Two and a half years after the fall of Ben Ali, the situation has gone from bad to worse for the Tunisian population, and anger is brewing as never before across the whole country. The famous slogan of the revolution - “bread, freedom, national dignity” - has probably never been so much in contrast with the reality experienced on the ground by millions of Tunisians. They have experienced an unbearable explosion of prices, a cruel lack of jobs and opportunities for young people, an increase in insecurity and terrorist violence, an accelerated impoverishment of the middle classes, a creeping “colonisation” of the state by the Islamist party Ennahda as well as redoubled attacks on the meagre democratic gains...
In this context, the politically-motivated murder of the left opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi could only be a new catalyst for the fury of the working class, the youth and the revolutionary masses, whose will to get rid of the regime of the ‘Troika’ (the Ennahda-led coalition of three parties) has reached a point of no return. Since this murder, the country is experiencing a political crisis without precedent, and, despite the intense heat and the fasting taking place during Ramadan, is living at the rhythm of daily demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes and a climate close to insurrection dominates in some poor and militant areas in the interior of the country.
Ennahda’s power in the balance
The survival of the Islamist regime in Tunisia is clearly posed. Across the country, the masses are demanding its fall, and the UGTT trade union federation has issued an ultimatum of one week to the government to go, before considering more extended action. In the capital Tunis, every day, tens of thousands of protesters gather in front of the Constituent Assembly building in the Bardo square to demand that the government resigns - a sit-in which has been joined by ‘caravans’ of people coming from within the country.
Even in the most remote areas of Tunisia, mass demonstrations, including during the night, clearly express the visceral rejection of those in power. Meanwhile, the pro-Ennahda rally held last Saturday, supposedly the ‘culmination point’ of the counter-offensive of the ruling party, was still pale in comparison to the “million” people proudly announced beforehand by the leadership of this party, and despite all the logistical efforts deployed. This is especially the case considering that many of these protesters were paid to demonstrate their commitment to ‘electoral legitimacy’.
The government is isolated as never before, its popularity has plummeted in the polls. Its control over the situation, especially in the inland regions, is close to zero. In some localities, parallel power structures have emerged from the struggle, showing what can be done practically in order to get rid of this hated power. The almost complete silence in the mainstream media on these developments indicates the state of panic the ruling classes are in at the risk of these experiences being “emulated” elsewhere.
In the town of Sidi Bouzid, for example, the birthplace of the Tunisian revolution, the people now refuse any relations with the official authorities, and have set up a committee that has taken over the affairs of the city. Local offices of the Ennahda party have been closed and protesters are gathering daily in front of the Governorate building to prevent the return of the former governor.
The living forces of this movement consist of activists of the ‘Popular Front’ (the coalition of various left and nationalist parties) and members of the UGTT. Similar councils have been established in three localities within the governorate of Sidi Bouzid - Regueb, Mekessi and Menzel Bouzaine. But Sidi Bouzid is not the only governorate not to recognise the central government of Tunisia. In Le Kef, Gafsa, Sousse, Kairouan and many other places, local committees have been established in various forms to manage local affairs.
To enlarge their mass appeal and ensure their genuine working class character, these committees should be elected democratically from below, with delegates being subject to recall. Furthermore, it is essential that these experiences are not left isolated on a local level, as this would give more room for manoeuvre to the State apparatus to try and stifle them. It is essential that every effort is undertaken to extend them to the whole country and link them up through democratically elected committees, establishing the basis for a genuine revolutionary government of workers, poor people and the youth. Without doubt, seeing the electric situation prevailing, a simple call to this effect from the UGTT would be enough to transform the situation in the country in the space of a few hours, to send the current regime into the dustbin of history, and to give a new impetus to the revolution.
Crisis at the top
The government is shaking on its foundations and has now entered an advanced stage of disintegration. The pathetic claims of Ennahda leaders to still talk on behalf of the revolution will fool nobody. Since this party came to power, more than 40,000 strikes, over 120,000 sit-ins, and around 200,000 demonstrations have taken place across the country. Whose revolution are they then talking about?
Everything indicates that the current government will not survive this crisis. Already the Minister of Education, Salem Labyedh, has resigned, and other ministers have threatened to do so. Ettakatol and the CPR - the puppet parties who, from the start, have played the role of the fifth wheel of the Ennahda wagon – continue their downward spiral towards self-destruction, while the spokesman of Ettakatol has announced that the Party would withdraw from the government coalition unless the cabinet were dissolved and replaced by a national-unity cabinet. The fall of the government of the ‘Troika’ is probably now only a matter of time.
