Tunisia: Revolution at a crossroads

Capitalist ’democracy’ will not satisfy demands

Dictator Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia on Friday 21 January has not ended the turmoil in Tunisia but in fact opened a whole period of revolution and counter-revolution in that country. The population had erupted onto the political scene as never before, displaying unprecedented combativeness, transforming the streets and bars into daily forums for political discussion.

Thousands of workers, in a variety of sectors, raised social demands in their workplaces; in some whole areas they took over the tasks of the administration and replaced the forces of the state. For a period, mounting struggles put the unpopular interim government of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi in a state close to paralysis.

However, the absence of a clear political alternative in the form of an audacious revolutionary leadership representing the working class and the poor sections of society, ready to challenge for power, is now having its effect on the situation. The support for the latest government by the bureaucratic and compromised leadership of the UGTT trade union has allowed it to stay in power and a downturn in the mobilisation of the masses to take place. The present pause could still prove to be short-lived, as the situation remains extremely volatile, and the grievances of the masses numerous.

Government reshuffle: the names have changed, the system remains

The so-called ‘National Unity Government’ has been marked by chronic instability since it was formed two weeks ago. It faced massive opposition and continued protests all over the country last week. There were massive regional general strikes in six ’governorates’. For five days, thousands of people mainly from the poorest regions of the country camped outside the government’s headquarters aiming to bring it down because of its links with Ben Ali’s dictatorship.

The eradication of every vestige of the old regime has remained the central demand. But more and more, social demands have been added to political ones.

Last Thursday night, Ghannouchi announced a government reshuffle. It took days to be announced after intense negotiations, illustrating the ongoing divisions and difficulties among the ruling circles in composing a government that could re-establish the authority of the capitalist state.

Prime Minister in new government, Gannouchi

Unfortunately, the reshuffle won the backing of the majority of the UGTT’s National Committee. Increasingly voices demanding the removal of Abdessalem Jrad – the general secretary and other members of the UGTT’s Executive Bureau from their leading positions in the trade union (“Jrad, dégage!”) have been heard. The decision to support the latest Ghannouchi government could bring the conflict in the trade union ranks to a head. The task of electing a new leadership of the union through a democratically organised extraordinary congress, a genuine leadership in consonance with its membership, has become more urgent, than ever.

Trojan horse of the counter-revolution

All key cabinet positions, including the interior, defence, and foreign ministries, have changed hands, being awarded to so-called ‘independent’ figures. Even if the constant changes to the interim government are a direct expression of its weakness, and of the huge pressure from the streets, there should be no illusion that this recomposed Ghannouchi government will be fundamentally different from the previous one.

The structures of power, nationally and locally, are still being dominated by henchmen of Ben Ali’s party, the RCD.

The change of name from RCD to PSD (Parti Socialiste Destourien, the old name of the party dating from the time of previous President Habib Bourguiba), suggested by some of the party’s old figures in order to give it a new ‘virginity’, will not change anything.

Most of the twelve new ministers involved in the reshuffled cabinet are neo-liberal “golden boys”, former businessmen, ex-directors and managers of banks or private companies.

The real face of the present ‘democracy’

The RCD is still occupying leading positions everywhere in the state apparatus. The basic demand of the masses for the dissolution of this party has not been met. The government has been decided from above by people of the old regime in behind-the-scenes agreements with US and European advisers. There are still numerous political prisoners.

The present government has shown its colours in the violent evacuation of the hundreds of people camped outside the government buildings in the Kasbah. After having used all sorts of attempts to isolate and break it up (preventing people from giving food to the occupiers, attempting to buy them with money, alcohol and drugs, etc.), police and anti-riot units brutally evacuated the square, destroying the occupiers’ camp. They chased protesters through the streets, firing tear gas and injuring at least 15 people in the process.

Obviously, this repression is not comparable to the savage killing of demonstrators that were happening before Ben Ali fled. Opting for similar bloody repression now would just inflame the whole country once again. A rash move on the part of Ghannouchi’s government, could still provoke a resurgence of the movement and lead to its downfall.

