Tunisia: Decisive working class action can prevent counter revolution regaining control

Contribution to the ongoing debate on the Tunisian revolution and its aftermath.

There is still an atmosphere of revolution and mass politicisation in Tunisia, not a day passes without a demonstration, and any suspicious move from elements of the old elite faces an immediate spontaneous reaction from the streets. But the revolution has now entered more ‘troubled waters’, as the joy and optimism of the initial stages have partially been overshadowed by growing anxiety and dissatisfaction at the fact that little has actually changed in the country and in people’s lives, four months after Ben Ali was ousted by the revolutionary movement.

At first, the revolutionary conflagration was powerful enough to bring down two transitional governments, to topple a number of local leaders of the ex-ruling party RCD, corrupt bosses and managers from companies and State institutions, to impose the dismantling of the RCD, as well as the organisation of the first elections for a Constituent Assembly.

Thanks to a surge in social protests and strike actions (according to the newspaper ‘Le Temps’, the number of strikes has risen by 155% during the first months of 2011 compared to last year as a whole), some important social gains were also conceded (such as the end of outsourcing practices in the public sector, or wage increases of up to 10, 20, sometimes 30% in some workplaces).

Repression on the rise

However, the revolution did not bring down the backbone of the dictatorship’s powerful State apparatus, nor the economic relations upon which the old hated regime had been able to flourish. In the first weeks of May, a brutal crackdown from vengeful police thugs, with its toll of arbitrary arrests, savage beatings, torture in police stations, raids on trade union headquarters and even killings of protesters, brought back to the minds of many Tunisians that there is nothing irreversible about the few gains achieved so far by their revolution, as the counter-revolution is determined not to leave the scene without a merciless fight.

The trigger for such a wave of repression was the massive outrage provoked by the public statements of Farhat Rajhi –a judge who served briefly as Interior Minister under the post-Ben Ali interim administration- stating that if the results of the forthcoming elections were to go against the interests of the present regime, there would be a military coup. He also criticised the fact that the country is still dominated by the same old regime, pointing out the influential role played in the shadow on the governmental decisions by some old Ben Ali’s supporters, such as the businessman Kamal Letaief, one of the architects of Ben Ali’s coup in 1987.

Since his declarations, Rajhi has been dismissed as head of the High Commission for Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties, to which post he was appointed after his previous sacking as an Interior Minister. Rajhi’s comments had the effect of a political bombshell, provoking spontaneous anti-government protests and youth riots in several parts of the territory (Rajhi was a relatively popular figure in the country, nicknamed “Mr Clean Hands”, because as soon as he took office he fired dozens of top officials in the interior ministry linked to Ben Ali’s repressive regime; only days after his appointment, hundreds of police and supporters of Ben Ali stormed the interior ministry threatening to kill him).

What the real motivations of Rajhi are remains unclear, but the government certainly exploited the surprise created by such explosive declarations to deploy police violence on a scale unseen since Ben Ali’s era. Despite many sincere individual left activists being present on the streets, there was generally no organised reaction from workers’ or socialist organisations to explain that Rajhi’s sacking confirmed that the old elite still held power. The added failure to protest against the brutal reaction only encouraged provocative repression even further, leading to the streets of the capital Tunis being dominated by heavily armed police for several days, creating a climate of terror against whoever dares to demonstrate.

If this sudden outburst of repression and violence has receded somewhat in the following weeks, the situation remains very finely balanced, as rampant counter-revolution is combined with widespread frustration than can still erupt explosively onto the scene. All the ingredients are present for sharp shifts in the objective situation to occur.

On the other hand, it is all too evident that since Ben Ali’s downfall, the army, which has benefited from much more sympathy from the revolutionary people than the hated police units, is occupying more of a central role in safeguarding the interests of the ruling class, through the complicity of its high command with that class. Since Ben Ali’s overthrow, the army, though less involved in direct repression than the police, is in charge of protecting all the strategic locations of the powers-that-be, high symbols of the old regime and of its imperialist sponsors: the Ministry of the Interior, the Casbah square where all the ministerial buildings are located, the French embassy….

