It is extremely difficult to write about an ongoing event such as the Tunisian uprising (now called a revolution) since struggles of these kind tear asunder the certainties of the past and split open a future pregnant with several possibilities. While it goes without saying that with the departure of Ben Au, Tunisia today is in a tug of war where several social forces will contend for hegemony, what the Tunisian people have achieved thus far in the face of formidable hurdles is nothing short of ground-breaking.
One cannot help but believe that the Arab world will not be the same after this momentous event and both corrupt Arab dictatorships as well as the United States will be bracing themselves for a long year of discontent, especially if the recent changes in Lebanon and the massive protests in Egypt are anything to go by.
However, what the protests also signify in my opinion is an attempt at a rebirth of the politics of Arab unity, democracy and social welfare, after a long interregnum based on the politics of Islamism, and therefore the message they send has a resonance far beyond the boundaries of the Middle East. I say attempt, since it may be an over-generalisation to suspend the uniqueness of the Tunisian experience under the banners of ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’, a practice all too frequent in the past.
With the end of the Cold War and the unraveling of Third World anti- colonial nationalism many had spelt the death of a politics based on socio-economic equality and welfare. At the same time it was held that what now existed in the world were cultural orders encapsulated by Samuel Huntington’s influential book ‘The Clash of Civilisations’. All of a sudden the ‘Arab world’ transformed overnight into the ‘Muslim World’ and equally briskly into the ‘Islamic World’ as though no diversity existed within these different countries.
The ones benefiting the most out of such proclamations were the Islamist groups who latched on to the bandwagon of ‘civilisational clash’ as if to prove that issues such as democracy, economic equality and freedom had all either been bypassed or if they existed, the solution lay in their version of Islam. Therefore, the dichotomy that seemed to exist in most Arab countries (perhaps even beyond Arab countries) was between ‘secular’ authoritarian dictatorships backed by Washington on the one hand and reactionary political Islamism of various shades, with these two groups monopolising the political stage.
This was all the more ironic since it was happening in the midst of immense global economic restructuring through the implementation of neo liberal policies in the developing world resulting in poverty and unemployment; it seemed that the politics of the time, based on culturalisms of all kinds, were out of tune with the economic realities of their people.
When Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26- year-old unemployed Tunisian graduate in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire in an attempt to commit suicide and the people took to the streets, the central issues of economic and political equality were brought squarely back on the table in society where unemployment runs as high as 30 per cent. What was remarkable about the struggle that ensued was that it was not led by the main Islamist party Al-Nahda but by secular intellectuals, unemployed youth, university students, doctors, lawyers and most importantly, trade unionists. The fact that the struggle was not initiated by the Islamists has forced them to seek an uneasy alliance with secular, progressive and even communist bedfellows. However, as reported by several blogs and reporters from Tunis, the realisation that this is not the most durable of alliances is present among the supporters of the movement.
The experience of Iran over 30 years ago, where a broad democratic movement against the despotic rule of the Shah was transformed into a theocratic regime, still remains fresh in the minds of those taking to the streets in Tunis and elsewhere in the country. This is signified by the conscious attempt made by the protestors to keep the content of their programme as well as the slogans of the movement focused on issues of democracy, freedom, socio-economic and even gender equality so as to not play into the hands of the Islamists.
Of course it is too early to be certain, but if the events of the recent past and present are of any significance, we may well see a progressive democratic alternative to both Western- backed authoritarian dictatorships as well as reactionary political Islam that have dominated the political landscape of the Arab countries for too long. This is the kind of alternative that seemed impossible in Latin America 20 years ago but is the reality of most of the continent today. Could it be that the uprising in Tunisia is the harbinger of an alternative for other Arab countries? Only time will tell.
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