Revolution has ousted the corrupt Tunisian leader President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. This is the first time revolution has overthrown a Middle Eastern leader since the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. It will have an electric impact across north Africa and the Middle East. The ruling classes in Algeria, Jordan and Egypt are terrified that the courage and determination of the Tunisian masses will inspire popular revolt elsewhere. Events in Tunisia show that the power of a mass movement from below can bring down even the most entrenched regime protected by a heavily armed state. Street protests in Tunisia became an uprising when the movement tapped a deeper popular discontent. Tunisia now has its third president in as many days. Demonstrations were sparked by the suicide of a 26-year old graduate, Muhammad Bouazizi. Muhammad doused himself in petrol and set himself alight in front of a government building after police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was trying to sell to make a living. Muhammad’s desperate situation was not unique. The impact of economic crisis, rising food prices and growing unemployment means thousands of Tunisians suffer grinding poverty. The Tunisian state is notorious for brutally crushing resistance. Police shot into crowds of demonstrators. But each act of repression swelled the mass protests and helped transform them into a popular uprising. Reports put the number of deaths at over 60 last Thursday, the day before Ben Ali fled. The hated police attacked the funerals of demonstrators, but this escalation of state violence only provoked even more revolt. Ben Ali tried to dismiss the protesters and brand them as “terrorists”. He had begun offering concessions on 10 January after weeks of protest. He promised to create 300,000 jobs by the end of next year, but offered few details. It was too little too late. One eyewitness told Socialist Worker about the demonstration that forced the regime to fall. During a two-hour general strike protesters in their tens of thousands moved on the government. He said, “We had been chanting for two hours – Ben Ali out, put the mafia on trial. We chanted, ‘Leave, Leave’ and there were many shouts of ‘Ben Ali cartouche’ (shoot him). “The trade unions were important in the month-long insurrection. The Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT) has been a tool of the regime for a long time, but it has switched sides very quickly. The union became more and more radical as the protests went on. It led the movement in the centre of the country and called the demo in front of the Ministry of Interior that pushed Ben Ali out.” Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia since 1987. His regime was a slavish ally of the US and Western interests. As well as tourists, the other flights into Tunisia were secret CIA rendition flights of the tortured as part of the “war on terror”. While ordinary Tunisians struggled to find work, the regime was marked by astonishing opulence. Mohamed Sakher El Materi is a billionaire businessman who is the president’s son-in-law and was, until this weekend, his heir apparent. A leaked diplomatic email reported of one of his recent lunches: “Ice cream and frozen yogurt had been flown from St Tropez, and that his host kept a pet tiger in a cage.” It is not surprising that the looting that has occurred has all targeted businesses owned by Ben Ali’s family. One gangster has gone – but the Tunisian ruling class is desperate to cling onto power. There are promised elections in 60 days but the underlying poverty and inequality that sparked the revolt can only be resolved by the mass popular movement staying at the forefront. Much will depend now on which way the army goes – with the regime or with the masses. Protests have continued despite a curfew and tanks on the street. The revolution in Tunisia has the potential to spread across the Middle East. It has already sparked mass protests in Algeria and Jordan. In Jordan one protest banner read, “Jordan is not only for the rich. Bread is a red line. Beware of our starvation and fury”. Protesters in Egypt chanted outside the Tunisian embassy, “Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him, too!” Unsurprisingly William Hague the Tory foreign secretary called for “restraint” from the protesters. The Tunisian people don’t need restraint. They need to push through their revolution.
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