The Russian revolutionary leader, Lenin, defined as a “revolutionary crisis” a situation marked by the inability of the ruling classes to maintain their domination in an unchanged form, an unusual worsening of the distress and misery of the oppressed classes, and a considerable intensification of the activity of the masses. Undoubtedly, these ingredients constitute the situation in Tunisia today; the scenario evoked by many activists for a “new revolution” is not far away.
However, Lenin added that the revolution does not issue from every revolutionary situation, but only in the case where all the objective conditions listed above are accompanied by a subjective change, namely: “the ability, for the revolutionary class, to conduct a revolutionary mass action vigorous enough to completely break with the former government, which will never fall, even at the time of crisis, if we do not topple it”.
Hence the importance of revolutionaries organizing and arming themselves with a bold programme that can meet the needs of the moment. A mass and genuine Marxist party worthy of the name would, in such a situation, make a tremendous and decisive difference. The forces to build such a party would not be lacking, among the tens of thousands of Tunisian workers and young people who identify with socialist and communist ideas, and of whom many are in and around the Popular Front coalition. A programme for such a party would need to absorb, and enrich itself from, past experiences, and draw the necessary lessons at each stage. One of those key lessons in Tunisia today is the vital necessity of the political independence of the revolutionary forces, the workers and their union, the UGTT, from all opportunist ambitions and all attempts orchestrated by the enemy classes to divert the revolution.
Neoliberal forces, those linked to the old regime and to the imperialist powers, shaken by a wave of fear about the possibility of a new revolutionary conflagration, are indeed seeking by all means to dissipate the momentum which has built up, and to rebuild a political power which is capable of blocking the demands of the masses. Their main aim is to safeguard the interests of the capitalist elite and maintain the continuity of its state apparatus, severely undermined by the recent developments.
The statement of Najib Chebbi, leader of the liberal opposition party, ‘Al Joumhouri’, warning of the risk of a socially “very hot” September and referring to the consequences of the social crisis in almost apocalyptic terms, says a lot about the mood that probably prevails in the villas of the Tunisian bourgeoisie. “It will be Siliana 1, 2, 3 [referring to the local insurrection that took place in the Southern city of Siliana at the end of last year]…in Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, Kasserine, Le Kef, without forgetting the large coastal cities, and the widespread creation of autonomous committees”, he said.
These people know that the Troika regime is now on its knees, and are trying to exploit the current movement to advance their own pawns on the political chessboard; by adding some populist flavour in their speeches, they are trying by any means possible to channel the popular anger in a direction favourable to the ruling classes. Faced with these pressures, Ennahda is trying to save face, and has declared it is willing to ‘open’ the government to other parties, while refusing to give up the post of prime minister.
However, the current crisis cannot be reduced to a question of ministerial positions, or to the incompetence or bad faith of one or the other politician. The current crisis is rooted in the inability of those in power to offer anything other than a cul-de-sac to the revolutionary demands of the Tunisian masses. And for one simple reason: they defend the interests of the capitalist class, the multinational companies and investment funds, the businessmen and the speculators - all those whose only goal is to continue to exploit the Tunisian people and satisfy their thirst for profits.
In this regard, all the political forces that defend the same capitalist system, a system that is plunged in a deep economic crisis internationally, will quickly find themselves facing the same problems. This is why to achieve the original objectives of the revolution, it is the whole system behind Ennahda that needs to be challenged!
The Popular Front and its responsibilities
The left coalition of the ‘Popular Front’ gathers within it many revolutionary activists, trade unionists and young people who aspire to continue the revolution to the end – to establishing a power in the service of the workers and the poor masses, a power that would get rid of the capitalist system of exploitation, and the poverty, unemployment and repression that go with it.
However, the leadership of the Popular Front is lurching more and more openly towards compromises with forces hostile to the workers’ camp, the poor and all those who made the first revolution. The leaders of the Popular Front held a coordinating meeting last Saturday with the ‘Union for Tunisia’ coalition, that sealed a link between the leadership of the Front and a set of parties, many of which are home to forces directly connected to the old regime and the bourgeois elite.
