What colour is Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution?

No two revolutions are exactly the same. But all revolutions share some similarities and naturally there have been efforts to link Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution to other recent popular uprisings. A closer look at the colour of the Jasmine Revolution might provide for some surprising revelations.

The most common comparisons of the Jasmine Revolution that I’ve read in the press have been with the Iranian anti-Ahmadinejad protests in 2009 and Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. Such comparisons risk oversimplifying and mistaking the purpose and cause of the Jasmine Revolution which differs from the others in a number of significant ways. Above all, the differences are based on the levels of politicisation and the demands being made by the protestors. On this basis, it can be argued that Tunisia 2011 has more in common with the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought down the Shah than with the more recent popular protests in Iran or the Ukraine. Let me explain.

Inconvenient as it might be, the reality about the 2009 post-election protesters in Iran was that, on the whole, they were not trying to topple the Islamist state. The dissent focused on the manipulation of election results that kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. While there were certainly some elements amongst the protesters that wanted to overthrow the theocratic system, most of the Iranians on the streets of Tehran were reformists rather than revolutionaries. Likewise, the Ukrainian protesters sought electoral accountability rather than revolutionary change.

Events in Tunisia, though, are far more revolutionary in nature and the protesters seek large political and economic changes beyond the removal of the Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali and his cronies from power; not unlike the demands of anti-Shah protests in Iran during 1978. This is obvious from the way that events have unfolded in Tunisia. Ben-Ali’s initial use of violence towards the protesters was spectacularly unsuccessful.  His next move, to promise future reform, also did nothing to dampen the anger on the street, leaving him with no alternative but to flee Tunisia. All of this is very reminiscent of the last days of the Shah’s regime some thirty years ago. In both cases, the regimes, and what they represented, were so widely despised that rehabilitation had become impossible.

Events in Tunisia over the last month have come as a surprise to most observers even though the country has been a powder-keg waiting to explode for some time. Escalating food prices combined with high levels of unemployment have taken place against a backdrop of uneasy calm and the seemingly entrenched leadership of Ben-Ali. However, once the protests began, twenty-three years in power were pushed aside in a matter of weeks. The Iranian Shah also ruled for over two decades and his regime seemed fundamentally strong but was overthrown in a matter of weeks.

Like the Shah, Ben-Ali was a close US ally and had worked in partnership with the EU and the IMF. In recent years, Tunisia has been hailed as an ‘economic miracle’ based on the precision with which the structural adjustments demanded by the IMF had been implemented. However, the “miracle” came at a cost typical of neoliberalism. The privatisation of the economy resulted in the shedding of state jobs, the elimination of import restrictions decimated local industries, and the removal of subsidies on food and other staples sent prices soaring.

The Shah was also said to have overseen an economic miracle of his own but, as with Tunisia, the policies supporting the miracle exacerbated the existing inequalities, enriching a small elite at the expense of the living standards of the general population. While corruption has played an important part in the high levels of economic impoverishment experienced in Tunisia, at a deeper level the tone of the protests call into question the entire neo-liberal program.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the fear of communism was at the forefront of US geopolitics. In this context, the Shah’s strong anti-communism made him a necessary ally of the US, even as they had full knowledge of the brutality of the Iranian state at this time. The Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, routinely practised abduction, torture, and murder, and had close links to the CIA.

Since 2001, it has been the “war on terror” and Islamic extremism which has characterised US international relations. In this context, Tunisia assumed an important role as a US ally. With the US and EU governments conveniently ignoring his human rights abuses,  Ben-Ali fashioned a police force that routinely employed tactics much like those used by the SAVAK: torture and murder included. However, the US-Iranian alliance, didn’t save the Shah or his regime from political oblivion, and neither has Ben-Ali been saved by his western friends.

The main question now is whether the US and, in this case the EU will intervene to protect their interests in Tunisia or allow the will of the Tunisian people to speak. If they embark the first course of action and fail then they risk losing the moderate voices in Tunisia to more extremist politics. While only time will tell how events unfold, in the meantime, to do justice to the Tunisian Revolutionaries it is important that we don’t mistakenly identify the colour of the Tunisian Revolution with the Green or Orange of other recent popular protests. In correctly identifying the colour of the Jasmine Revolution we go some way to comprehending the significance of the potential changes we are witnessing.

 

Noah Bassil

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