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North Africa's own Intifada

Tunisian youth, workers and professional people have drawn a line against corrupt autocracies that is having powerful repercussions from Lebanon to Libya and beyond. It is the first time since 1985 that a mass people’s movement has overthrown a regime in an Arab country.

They have defied the mantra that the Arab masses are simply passive subjects of dictatorial leaders. The majority in society are beginning to stand up and rebel. The uprising has seen tens of thousands of youth, workers and professionals, take to the streets in a country of only ten million.

The movement has been spontaneous and secular in response to sharp price increases and soaring youth unemployment, themselves a result of the economic crisis in the southern Mediterranean from Spain and Portugal to north Africa.

The revolt was sparked when an unemployed student in a central province set fire to himself when police tried to stop him selling fruit from a street cart. Unrest burst out around the country spurred on by young people using Facebook. In extraordinary scenes one soldier even embraced a demonstrator.

Small wonder that President’s Ben Ali’s first replacement, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, did not last long. Tunisians see him as the architect of the economic policies which allowed Ben Ali’s wife to accumulate vast wealth. Details of the ruling family’s corruption were revealed in US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks at the end of last year, confirming Tunisians’ own suspicions.

A state of emergency continues in the capital Tunis and around the country. Police loyal to the old regime and military are in armed conflict. The bursts of joy at the overthrow of a decaying, oppressive and corrupt regime are being tempered by the continuing conflict between the military factions and especially brutal reprisals in the rural interior like Kassarine and Thala.

As a writer for CNN notes, “North Africa is seeing its own Intifada”. Behind the surface differences between Tunisia and its neighbours, lies “a more profound and general set of conditions that serve as a common source of populist discontent”. The Tunisian uprising is part of a chain of events from Morocco to Egypt “directed at the institutionalized political oppression that each regime represents and the deeply corrupt ways in which power is manipulated and abused by ruling elites”.

The use of the term Intifada is significant. The Arabic word for “tremor”, the strategy was developed by Palestinian leader and Fatah founder Abu Jihad. He organised youth committees in the Palestinian territories in a social and political uprising against Israeli occupation in 1987 – as opposed to individual terror and military action. Forced into exile Abu Jihad was assassinated in Tunis by a hail of bullet fire in front of his family by Israeli Mossad commandos.

The dizzying speed of events in Tunisia is a warning to governments and rulers everywhere in the region and elsewhere. New generations are not prepared to stand by while the fruits of independence from colonial power are squandered by corrupt and dictatorial regimes. Spurring people on is the impact of the global capitalist crisis, which lies behind demands and grievances in every country, including Britain.

Whilst the political parties try to rearrange the deck chairs at the top and as security forces loyal to the old regime kill innocent civilians, ordinary citizens in Tunisia are setting up barricades, arming themselves with sticks and attempting to take control of the streets. Developing people’s assemblies to take economic and political control away from the toothless establishment parties hiding behind the military is now an urgent matter.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
17 January 2011

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