By Samuel Albert*
Thousands of young Tunisians drown trying to make their way to Europe, hoping that the West can offer a life that their own country cannot. Thousands are going to neighbouring Libya or other countries to wage jihad against what they perceive as the Western way of life, thirsty for vengeance against the West and its values.
What these two different situations have in common is that for many young Tunisians, accepting the lives they’ve been given is not an option. The March 2015 massacre of 22 people at the Bardo Museum, one of Tunis’s main cultural tourist attractions, and then the June murder of 38 Europeans at a beach resort in Sousse, demonstrated that Tunisia can’t escape being caught between the contending forces fighting for the allegiance of people across the region. On the one hand, millions of lives and futures are stunted or shattered by the conditions created by the world market and globalised finance, while the monopoly capitalists who rule the imperialist countries prosper. On the other, Islamist political rule is represented as the only alternative to what the West calls “democracy”, the political, social and ideological institutions whose function is to stabilize this intolerable situation.
The Islamist 23-year old graduate student who shot the tourists in Sousse was striking out at a situation where youth from poor families in the interior feel cut off from the modern world as it is enjoyed by some on the coast and people in the West in general. Their fathers work, when they can, wherever they can, in back-breaking construction, and their mothers in investor-owned fields under the thumb of merciless labour contractors who act as if they own them. Workers in factories and call centres are at the mercy of overseas orders. The educational system, especially in the technological fields, fills students with a narrow “input” of skills they can hope to “output” in a vocation promising a different life than their parents – until at last, emerging with diploma in hand, they tumble into the abyss of unemployment or mindless jobs with no prospects.
The phosphate mines that bring much of the country’s wealth produce serious environmental problems and few jobs for the people who live around them. The tourism “industry” touted as the country’s hope is driven by real estate speculation and prostitution, and the huge number of people trapped in prostitution reveals what values and future the West has to offer Tunisia.
In this situation – and in a world with no socialist states and few genuine revolutionary movements, where a reality-based revolutionary vision has not yet become the property of widespread masses of people – the powerful attraction of political and jihadi Islam, now presenting itself as the main challenger to the status quo imposed by Western imperialism, is tragic but not surprising.
The political motives behind the Sousse attack are no mystery: it was a demonstration of Islamism’s strength, not just militarily but in the contested sphere of ideology and the coherence of its politics. It was an armed critique of the country’s subjugation and its unjust, illegitimate and morally corrupt establishment, a demonstration that Islamism is the only political alternative. It dealt a very serious blow to the tourism industry the country and regime depend on. It compelled the army and security forces to spread out in the big cities and coastal areas instead of concentrating on the mountainous region near Algeria and the Libyan border, where they had been mounting an offensive against fundamentalist operational zones.
President Beji Caid Essebsi’s response was to declare a state of emergency to enable new repressive measures against strikes, sit-ins and other movements that have nothing in common with jihadism, and even ban public gatherings and cultural events. “Since 2011 the country has been like a school-yard recess and now that has to end,” declared a pro-government pundit. Essebsi emphasized that his political rivals and fractious friends too had to “get into line” with his government and its Western approved programme. For the sake of stability, he said; well-connected prominent businessmen, widely hated for robbing the public, would be protected from legal action.
In short, the country whose “success” was contrasted with the daunting of the Arab Spring in Egypt, has become like Egypt, in many aspects, if not all.
Like Egypt, the U.S. has been drawing Tunisia closer, providing significant funding and loan guarantees (even though unlike in Egypt, U.S. moves in Tunisia are always at least tinged by rivalry with France, Tunisia’s historic overlord). In May 2015, on the heels of the Bardo museum attack, Essebsi visited Washington, where Obama named Tunisia a “Major Non-Nato ally”, a status bringing more military aid and “strategic cooperation”. In July, Tunisian media reported that a U.S. military base and regional listening post now located in Sicily would be moved to Tunisia.
For the U.S., especially, Tunisia matters most as a “security problem”. Trying to “fix” Tunisia’s “dysfunctional” security services, the U.S, UK and France are taking charge themselves in some matters – for example, the UK’s Scotland Yard is running the investigation of the Sousse massacre.
This increasingly direct interference, motivated by these imperialists’ perceived regional and national interests and not the good of Tunisia, will not save Tunisia from disaster any more than it did in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere . Rather, it heightens the danger that Tunisia will be pulled into the maelstrom of the regional and civil wars between those lined up with the U.S. and groups like Daesh who are the main challenge to its interests at the moment.