Other recent events seem to confirm the increasing role taken by the military. However anecdotal this might appear to be, Slim Amamou, the ‘blogger activist’ who had been integrated into the government since last January, has recently resigned from his post, in order to denounce the return of censorship on the Internet, referring to the decision of the Tunisian Internet Agency to close four websites at the request of the army. The Defence Minister has justified this decision in arguing that some people have “created websites aimed at harming the reputation of the military and of its command, publishing videos and disseminating reviews and articles designed to undermine public confidence in the national army, and spread chaos in the country.”

From the very beginning, the CWI had pointed out the need of consciously approaching the rank-and-file soldiers of the army to win them over to the side of the revolution. Despite many spontaneous reactions of protestors attempting to do so, this idea was not pursued by any organised forces on the left. The PCOT (Parti Communiste des Ouvriers Tunisiens – Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party) leaders were arguing that the army was there to protect the people and to guarantee the security of the country. If the left had make a clear appeal towards the –mostly conscript- soldiers in the ranks (whose sympathy for the revolution was shown by the numerous cases of fraternisation with the people) to form their own committees in the army, to democratically elect their own officers on an equal basis, and to join the revolutionary struggle of the masses, the passive sympathy for the revolution on the part of many working class soldiers could have been transformed into an active one. By bringing the soldiers’ experience and weapons to the revolutionary side, and accelerating the disintegration of the crumbling State apparatus, it could have definitely excluded any possibility for the caste of privileged reactionary officers to use the army against the interests of the revolution.

The old regime is still in place

While some young people who had called for a “new revolution” on their Facebook profile have even been detained by the police, no moves have been taken against most of the torturers or those who opened fire on demonstrators during the uprising. Even the United Nations special representative sent to Tunisia has acknowledged that torture continues to be practised against opponents. This is not really surprising: despite the official claims, the political police, as well as its networks of henchmen, snitches, spies, plain clothes cops and provocateurs have not disappeared from the scene.

Moreover, some ex-high ranking RCD officials, such as Ben Ali’s ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamel Morjane, have been organising through new political parties, registered legally under new names. There has been a flood of 80 or so new parties that have been registered since the beginning of the year, among which six at least are products of splits from the RCD. There has been no serious effort to judge Ben Ali, along with his family and cronies, for their crimes, or to return their colossal fortunes for the benefit of Tunisian people. The recent court case of Imed Trabelsi (the nephew of Ben Ali’s wife), who only got two years imprisonment for “drug consumption” despite being one of the pillars of the old mafia system, has brought further evidence that the judiciary system is still run by the principle that there is one justice for the poor, and another for the corrupt wealthy. Even his prison cell is so luxurious that some journalists described it as a “five-star hotel”.

Business as usual?

The provisional government of Prime Minister Beji Caïd Essebsi is increasingly exploiting the weaknesses of the revolutionary camp (above all, the lack of a strong party to unify the working class, the revolutionary youth and the poor and carry on their revolutionary aspirations) to reaffirm the authority of the State and the capitalist rule over the economy.

A governmental campaign aimed at restoring the confidence of the imperialist countries in the ‘profitability’ of Tunisia has been beating the drum for weeks. “We are here to tell you that future opportunities will be even more profitable and more interesting” Tunisian Finance Minister Jalloul Ayed said in front of 300 French bosses in Paris at the end of April. In other words, despite the revolution, and despite the supposedly ‘caretaker character’ of the present government, this one is giving firm indications that it will make every effort to ensure that the exploitation of the Tunisian working class can continue like before, and that the fiscal and salary ‘Eldorado’ that Tunisia used to represent for foreign capitalists is not something of the past.

Increasingly loud voices from among capitalist commentators now claim that the Tunisian revolution can be an opportunity to open the Tunisian market even more to foreign companies. Edmund Phelps, the director of the Centre of Studies on Capitalism at the Columbia University, complains in an interview in the French newspaper ‘Le Monde’ that Tunisia suffers from being a “too closed market”, arguing for “the end of the political control over the business sectors by a privileged caste”. Phelps is only echoing the interests of the big investing players who are enviously eyeing up all the assets, companies and banks that the Ben Ali-Trabeli mafia have left behind them, and the huge market opportunities this could potentially represent. Once again, the Finance Minister has made this point clear: “The State has no intention at all to keep the assets which have been confiscated. These are in no way nationalisations.”

