The causes of the Tunisian revolution go well beyond Ben Ali and his party

Interview with Mohamed Hassan, a former Ethiopian ambassador, and leading expert in the politics of the Middle East and the Arab and Islamic world generally.

Interview conducted by Grégoire Lalieu and Michel Collon on 1 February  2011, i.e., after the Tunisian revolution but before the downfall of Mubarak. – translated from French original. Reproduced from the Investig’Action website (www., with thanks


The Tunisians have brought down the dictator Ben Ali. Today they continue to struggle against his people heading the transition government.  In this latest chapter of our series ‘Understanding the Muslim world’, Mohamed Hassan explains what is at stake in the Tunisian revolution and its deep causes: how the liberal nationalism espoused by Bourguiba subjected Tunisia to western interests, plunging the people into poverty; how a repressive state was created in order to maintain that system; why the dictators of the Arab world have come to the point of falling; and how Islamism has become a safety valve for imperialism


In December 2010 revolts exploded in Tunisia.  A month later, President Ben Ali escapes from country after a 23-year reign.  What were the causes of this revolution?  And how is it that this people’s movement managed to bring down the dictator while other attempts all failed?

In order for there to be a revolution, it is necessary for the population to refuse to continue to live in the same way as before, and for the ruling class to be in no position to govern in the same way as before.  On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young fruit and vegetable seller, immolated himself after police confiscated his merchandise and the local authorities had prevented him from working.  The conditions existed for a revolution to break out in Tunisia, and the suicide of Bouazizi was the fuse.

For in fact the Tunisians did not want to live as they had done up to then.  They were no longer prepared to accept corruption, police repression, lack of freedoms, unemployment, etc.  And also, the ruling class could not govern as it had been doing.  The corruption under Ben Ali had grown to phenomenal levels while the population faced poverty.  To maintain these conditions, police repression had to increase, but it had reached its limit.  The élite in power was completely disconnected from the people because there was no interlocutor.  As a result, when the people’s revolts broke out, the ruling class had no choice but to resort to violence.  But faced with the people’s determination, repression too had reached its limit.  This is one of the keys to the success of the Tunisian people’s revolution: it managed to embrace all segments of society, including people in the army and police who sympathised with the demonstrators.  The apparatus of repression could not function as it had done before either.  If a revolt emerges but is not able to bring together different segments of society, it cannot develop into a real revolution.

Even after Ben Ali left the protests continued.  The situation rejected by the Tunisians is not the legacy of a single man?

The placards saying ‘Ben Ali must go’ have been replaced by placards saying ‘the RCD must go’.  Tunisians are opposing the president’s political party because they fear seeing his men taking power.  But the truth is that the basic causes that have brought the Tunisians to revolt by and large go beyond Ben Ali and the RCD.  It is therefore not enough to get rid of the president for a people to gain freedom and improve its conditions of existence.

Corruption, unemployment, social inequality … These are the effects of western imperialist domination over Tunisia.  Because Tunisia, since its independence, has become a US project.

What do you understand by imperialism?

Imperialism is the process through which the capitalist powers politically and economically control foreign countries.  Western multinationals pillage the resources of the countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia.  They find there an outlet for the capital they accumulate and they exploit cheap labour there. I say that the multinationals are pillaging because they are not buying these resources at their proper price and the local populations get no benefit from this wealth.  This pillage would not be possible if in these exploited countries there were not leaders defending the interests of the multinationals.  These leaders enrich themselves on the way. They are what is called the comprador bourgeoisie.  They have no political vision for their own countries; they produce no wealth and do not develop the real economy.  But they enrich themselves personally by trading their country’s resources to the multinationals.  Obviously, the people are the big victims of all this.

When you are an anti-imperialist nationalist, on the other hand, you seek to develop independently.  You nationalise the key sectors of your economy rather than leaving them to be managed by foreign companies. In this way you create a national economy for the country and you enable it to grow on an independent basis.  That is what I call a democratic national revolution:  it is national because it is independent of imperialist powers and democratic because it is against feudalism and the country’s reactionary elements.

Yet Bourguiba, the first Tunisian president, was considered to be a socialist.  Under his rule, the state still played a very important part in the economy.

Bourguiba’s political party was socialist in name only. If the state played an important part, it was only for the benefit of the elite.  It was what is called state capitalism. Moreover, Bourguiba systematically eliminated all progressive and anti-imperialist elements from his party.  As a result, this party became a one-man party, completely subject to US imperialism.

