Sunday, 16 January 2011

The strength of popular anger, in Tunisia and beyond

Most people are now aware of what is happenning in Tunisia. US-backed dictator Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia, mass protests have been followed by prison riots, and now a variety of armed groups have taken to the streets to reassert "order" as would-be leaders try to iron out a coalition government.

The revolutionary spirit that captured the imagination of the world has now given way to uncertainty. The likely outcome is that the country will see a new government take power, either reasserting the same conditions that sparked revolt oreasing them enough to placate international observers and offer a fig leaf to the population. This is, of course, not guaranteed, but unfortunately we know there will be too many interested parties looking to see this happed.

Even if this is the case, what we have witnessed already is the power of popular anger in the face of tyranny. Adam Ford explains that when repressive measures couldn't subdue the unrest, "the dictator started granting concessions." This began with a pledge to create jobs, and the release of many of those arrested, and ended with the dissolution of government and the promise of elections within six months.

But, as an article for Anarkismo details, unrest is not limited to Tunisia;
Demonstrations have spread in recent days to neighbouring Algeria, which is experiencing a very similar political and social situation. The rise in the prices of food and other basic goods, growing unemployment especially among the young and a suffocating political system that prevents the expression of popular demands in other ways, have all led to thousands of people taking to the streets in mass demonstrations that have been violently suppressed. The Algerian government is facing up to the situation by means of the time-honoured method of the carrot and stick: on the one hand, it has announced lower taxes on basic goods and easier procedures for importing them, while on the other - like its Tunisian counterpart - it is using blood and fire to repress the protests, threatening to bring down the full weight of the law on their leaders and assuring - in a nod to its international backers - that everything is due to an unseen hand that is trying to destabilize the country, a reference to the jihadist threat. Algeria, as well as being a stronghold in the fight against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the Maghreb, is a major exporter of gas and a key player in Europe's energy supply. 
But whilst concessions may be part of a "carrot and stick" approach, they are also inspired by a fear of the populace. Ford points out that "the government has reduced the price of oil and sugar by a total of 41%, following rioting there." Moreover, "in Libya, Morocco and Egypt - which has seen no significant action against their regimes over the past few weeks - governments have also taken concessionary measures to ward off 'contagion'."

Al Jazeera argues that this is because "Tunisians have sent a message to the Arab world, warning leaders they are no longer immune to popular anger." And "most significantly, the Arab people are listening."

It would appear that "contagion" is spreading;
The Tunisian protests have already triggered peaceful demonstrations in Jordan, where people have protested over inflation and government efforts to undermine political liberties and press freedoms and have demanded the departure of Samir al-Rifai, the prime minister.

The government, seemingly concerned by the unfolding developments, sought to appease popular discontent by reversing what had been the ninth increase in fuel prices since 1989. But it was too little, too late, particularly as food prices continue to rise, and Jordanians are expected to continue their demonstrations over the coming weeks.

The government would do well to learn from Tunis that repression by the security forces can no longer solve its problems and guarantee the consent of its citizens. In Egypt, the opposition Movement for Change appears to have been reinvigorated by the events in Tunisia. And in Arab capitals, from Sana'a to Cairo, the people are sending a message to their own governments, as well as expressing their support for the Tunisian people, by organising sit-ins in front of Tunisian embassies.

Arabs of all generations are also expressing their sentiments online - not only congratulating Tunisians but also calling for similar movements in their own countries. And on Facebook, many have replaced their profile pictures with images of the Tunisian flag, as though draping themselves in the colours of an Arab revolution.
As of yet, this may still lead to nothing. Or it could be the spark of something big - at which point the question would be what form such an "Arab revolution" would take. Both nationalism and religious fundamentalism could see the popular anger that has excited such speculation led down a blind alley to possibly worse situations, and to revolutions drowned in blood.

What is clear, as ever, is that our solidarity should lie with the working class of all nations, against those who would rule them and crush them underfoot. Until we govern ourselves, and run the economy in our own interests, we will never be truly free anywhere in the world.