World in View: Tunisia put to the test

September 11, 2021

From the September-October 2021 issue of News & Letters

by Gerry Emmett

The Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in December 2010 shook the world. In opposition to that historic freedom movement, the old order threw up degenerate monsters like Syria’s Assad, Egypt’s al-Sisi, and their imperialist patrons in Russia, Iran, and the U.S.

Because Tunisia’s politics haven’t been entirely defined by violence—although there has been enough of that—the country provides a test case of the need for the philosophy of revolution in permanence to become a political determinant.

This is clear as President Kais Saied on Aug. 23 unconstitutionally extended the suspension of parliament first declared July 25. Saied has suspended some civil liberties, such as the right to a fair trial, and countenanced (if not ordered) an attack on the offices of Al Jazeera by dozens of armed, plainclothes police. He has placed a number of opposition politicians under house arrest.


Saied was able to do this owing to the unpopularity of the existing government, which earlier this year had beaten and arrested thousands of young protestors. The public’s disdain for the existing political parties had already been shown by a record lack of voter participation in recent elections.

A lack of affect, and formal speaking style, had given Saied the nickname “Robocop.” He was also deliberately vague about his views, and as far as he was untainted by political corruption and socially conservative, was able to gain support from both Left and Right voters. Many came out in support of his suspension of parliament.

It is unclear what he intends next. It is apparent that this constitutional lawyer—this was his previous occupation—would like to write his own constitution. But only this bourgeois sphinx knows what that might be like.


Since 2011, the opposition between a largely secular “Left” and a more religious “Right” has delimited bourgeois democratic politics. This could have been the starting point for a revolutionary politics, as it was for Marx in 1843. But the Tunisian Left has been unable to transcend this Enlightenment contradiction, despite the vital working-class participation in the 2011 revolution.

In February, Left demonstrations remembered the 2013 murders of Marxist politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, which many blame on the Islamist Ennahda Party. Whatever the truth, the killings benefited the existing capitalist order.

This has been seen in regard to the test of world politics, the Syrian Revolution. While Tunisia broke off relations with Assad’s genocidal regime in 2012, it re-established them in 2016. This was allegedly in response to the many Tunisian youth who had gone to Iraq and Syria to join Daesh (the “Islamic State,” or ISIS).

More recently Tunisia joined Saudi Arabia and Egypt in calling to restore the Syrian regime’s membership in the Arab League. It is a political catastrophe prefigured by the Left—when Assad supporters attacked Free Syria activists at the 2015 World Social Forum in Tunis.

President Saied can only bridge this contradiction through silence, ambiguity, and arbitrary authority for so long. The disaffected masses will be thinking their own thoughts. The myth of the mindless and faceless “Arab street” died in Tunisia ten years ago. The workers, women, youth, national minorities and non-bureaucratic thinkers, for whom the philosophy of revolution in permanence exists, will yet have their say.

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