Yesterday, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family fled Tunisia, reportedly to Saudi Arabia. He was forced from office after 23 years in power following weeks of mass protests over joblessness, high food prices, corruption and the regime’s repression. The protests started after a graduate sets himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid over lack of jobs on 17 December. Police repression has left at least 100 people dead.
On Friday, a limited general strike was called by the UGTT union. Thousands of people gathered outside the interior ministry, in the capital, Tunis, a symbol of the regime. The police opened fire.
No longer able to maintain his iron grip in the face of mass outrage, Ben Ali fled Tunisia and it was announced that Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has taken over as ‘interim president’. A ‘state of emergency’ was also declared, banning gatherings of more than three people and imposing a night-time curfew. Security forces are authorised to open fire on people not obeying their orders.
Ghannouchi indicated he will attempt to form a new ‘coalition’ government and said he will meet political leaders today. The role of the army in these developments is not clear.
There will be huge relief that finally Ben Ali is removed from power but the masses will want to see their other demands met, including an end to repression and corruption and a radical change in the economic situation.
But Ghannouchi will attempt to take measures to defend the overall interests of the ruling class. Workers, the unemployed, youth and the poor can have no faith in any new regime or government of ‘national unity’ to meet their social and economic needs or to bring about real lasting democracy. The imperialist powers, like France and the US, which previously backed their ally Ben Ali, will now be making efforts to ensure a new regime is installed that can see off the demands of the working class and poor and continue to defend the interests of Tunisian and global capitalism.
The masses have shown their huge potential over the last days and weeks in Tunisia. Many have boldly faced state repression and many have died. The Tunisian events have shaken North Africa and the Middle East and solidarity protests have taken place in several countries. To develop their struggle, the working people and poor of Tunisia need their own mass independent organisations, including a party to fight for their class interests and full democratic rights, based on a socialist programme. Instead of a new pro-capitalist regime cobbled together from the remnants of the Ben Ali regime and other bourgeois forces, workers and youth need a government based on the class interests of the working class and poor.
Below, Stefan Müller, from the CWI in Germany, interviews Ahmed Rafiki, a school teacher and member of the UGTT union in the mining town Gafsa, about recent events. The interview took place just hours before Ben Ali fled Tunisia.
More reports and analysis of events in Tunisia will follow.
Interview with Ahmed Rafiki, school teacher and member of the UGTT union in Gafsa
What has been going on in Tunisia over the last weeks?
There was a huge, nationwide wave of discontent, and it manifested itself in peaceful demonstrations. But the state, with its police forces and anti-riot forces, bloodily oppressed the demonstrations. They killed over a hundred Tunisian people; most of them were young people and people in their teens.
What is the reason for this discontent?
First, it seemed to be social. People were demonstrating for better living conditions, for jobs, for cheaper commodities, but then it turned out to be not social but political. After 23 years of bloody oppression by Ben Ali, people were marching in the streets and demanding him to step down. But then it got worse each time the president held a speech on TV. First he denied everything and he said it’s just a question of a guy who committed suicide by burning himself. He said, “We are being oppressed by the protesters“! Then he said “OK, I understand, but you should know, the people who are demonstrating are veiled people and they are a bunch of terrorists.” So he called the students, the people, and the young, and the teachers, the lawyers, the doctors and everybody, he called those people “terrorists”.
So what sections of society are going to the streets?
I just arrived from a demonstration that lasted 4 hours, and the people there were aged from 7 to 77, there were the jobless, lawyers, doctors, mothers and grandmothers, and students and everybody. Everybody was demonstrating against Ben Ali.
So, what is happening now?
Now it shows how mean, how bloody, how ferocious Ben Ali and his allies are. I shouldn’t forget this. The position of France’s government was really cowardly and cheap. They blamed the people, and suggested the French police helping to oppress the people.
Now the country is in a state of fear, the people are afraid. People are buying huge amounts of supplies because of the curfew, there’s an emergency state declared. The police bloodily oppressed manifestations in Tunis and in the country today. The most dangerous thing is, there are gangs of unknown people, nobody knows who they are, stealing everything and destroying the country and burning down buildings.
You say that the people who are seen in TV throwing Molotov cocktails [petrol bombs] are not the demonstrators?
No no, they are the real demonstrators, the people who are clashing with the police are demonstrators, they’re protesting for a free and democratic Tunisia, against Ben Ali and his Mafia. They are protesters, but those people, they act in the dark, in the back streets of Tunis. They steal, they destroy, and everybody in Tunisia knows who they are: they are governmental militias that are terrorizing the people.
Today Ben Ali dismissed his government [at the time of this interview, Ben Ali had not yet fled Tunisia – socialistworld.net]. What will happen now?
Now the country is going to the unknown. There are even prisoners running away from the prisons. There is no revolutionary advanced guard, there is no opposition, there is no clear alternative for Tunisia, and there is no revolutionary alternative. All the dissidents are living in Canada, in London, in France. The military hasn’t moved.
What is the role of the military now? There was footage of an officer saluting the coffin of a killed demonstrator during a mass funeral. The military is not oppressing the demonstrations, is that correct?
Right, the military doesn’t oppress the demonstrations, the police is. The army now is protecting post offices, ministries and TV stations, and sensitive areas of the city.
Do you think there is the possibility of a coup d’etat?
Nobody knows. It is possible. But that’s not what the people want. I’m sure the people wouldn’t accept it. Now the people have sacrificed so much, and they are not ready for fake promises by the president, they want the president out, and they will definitely not accept a coup d’état.
Thank you very much, and good luck.