A revolution of the flowers?

A report from Coalition of Resisitance meeting, ‘Tunisia – Solidarity with the Revolution’ on 21 Jan 2011 in central London

As a 50 strong audience of Coalition of Resistance supporters and guests gathered in the building of the University of London Union, the central committee of Tunisia’s ruling party, the RCD, was no more. Under massive popular pressure and with the military withdrawing its support, the governing body of the Tunisian oligarchs’ puppet party had dissolved earlier that day. General amnesty was declared. ” />

“General amnesty? This means nothing to me”, sniffed guest speaker Mohamed Ali Harrath, before adding confidently, “to me the question is: will there be a general amnesty for them?” His Islam Channel colleague, Counterfire leader John Rees, watched on proudly as Ali alternated humour with verbal militancy. “Times online put me on the spot when I declared that I want a revolution”, the former political prisoner declared, “but to me, revolution is not a dirty word.”

Harrath is a charismatic guy. So charismatic he could talk the pants off your mom and your dad. When he tells you that there are no divisions in this world except those between exploiters and exploited, you believe that he really means it. But when the talk shifts to subjects such as religion and the state, he goes a lot quieter and more ambiguous: “People ask me whether this is the Islamic revolution. I tell them: call it whatever you will – I call it the people’s revolution”. Something that John Rees, the ‘broad popular movements’ man par excellence, can have few reservations about.

Watching footage of Harrath cross-examined by Stephen Sackur on the BBC News Channel’s Hard Talk programme , it’s hard to decide which is worse: Sackur’s perfidious attempts to insinuate that Harrath poses some grave danger to Britain or the latter’s attempts at defending himself within the paradigms set by Sackur. Not quite the revolutionary, Harrath here impersonates a law-abiding Muslim bourgeois. Though by his own account he does not habitually slam the door in the police’s face, he is, to his credit, not prepared to “act as a spy on the Muslim community” either.

Back at the COR meeting, a Palestinian comrade’s contribution from the floor sharply prompted Harrath to clarify his stance on the separation between religion and the state. But comrade Rees helpfully intervened. “You have made a lot of controversial statements”, he addressed the intruder, “I think we best leave the answers to this one for the end”. Harrath nodded affirmatively, and I’m leaving it up to the reader to guess whether he made good on his promise.

According to Harrath, all Tunisians are Muslims and Tunisian society is very open and tolerant. His account of the country’s political history benefited from being less impressionistic, beginning with the French colonial takeover in 1881 and through to the constitutional amendment of 1987 that rendered Ben-Ali a president for life – with CIA backing. Once again, Harrath warned not to allow the debate to become one about religious revolutionaries versus the secular left. Urging not to “buy into any of that”, he promised that there were “only oppressors and oppressed”, before adding unhelpfully that he was “not an Islamist extremist, communist, or any other >ist<“.

True: this is not the Islamic revolution that the Israeli government and fellow apologists for tin pot dictators such as Ben-Ali and Mubarak fantasise about. But it is far from clear what tendencies will prevail, and it is at least worth analysing the forces on the ground. A Tunisian born socialist in the audience was pessimistic: “there aren’t any Trotskyists in Tunisia and the communist and Maoist parties aren’t well rooted in society. The protests are mostly driven by moderate civil rights activists”.

This made little difference to comrade Rees, who quoted Engels as saying that “all revolutions begin as revolutions of flowers, and in the course of the revolution different programmes emerge.” [Rees uses the same turn of phrase in a recent Counterfire article, but I have been unable to find the original Engels quote. Any ideas?] Ditto young Counterfire member Joseph Daher, who concluded his talk with the somewhat vacuous words, “at the end of the day, we all want democracy”.

Following Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn’s brief and uncontroversial musings about the importance of social networks and communication technology, the assembled hopeful dispersed into the night. The historic significance of this day for the Tunisian people stood in stark contrast to our collectively not being a lot wiser than before.

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