The barbarous terrorist attack on the 18 March at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, that claimed 22 lives, represents a watershed in the political situation of post-revolution Tunisia. This appalling event, the first terrorist act of this scale to take place in the heart of the capital, came as a reminder of the stark reality hidden behind the laudatory propaganda of the mainstream media and politicians about the successful “democratic transition.”
But the Bardo attack has also given a convenient excuse for the ruling class to try and speed up its counter-revolutionary offensive on the Tunisian masses, in both the economic and political fields. It appears that the newly-elected President Beji Caid Essebsi’s obsession of “restoring the prestige and authority of the State” has been given a boost. The US government has already announced a tripling of its military aid to the country.
The Tunisian government -whose leading political force, Nidaa Tounes, is partly a recycling machine for old regime supporters and corrupt businessmen linked to the former Ben Ali dictatorship- has seized the recent terrorist strike as a golden opportunity to reassert a heavier State machinery, and to target the social movements and strikes which have been increasing since the beginning of this year.
The official position focuses on the fact that the Bardo attackers were targeting the new “symbol of democracy” that Tunisian institutions arguably represent. This ironically coincides with the new government exploiting this very event to impose a clampdown on democratic rights. A recent report from Human Rights Watch detailed how the government’s new anti-terrorism draft bill, if passed in parliament, would allow extended detention without charge, would see the disruption of public services prosecuted as a “terrorist act”, and justify the use of the death penalty.
Under the guise of the “protection of the armed forces”, another draft law adopted by the council of ministers on 8 April would, de facto, give a status of impunity to the security forces at the expense of people’s freedoms. Among other things, it says that “no criminal liability shall be attached to an agent who would cause the death of an individual in the context of the mission he pursues”.
The shift in language used in the Tunisian press since 18 March also highlights an acceleration of the ideological offensive to shame all the workers and poor people who fight for their rights:
“The gratuitous and manipulated protest movements are threatening the fragile economic balance of the country. Why do we see them everywhere and without any valid reasons? Should Tunisia decree that those who attack the country’s economic fabric must be considered as economic terrorists? And why not after all? Should we tolerate that a handful of badly intentioned people, conducted by saboteurs, manipulators and destroyers, make of our country a new Somalia?” (Directinfo, 14/04)
This comes also with a new spike in vilifications of the revolution itself, and in some cases, the spreading of a perfume of nostalgia for the days of overt dictatorial rule:
“Human rights lose all their meaning in the face of these terrorists” (Touhami Abdouli, Le Temps, 21/03)
“Obviously, we will never ask ourselves the question of why Tunisia had peace during 23 years of dictatorial regime” (Le Temps, 22/03)
This attempt to bury the legacy of the revolution marks a certain re-assertion of the “old guard” within the State and its appendages, that the electoral victory of Nidaa Tounes has unleashed. The composition of the government is no exception. The Prime Minister Habib Essid himself occupied several posts as secretary of state under the Ben Ali regime, and others in his cabinet have similar pedigrees. After the Bardo attacks, some high security officials who had been sacked in 2011 during a mild cleansing reform within the Interior Ministry have been re-incorporated in their jobs. This move is justified by their supposed experience in the struggle against terrorism – a “struggle against terrorism” which, under Ben Ali, was a cover for the harassment, imprisonment and torture of thousands of political and trade union activists. Similarly, two days after the attack, Essebsi argued in a TV speech for the country to accept “painful reforms”, and defended the lifting of all the restrictions on businessmen who are within the scope of lawsuits and travel bans for their connections with the Ben Ali regime.
The Tunisian ruling class and its imperialist backers such as the IMF, the World Bank and the Western governments behind them, plans more deregulation of business requirements, privatisations of state-owned banks and other companies, liquidation of the state subsidy system and other neo-liberal measures. All of which have one essential aim -squeezing the revenues of working class families further, while maximising the profit-making avenues for the bosses, the shareholders and the international creditors.
They all hope to exploit the shock following the Bardo bloodshed to push through their anti-working class agenda.
Part of this involves the hammering down of the need for “national unity”. How convenient! A few months ago, the leading parties in the present government, Nidaa Tounes and the right-wing Islamists of Ennahda, were still both trying to convince us that there was an irreconcilable fracture in Tunisian society, between the “modernists” in favour of a “civilian State” on the one hand, and the Islamists in favour of a “religious State” on the other hand. Now that this masquerade has been exposed for what it is, because the enemies of yesterday have now joined hands in the same coalition to the exclusive benefit of their big business friends, we are supposed to be convinced that their “sacred union” should be ours as well.
National unity is a suitable weapon of the ruling class to try and neutralise opposition to its rule, even as its mouthpieces engage in throwing mud at striking workers and communities in struggle. This new mantra for national reconciliation is aimed at deflecting the mounting class anger by rallying the whole country behind a common enemy, and at trying to bind the workers’ hands and feet with their capitalist masters.
