Last week, a powerful revolt of the Tunisian masses swept away the dictator, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, after decades of autocratic rule, growing joblessness and high food prices.
A new ‘national unity’ government was formed, including key ministerial positions for the former Ben Ali loyalists. Workers were outraged by this development. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, interim President Fouad Mebazaa and several ministers have quit the RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique) party of Ben Ali to try to distance themselves from the previous regime.
The regime has now called three days of mourning to honour those who died in the unrest that led to the fall of Ben Ali, hoping no doubt that this would dampen the mood for street protests and opposition to the regime.
Today, 21 January, we have received reports of a big demonstration taking place in the capital. A new upturn in the struggle appears to be developing. A decisive stage is being reached. Jubilant and confident protesters were demanding the resignation of the ‘interim’ regime which totally lacks legitimacy and authority.
Police officers – usually a hated symbol of the Ben Ali regime - are openly fraternising with the protesters, and the demonstrators are greeting them as “sons and daughters of the revolution”. The Trade Union Federation (UGTT) Council was meeting and demonstrators are urging them to call a general strike.
Yesterday, 20 January, Elizabeth Clarke from Socialistworld.net spoke to a CWI reporter in Tunis who gave the following picture of the unfolding developments in the country.
“I heard more gunfire today (20 January) and there were army helicopters overhead. Looting and burning of cars has continued. There are militias linked to the former Ben Ali presidential guard still around and people are still organising committees of defence.
“It is reported that 30 members of the former president’s family have been arrested.
“The new ‘national unity’ government of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi is already in trouble and may have difficulty surviving. Under huge pressure from below, it has to make one concession after another.
“All UGTT ministers have left the government because of protests against their involvement from within the union itself. An extraordinary meeting of the UGTT [UGTT - Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens] was held and it demanded the UGTT ministers leave the cabinet.
“The prime minister, Gannouchi, resigned from the RCD, the party of the former dictator, Ben Ali. The RCD Central Committee is being dissolved and all the government ministers have to leave the party of the old regime.
“There have been three days of demonstrations throughout Tunisia. Protesters demand, ‘We don’t want this government!’ ‘It has no legitimacy!’ ‘RCD get out!’ ‘We don’t want this government!’
“Social demands are also being raised, as well as political demands. In Sidi Ouzid, where the movement started, before Christmas, protesters demanded, ‘We want jobs, improvement of our social conditions!’ and ‘Share the wealth of Ben Ali!’
“Demands are being made for the nationalisation of a bank owned by Ben Ali’s son-in-law. The government may be forced to nationalise all assets of the Ben Ali ruling family, perhaps with the intention of privatising them at a later stage.
“In the public companies owned by the government, workers are saying they want rid of management. In the departments of national insurance, national security, agriculture and banking, many managers are being swept away.
“Workers’ control is a vital issue. If this spread to the nationalised industries and services, combined with workers’ management, it would lay the basis to start the socialist reconstruction of society, based on democratic planning of the economy in the interests of all.
“Only four days ago, state TV was dominated by Ben Ali’s clique but now, under the control of journalists, it provides a constant coverage of demonstrations, talks about the ‘revolution’ and ‘the will of the people’ etc.
“Bloggers and journalists are pouring out their views. The regime is powerless to stop the use of the internet. It appears to be used much more widely than during the Iranian opposition mass movement in 2009.
“Demonstration are being organised via the internet – no organisation behind them. They just get agreement on time and place and hundreds of people turn up.
“A political Islamic party, Ennahda , says that if the new government is ready to ‘accept them’, they are ready to negotiate. But this approach can discredit them in the eyes of the masses. Many activists are also saying, ‘We don’t want political Islam. They are trying to exploit the movement’.
“Protesters used to say ‘We want bread and water; we don’t want Ben Ali!’ and now some say, ‘We want bread and water; we don’t want Ettajdid!’, referring to the ex-communist party – Ettajdid, which already joined the government (minister of higher education).
“Generally thousands are taking part in the main protests each day. At least 2,000 took part today (20th) in Tunis but more take part in towns like Gafsa. Here the demonstrations are more radical and working class in character. The UGTT is prominent on protests and the main organised force.
“The UGTT needs to be democratised and the leaders linked to former Ben Ali regime should be immediately removed.
“The mass movement is spreading, with committees being set up everywhere. These include ‘Committees for the dissolution of the RCD (Ben Ali’s party)’ and ‘Committees for the defence of the neighbourhoods’.
“Buildings seen as belonging to the Ben Ali clan have been taken over and many burned down. There is a rage and also confidence amongst the masses.
“Many people have trust in the army, which is seen as apart from the Ben Ali regime. Demonstrators are seen kissing soldiers. But some regard the army as having played a reactionary role, helping Ben Ali to escape.
“Last Tuesday’s demonstration in Tunis was attacked with teargas by police. At today’s demonstrations, soldiers were to the fore, with police staying further away because they will enrage the demonstrators.
“The regime is trying to avoid violent clashes and attempting to get wider support for their masquerade of ‘democracy’.
“Universities and schools are still closed and there are less young people, at this stage, on the protests. (They will open next week.)
“Economic activity has re-started. The UGTT General Secretary said people should go back to work.
“Raids on supermarkets have lessened. (Many were looted and burned.) But considerable panic buying is going on, as people are uncertain about the future.
“There is a black market and speculation. There are some attempts at self-organisation, including the fair distribution of food, but democratically elected committees to oversee this need to develop.
“People are very clear about what they don’t want – the Ben Ali dictatorship or its remnants - and demand real democratic rights and a real representative government.
“Our clearly socialist demands for a government representing the revolutionary aspirations of the working class and poor get a warm reception. Instead of attempts to make a deal between elements of the old regime and pro-capitalist opposition leaders, we talk of the need for free and fully democratic elections to a revolutionary constitutional assembly, where representatives of the workers and poor could decide the country’s future.
“We back all demands for full democratic rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and for an immediate end to the state of emergency. We call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Tunisia. There should be working class courts set up to judge all the criminals, assassins and torturers who are still free or even occupying leading positions in the state apparatus.
“This revolution still has a lot of life in it!”