The end of a tyrant

THE OUSTING of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been welcomed on the street by millions throughout the Arab world and beyond.

But Ben Ali’s departure has not ended clashes between the police and the popular forces or between rival factions within the ruling elite now battling for the succession.

Ben Ali is now safely out of harm’s way. Denied entry into France, he and his family have been forced to seek asylum in Saudi Arabia — consoling themselves, no doubt, with the millions they are believed to have salted away in overseas bank accounts since he assumed office in 1987.

The Ben Ali regime is the first to fall in the current global slump. Rising unemployment and a steep hike in inflation, the price of food and other consumer goods provoked the popular revolt that began in December and finally brought down the corrupt Ben Ali regime last week.

For 23 years the Western powers turned a blind eye to Ben Ali’s corrupt rule, rigged elections and gross abuses of the human rights the imperialists pretend to espouse when it serves their strategic and political aims. For decades the Ben Ali regime was held up as a model modern Arab republic that spurned Islamic fundamentalism, opposed real Arab unity and was a friend of the European Union and the United States.

But when the Tunisian economy spiralled downwards the imperialists neither had the money nor the will for a Greek-style bail-out so the old tyrant had to be booted out by his own supporters in the army in an effort to end the violence.

Anglo-American and Franco-German imperialism are moving quickly to prop up the provisional government set up last week by elements of the old regime who have invited opposition forces to join them in a government of national unity with the promise of free elections later in the year.

What the imperialists want is a continuation of the old regime under a new name. Imperialism can live with “free” elections in Tunisia providing it produces a government that will do the bidding of the transnational corporations and continue to serve the West’s tactical and strategic interests in the Arab World. What the imperialists don’t want to see is Tunis-style protests erupting in Cairo or on the streets of the capitals of their other Arab client regimes, let alone a new Tunisian government seriously committed to popular control of the economy.

Though the dictator has gone the dictatorship is essentially still in place. Tunisia’s progressive movement, led by the unions and the communist forces in the country, has been in the forefront of the popular revolt that broke the back of the regime last week. The opposition, which includes all the democratic forces as well as the Muslim Brothers, is already calling for a national assembly to draw up a new constitution that would lay the foundations of a democratic republic, with its institutions and its laws.

But the immediate struggle will intensify around the demands for genuine free and fair elections and a new government that will end repression and free all political prisoners, recognise the independent trade unions and is committed to combating unemployment and poverty. That would also create a democratic climate for the calling of a constituent assembly and put the country on the road to freedom and popular democracy.