Why was Tunisia important for the US?

In order to understand properly the importance of this country for US strategy, we must analyse the political context of the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s.  In 1952 army officers overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk in Egypt and proclaimed a republic.  With Nasser in command, Egypt became a base for Arab nationalism influenced by revolutionary ideas inspired by socialism.  As shown by the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Nasser’s seizure of power was hard for the West because the politics of the Egyptian president was totally opposed to the hegemonic aspirations of the western powers in the near and middle East.  Worse still: Nasser’s anti-imperialist ideas were being emulated in the region, in Yemen, for example, where in 1962 a revolution divided the country, with the south becoming a bastion of the Arab revolutionary movement.  That same year, the independence of Algeria sent a strong signal to Africa and the Third World, putting the imperialist powers on alert.  We should also take note of Gadaffi’s coup d’état in Libya in 1969.  The colonel took power and nationalised major sectors of the economy, to the great disadvantage of the West.  10 years later the Islamic revolution in Iran brought down the Shah, one of the most important pillars of US strategy in the Middle East.

In short, at that time, a very strong anti-imperialist movement was challenging US strategic interests in the Arab world.  Happily for Washington, not every country in the region followed in Nasser’s footsteps. This was the case with Tunisia.  In 1957, a year after Tunisian independence, Bourguiba became one of the first Arab leaders to write in the prestigious US journal, Foreign Affairs.  The title of his article?  ‘In matters that concern her, Tunisia has unequivocally chosen to make its way in the free world of the West’.  This was at the height of the cold war.  The Soviets were supporting Nasser whose influence in the region was spreading.  And the US needed pro-imperialist agents like Bourguiba in order not to lose its strategic control of the Arab world.

Can one be a nationalist and a pro-imperialist at the same time?

Bourguiba was a liberal nationalist with anti-communist ideas which drove him into the western imperialist camp. In fact I consider Bourguiba to be the George Padmore of the Arab world.  Padmore was a Pan-African leader who originated from the Caribbean.  In 1956 he wrote a book called Panafricanism or communism: the coming struggle in Africa.  Just like Bourguiba, he held anti-communist ideas even though he claimed to be a nationalist; but his political outlook was to a large extent subservient to the interests of imperialist powers.  Nationalism was just a cover because their politics were far from independent.  Padmore was a major influence on the first President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, one of the instigators of the African Union.  His pro-imperialist ideas were also to spread all over the continent with the results that today one can see celebrations more or less everywhere of the 50th anniversaries of independence, but many Africans know that they never did become independent.  President Nkrumah himself later regretted having followed Padmore’s advice.

In Tunisia too, its subjection to imperialist interests was soon resented and it became clear that the nationalism preached by Bourguiba was just a façade.  During the 1970s, for example, the President promulgated a whole host of measures designed to attract foreign investment:  freedom from taxation of company profits for 10 years, freedom from all obligations and taxes for 20 years, freedom from taxation on income from real property, etc.  Tunisia in this way became a vast workshop for western multinationals which repatriated the profits that they made.

Hasn’t Tunisia all the same made significant progress under Bourguiba?

Yes there have been positive advances: in education, in the position of women, etc.  This is above all because the Tunisian elite did include certain progressives – though they were quickly sidelined.  Also, Tunisia needs to dress in its prettiest clothes.  After all, this country was playing a major role in the US strategy to counter communist influence in the Arab world.  But what did you have on the other side:  progressive revolutionary movements which had overthrown backward monarchies and which enjoyed the support of the masses.  You cannot oppose this movement by supporting a feudal system.  Saudi Arabia managed to do that because it could use its petrol money for the purpose.  But Tunisia had no such resources at its disposal, and therefore had to present a somewhat progressive image.  In the fight against communism, its role was to present itself as a Third World country that had achieved success by following the path of liberal nationalism.

But under the window dressing the reality was less flattering.  As I said, Bourguiba had systematically eliminated the progressive elements who didn’t follow him.  The anti-imperialist elements who wanted Tunisia to be economically as well as politically independent, those who wanted to operate independently in the Third World and on the question of the Israel-Palestine conflict, all of them were fought.  And what was intended to become a success of liberal nationalism became a dictatorship.

When Ben Ali succeeded Bourguiba in 1987, did he follow the same path?