But the growing number of disputes taking place in the workplaces, in both public and private sectors, illustrates that a serious gulf is building up between the capitalist class’s wishful thinking and the reality on the ground. Government officials are well aware that beyond the political use of the present state of affairs, they will not prevent serious backlashes from the working class. The repeated militant national strike actions by the teachers’ union since the beginning of the year have given a flavour of what people in power might have to expect for the year to come. The teachers’ strike, last Wednesday, recorded an average participation rate of 95.3 % across the country according to union figures (the highest being in the central region of Gafsa with 99.6%, and the lowest in the northern region of Bizerte with 91%).
In the phosphate mines, in the textile industry, in the postal services, among the pilots, in public transport -numerous sectors have been involved in industrial action in the recent weeks. The UGTT also announced a two-day national strike in the health sector on the 28 and 29 April. A report published on the day of the Bardo tragedy noted that 94 strikes had already taken place since the beginning of 2015, including 74 in the private sector. It is now becoming clear that the government’s hope of using the terrorism scarecrow to reduce this nascent wave of working class resistance has been extremely short-lived.
The burning question is: when is the leadership of the workers’ movement eventually going to decide to waken up to the burgeoning reality and lead the millions who are striving for action and real change?
Leadership missing in action
While the government pretends to be engaged in a resolute fight against terrorism, its policies of social devastation only increase the sense of hopelessness and despair among the poorest in society, leading to the growth of religious extremism in the country. Poor neighbourhoods that have become a fertile ground for the recruitment of jihadists are, before anything else, areas where state policy has failed in every respect.
This is why the struggle against terror is intimately linked with the struggle to achieve a decisive break from the economic policies pursued by successive governments since the fall of Ben Ali who have all fundamentally applied the disastrous recipes of the old regime.
The Tunisian General labour Union UGTT has called for a “national congress against terrorism”. But its appeal is directed towards the existing capitalist establishment. It even aims at bringing on board the UTICA (Tunisian Union of Industry and Commerce), the national bosses’ organisation, rather than serving as a lever to organise the fight-back against the government and to engage in a serious discussion on building a working class alternative to the continuing austerity and state repression, which is all that this right-wing government has on offer for the Tunisian people.
Since the Bardo museum attack, the UGTT central executive has essentially echoed the government’s rhetoric about the need for “national unity” rather than providing its affiliates with a plan of action worthy of its name, independently from all the manoeuvres of the capitalists and their parties, and challenging the state’s pretensions to set the tone on anti-terrorism.
The lack of lead from the trade union leadership, and from the left-leaning Popular Front coalition for that matter, has allowed a vacuum that has been occupied by pro-capitalist establishment figures. This has meant that the voice of working people, of trade unionists and left activists, of the revolutionary youth, of the unemployed, has hardly been heard in this debate.
The workers’ movement needs its own political voice
In its last paper, the CWI in Tunisia, Al-Badil al-Ishtiraki (Socialist Alternative), draws parallels between the terror of the jihadists and the State-sponsored terror, and pushes forward proposals for actions based on rejecting both, and campaigning for the transformation of all the local and sectorial social battles into a mass political struggle to eventually topple Essid’s government.
At the present time, this might sound like a herculean task. But the present government is much weaker than it seems. More than four million Tunisians (out of a population of eleven million), including about 80% of the youth between 19 and 25 years old, abstained in the last legislative elections. An internal crisis is already affecting the main governing parties. The existence of such an improbable coalition is in itself a sign of the difficulties for the ruling class to assemble in the first place a tool capable of implementing their desired policies.
The apparent “strength” of the present government only betrays the extremely timorous character of the workers’ leaders and their lack of confidence in the class whose interests they are supposed to defend. The acquaintances between parts of the UGTT bureaucracy and the Nidaa Tounes party have notably acted as a brake on the response, or rather the lack of it, from the UGTT headquarters in the recent events.
A united front of all workers and social organisations, around the militant bases of the UGTT and the left, of unemployed organisations like the UDC (Union of Unemployed Graduates) and of the social movements, is urgently needed to push back the counter-revolutionary offensive. The starting point of such a movement could be the campaign for organising a mass 24-hour general strike in order to bring all the layers in struggle together, on the basis of the total refusal of any economic “sacrifices” or any erosion of democratic rights.
Such a general strike would have to be seen as a springboard towards escalating actions and demands, until the government is given a decisive blow. Local general assemblies and democratic committees of action in the communities and workplaces would help widen the active support base of the movement, by providing a space to discuss and democratically decide the next steps in the struggle. In the long run, the local, regional and national coordination of such bodies could constitute the backbone for a government genuinely fulfilling the revolution’s demands.
All the governments since the overthrow of Ben Ali have failed the revolution entirely, and the present one is no exception. If anything, this cabinet is composed of all the fundamental components of the reaction put together. The struggle for a progressive government of the poor, the youth and the working masses, based on a socialist program of nationalisation of all major industries, banks, and big land properties under the democratic control of the Tunisian people, is what the left and the trade union movement should strategically prepare the people for.
An independent working class political alternative decisively turned towards grassroots struggles, equipped with a militant programme of action, as well as with democratic and inclusive structures, is what is crucially missing at this point. The rise of reactionary religious forces, the electoral victory of a party based on old-regime cronies, the lack of a proper response from the left after the Bardo attack -all recent developments in Tunisia underline the need to urgently rebuild an authentic independent political voice for the working class, the youth and all the people who have carried out the revolution with genuine hopes for a better future.