Meanwhile, the daily demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins are increasingly targeted by Essebsi’s administration as an obstacle to the country’s development and a threat to national security, and being put in the same category as acts of looting, destruction, fires, prisoner escapes, and other criminal violence which have been on the rise in the recent period. Ironically, it is no secret that a lot of those acts are actually encouraged or financed by the police and counter-revolutionary militias, whose aim is to increase tension in a way that would justify a return to authoritarian methods supposedly aimed at restoring ‘law and order’.

Cancel the debt! Bring Ben Ali and co’s wealth back!

The unanimous down-grading of the Tunisian sovereign debt by all the international rating agencies in the aftermath of Ben Ali’s overthrow was a direct testimony to the fear of the ‘markets’ about the possible consequences of the Tunisian revolution. For the capitalists and their institutions, the much-praised regime of Ben Ali offered a more consistent guarantee of ‘stability’ for the country, than a revolution that would awaken the social expectations and demands of the workers and the poor, and drive the country ‘into the unknown’.

The policies of Essebsi’s government consist precisely in reassuring the imperialist countries of its servility to their requirements. The invitation of Tunisian authorities to the G8 summit is part of this process of consolidating their mutual relationship. While the majority of the population is struggling to keep its head above water, the government firmly sticks to its programme of paying back the billions of external debt contracted by Ben Ali’s ruling clan -the debt reaches at the moment 20 billions euro-, even if that means cutting the wages of civil servants, as Essebsi has threatened not to pay them if the strikes and sit-ins continue.

The government has already honoured the payment of the equivalent of 450 million euro of debt in April. Such a sum represents the equivalent of more than 600 euro per unemployed person in the country! And a similar amount is due to be paid in September. Concretely, on an annual basis, the re-payment of the debt and its interests represent more than 5 times the annual budget for healthcare. And yet in some of the poorest areas of the country, the lack of healthcare facilities is so dramatic that more than half of the births take place at home without medical assistance. Meanwhile, the country numbers more than 700,000 unemployed, and an official figure of 24.7% of the population continue to live with less than 2 dollars a day.

The systematic looting and fraudulent privatisations of the country’s economy by the mafia families and their imperialist sponsors, combined with the huge fiscal concessions offered to foreign multinationals to maximise their profits, have been made at the expense of a massive impoverishment of millions of Tunisians. For instance, from the 1980’s till now, the share of workers’ wages in the national wealth has been reduced from more than 50% to less than 40%. But the workers and the impoverished masses are now the ones who are supposed to pay back the debt inherited from those policies, to enrich even more speculators and bankers who have supported Ben Ali all the way through!

The revolutionary movement needs to fight for the complete cancellation of this debt, but also for the immediate nationalisation, under the democratic control of workers and consumers’ organisations, of all the assets previously owned by the ruling families. This would be a first step towards the re-appropriation of all the commanding heights of the economy (banks, insurance companies, transports, big industries and services) into public hands, to start organising society along a general democratic socialist plan responding to the interests of the majority.

For the building of a mass, fighting party of the workers and all the oppressed! For a special congress of the UGTT to kick out the bureaucrats!

A new political party called the ‘Party of Tunisian Labour’ (PTT) has recently been launched by some trade union leaders. The idea of a ‘workers’ party’ is an old idea that has crossed the history of the UGTT (Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens, General Union of Tunisian Workers), but has never been genuinely put into practice because of the successive manoeuvres by the dictatorship to cut it off.

However, the political basis of the PTT seems far removed from what genuine workers activists would need to defend their interests. The party’s spokesman, Abdel Jelil Bedoui, insists on the place that should be reserved for the bosses inside its ranks, even claiming that “the surge towards the party is coming from various social classes, even from big businessmen, sometimes at the head of huge fortunes”. Indeed, bosses as well as notoriously corrupt high-ranking UGTT bureaucrats (like its assistant general secretary Ali Ben Romdhane), who never led any serious battle against the pro-Ben Ali orientation of the trade union, are part of its leadership.