Absolutely.  One can even say that submission to western interests was accentuated.  Ben Ali was a straightforward US agent.  In 1980, when he was ambassador in Poland, he even acted as a conduit for communications between the CIA and Lech Walesa, the trade union leader who was fighting against the Soviet Union.

In 1987, when Ben Ali took over the presidency of Tunisia, the country was heavily indebted as a result of the capitalist crisis of 1973.  Moreover, at that time, the ideas of Milton Friedman and his Chicago Boys were very much in fashion.  These ultra-liberal economists thought that the market is an entity capable of self-regulation and that the state should under no circumstances involve itself in the economy. The Tunisian technical elite, having for the most part studied in the US, were heavily influenced by Friedman’s theories.  Ben Ali abandoned the state capitalism that had prevailed in the Bourguiba era.  Under the supervision of the IMF and the World Bank, it embarked on a programme of privatisation which was far broader than the one his predecessor had already undertaken since the 1970’s.

What were the effects of this new political economy?

First of all, the privatisation of the Tunisian economy allowed Ben Ali and his in-laws, the Trabelsi, to enrich themselves personally.  Corruption reached a very high level and Tunisia became a country that had completely surrendered to imperialism, led by a comprador bourgeoisie.  Of course, Ben Ali and his clan did not have much in the way of raw materials to sell to the western multinationals.  But they did take advantage of the education system that Bourguiba had put in place to develop a service economy.  The fact is that Tunisian labour is both well qualified and very cheap.  It therefore attracts foreign investment.

Tourism too was strongly developed to the point that it became the pillar of the Tunisian economy.  One can see the elite’s lack of political vision.  In fact no country can develop its economy on the basis of tourism if it has not first developed a national economic base.  The tourism industry consumes an enormous amount but brings very little to the Tunisian people.  Just imagine: while western tourists consume gallons of water in order to relax in swimming pools, jacuzzis or for watering golf courses, the poor peasants in the south have to cope with arid farmland.

But it is not just the peasants who suffered as a result of this policy.  Generally, the social conditions of the Tunisian people deteriorated while the entourage of the president amassed a colossal fortune. Everybody knew the regime was corrupt.  Therefore, to keep the system going, the regime had to suppress all dissent.  The repression became even more brutal under Ben Ali: the merest criticism, or even a desire for modernity and opening up, was no longer allowed.  Such a situation could only lead to a popular uprising.  Moreover, by wanting to grab for his family alone the wealth of the country, Ben Ali enraged part of the traditional Tunisian bourgeoisie.

You say that political repression was very strong.  Are there in spite of this still opposition forces around today who are capable of leading the people’s revolution now that Ben Ali has fallen ?

Real opposition parties were banned under Ben Ali.  Nevertheless some parties continued to exist underground.  For example the first Tunisian communist party could not emerge in the light of day and organise as if it were just any political party in a democracy.  But it continued to function secretly through organisations of civil society (teachers, farmers, doctors, prisoners, etc.)  The PTPD was thus able to build up a social base and gain solid experience during this period.  That is exceptional in the Arab world.

I think that two major challenges face the opposition parties at the moment.  First of all, they need to come out from the shadows and make themselves known to the broad public in Tunisia.  Then they need to organise a front of resistance to imperialism.  Of course the imperialist powers are seeking to keep the Ben Ali system going without Ben Ali.  We can see this at the moment with the government of national unity that the Tunisians reject, which is very positive.  But the imperialist powers aren’t going to stop there.  They will certainly seek to impose an international electoral commission to support the candidates who will best defend their interests.  It is therefore necessary to resist such interference by creating a united front for the purpose of building a real democracy.

Are the opposition parties capable of overcoming their differences sufficiently to create such a front?

I know that there are certain political organisations which are reluctant to associate themselves with the Islamo-nationalist Ennahda movement.  This movement appeared in the 1980’s.  It promoted an anti-imperialist line and has in fact been subjected to political repression.  Why not include Ennahda in a front to resist the interference of foreign powers?  Tunisia is a Muslim country.  It is therefore normal that a political force should emerge with an islamo-nationalist tendency.  You can’t prevent that.