This government is still covering up the actions of the militias of the old regime. In the past week, several local trade union headquarters – in Monastir, Gafsa, Béja and Sousse – have been physically attacked. On Sunday morning, in Le Kef, a group of “unknown people” tried to set on fire the local building of the UGTT.

Attacks against individual union or left activists have also been reported. A member of the ‘Patriotic and Democratic Labour Party of Tunisia’, who was distributing leaflets on Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis on 26 January, was arrested by the police, taken to the police station and severely beaten. On Saturday (28 January), a 300-strong demonstration for women’s rights was attacked by groups of thugs armed with batons.

Even if the reactionary militias are not confident to raise their heads too openly at the moment, a downturn in the mass movement could be accompanied by violent reprisals.

The maintenance and strengthening of the armed committees of self-defence is necessary in order to protect the neighbourhoods, workplaces and union buildings.

Rising social anger

The Tunisian capitalist class, as well as the mainly US and French imperialist forces, who have big economic and strategic interests in the country, never had any taste for introducing democracy in Tunisia. The precarious ‘democracy’ and freedom being felt by most Tunisian people at the moment exist only because of the irresistible pressure from the mass movement.

The end of the Ben Ali dictatorship has brought all the accumulated social contradictions to the surface. The working class and the popular masses have rapidly moved to try and carry through a real transformation of their daily lives as shown by the sharp raise in social conflicts that have taken place in the last two weeks, not only in the ‘traditional’ sectors of the working class.

Last Wednesday, several dozen tourist guides gathered in front of the Tourism Ministry asking for better recognition of their work and the right to have a trade union. The day after, several hundred deaf-mute people demonstrated on the Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis, demanding the creation of special schools and specific facilities for them in public areas.

There were solid strikes in the both primary and secondary education and, in several areas, demonstrations of unemployed youth demanding jobs.

The capitalist class has obviously been extremely worried by these battles that threaten its ’prerogatives’. “Ben Ali is gone now,” they say. “The revolution is finished, we need order, social peace and to restart the economy”. “Agitation and chaos represent a situation conflicting with the interests of capitalism in general. It is absolutely essential that the period of uncertainty stops immediately.” (Jean-Pierre Gallay, a French businessman quoted in ‘Le Quotidien’, 26/01)

As in Egypt, the disastrous economic situation experienced by the majority of Tunisian people constituted an integral factor leading to the explosion of anger against the old regime. The misery wages have not increased, except when workers have engaged in militant industrial action like the municipal garbage collectors of Tunis. After several days of strike action and demonstrations, they won permanent contracts and an almost doubling of their wages from 240 to 420 dinars.

The fear of the multiplication of struggles like this has forced Ghannouchi’s government to announce some minor concessions to try and calm the situation. These include the provision of an emergency fund of 500 million dinars allocated to several ‘priority’ governorates and regions, including notably those of Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine and Gafsa where the uprising involved large numbers of workers. Financial compensation is being given to families from which a member was killed by the police. Compensation is being paid for damaged businesses. A monthly allowance of 150 dinars (78 euros!) is being granted to unemployed graduates who accept part-time jobs in the public services – more like a “slave jobs” programme.

Two class forces

The possessing classes, together with the political heirs of the dictator, in their conscious attempt to divert the revolution – carried through by the street demonstrations – are trying now to give it the appearance of perfect national harmony, only spoiled by a few hard core trouble-makers who, by their actions, are putting into danger the transition towards ‘democracy’.

The reality is that, behind this mask of unity, there are two different classes, with opposite interests. Behind the calls from the ruling class to “save the revolution”, there is only one aim: to preserve intact their capitalist profit-driven system – national capitalists and foreign ones alike. The paper ‘Le Quotidien’ (25/01), said before Ben Ali’s departure: “For Washington, the moment has come to abandon this used-up dictator and to organise his succession before the insurrection transforms itself into an authentic revolution, in other words, a real peril to the system itself.”

