The tremendous mass movement of Tunisian youth, workers and poor masses which overthrew Ben Ali’s rule has served as an inspiring example for all, and sparked a wave of mass protest across the whole region.
Yet four months later, the counter-revolution is raising its head again, with all the dangers that represents for the future of the revolutionary movement. Last week, public declarations from a former, and short-lived, interior minister of the post-Ben Ali period, Farhat Rajhi, denouncing plotting manoeuvres from inside the state apparatus, were enough to trigger a new wave of protest throughout the country, expressing the huge defiance and distrust that many people share in relation to the present provisional government of Prime Minister Essebsi and their anger at the lack of concrete change. In the capital Tunis and its poorer suburbs, as well as in many other regions, thousands of people, mostly radical youth, poured onto the streets demanding the fall of Essebsi’s government and a “new revolution”.
However, the weaknesses of those mobilisations, with little or no assistance from the left and the trade union leadership, gave an opportunity for the regime to unleash a new wave of brutal repression, unprecedented since last January. The aims of the revolution, i.e. tearing up the roots of the dictatorship, have not been completed to their end. Despite significant blows imposed on the old regime, the core of the state apparatus has remained largely intact, especially as far as its hated and extensive police and security services are concerned. From last Thursday onwards, a heavily armed police force has imposed days of violence and terror on the Tunisian population. At least four people have been reported killed by a police force which has received the ’green light’ from the government to take its revenge on the revolutionary people. Motorbikes driving into the crowd, protesters beaten to death, masked police thugs armed with batons, metal bars and baseball bats terrorising people in the streets, hospitalisations from intoxicating teargas, teenagers tortured in police offices, physical attacks on trade union headquarters and on journalists trying to report on the events, and massive arrests have all taken place in a matter of a few days.
Riots and violent clashes with the police have subsequently occurred in many places, especially in poor neighbourhoods around Greater Tunis, such as Ettadhamen. All this is taking place amidst a general climate of uncertainty and rising violence, also fed by counter-revolutionaries, supporters of the former ruling party the RCD and police elements organising ’loot, smash and burn’ operations in order to create a climate of chaos that can justify further repression. On Saturday, the government reinstated a curfew in Tunis and its suburbs, from 9pm to 5am, as in some other cities. This is clearly aimed at preventing people coming into the streets, and restoring the initiative to the forces of the state. On Sunday, Essebsi reacted in a TV speech, warning that “the government’s patience has limits”, even implicitly accusing part of the left of being behind the recent violence.
The revolutionary gains and the freedoms won through the heroic struggle of the masses are clearly under threat. As the article below argues, in order to avoid authoritarianism taking back the upper hand, a general mobilisation involving the youth, the unemployed, workers and trade unionists, and all the progressive forces of the country is urgently needed to organise a strong response, as part of a determined fighting back agenda. The aim of which should be to get rid of the remnants of the dictatorship and proceed to a real transformation, for a genuine socialist society. Such a development would be a powerful inspiration for the workers and youth across the Maghreb and internationally for system change. This means taking the big multi-nationals and the main planks of the economy under workers’ democratic control and management for the benefit for all, not for a tiny, corrupt elite.
A well-prepared day of mass mobilisation, including strike action, to denounce police violence, to lift the curfew and to demand the release of all the genuine protesters who have been arrested in recent days would be a good starting point. Such actions should be organised seriously, with coordinated teams to protect the demonstrations, and with the local neighbourhood, ‘vigilance’ and revolutionary committees regaining the useful role they played in the first period after 14 January, in order to allow people themselves to organise from below to defend their revolution. These committees must be extended to every place that can be targeted by the counter-revolution, especially workplaces and trade union buildings, but also schools and universities, and offer opportunities for collective and democratic organisation to pursue the struggle until real victory is achieved.
The huge mass movements which got rid of the former dictator Ben Ali and then of his prime minister Ghannouchi, who led the two first provisional governments, have not said their last word. Essebsi, the new prime minister, is an old personality very close to the previous dictatorship of Bourguiba. Since Ben Ali’s fall, every government has been formed by people who never made the revolution.
New prime minister Essebsi
Even if there is now more political freedom, all of this remains very precarious. Repression can take sudden and violent forms. More and more, previous leaders of the regime are finding positions of responsibility again; a large part of the repressive apparatus is still in position. When the social situation gets a little better, it is only where strikes have taken place. The situation is dominated by these struggles. The many questions asked by those who made the revolution are to know how to take it on to its conclusion. The disputes between the main parties, often cut off from the masses, are not an answer to the deep needs of the Tunisian people.
Most demands are not satisfied
The Tunisian revolution began because of the lack of freedom, the weight of the police dictatorship and of the president’s party, the RCD, combined with a more and more disastrous social situation: massive unemployment, no future for the youth, starvation wages, and underdevelopment of the Central and Western areas. Millions of people have at last had the possibility to challenge all these elements of Tunisian society after 23 years of Ben Ali’s regime, on a massive scale and were ready to go on until the overthrow of Ben Ali’s regime.
This revolution did obviously worry everybody - the mafia in power, the RCD, the security forces, and the imperialist countries, particularly France and the USA. That is why they supported Essebsi as prime minister, someone who never missed an opportunity to behave as a lackey of imperialism. He honoured the foreign debt payment of 400 million euro in exchange for a new loan for a total amount of 800 million euro. The debt dates back to Ben Ali, whose clan were the only ones to benefit by it, but the Tunisian jackpot continues to favour the imperialists, thanks to Essebsi.