What has the “democracy” so praised by the West and its apologists brought Tunisia? And why does the rise of Islamism seem so unstoppable? The answer lies in the way the two trends reinforce each other, even as they ferociously contend for the country’s future.
The hated president Ben Ali is gone, toppled by the opening act of the Arab Spring, but the uprising left the state apparatus fundamentally unchanged. The police forces organized to brutally protect the old regime remain intact. They aggressively beat youth on the streets in poor neighbourhoods and towns as much as ever, and still torture prisoners, political and otherwise. Social movements in the interior are viciously repressed. The military, which supervised the so-called “democratic transition”, continues to make its will known through threats to political parties and the general public. It has held key ministries and governorates (provincial authorities). Prime Minister Habib Essid is only the most prominent figure among the former regime’s men who, rather than losing their authority, have been promoted. The people have had no relief from the bureaucracy that governs much of everyday life and the fate of citizens like Mohamed Bouazizi, the young fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid who set himself and the country on fire on 17 December 2010.
The country’s economy is the same as it was, structured over decades to depend on foreign markets and capital. There have been no serious proposals to change Ben Ali’s economic orientation by any of the major parties. The continued privatization of state enterprises has brought even more obscene wealth to wealthy partners of French, U.S., Saudi and Qatari capital, while promises have sputtered out for projects for economic development in interior areas like Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid where the revolt started. Unemployment is worse than ever.
The electoral system has gathered most of the opposition to the old regime into its fold and turned them into its servitors. The enlistment of former radicals into the “political class” – the set of people allowed to practice politics – has brought cynicism and discredit to the “leftist” ideals they once professed. Less than half of the potential voters bothered to cast a ballot in the last elections.
Unlike the jihadis, the opposition politicians (including so-called “leftists”) most definitely don’t seek or believe in radical change. Lately they have been encouraging Tunisians to hope that new oil deposits (which supposedly have already been found but whose existence is being covered up for obscure interests) can save the country, just as phosphate exports were once hailed as the country’s future. Has having plenty of oil saved Algeria, or instead delivered it even more deeply into the clutches of the global market and its implacable demands, while subsidizing the rule of a handful of men who are that cruel market’s local representatives?
Tunisia’s economic development in 1990s brought the society to where it is today. Its Association Agreement with the EU helped make the country a subcontractor for automotive and electric parts, clothing and call centres, while unable to feed itself without the imports that in turn require ever more economic subordination and massive waste of the potential of the country’s people.
In response to the Sousse massacre, the government has had little to deploy but troops. A government that forbids men under 35 to travel freely – for fear they will join the thousands of Tunisians waging jihad abroad, and then come back – is declaring that it cannot even dream of waging a struggle for the country’s youth, let alone offer a credible alternative. It can do nothing to change a situation which generates wave after wave of Islamists, not only because of the jihad raging in nearby countries but also because under today’s circumstances, the society itself is a matrix for Islamism.
There are different currents of Islamism, but the dividing line between jihadism and electoral Islamism is extremely porous in theory and practice. The leaders of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, who come out of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood current and like to compare themselves with Erdogan’s AKP in Turkey, used jihadi methods before the fall of Ben Ali opened up the way for them to share power in an elected government. During that latter period, Ennahda provided practical and ideological cover for sworn jihadis.
The difference between armed Islamism and electoral Islamism is not a question of loyalty to “democracy”. Any class that rules over an exploitative and oppressive system, in the world’s most developed countries like anywhere else, will opt for whatever form of political rule necessary to preserve its rule. Islamism is defined by its goals, the imposition of Islam as the legal regulator of political and social life (which is very different than defending people’s right to voluntarily practice their religion), and not by whatever means to achieve those goals that might seem most effective at any given moment.
Many reactionary armed forces, including the U.S., encourage young people to murder innocents to assuage their feelings of having been wronged. Islamism can mobilize the blind loyalty of some desperate people among the lowest masses and the resentment of the petite bourgeoisie. It may offer a path to social advancement for many individuals that the status quo does not make available to them. But in terms of class interests, it represents old and new exploiters among imperialist-dominated nations.
