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<nettime> What do the Tunisian people want from their election?
Keith Hart on Wed, 5 Oct 2011 20:04:54 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> What do the Tunisian people want from their election?


The governments of the Soviet Union and its East European dependencies fell
in 1989-90 with almost no loss of life. How could the most powerful and
coercive bureaucracies the planet has ever seen collapse so quickly and
utterly? They ruled in the name of equality through surveillance and fear,
but their structures had been hollowed out. They no longer provided the
means of life and people filled the void with their own initiatives based on
kinship, religion, locality, the black market and similar informal

Tunisia is a small country of no obvious strategic significance, but in
post-colonial Africa and the Arab world, it pioneered the single-party
state. After his medical coup d??tat against Bourguiba, Ben Ali ruled
through police violence and surveillance by the party. We are fortunate to
have available a wonderful dissection of the techniques of repression
deployed by the Ben Ali regime. B?atrice Hibou?s *The Force of
Obedience*(Polity, 2011) was first published in French in 2006, but
her analysis
shines a bright light on the Tunisian revolt and its aftermath.

Ben Ali was removed by his own military commanders and nothing has yet been
done to dismantle the security state. The main problem was never Ben Ali?s
absolute power or even the rapacity of his extended family. It was the
bureaucracy?s ability to reward obedience and to spread fear and anxiety
through the disruption of everyday practices, especially those affecting
economic life. Each bureaucratic encounter, concerning taxes, a licence or
whatever, was made into a potentially destabilizing experience.

The bare facts of the spark that ignited the Tunisian revolt are well-known.
Mohamed Bouazizi was 26 years old and supported an extended family of eight.
He had an unlicensed vegetable cart in Sidi Bouzid, a city 300 km south of
Tunis. In December 2010 a policewoman confiscated his cart and produce.
Bouazizi attempted to pay the fine, but she slapped him, insulted his father
and spat in his face. His complaint was turned away by municipal officials.
Within an hour, he returned to the headquarters, doused himself with
flammable liquid and set himself on fire. His immolation spawned protests
the next day which were dealt with brutally by the police, provoking riots
on a small scale. President Ben Ali, in a gesture that many found repellent,
visited Bouazizi in hospital shortly before he died on 4 January 2011. Ben
Ali fled the country ten days later.

It would be hard to find a more dramatic symbol of the politics of
domination identified by Hibou. The violence, indifference and humiliating
behaviour of officials are all there, but at the core of Mohamed Bouazizi?s
tragic death lies systematic destabilization of the economic life of
individuals. It is not yet known how far the bureaucracy itself has been
internally undermined or whether alternative informal structures have
already been built up in Tunisian society, as in the Soviet example. In any
case, the road to a genuinely democratic government is likely to be a long
one, regardless of the election result.

Even so, the most tangible consequence of the uprising so far is that
Tunisians now feel more able to express themselves in public without fear,
in contrast to grumbling in private before. What they want from any future
government is a guarantee of their own social rights, especially as they
affect everyday economic life. They want more open participation in the
public sphere with justice and dignity. I was asked to comment on the
consequences of the election for redistribution. For sure, there are class
and regional disparities to be redressed and economic problems for which the
state?s agency is indispensable. But economic democracy is the preeminent

What the Tunisians began has since spread, most notably within the Arab
world, but also with echoes in the London riots and the current occupation
of Wall Street. According to the Trinidadian writer and revolutionary,
C.L.R. James, in *American Civilization* (Blackwell, 1993), there is a
growing conflict between the concentration of power at the top of society
and the aspirations of people everywhere for democracy to be extended into
all areas of their lives. This conflict is most advanced in the United
States. The struggle is for civilization or barbarism, for individual
freedom within new and expanded conceptions of social life (*democracy*) or
a fragmented and repressed subjectivity stifled by coercive bureaucracies (*

The media are often caught between the constraints of bureaucracy and the
growing power and presence of people as a force in world society. Commentary
on the Tunisian election is no different. But what was started here by
Mohamed Bouazizi?s death less than a year ago could be as epoch-making in
its own way as the fall of the Berlin wall or Nelson Mandela?s release from
prison two decades earlier.

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