben Ali was removed by his own military commanders and nothing has yet been done to dismantle the security state. The main problem was never Ben Ali’s absolute power or even the rapacity of his extended family. It was the bureaucracy’s ability to reward obedience and to spread fear and anxiety through the disruption of everyday practices, especially those affecting economic life. Each bureaucratic encounter, concerning taxes, a licence or whatever, was made into a potentially destabilizing experience.

The bare facts of the spark that ignited the Tunisian revolt are well-known. Mohamed Bouazizi was 26 years old and supported an extended family of eight. He had an unlicensed vegetable cart in Sidi Bouzid, a city 300 km south of Tunis. In December 2010 a policewoman confiscated his cart and produce. Bouazizi attempted to pay the fine, but she slapped him, insulted his father and spat in his face. His complaint was turned away by municipal officials. Within an hour, he returned to the headquarters, doused himself with flammable liquid and set himself on fire. His immolation spawned protests the next day which were dealt with brutally by the police, provoking riots on a small scale. President Ben Ali, in a gesture that many found repellent, visited Bouazizi in hospital shortly before he died on 4 January 2011. Ben Ali fled the country ten days later.

It would be hard to find a more dramatic symbol of the politics of domination identified by Hibou. The violence, indifference and humiliating behaviour of officials are all there, but at the core of Mohamed Bouazizi’s tragic death lies in systematic destabilization of the economic life of individuals. It is not yet known how far the bureaucracy itself has been internally undermined or whether alternative informal structures have already been built up in Tunisian society, as in the Soviet example. In any case, the road to a genuinely democratic government is likely to be a long one, regardless of the election result.

Even so, the most tangible consequence of the uprising so far is that Tunisians now feel more able to express themselves in public without fear, in contrast to grumbling in private before. What they want from any future government is a guarantee of their own social rights, especially as they affect everyday economic life. They want more open participation in the public sphere with justice and dignity. I was asked to comment on the consequences of the election for redistribution. For sure, there are class and regional disparities to be redressed and economic problems for which the state’s agency is indispensable. But economic democracy is the preeminent issue.

What the Tunisians began has since spread, most notably within the Arab world, but also with echoes in the London riots and the current occupation of Wall Street. According to the Trinidadian writer and revolutionary, C.L.R. James, in American Civilization (Blackwell, 1993), there is a growing conflict between the concentration of power at the top of society and the aspirations of people everywhere for democracy to be extended into all areas of their lives. This conflict is most advanced in the United States. The struggle is for civilization or barbarism, for individual freedom within new and expanded conceptions of social life (democracy) or a fragmented and repressed subjectivity stifled by coercive bureaucracies (totalitarianism).

The media are often caught between the constraints of bureaucracy and the growing power and presence of people as a force in world society. Commentary on the Tunisian election is no different. But what was started here by Mohamed Bouazizi’s death less than a year ago could be as epoch-making in its own way as the fall of the Berlin wall or Nelson Mandela’s release from prison two decades earlier.


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