In Ben Arous, Sfax, Gafsa… struggles and strikes are countless - working women who discover that the contributions for their pensions are not registered at the Social Security, employees who are still under renewable one month contracts…
Workers on strike in a textile factory in Ben Arous (industrial area near Tunis)
The Greater Tunis and other cities’ dustmen won their strike within a week on their main demands: permanent posts for all workers, better equipment for working. It received huge support from the population. But as in other struggles, the UGTT leaders only involved themselves as official intermediaries between strikers and bosses.
Lack of central initiatives for the workers and the youth
Since March, the situation has been unstable and uncertain. A real political void exists and the political debate remains mainly in the hands of parties which do not challenge capitalism.
On the left wing, the organisations that came out of the underground – the Communist Workers’ Party of Tunisia (PCOT) and various groups previously from the Maoist political camp such as the Democratic Patriots - have not understood the importance of this issue. Though many activists of these movements are active trade unionists, or demonstration organisers, there is no real campaign to build a mass party of the workers and the youth. In fact, none of these groups express a revolutionary socialist perspective for following through revolution.
No real political struggle, based on a public and open debate, has been led in order to clear out the corrupt leaders of the UGTT, using an extraordinary congress of the union. This maintains mistrust towards the UGTT from a section of those who made the revolution, particularly the youth.
And yet this battle is crucial. By linking it up to the proposal of a real campaign on the part of the union, for employment, wages and support for the struggles in progress, with the prospect of a national day of strike, towards the active and sincere layers within the union, such a battle could unite the workers, the youth, and the poor masses.
The main left parties seem only concerned with the future Constituent Assembly, without even an expression of a socialist content for the future constitution, nor any form of organisation for the debate and the elections themselves that could widely involve the population.
Most political debates leave the vast majority of the population in the background, particularly the most disadvantaged masses. The religious party Ennahda, combining Islamist references and social demands, tries to take advantage of this situation, while presenting themselves (at present) in accordance with all democratic rights. There is a real danger that a current in favour of a religious dictatorship can arise from this party. But it would only be possible because of the lack of a mass party of the workers and the youth. Many parties keep focusing on an “Ennahda danger”, calling for unity but masking their pro-capitalist programme. And yet it is on the economic and social terrain that the political battle against Ennahda must be taken up.
This situation of political indecision cannot last for a prolonged period. A statement of the former minister of the interior, Rahji, on the 5th May, was enough for the government to start a “security” offensive again. Rahji declared that a military coup was being prepared in case of an electoral victory of Ennahda. It is difficult to understand the purpose of such a statement, moreover 3 months before the elections. It is obviously a scenario which has always been possible, but the very sudden form of this declaration caught the activists off guard and could be used by the reactionary forces within the government.
A first demonstration was ferociously repressed on Thursday May 5th and since then there has been an escalation. Bourguiba Avenue is now under the control of heavily masked police. This outburst of violence caused an inevitable reaction of many youth not ready for such a return of the previous state methods of repression. Moreover, it seems that the former RCD is pushing for chaos to gain the upper hand, particularly by paying gangs to riot and loot.
Essebsi could, in his turn, jump on this opportunity. In his 8 May speech, he blamed “maneuvers of destabilisation”, even saying that the left wing was involved. “Tunisia loses 8,000 jobs per month”, “the state might be unable to pay the civil servants next month”… Obviously, Essebsi never says that the Tunisian capitalists and imperialists, whose servant he is, are responsible for all this.
And he added that “if demonstrations go on, it will be chaos”. In other words, there is an excuse for authoritarianism to regain control over the situation, which can lead to wider repression. From now on, the government is starting to indicate that the elections will be postponed.
For a socialist revolution
How to continue the revolution is a widely discussed question. There is a lack of sufficiently large workers’ and poor people’s organisations to allow wide layers of the population to organise and discuss the prospects, to define their needs, and the means to meet them, and to defend themselves against repression. The committees which arose in the neighbouroods, the factories, the educational institutions, to defend the revolution in its first days, would be more than ever necessary today. In linking up locally and nationally, democratically electing their representatives (subject to recall), such committees could build an alternative to the present Tunisian state and its government which serves the capitalists.
A government that really comes from the revolution, defending its aspirations and demands, could result from such a development. This prospect of a government of workers, youth, peasants, and unemployed, able to set up a genuine socialist and democratic policy, nationalising the key sectors of the economy under the democratic control and management of the workers, allowing in this way an economic development plan which will ensure employment, housing, etc for all, will give its real meaning to the slogan “for a second revolution”. That is the way to clean up the whole country of what remains of the previous regime.
The debate about such a revolutionary socialist perspective is central in the discussions we have with many activists. The CWI will do their best to help the Tunisian activists in their fight against a still repressive state. There is a need for a truly socialist, revolutionary, democratic organisation in Tunisia, to propose a programme breaking with the mistakes of the present left wing, addressing the most combative revolutionaries, discussing its programme on the widest scale, and also with other movements, fraternally. This would permit the Tunisian revolution to succeed at last in clearing out the mafia, the capitalists, and the imperialists.