Monday, January 31, 2011

How's that Revolution Going?

World news coverage has shifted sharply to the mass demonstrations in Egypt, but let's not forget that Tunisia's new government is just weeks old. The departure of Ben Ali from power and into exile has empowered Tunisia's protestors. To recap, the Tunisian protests sparked after the self-immolation of a college-educated young street vendor who was frustrated by police harassment which stifled his economic prospects.

The young Bouazizi became a symbol of frustration with the political and economic stagnation that had set in during the reign of Ben Ali. The protest coalition quickly attracted middle class support and simultaneous demonstrations across the country from the coast to the South. After nights of street protests, rioting, and unrest, Ben Ali fled the country, handing power off to a transitional government, a collaboration between the opposition and Ben Ali's allies. The revolution emboldened protestors across the Middle East, most remarkably in Egypt. So how is the revolution going in Tunisia?
Protests continue, displaying increasing fragmentation along secular/Islamist lines. The army has come off the sidelines in favor of protecting the transitional government. The January's revolution was successful in deposing Ben Ali largely because the military remained neutral. Police violence continues despite top-down orders to liberalize treatment of protestors.
Protests of the unity government continues, though it is unclear that the opposition maintains widespread support. The reported purging of Ben Ali's party from political, journalistic, and business institutions suggests that opposition is organizing capability to exercise power beyond mass mobilization. The linked article attempts to place the revolution in a revolutionary tradition extending from the 1917 Russian revolution, however the parallels are fairly thin. First of all, the tripartite Russian demands of "Peace, land, bread" are more far reaching, demanding a much more active role of government. The Romanov regime largely neglected the development of the country, including the urban economy. The Tsar had thrust Russia into the First World War, while European affairs were a concern unique to the highest echelons of Russian society, deepening a sense that the Russian government was not acting in the citizens' interests. Indeed, the conscript army provided much of the organization through which anti-Tsarist energy was funneled.

By contrast, the Tunisian revolution is much more focused on purging Ben Ali's party from political life. The party's lack of interest in developing the Tunisian economy certainly fueled discontent, but the catalytic event and symbol of the revolution was the suicide of Bouazizi. He particularly represented active repression and harassment by police. His economic desperation was identified with active coercion from the state apparatus. The political liberalization of the country is one demand of the mainstream protestors, but religious oppression is a parallel grievance advanced by the Islamist protestors. The "deepening of the Revolution" to borrow the Russian phrase is a result of escalating substantive economic and pacifist demands which the 1917 provisional government was not able to meet. The explicit demands of the Tunisian revolutionaries have thus far remained political. The frantic, accelerating revolution which created the Soviet state are not likely to be reproduced. Most importantly, the soviets were organized around radical participatory democracy. Tunisian revolutionary organizers do not appear to be intent on creating grassroots democratic institutions that created the Russian run-away radicalization. Islamists oppose democratic forms and will not persuade secular Tunisians to join them. The Islamist party might gain control of an existing government via the ballot box, but the Islamists do not have the interest in creating the types of organizations that create escalating substantive demands and lead to a deepening revolution. If the revolution deepens, it will not do so in an Islamist direction.

Perhaps I've been overselling the moderation of the revolution. After all, the 1917 Russian Revolution also produced a moderate provisional government, which merged a traditional parliament with the soviet structure. The soviets progressively radicalized and the Bolsheviks seized power, preempting the election of a legitimate democratic national government. However, the tone of the revolutionaries seems largely moderate, willing to trust democratically elected elites so long as they serve the interests of the people of Tunisia.

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