The CWI is in favour of resurrecting the idea of a mass party fighting for the interests of the working class and all the poor masses. But such a party should be democratically built from below, to bring together all the genuine revolutionary activists, and would need to challenge openly the compromised leadership of the UGTT if it wants be something other than a ‘left refuge’ for union careerists and for bosses praising the virtue of class collaboration.

The attitude of the UGTT national leadership, its executive bureau in particular, is an extremely important factor in the impasse facing the revolution at present, and a key player in the tactical manoeuvres of Essebsi’s administration. Having promised the government “an end to the strikes and sit-ins” (according to the above-mentioned Ben Romdhane), the UGTT leaders, most of whom having been ardent Ben Ali supporters only a few months back, and having a long history of betrayals of working class’ struggle on their shoulders, have concentrated most of their energies in holding back, as fiercely as they could, any workers’ initiative from below, while clinging on their own outstanding material privileges.

Ex-President Ben Ali with General Secretary of the UGTT Abdessalem Jrad

After meeting with Essebsi in mid-May, the General Secretary of the UGTT Abdessalem Jrad told the official Tunisian news agency that the “ultimate objective” (!) of his union was to “assist the Government in meeting fully its difficult mission.”

But this is not all there is to be said about the matter: the UGTT has still an immense potential power, as far as its militant rank-and-file membership is concerned – that is why the present government and the UTICA (the main bosses’ federation) are so concerned about involving the union in helping “stabilise the economy”. The UGTT is organising important parts of the working class, especially in the public sector, and is the traditional mass organisation towards which a lot of workers are naturally turning to, including some new layers who are fighting to get trade union recognition in their factories and workplaces. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of new workers have joined it since January. In Ben Arous alone, an industrial zone in Northeastern Tunisia, and the third most union-organised region of the country, 17,000 new UGTT members have been registered since the 14th January (mainly in the private sector).

Publicly campaigning for an extraordinary congress of the UGTT, to cleanse the trade union of all the sclerotic elements linked to the dictatorship, and to re-appropriate the union as a fighting and democratic organisation led by genuine workers representatives, remains one of the most important and urgent task of the moment. The CWI, which has brought this demand to the fore since January, remains firmly convinced that it keeps all its accuracy.

If the left has been seriously undermined and weakened by the blows of the dictatorship, it has managed to keep some significant positions in some sectors of the UGTT. Many left activists in the trade union have led a courageous and consistent fight against Ben Ali’s regime, by implacably opposing the stranglehold that this regime tried to impose on their union. During the several months-long uprising in the mining area of Gafsa in 2008, a lot of them bravely stood against the attempts of the bureaucracy to break and stifle their struggle, in complicity with the ruling elite and its watchdogs.

But such a fight is still as important as it was at that time. If the pressure of the revolution might have forced the previous Ben Ali and RCD agents in the union to keep a low profile, the objective interests of these people still diverge at an angle of 180 degrees with their own affiliates. The demand for a special congress of the UGTT, if discussed and built for at every level of the trade union, and linked with concrete campaigning issues such as a national campaign for decent jobs and contracts, would receive a warm response not only from the overall majority of union members, but even from many young people and unemployed who today disregard the UGTT because of the rottenness of its leadership which ignores their plight.

This question is still an urgent one, especially as the official congress of the UGTT has been postponed till next December, giving a new breathing space to the bureaucracy to reassert its control over the whole process, with all the dangers that this presents for the future of the Tunisian trade union and working class movement as a whole.

For the rebuilding of the revolutionary committees

The numerous local revolutionary committees that sprung up in the aftermath of Ben Ali’s departure were one of the most concrete demonstrations that millions across the country had decided to take their fate into their hands, and to rely on their own independent forces to achieve their ends. It was the people themselves who protected their neighbourhoods, through the neighbourhoods and vigilance committees, while whole sections of the supposed ‘security’ forces were actually breeding insecurity all over the place. It was the workers themselves who protected their factories against attacks from the RCD militias, sometimes day and night for several days, while some of the bosses had just run away.