That is behind all the sirens pressing the masses to suspend their revolutionary process now. They are supposed to wait passively until democracy and social justice will fall into their hands. Yet what the whole recent period has clearly illustrated is that the masses can only rely on their own forces and initiatives to make any steps forward in both fields. But a workers’ party is needed to channel their anger into a struggle for political power.

Ultimately, only the overthrow of capitalism, through an organised mass struggle by the working class, the peasants and the poor, led by such a party, can see power in their hands. Society could then be rebuilt on a socialist basis, allowing the achievement of proper political and social emancipation. Recent events have provided us with many examples showing that such an aim can be achieved.

The newspaper ‘Le Quotidien’ reported on the 25 January that in the city of M’Saken “Civilians are taking power temporarily! …They have been living for several days without any presence of state forces. The people of M’Sakenis have taken their fate into their own hands, and have even formed their own civilian police. It is said that not one cop wants to go back to the city, after the official police was swept away from their own buildings (…) The only aims of these citizens are to share the tasks and to preserve peace and security in the city. (…) All are very respectful; willingness and solidarity prevail. They succeeded in pushing out the militias of the old regime, as well as the looters.”

A few days later, the same paper reported that Beja was a city, “Paralysed by an unprecedented strike movement. Workers, teachers, white-collar workers, women, men, young people, old and pensioners…It was like the whole city was on the streets. (…) The 500 workers of the sugar factory have chased their CEO and his corrupt collaborators, before constituting themselves into a ’salvation committee’.

The next day, of Thala: “The mayor has fled the city. The rest of those who are supposed to represent the authorities have left their posts, abandoning the city to its own fate (…) It must be said that, since the fleeing of the local authorities, the inhabitants have taken over the baton, managing the affairs of the city in a masterly fashion(…) The inhabitants have constituted themselves into popular committees to protect public and private goods”.

What an answer to all the voices who keep saying that the present government is “the only one possible” – preventing the country falling into chaos, disorder, anarchy and a political vacuum!

The working class and the popular masses have clearly shown that they could be serious pretenders for power. The only problem, and not the least, is that they do not have a party to organise them, to take the necessary steps in order to bring together the different experiences, enlarge them to cover the whole country, and build an alternative, workers’ and popular masses’ government that could sweep away the present regime once and for all.

The absence of such a leadership capable of formulating clearly, at each stage of the struggle, the measures necessary to take the movement forward, has begun to allow scepticism to creep in among people who initially supported the revolution. They are now being won over by the idea that this government is better than before; they do not see any other serious alternative on the map. A few middle class layers, have been mobilised in the streets to demonstrate against the ‘adventurists’ who want to continue the struggle to the end.

They have raised slogans like “We support the interim government of free Tunisia!”, “Message to all Tunisian people: go back to school, go back to work!”. As the tide ebbs a little, they fear that social unrest and populist measures could threaten their economic interests.. Other poor layers (shopkeepers, taxi drivers and other independent workers who are suffering the impact of the sharp decrease of tourism, have been subjected to a media campaign exploiting their fear of the unknown.

How to go forward

A revolution never develops in a straight line. Ebbs and setbacks are inevitable, especially when there is not a party with some authority and respect able to unite the working class and the popular masses behind a clear revolutionary programme. In such a situation, abrupt explosions of anger, even violent acts, can arise amongst those who feel the fruits of the revolution have been stolen from their hands.

Nevertheless, a wider upsurge of mass struggle is likely to follow as illusions in the present government inevitably evaporate. It is not excluded that, faced with continuing mass opposition, Ghannouchi’s government could disintegrate.

A persistent social and political instability can push the ruling class into envisaging more radical options. A military take-over, with a weak, mostly conscript, army seems unlikely. Significant rank-and-file layers have been flirting with the revolution and an army coup could appear as too much of an adventure from the capitalist class’ point of view.

