Tunisia: A fragile pause in the revolution

‘You come back – we come back!’

The Tunisian revolution is experiencing an uneasy, fragile pause. Strikes, sit-ins, protests and blockades continue but the intensity has lessened. Promises to hold elections to a constituent assembly on 24 July, to disband the political and secret police, and to outlaw the party of the former dictatorship have given a breathing space for the latest prime minister, Béji Caïd Essebsi.

This superficial, relative calm could be shattered at any moment by a new upsurge in struggle, further prevarication by the political establishment or police provocation.

Those who made this revolution – the working class, unemployed youth, urban and rural poor, along with sections of the middle class – remain vigilant. Nothing is guaranteed.

Joy swept through Tunisia when the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was forced out on 14 January. Everything changed. Before the revolution, people could not talk openly about politics. There were furtive discussions, of course, secret meetings, whispers in the shadows – and the ever present threat from the secret police, arrest, imprisonment and torture.

Now, everyone talks about politics, all the time. Whether someone is on the left, in the centre, or is a right-wing reactionary, everyone is talking about what’s going on, what might happen in the elections, and where the revolution will end up. Suddenly, everyone seems to be in favour of freedom and democratic rights. Even the old dictatorship’s media say they support the revolution. They have no choice. The strength of the movement and the hopes it has inspired means that no one can declare themselves against the revolution, certainly not if they want to influence events.

Behind the façade, however, large parts of the political establishment and state machinery remain in place – how will the disbandment of the secret police be verified, for example, and by whom?

In many instances, workers succeeded in driving out the bosses closest to the old regime. Yet, the tentacles of the Ben Ali/Trabelsi mafia still reach deep into the economy. Western multinationals and their government backers continue to suck its lifeblood.

Essebsi is a more savvy politician and communicator than the thug, Ben Ali. Yet, 84-year-old Essebsi was interior minister in the first, authoritarian republic of Habib Bourghiba. He has the blood of strikers and other protesters on his hands. But, as he was not so closely linked with Ben Ali, he has had time to wash away some of that blood.

After he announced the elections and other measures, tensions eased to an extent. The sit-in ended voluntarily at the Kasbah – a government square occupied by thousands of Tunisians from every region. But they did not go without a warning: ‘Vous revenez – nous revenons’: ‘You [dictatorship, repression] come back, we come back!’. And the network is already in place, addresses and numbers have been exchanged, connections made, the movement strengthened.

Time and time again, the incredible courage and revolutionary instincts of the workers, unemployed youth and poor have been shown – despite the fact that there is no coherent leadership. Hundreds have been killed by state forces, but the determined struggle continues.

Revolution and counter-revolution

The massive demonstrations on 25 February, the biggest since Ben Ali fled, were the crest of the latest wave. Even then, a young protester was killed by police in Tunis. The following day, as thousands converged on the interior ministry to protest against the killing, the police came out openly in full brute force. Tear gas choked lungs, batons cracked bones, live ammunition scattered crowds. For hours, the battle raged, another four people killed.

The streets were strewn with debris as police and their gangs of hired thugs patrolled the main intersections into the night. A curfew was imposed from 6pm in the central commercial district for the next two days, the atmosphere tense.

This was an attempt to whip up reaction, chaos and division. It did not succeed. Such was the magnitude of the demonstrations and the outrage at the brutal repression that the government was pushed back. The then prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, a Ben Ali stooge, was forced to resign. By mid-week, the second interim government had collapsed.

The promise of elections has only been won through mass pressure. But the process is in the hands of the establishment, over the heads of the people. There is a scramble to register political parties. At the time of writing, almost 40 have been approved, although many more await official sanction.

The workplace and neighbourhood committees need to be strengthened to play a decisive role in ensuring that the constituent assembly truly reflects the revolution. The working class, unemployed, urban and rural poor need a party or electoral platform to give them a major voice in the elections.

Such a political formation would fight to stop the old regime and capitalist class from restoring their domination in society. A struggle is needed to nationalise the main sectors of the economy, under democratic workers’ control and management. And a revolutionary workers’ government would be the only way to develop socialist planning in the interests of the vast majority of people in Tunisia.

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March 2011