Faced with the rising violence and insecurity in many areas, and the real possibility of a new upsurge of police reprisals, the masses, once again, can only rely on their own forces to protect themselves and their areas, through the resurrection of these committees. Through such committees, well organised defence forces composed of ordinary people can be set up, their tasks defined and coordinated according to the needs of the situation.

Similar initiatives must be discussed in the factories and other workplaces. Indeed, several strikes have been physically attacked by bosses’ militias or attempted to be dislodged by the police. Such has been the case for example in the supermarket ‘Le Magasin Général’ in El Kantaoui, near Sousse (Central East), where the strikers, who have occupied the place for several weeks, have faced attacks and intimidation by the police and by a militia composed of the few non-striking workers bribed by the boss to do the dirty work.

Workers defence forces need be established to protect the strikes and occupations from the scabs of all sorts. All demonstrations, sit-ins and other protests need to be systematically stewarded by volunteer activists; trade union buildings, which have been attacked or raided several times in many areas, have to be defended in the same way.

Generally speaking, as long as the revolution has not accomplished its fundamental aims, and the counter-revolutionary threat remains a live one, the rank-and-file revolutionary committees and all the collective bodies of defence need to be maintained, consolidated and structured, and brought back in activity when necessary.

The revival of those committees, which was the direction taken by the revolutionary initiatives of the masses, and their extension in all workplaces and communities when they don’t exist, are of a vital importance in preventing the dislocation and atomisation of the revolutionary movement, in promoting democratic discussion, by involving the widest possible layer of people, on how practically to achieve the goals of the revolution and how to fight back against the reaction, and to coordinate actions on a mass scale.

Such committees could also be used to exercise a real, revolutionary control from below over the electoral process, the organisation and supervision of which cannot in anyway be put in the hands of the liars who control now the State apparatus. No trust can be put neither in so-called ‘independent’ international observers, coming from institutions that have expressed in the past their admiration for the farcical elections organised under Ben Ali’s rule, and cautioned their results.

In the same way, the committees could meet to discuss the contents of the new constitution and of the future of the country, and prevent all political debates being monopolised by the mainstream media and by the many ‘professionals of politics’ and other opportunist candidates, who are just trying to exploit the revolution they did not make in order to get elected, being part of the new Tunisian ruling elite, and to impose their capitalist agenda once in power.

From the beginning, the regime had understood the significance of the development of those committees, and the danger they could represent in challenging the existing State and economic power of the ruling establishment. In many parts of Tunisia, local revolutionary committees took municipalities and public affairs into their own hands, faced with official “authorities” whose authority actually hardly existed, and with a police force which was more preoccupied with trying to save its skins, or involved in counter-revolutionary operations, than in controlling public order. In dozens of large farms and big landed properties, peasants and agricultural workers seized or occupied the land. In some companies and industries, workers’ struggles gave birth to similar forms of self-organisation and of workers’ control, to the point that Charles Saint-Prot, director of the French Centre for Geopolitical Studies, even took fright at what he called the “setting up of soviets in Tunisia’s factories.”

A situation of dual power, though developing differently in different places, was clearly in the making. But in revolutionary politics, timing is an extremely precious thing. Rather than campaigning for a national assembly of democratically elected representatives of the committees, that could have developed as a democratic and revolutionary parliament of the masses, bringing together the most living revolutionary forces from throughout the country, the existing left forces organised in the ‘14th January Front’ (an alliance gathering the main parties of the radical left, such as the PCOT, the LGO – Ligue de la Gauche Ouvrière, close to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International – , other Maoist-influenced groupings, plus Arab nationalist forces) preferred to ‘stamp their authority’ over the committees through a top-down approach: the masses were supposed to recognise the legitimacy of a self-proclaimed “National Council for the Protection of the Revolution” constructed from the above through a political pact between the 14th January Front, some “civil associations”, and other right-wing forces, including the Islamist party Ennhadha and the executive Bureau of the UGTT.