But each one of these movements needs to be studied separately, with its own specific features.  This is what was done by communists in the PTPD.  They scientifically studied the objective conditions applying in Tunisia.  Their conclusion is that communist and islamo-nationalists alike have been victims of political repression and that, even if their programmes differ, they share a common base: they want to see the end of the dictatorship and independence for Tunisia.  Therefore the communists proposed an alliance with the Islamo-nationalists a long time ago now.  Of course, the PTPD does not want to turn Tunisia into an Islamic state.  Its political programme differs from that of Ennahda.  But it is the Tunisian people who will have to decide democratically on these differences.   Elections should be a competition open to all. That is real democracy.

In fact, the opposition parties got together in the 14 January front to struggle against the interim government of Mohamed Ghannouchi, a close associate of former president Ben Ali.  Is this an encouraging sign? 

Absolutely, Tunisia is on a good track: all the banned opposition parties have up to now created a united front to prevent Ben Ali’s system carrying on without Ben Ali.  Let us also underline the role played by the grassroots of the UGTT trade union.  The leadership of this union, which was legal under Ben Ali, was corrupt and collaborated with the police state.  But then the union grassroots put pressure on its leaders, UGTT members who formed part of the interim government resigned.  Even if there is still a long way to go, democracy is taking over Tunisian institutions under pressure from the people.

The western powers are opposed to this.  They want to impose on Tunisia a low level democracy in which only ‘good’ candidates would be able to stand in elections.  If you look at the kind of democracy that the US appreciates, you will come to Ethiopia. The US government provided $983 million to this country in the Horn of Africa for the year 2010.  That same year, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who has been in post for 16 years, was re-elected with 99.5% of the votes!  It’s even better than Ben Ali.  The truth is there to see: behind their beautiful speeches supporting the Tunisian people, the western powers continue actively to support a lot of other Ben Alis all over the world.

Could the US not back other pro-imperialist candidates who would not be associated, in the minds of Tunisians, with the Ben Ali era?

That would be difficult.  There is a part of the comprador bourgeoisie that was disadvantaged under Ben Ali’s corrupt system.  But this elite is not strong enough to control the popular movement and doesn’t have enough influence in the establishment to be able to take over.

The US had also considered another strategy: a few months ago, when Ben Ali was still in power, the US ambassador went to visit a communist leader in prison.  Officially, it was a simple visit of inspection in the context of respect for human rights.  Unofficially, the US was anticipating Ben Ali’s demise and wanted to test the ground.  Their objective was to set up the communists against the Islamo-nationalists, to divide the resistance to imperialism with a view to weakening it.  But the communists did not fall into the trap. They are very familiar with this strategy developed by Henry Kissinger in the 1980s for the Middle East.  They published a very good study on the subject and they know that they must not receive orders from abroad or to adopt ideologies made up by foreign powers.

Why did the US abandon Ben Ali?  Had he gone too far in his personal enrichment?  According to a WikiLeaks cable, the US ambassador was very critical of the Tunisian president’s quasi Mafia system, since organised corruption was an obstacle to investment by foreign enterprises.

That wasn’t the problem.  The US weren’t worried about corruption.  On the contrary, it is a key element in the US system of domination over countries of the South.  In reality, Washington was aware of Tunisia’s internal situation and knew that Ben Ali was no longer in a position to rule.  The western powers need now to ensure that whoever replaces Ben Ali will continue to defend their interests.  The stakes are high.  The capitalist crisis is causing serious problems in the west.  Side by side with this is the fact that China is growing in strength and is nowadays lending more than the World Bank and the imperialist powers together.  It even wants to buy a significant part of the eurozone debt, partly because it has economic interests in European countries, and partly to divide the imperialist powers, the European Union being historically allied to the US.

In this context, the Tunisian people’s movement, under the guidance of a revolutionary leadership, could set up an independent government taking advantage of the situation of multipolarity in the world.  The imperialist powers fear that countries which were traditionally under their domination will become economically independent by turning to China.  Tunisia could build relations with the Asiatic giant developing its commercial ports.  This would be a serious challenge for the concept of Mediterranean dialogue, that extension of NATO to the countries of the Mediterranean, which is not a dialogue at all but a simple instrument of western domination.

Another country that seems to fear democracy in Tunisia and in the region is Israel.  Its deputy prime minister, Silvan Shalom, said shortly after Ben Ali’s demission that the development of democracy in Arab countries was a threat to Israel’s security.   Is this country, often called the only democracy in the Middle East, afraid of competition?