This government could also be forced, in an attempt to restore its damaged authority, to enlarge the coalition on its ‘left’ flank, by integrating figures of the opposition parties or of the trade union, including possibly, from the Islamic Ennahda party. Its main leader, Rached Ghannouchi, having come back onto Tunisian soil after 20 years in exile, has remained very ambiguous in relation to the new ministerial team. His insistence on the idea that his party is in favour of women’s rights and democracy, and the demonstrations that took place on the day of his return approving “moderate Islam, but not religious extremism” show that the terrain for Islamist fundamentalism is not very fertile in Tunisia at the moment.

Whatever comes in the next days and weeks, this ‘new’ regime will be a regime of crisis, which will have to deal with a working class which has not said its last word, and has get rid of its past fears. An entire new period has opened up in Tunisia, in which the building of socialist forces will be the most vital and urging task to undertake. The continuation of the revolution and the need to prepare for future battles makes it necessary to extend and coordinate at all levels the organs that have emerged from below through the revolutionary process.

A national meeting gathering all these forces into a national assembly of elected delegates from the different local, popular and workers’ committees, would be a tremendous step in this direction. It would lay the basis for the election of a real revolutionary government – the most faithful and closest expression of the revolutionary will and desires of large masses of working and poor people across the whole country. As one demonstrator stated in the streets of Tunis last Friday: “We made the revolution, so it is only logical that we have the right to elect our ministers”.

The recent refusal of the police of Sfax to send any reinforcements to repress the sit-in protest movement in the capital, has shown how the revolutionary mood has affected important parts of the armed forces. The creation of revolutionary committees in the army and in the police, democratically run by the rank-and-file, electing their own officials, and chasing out and disarming from their ranks all the ‘doubtful’ and reactionary elements, would rapidly deprive the government of any serious capacity of reaction.

The CWI calls for

For the extension and coordination of popular committees in the neighbourhoods, the workplaces and factories, the schools and universities. Extend them to the armed forces and the police, to prevent reactionary officers conspiring against the revolution

For local, regional, and national assemblies of democratically elected representatives from the committees in the workplaces and neighbourhoods.

Bring down Ghannouchi’s government! For a workers’ and poor people’s government based on the popular committees and the trade unions.

For full and free elections, the right of all to form political parties to contest in them. For a revolutionary constituent assembly, under the control of the popular committees to decide on how the country should be run.

For workers’ control over production and distribution, for the opening of the books, in order to prevent corruption, tax evasion and mafia-style operations to continue

For popular tribunals to judge the enemies of the people, the assassins and torturers of the old regime.

For the strengthening of defence forces of the working class and poor, to stop the exactions and raids of counter-revolutionary militias

For the full recognition of democratic rights:- freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of religion. For the immediate suppression of the curfew on the whole territory. For the immediate release of the remaining political prisoners

For the end of the free-trade zones, for the full recognition of trade union rights and representation in all sectors

For the convening, with the least possible delay, of an extraordinary congress of the UGTT to remove the leaders who have supported the government and elect a genuine and fighting trade union leadership

For the immediate seizing by the state, without compensation, of all the assets and companies appropriated by the Ben Ali and Trabelsi mafia, under democratic workers’ control. Their wealth could be used to finance projects of social and public utilities and create thousands of jobs.

Cancel all debts. For the nationalisation of all assets of the foreign companies now threatening to relocate, under workers’ control and management. Stop the flight of capital with immediate state controls a impose a state monopoly of foreign trade.

For a vast plan to combat poverty and unemployment: for the sharing out of work and an immediate increase of the minimum wage. For the creation of emergency funds to provide social assistance to the unemployed, the pensioners, the handicapped, the homeless…

For a new party of the workers and poor and a programme for the nationalisation of all major industry, banks and land. A socialist and democratic plan of production to meet the needs of all, not the greedy interests of a handful of private corporations, multinationals and banks

Solidarity with the struggles of brothers and sisters in Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Jordan…For a socialist federation of the Maghreb, spreading across the region.

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February 2011