The goal of Daesh, al-Qaeda and, in a somewhat different way, the Moslem Brotherhood and the AKP is not to challenge capitalism but to win a new place for themselves that has not been possible under the geopolitical order in the Middle East that the U.S. built to serve its supremacy. While the alignments of class forces differ from country to country in the Islamic world, it is surely no accident that the leadership, ideological training, financing, logistics and arms used by today’s two main strands of Islamism come from the predominantly capitalist ruling classes of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, often in alignment with Turkey, on the one hand, and on the other, the Islamic Republic of Iran. These are outstanding examples of regimes whose ruling classes with roots in pre-capitalist modes of production have become inseparable from the private accumulation of capital amid the globalized production relations of the imperialist system and its ineluctable economic logic. Conflicting interests and not just religious differences between Shias and Sunnis explain why Islamists can line up on opposing sides or alternately be used by and oppose imperialist projects.
At the same time, Islamism has its own dynamic as an ideology and political movement, a momentum where what is perceived as its advance against foreign-imposed humiliation favours more advance. The basis for Islamism in material conditions and its congruency with and usefulness to reactionary class interests should not lead to underestimating the great importance of the ideological factor in its rise. A major reason for its attractive power is the absence of a clearly-posed ideological and political alternative to the status quo that has the potential strength of being based on a true understanding of reality and the real interests of the vast majority of people.
Given the reactionary nature of Islamist goals, it follows that they would be faithful students of imperialism when it comes to using terrorism against the masses for political aims. Theirs is not a blind violence but something even worse – deliberate barbarism meant to create terror among people for political goals, just as the imperialists have done from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to U.S.-backed Israeli assaults on the people of Gaza and Lebanon and the American-led rampage that destroyed Iraq.
Because of its reactionary nature, Islamism often has ambiguous relations with imperialism and its local regimes. In Algeria, for instance, the 1990s civil war between Islamists and the ruling military had a dimension of a mutual war against the people, the slaughter of intellectuals and others that both sides hated. We’ve seen this in Tunisia, too. In fact, today’s Tunisian government itself rests on an uneasy and unstable alliance between forces representing imperialism and its traditional local flunkies on the one hand and Islamism on the other.
After initially dismissing the significance of the Sousse massacre, President Essebsi declared, “If such incidents happen again, the state will collapse.” One reason for his alarm is that his governing Nidaa Tunes party, answerable to both France and the U.S, was elected on its promise to overturn the Islamisation process initiated by its predecessor in government, Ennahda. At the same time, it cannot (and does not want) to govern without Ennahda’s parliamentary support.
But the problem goes deeper than electoral opportunism. Since Tunisa’s formal independence the country’s rulers have always used religion and religious identity (the constitution’s first article defines Tunisia as a Moslem country) to disguise their fealty to imperialism. They have never forgone the legitimacy of religion and tradition and the religious suffocation of those it governs. This has been combined with repression, including against Islamism when it presented problems – when Ennahda was in rebellion against the government rather than one of its pillars.
Now, especially because today’s Tunisian government suffers from the inherited illegitimacy of the Ben Ali regime, whose ignominious downfall at the hands of the people has not been forgotten even by those currently politically inactive, and because it has even more reason than Ben Ali to fear the masses of people, it is extremely unwilling to confront Islamism, especially in ideological terms, but in other ways as well.
For instance, take the 2013 assassination of Chokri Belaid, a major leader of the Tunisian electoral left and an important symbol to many secular intellectuals and others. The fact that he had defended the Islamists under the Ben Ali regime did not stop Islamists from killing him. Neither the Ennahda government at the time nor today’s supposedly secular government tried very hard to elucidate this crime. In July 2015, when 30 men accused in connection with the murder were summoned for trial, most of them refused to appear in court. The government did not dare try to defeat this challenge to its legal system and moral authority in the name of Islam.
After the Sousse massacre president Essebsi called for the shuttering of 80 mosques he said were run by Salafists, but religious fundamentalism is thriving throughout the extensive state-supervised religious establishment, the public educational system and the dominant culture in general, pressuring and intimidating the many millions who are not eager to live in a society governed by religious law. For instance, the police have started arresting people for public possession of beer, which is not illegal and until now not uncommon, with the explanation that such behaviour by Moslems (and all Tunisians are presumed to be Moslem) constitutes “public debauchery”. Foreigners with non-Moslem-sounding names are free from the religious restrictions the police have taken upon themselves to enforce.