Under its democratic façade, Israel is a fascist state, an apartheid state.  In the region it cannot therefore ally itself with anybody except repressive dictatorial states, led by the same comprador bourgeoisies who weaken the body of the Arab nation.  Currently, these Arab states are rich countries inhabited by poor people.  But if a government which was truly democratic, in the full meaning of the word, emerged, it would strengthen economically the Arab nation as a whole.  Such a development would lead to an alliance of Arab states being formed against the racist state that oppresses the Palestinians.  Of course Israel is afraid of that.

Moreover, there is a deep gulf between the official positions of the Arab dictators and popular feelings towards the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Since the Egyptian president Sadat surrendered to Israel in 1977, Egypt’s position is that “we want peace”. But this is a position imposed on the population by force.  The current Egyptian government is not content with merely maintaining peaceful relations with Tel Aviv, but is participating actively in the strangulation of Gaza, while the majority of Egyptians support the Palestinians.

It’s the same as far as the alignment of the Arab dictators behind Washington’s policies is concerned.  Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are allies of the US, while the populations of these countries are anti-imperialist.  I was in Egypt at the time when Mountazer al-Zaïdi, the Iraqi journalist, threw his shoes at George W Bush.  The Egyptian people held him up as a hero.  I heard fathers wanting to marry their daughters to the journalist.  And yet the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was one of Washington’s most faithful allies.

Do you think that the Tunisian revolution, through a domino effect, could bring about the fall of other dictatorships in the Arab World?

70% of the population of the Arab countries is under 30 and has only ever known unemployment, police repression and corruption. But all these young people want to live.  And to live they need change.  That’s the reality in all these countries.  There is therefore no need of a domino effect: objective conditions already exist for other revolutions to break out.

The peoples do not want to live as they did previously.  But are the ruling classes, for their part, incapable of ruling as they did previously?

Obviously.  You can see this in Egypt today.  There are police everywhere in the country.  But it is impossible to control everything.  A police state has its limits and those of the Arab world have reached them.

Moreover, information plays a very important role today.  Tunisians, Egyptians and the people of the third world are better informed thanks to Al-Jazeera, on the one hand, and the internet and its social networks, on the other.  The development of information technology has lifted people’s levels of education and consciousness.  The people are no longer a mass of illiterate peasants.  You have a lot of very canny young people of a certain practical bent, who are capable of dodging censorship and mobilising on the internet.

Are there in these countries opposition forces capable of leading people’s revolutions?

Why would repression be so important if these dictators were in no danger:  Why would this comprador bourgeoisie, which is so greedy, spend so much money on the apparatus of repression if it did not fear being overthrown?  If there were no opposition, all that would be unnecessary.

Many western observers fear that the fall of these Arab regimes will facilitate the rise of Islamism.  As Christophe Barbier, the editor of l’Express, has summed it up so nicely: “Better Ben Ali than the bearded lot”.  Is there any basis for this fear of the rise of Islamism?

Islamism has become an imperialist excuse.  The western powers justify their strategy of domination over the Muslim Arab world on the pretext of combating Islamism.  You find Islamists everywhere today.  Soon we would find traces of Al Qaeda on Mars if that was useful to the imperialists!

In fact, the West has always needed to invent an enemy to justify its hegemonic ambitions and its incredible military expenses (paid for by taxes).  After the fall of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the communist enemy, it was Islamism and al-Qaeda that were given the role of the wicked villains.

But the West has no problem with Islamism.  It can accommodate itself to this phenomenon in a country like Saudi Arabia.  Furthermore it has itself in its time assisted the rise of Islamic movements as a means of controlling nationalism. That is why it tries to discredit all and any popular movement in the Arab world that opposes its interests by appending to it the label ‘Islamist’.

Finally, you would have to be very naive to believe that the Arab dictatorships are bastions against the rise of religious fanaticism.  On the contrary, these repressive regimes have caused part of the population to be radicalised.  Who has the right to say that this or that people has no right to democracy?  In a truly democratic country, different forces can emerge.  But the comprador bourgeoisie that is in power in the Arab dictatorships cannot win over the population.  It cannot even face up to it.  In order to defend imperialist interests, therefore, they have to prevent other political forces from emerging since they are liable to influence people against the corrupt elite.  The West has always sought to maintain dictatorships serving its interests by holding up the bogy of Islamism.  But the Arab peoples need democracy.  They are demanding it today and nobody can go against these demands.