Tunisia’s Revolution – End of A Dictatorship

Struggle Against Imperial Domination

Tunisia is a country at the very northern tip of North Africa. It was independent until 1869 when it was turned into a colony of the French. Tunisians became virtual slaves, working for French bosses. This was the fate of the Tunisian people for the next decades. Tunisia is rich in resources with oil, agriculture, and mineral wealth, all of which went to benefit western companies. However, Tunisians did not accept French colonial rule without a fight. An independence movement grew and finally freed Tunisia from French political control in 1956.

From Dictatorship to Dictatorship

The independence movement was led by a French-educated lawyer and politician named Habib Bourgiba. As the first president of Tunisia, Bourgiba represented local elites who believed independence meant economic development for Tunisia under their domination and to their benefit. However, this development of the Tunisian economy did lead to a better standard of living, access to education, and improved conditions for some people. From 1956 to 1987, Bourgiba ruled Tunisia.

In the 1980s, Tunisia was being choked by international competition. Unemployment crept up, state banks failed, and people starved. To survive, the government needed money. That money would come at a price.

A Plague of Privatization

In 1987, the Tunisian General Ben Ali overthrew Bourgiba in a coup, promising to develop the economy with U.S. and European monetary aid. By overthrowing Bourgiba, he opened the way to a different sort of development for Tunisia – one dominated by foreign investment and exploitation by international corporations.

From 1987 till today, Tunisia has undergone a series of economic reforms under the iron fist of President Ben Ali, to the great benefit of international corporations. Tunisia was known as one of the Africa “lions”, countries whose economies were reaping huge profits for international corporations. But this economic miracle was meaningless for most Tunisians.

From 1987 to 2003, the economy grew by five percent per year. What kind of growth? Publicly owned industries and utilities were sold off to foreign companies. Workers were forced to work harder for less, and many ended up unemployed. Likewise students who were educated found they were being trained for jobs that didn’t exist anymore. Official unemployment stands at 14 percent, but the workforce is rapidly growing. Over half of the population is under 25, and entering the adult workforce. The result is unemployment for college graduates reaching nearly 20 percent. The revolution of today is fueled by this generation, who is being denied a future.

The Overthrow of Ben Ali

In December a young college graduate burned himself to death in protest. He had been unemployed, barely surviving as a vegetable-seller on the street. The police arrested him for selling without a business license and confiscated his vegetables. He had reached the breaking point. And so had the rest of the country.

The student’s suicide prompted mass protests. Thousands of people poured into the streets. They began by demanding aid for unemployment and control of food prices so they could eat. But quickly they began to question the rule of Ben Ali, the architect of Tunisia’s so called economic reforms.

The Power of Workers

The angry youth found friends and allies among the working class of Tunisia. The union officials, used to timid bargaining, were pushed by the workers themselves to call an all-out general strike, and on January 14th. Ben Ali, the military dictator who had dominated the country for 23 years, was overthrown and forced to flee to Saudi Arabia.

The Future Hangs in the Balance

Today the story is far from over. The dictatorship is deposed but the new government is being run by Ben Ali’s Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi – hardly a big change from the past.

But in driving out Ben Ali, the Tunisian people have realized their power. Ghannouchi has formed a so-called “government of national unity.” But after seeing their power in overthrowing Ben Ali, why should the people of Tunisia unite with the same wealthy Tunisian elite who sold their future to the international corporations for the last 23 years?