How can a ruling class and power structure that constantly reproduce Islamism, and depend on it ideologically and politically, confront armed Islamism without endangering its own existence? This seems to explain Essebsi’s warning about how the state might not be able to withstand another Islamist attack, not because it would be defeated militarily but because of its own explosive political and ideological contradictions.
While Ennahda’s role in the current government is small, no major political force considers its Islamist project out of bounds or opposes the growing Islamization of Tunisian society as a matter of principle rather than taste or lifestyle preference. This is especially striking in the case of many people in the “leftist” Popular Front, the self-appointed representatives of the country’s “patriots” and “democrats”, which in the last elections supported Essebsi in the name of opposing Ennahda.
More recently, in response to Islamist pressure, the Front’s spokesman, the former “communist” Hamma Hammami (in reality an opponent of the revolutionary communism represented by China’s Mao Tsetung) declared that he had no “ideological problem” with Islamists because he, too, is a Moslem. Regardless of his personal beliefs (and “leftists” perpetuating and worshiping traditional thinking is an old and serious problem in most countries), the society any kind of Islamists want is totally unacceptable, even if only considered from the point of view of what it means for women, half of the world’s population, not to mention other aspects of the emancipation of humanity from ignorance and superstition, and all forms of oppressive social relations. If some political organizations, whether Trotskyist or falsely self-proclaimed Maoists, can use the excuse of opposing imperialism to find anything to support in Islamism, that speaks volumes about what kind of society they are willing to accept or help govern.
Not unexpectedly, the Front’s response to the Sousse massacre was capitulation of another sort. In the face of imminent danger, they demand the beefing up of the army – whose job is to defend the status quo for imperialism. It is all too typical to see “leftists” who never considered how to make a real revolution scuttle back and forth from tailing Islamism to throwing themselves into the arms of the imperialists.
The architectonic forces that began to break through the surface in December 2010 are still at work. That revolt involved a broad section of the people, spurred by youth in the interior and relayed by students in coastal cities and finally the capital. People from all social classes took part, including elements of the bourgeoisie excluded from Ben Ali’s favoured inner circle or those who felt that dumping him was the best available alternative to a prolonged and cascading upheaval. That unity of “the people” quickly hit the limits of the fundamentally antagonistic class interests at work. Islamists as such played very little role in the revolt. But those domestic and foreign observers who congratulated the Tunisian people for the “moderation” of the outcome, which they attributed to a supposed Tunisian character, misjudged the depth of the crisis and what it would take to resolve it.
What has come even more clearly to light after the Sousse attack is not the importation of exterior conflicts into Tunisian society but a particular, localized and explosive expression of contradictions at work on a world scale. There would be no modern-day Islamism without the economic and social changes in the predominantly Islamic countries brought about by imperialist development. Further, the criminal actions of the U.S. and its allies in recent years (in Palestine, Iraq, etc.) have been inseparable from this development. Without all that, Islamism would still be a minor trend with little future.
Instead it has become a “perverse expression”, as Bob Avakian has put it, of the fundamental contradiction at work in today’s world: between the socialization of production that is drawing the whole globe into productive processes and transforming economic relations, and the private – and therefore exploitative and competition-driven – appropriation of the surplus value thus produced. This is what has led to the accumulation of capital in the hands of the monopoly capitalist rulers of the imperialist countries and the horrendous and unbearable intensification of the world’s inequalities and lopsided development.
It is a “perverse expression” because instead of a solution, it is an obstacle to resolving this contradiction by moving toward a world where the abolition of the private ownership of the necessary means to live, and all the social relations and ideas based on that, enables everyone to work for the common good while fully blossoming as individuals. Imperialism and Islamism can be called “the two outmodeds” because neither represents what the world could be if the enormous productive forces developed by humanity, and most basically the people, could be liberated and enabled to transform the world and themselves.
Tunisia cannot be a haven from the world’s storms. It remains a country whose contradictions cannot be solved by anything other than a full revolution – the emergence of a flag, programme, party and broad revolutionary movement whose goal is to defeat the forces of the old state and establish a new kind of political power that can free the people at the bottom, along with the middle strata and intellectuals and others, to begin transforming society in a far more radical and liberating fashion that Islamism or imperialism could even pretend to offer.
Otherwise, the conflict between the “two outmodeds” will continue to rage and wreak death and destruction, with the masses of people deluded victims instead of conscious protagonists.
* Samuel Albert writes for A World to Win News Service.