Workers Vanguard No. 982
10 June 2011
Economic Crisis and the Tunisia Uprising
The following is based on a report given by a comrade of the Ligue Trotskyste de France to a recent gathering of International Communist League members in Europe.
The reason the various uprisings that have been shaking the Arab world have taken place now and not five, ten or 20 years ago has, in my opinion, economic origins. The devastation of the world depression has added to a situation that had caused steady deterioration in the living conditions for the working masses of North Africa in the last 15 years or so, as seen especially in the huge rise in food prices and the slashing back of government food subsidies. The worsening of their conditions was caused by the adoption of IMF-dictated structural measures beginning in the 1980s and then various agreements, mainly between the European Union (EU) and North African countries, in the second part of the 1990s. This development needs to be traced in part to the capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed the Soviet Union.
The bottom line of the agreements was based on the imperialists’ promise that the European capitalists would outsource part of their industry to the countries of the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia). In reality, the domestic markets of these Arab countries are too small to draw massive foreign investment. Furthermore, industrial production outsourced from the European Union for export back to Europe was moved in large part to the capitalist sector in the Chinese deformed workers state. There is some spare parts production for the auto and aerospace industry in Tunisia, but the bulk of the export-oriented industry is cheap textile production with little value added.
The aim of the agreements was to dismantle tariff barriers between both sides of the Mediterranean and to do away with whatever minimal labor legislation had been in place. In fact, this process started first in Tunisia, and this is the country where it went furthest. So it is not a coincidence that the uprisings started in Tunisia.
This “neoliberalism” has left a devastated economy in North Africa. Of course, there are variations depending in particular on the presence or not of an important oil industry. Algeria is a major producer of oil and gas with significant production potential. However, heavy industry in Algeria, which had been built in the 1970s, has been largely dismantled. Steel production was downsized and then sold to Mittal Steel, among others. In general, from Morocco to Syria between 12 and 15 percent of the population is employed in industry, including light industry. The one exception is Tunisia, where the figure is above 20 percent.
The question of the impact of outsourcing on the strength of the working class and the trade unions is very relevant to North Africa. Labor regulations have been largely dismantled. There is a growing number of workers employed informally, through labor contractors, etc., including in the so-called “formal sector.” The head of the Tunisian high school teachers union told Informations Ouvrières (21 April), newspaper of the Lambertist Parti Ouvrier Indépendant:
“The great majority of the mobilizations demand a solution to the fundamental problem, which is employment and was a central demand of the revolution. There are very few strikes which raise the question of wage increases, even though this problem is far from negligible in many companies which do not respect any regulations and laws and underpay their workers. Most mobilizations want to end two plagues: outsourcing and temporary work.”
Representative of the growth of the informal sector proper was Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid in December, sparking the revolt.
There are also demographic reasons, which have come to a head in this period. After independence in the 1950s and 1960s, there was an explosive population growth due to the improvement of health systems. From around 1974 on, mass emigration to Europe was cut off as the European countries tightened their borders. While the life expectancy of the working class increased, the mass influx of youth provoked an explosion of the population able to work and consequently an explosion in structural mass unemployment rates.
This has been aggravated for college-educated youth. The governments in the Maghreb, particularly Tunisia, made a major effort to educate their youth. In the years after independence, when the development of national capitalism was based on a strong state sector and a significant teaching and health apparatus, the natural employment perspectives for college-educated youth were centered on the civil service. This has been increasingly reversed in the last 15 years or so, particularly as a result of IMF- and EU-dictated measures to reduce the public sector. As a result, the unemployment rate increases with the level of education. Even before the recent uprisings, it was due to reach catastrophic proportions in the next two or three years. Some 70,000 additional college graduates are scheduled to enter the labor market this fall, a large part of whom will be unemployed.