The Popular Front echoes the call from the ‘Union for Tunisia’ for the establishment of a government of “national salvation”. While in the context of the main Islamist party being vomited out onto the street, a new government without this party in the driving seat any longer might be welcomed by some sections of the population, it is the duty of revolutionaries to call a spade a spade. There is no “salvation” possible with people who defend the camp of the bosses who lay off workers, apply the poverty plans of the IMF, and who tomorrow will not hesitate to use the heavy stick to deal with workers on strike and with demands from the unemployed youth and the poor masses. The people of Sidi Bouzid understood that very well last year when, during their general strike, they were shouting, “Neither Jebali nor Sebsi; our revolution is a revolution of the poor!”. [Jebali was the previous Ennahda Prime Minister and Sebsi is the leader of ‘Nidaa Tounes’, the main component of ‘Union for Tunisia’].
The sole purpose of parties such as ‘Nidaa Tounes’ is to end the struggle of the popular masses, the youth and the working class, in favour of certain elements of the ruling elite and of the big western powers who feel that the wind is changing. Nidaa Tounes is nothing other than the party of the restoration of the dictatorship under another form. Under the brief interim mandate of Sebsi, the latter clearly demonstrated what his policy was all about: agreements with G8 powers to pursue the debt of Tunisia and the establishment of the incontrovertible “authority of the state” to justify the systematic repression of social movements, the torture and killing of protesters, etc.
The strength of the Tunisian trade union movement and the weight of the Popular Front, instead of being used as a some sort of ‘left cover’ for counter-revolutionary forces, should instead be placed at the service of the independent struggle of the working masses, to build a power which belongs to them, and is supported and controlled democratically by action committees across the country. If the Front leaders refuse to meet the aspirations of their base, which rejects in their vast majority any political agreements with forces such as ‘Union for Tunisia’, then it is up to the rank-and-file activists to take things into their own hands wherever it is possible, to change the course of things before it is too late. Setting up a left opposition platform gathering all the activists of the Popular Front who disagree with the current political trajectory pursued by the leadership could be a step towards the rebuilding of a mass and democratically-organised left force based on the initial aspirations of the Popular Front members and supporters.
The abandonment by the UGTT of the demand to dissolve the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) has also been widely seen as a betrayal by many activists. It is a concession delivered to a power that is still massively rejected in the streets. The ANC has no longer any sort of legitimacy - formal or real. In the eyes of the masses, it only evokes bitterness and anger. It is an Assembly filled with opportunistic politicians of all kinds, whose lifestyle is miles away from the concerns and suffering of the workers, the poor and their families.
The ANC has failed, it must go! The only legitimate Constituent Assembly would be an assembly composed of representatives of the deepest layers that made the revolution - trade unionists, unemployed, young activists and ordinary people who share the same daily fate as the majority of the population.
Instead of trying to continue to deal with the current rotten ANC, the UGTT could use its strength to launch a major campaign to encourage the convening of general meetings in workplaces and neighbourhoods, in all parts of the country, to elect democratic representatives directly from the masses involved in struggle. They would have the confidence and control of those who elect them, would be responsible for the work they do and subject to recall at any time. Starting directly from the base, such elections would allow the election of a truly revolutionary Constituent Assembly, representative of the real movement and aspirations of the mass struggle.
There is no compromise possible! The UGTT and the Popular Front can and must end with the current rotten regime, by taking power in their own hands!
The leaders of the Popular Front and of the UGTT, instead of turning themselves towards right-wing forces whose interests diverge by 180 degrees with those of the revolution, should propose a clear revolutionary action plan to the Tunisian masses in order to sweep away not only the current government, but also all the economic foundations upon which it rests. Trying to balance revolutionary-sounding speeches with attempts to strike deals with forces hostile to the people and their revolution can only lead to confusion and disarray, and ultimately to defeat, for which the left would then surely pay a heavy price.
The call for “maintaining the pressure” and “civil disobedience” are not out of place, but remain vague. The only language that the government can understand is the same language that brought Ben Ali down: the massive, coordinated deployment of strike action by the working class with its powerful trade union, the UGTT.
At exceptional times, exceptional measures! The present situation requires more than the call for a 24 hour general strike; it requires clear, defined goals. Already, several sectors have announced strike action in the coming days and weeks. The economic and social situation is deteriorating by the day: factories are closing, unemployment is rising, and the austerity measures imposed by the IMF are knocking at the door. This context serves as the backdrop to the current turmoil.
This whole nightmarish situation must end! The dynamics of the current movement should be used to launch a major campaign to restore economic power and wealth to those who work and produce! The examples of the occupations of public buildings and of self-administration by the people should be encouraged at the level of private companies, factories and workplaces in general.
