Impressions from a comrade in Tunisia

by J.A. Myerson

I just got off the phone with a friend who’s in Tunisia doing some writing. I took a few notes on our conversation, which was fascinating. My impressions:

Tunisia is bleeding jobs every day. Nothing has been done in the rural areas (where the revolution started) to address the needs of the people, who are impoverished and agitated. There’s wage repression and no foreign investment coming in and so the government is turning to union-busting and austerity. (We can look to the streets of Athens and Madrid and London and Madison this year to see how that works out.)

My friend’s prediction: in a year or two, people who are now pretty excited about the constituent assembly, will find what people in the United States have, which is that the political process is rigged by the corrupt at the expense of a lot of privation and abuse, and then “this thing is gonna blow open again.” The leadership class right now might not be the “old guard,” but it definitely does not look like the demonstrators risking their lives. That will not go unnoticed for very long.

Though a lot of the energy from the social movement has gone into the political parties (and though a lot of the country is perhaps glad about Ben Ali’s ouster but put off by the impoliteness of the protesters and anyway considers the revolution over), the social movement is definitely alive and well, and it’s definitely made up of a lot of young people. In the universities, and especially in the rural areas, like where Mohamed Bouazizi was from, radicalism is bubbling.

Included in this world is an indigenous dissident media movement (as opposed to those financed from here, say), including a website I’m encouraged to check out because, alleges my friend, it’s doing really good work reporting: Nawaat.

There we can keep up on the mischief in the Interior Ministry, which, contrary to other ministries whose headquarters are guided perhaps by a tank, is surrounded by barbed wire, hundreds of soldiers and at least eight tanks. The state security apparatus remains essentially in tact from the previous regime and there is great nervousness about taking it on. (Roughly 250,000 people are part of the state security apparatus. Ben Ali’s army was a tiny fraction of the size.)

For now, these fundamental issues are not getting addressed in the political sphere. The party in power, a fairly moderate Islamist party, won’t tell you about its economic program on its campaign literature, but it will talk a lot about language. There is a large cultural current toward the “Arabization” of a country who still derives much from its previous colonizers, the French, and is still feeling the effects of a post-imperial shift.

The US Ambassador extended a social invitation my friend’s way. My friend had no idea how the Ambassador even knew my him to be in Tunis. “Strange people,” he tells me, “doing strange things at an interesting time.”

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