Since January, the situation in Tunisia has been made worse by the return of 20,000 Tunisians who had jobs in Libya and by foreign refugees from Libya, and has been aggravated as well by the catastrophic situation of the tourist industry, which is a major employer. People have tried to cross the sea and get to France, with hundreds of youth drowned (see “Refugees Drown as Imperialists Step Up War on Libya,” WV No. 981, 27 May). Now there are concentrations of Tunisian youth in the streets of Paris and Marseilles desperately looking for housing and jobs and trying to avoid police roundups. The IMF and World Bank have started to draw circles around Tunisia, with promises of loans to supposedly bridge the currently dire situation. As always in such circumstances, and as cruelly experienced right now by Greek, Irish and Portuguese workers, these schemes amount to channeling more fresh money into bank coffers and imposing more drastic austerity measures on workers.
In the last 15 years, the social security and unemployment compensation systems, which were basic at best, have been partially dismantled, so that insecurity at all levels has increased. In this context, it is quite remarkable that the working class has managed to appear as a factor at all in Tunisia, although of course not as a class for itself—i.e., conscious of its role as the gravedigger of capitalism. The working class remains chained to its own bourgeoisie by the trade-union bureaucracy and the small left groups that have emerged out of it lately, particularly the former Communist Party, called Ettajdid, the ex-Maoist Workers Communist Party of Tunisia (PCOT) and the ex-Pabloite League of the Workers Left (see “For Permanent Revolution Across North Africa! Tunisia: Dictator Flees, Protests Continue,” WV No. 973, 4 February).
Tunisia is supposedly the most advanced country in the Arab world when it comes to the status of women. The wives of both the late Habib Bourguiba, the country’s first ruler after independence from France, and the ousted dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali played important political roles, which is unique. People came from all over North Africa and the Arabian peninsula because prostitution in Tunisia was not illegal. Prostitutes were said to fink on their customers for the files of the political police. Polygamy was illegal, unlike abortion and contraception.
But the reality is of course quite grim. Arranged marriages are frequent, at least in the bourgeoisie. They still have magic rituals called the tasfih to supposedly protect the virginity of pubescent girls, particularly in the more backward interior of the country but also in Tunis. Hymenoplasty (surgical restoration of the hymen to give the appearance of virginity) and the like seem to be common among the more petty-bourgeois layers. Sexual harassment at work is frequent.
However, it appears that the ICL has been the only organization that has been prominently raising the woman question. In Egypt, the left capitulates to the Muslim Brotherhood. In Tunisia, left groups are also into class-collaborationist alliances with the Islamists. They portray them as “good guy” Islamists like Turkey’s ruling bourgeois Justice and Development Party. But I believe that a more important part of the reason why the Tunisian left has been silent on the woman question is because they are at bottom left-Bourguibists, and it was Bourguiba who established the family code immediately after independence. They believe that Tunisia is truly a progressive country regarding the woman question. They believe, as Obama would say, that 90 percent of the road has been traveled already toward the final emancipation of women. Skillfully, the government has announced compulsory sexual parity in the lists for elections to the constituent assembly. Slates not complying with this rule would be automatically eliminated.
This brings me to the pervasiveness of bourgeois nationalism. From the meetings of the Tunisian left in Paris that we have attended to the mass rallies in downtown Tunis, the national anthem has been sung and the national flag waved. The opportunist left has built illusions in the army, even without the Egyptian mythology of defense of the fatherland against Zionist Israel. As we have said, the ideology of the reformist left used to be the class-collaborationist line of “two stages” toward socialism, which has always ended in bloody defeat for the working class. Now it is one stage, toward a “democratic republic,” i.e., bourgeois democracy full stop. As we wrote regarding North Africa and the Near East in the February WV article on Tunisia:
“What is essential is the forging of revolutionary workers parties like the Bolshevik Party that led the working class of Russia to power in the 1917 October Revolution—parties committed to the program of permanent revolution, addressing the burning needs of the masses and unalterably leading them to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat. This is the program of the International Communist League. For a socialist federation of North Africa!”