To end the rule of low wages, poor working conditions and layoffs, workers need to demand the immediate nationalisation of companies that do not guarantee jobs, and of the hundreds of companies that have been privatised in the recent decades in favour of a handful of wealthy shareholders! To end the corruption of senior executives, the continued price increases and tax evasion, demand the immediate opening of the books of large companies to the scrutiny of elected representatives of workers! To end the underdevelopment of the interior regions and the severe lack of real jobs, fight for a massive public investment plan, managed democratically by the people!
None of this will simply be granted; everything will have to be fought for through the building of powerful fighting organisations. The CWI supporters in Tunisia put forward the idea of an all-out general strike, encouraging workers to occupy their workplaces. Such a move would not only provide the ‘coup de grace’ to the government of the Troika, but would also put all the social and economic questions at the centre of the struggle. It would cut the ground from underneath the feet of the pro-capitalist parties of the opposition who try to ride on the current movement. It would pave the way for a revolution - a social one this time, empowering workers, the revolutionary youth, the unemployed and the poor to reorganise society to fulfil their own needs.
The absence of clear slogans and demands at the national level on how to extend and organise action in the coming days may give way to weariness, frustration and demobilisation. Ultimately it could leave the field more favourable to the forces of counter-revolution, enabling them to engage in all sorts of manoeuvres behind the scenes to ‘restore order’ according to the wishes of the ruling class and imperialist powers.
To prevent this from happening, building the movement democratically from below is absolutely crucial. The CWI supporters in Tunisia calls for the establishment of revolutionary committees in the workplaces, in the schools and universities, in popular neighbourhoods etc, to organise collectively and democratically the movement according to the will of the mobilised masses. Such committees are essential for the control of the movement by the base; through their local, regional and national structuring, they could provide the lever towards the establishment of a revolutionary government of workers, the youth and the oppressed, supported by the strength of the UGTT, the tens of thousands of activists of the Popular Front, the UDC (Union of Unemployed Graduates) and the numerous social movements that exist.
Parallel to the current revolutionary events, a rise in terrorist violence has taken place in the last two weeks or so, in several parts of Tunisia. The government has increased “anti-terrorist” police and military operations against certain armed groups or individual jihadists. Eight Tunisian soldiers were brutally killed on July 29 at the Mount Chaambi, near the Algerian border.
Although those responsible for these attacks are not clearly identified at this stage, it is clear that the government is seeking to exploit them to its own advantage, trying to recreate a sense of unity behind itself. Lotfi Ben Jeddou, the Interior Minister, was quick to declare that “when a country is hit by terrorism, all its citizens should close ranks”.
It is significant, however, that in a recent survey, 74% of all Tunisians put the blame on Ennahda for the rise of terrorism in the country. The increase in religious extremism has been encouraged throughout the reign of the Troika, by the ruling party and its militias. Some representatives of Ennahda even openly call for the murder of opponents. It was Sabhi Atik, leader of the Ennahda bloc in the Constituent Assembly, who vowed recently that “anyone who takes out a license against legitimacy will meet with a licence to have his blood shed on the streets.” No wonder, then, that a majority of Tunisians refuse to give the government a blank cheque on this issue, or on any other issue, for that matter!
Given the widespread rise of violence - the political assassinations, the actions of reactionary militias, the bloody terrorist surge - it is essential that the population gets organised. The self-defence of neighbourhoods, of the revolutionary movement, of public buildings, of the trade union movement, is more urgent than ever.
The repression of peaceful movements by the forces of the state, such as the attempt to put down the popular movement in Sidi Bouzid, also shows that violence, although less barbarous, is not at the sole initiative of terrorist groups. To ensure that the weapons used in the fight against terrorism now are not used against the revolution in the future, it is essential to forge links between the revolutionary movement and the armed forces upon which the ruling power is relying, many of whom come from a working class background. The soldiers sent into difficult operations such as at Mont Chambi often earn a pittance and have no trade union rights.
The CWI supporters in Tunisia call for the establishment of mass defence workers and popular committees wherever possible. Such committees should also be organised within the armed forces, to promote the interests of the rank and file soldiers and their right to decent pay and working conditions and trade union rights. Calls for the establishment of democratically elected committees of soldiers in the army, and their right to refuse to be used against the uprisings of workers and youth, could serve as basic demands to build the links between the revolutionary masses in struggle on the one hand and, on the other hand, those layers who are being used to maintain the current ruling clique in power.