The arguments of many among the leaders of the left claiming that it was “not the time” to settle the accounts with the UGTT bureaucracy were taking their logical course on the ground: at the end of February, the National Council for the Protection of the Revolution issued a communiqué denouncing all those who denigrate the trade union AND its executive bureau. A statement with a bitter taste for the many inside the union who “denigrate” the executive bureau, and for good reasons, and were practically left without any political leadership.

This “Council for the Protection of the Revolution” had not emerged democratically from the committees, but was rather an agreement between the staff of different political parties, supposedly aimed at “controlling the activities” of a government -Mohamed Ghannouchi’s one, at that time- that was massively rejected by the masses throughout the country. In addition, this Council was looking for legitimacy from the discredited regime, demanding to be recognised officially by the RCDist President Fouad Mebazaa, instead of leading against it an implacable and uncompromising battle.

Ghannouchi’s government was eventually brought down by the revolutionary movement at the end of February, against the background of the second occupation of the Casbah Square, threats of further industrial actions, and mass protests culminating in a 100,000-strong demonstration in the capital.

100,000 people demonstrated at the Casbah square om the 25th February

Since then, however, the remnants of the ruling clique, helped by imperialist advisors, have stepped into the vacuum, taking advantage of the opposition’s inability to give concrete expression to the revolutionary expectations of the masses, and to propose an alternative revolutionary government to the old regime. Caïd Essebsi, a dinosaur who served under Bourguiba’s dictatorship, who supervised torture against many left opponents when he was Interior Minister, who was President of the Chamber of Deputies in the early years of Ben Ali’s rule, and who didn’t play any more of a role in the revolution than his predecessor, was called on to lead the new provisional government.

This new government, after a charm offensive towards demonstrators and the revolutionary people, and the promise of holding elections for a new Constitution, rapidly moved further to the right, with the “return to security” mantra as its main guiding line. It also established a “High Commission for the realisation of the objectives of the revolution, the political reform and the democratic transition” which is in charge of preparing the elections for the Constituent Assembly. This Commission is composed of people selected arbitrarily by the existing regime, and over which the revolutionary masses have no control whatsoever, with its sessions being held behind closed doors.

This Commission is part of the policy of the present government attempting to counter act the revolutionary initiatives of the masses, by giving itself the overall control over the so-called ‘transition’.

Iyadh Ben Achour, President of the ’High Commission’, with Essebsi

This commission gathers a wide range of people “from the right to the far left”, to use the expression of many commentators: this includes representatives of the bosses’ federation UTICA, members of the executive bureau of the UGTT, the ‘official opposition’ parties from Ben Ali’s era (such as the PDP and the right-wing ex-Communist Party Ettajdid), women and lawyers’ associations, the Islamist party Ennahda…

Regrettably, after having correctly denouncing such a Commission as a creature designed by the regime, taking on board people associated with the dictatorship and hostile to the revolution, all the main left parties – with the noticeable exception of the PCOT – now have representatives in it. The integration of the left into the High Commission is a manoeuvre by the regime to try and build a so-called ‘national consensus’ around the character of this Commission, supposedly representing “all the social and political components of society” and a “synthesis” between the National Council of Protection of the Revolution and the will of the government. In practice, it is a way to give a democratic and revolutionary façade to a body which is neither, to neutralise ‘the pretensions’ of the masses who made the revolution to have their say on the future of the country, and to involve the left in bearing the brunt of Essebsi and the capitalist class’ manoeuvres to stab the revolution in the back.

The whole dispute between the High Commission and the government around the postponement -or not- of the date of the elections to the Constituent Assembly has illustrated once again that the masses are completely excluded from those decisions: electoral party interests, and the desire of the present regime and its big business supporters to impose their agenda, are the only elements involved in the equation. While it is now established that the elections will be postponed from the 24th July to the 23rd October, some factions of the ruling class remain worried that a longer period without a ‘legitimate’ government could trigger a new revolutionary outbreak. (this was implicitly expressed by Essebsi, in his public speech on the 9th June announcing the postponement of the elections, when he stated: “By October 23, the strikes and sit-ins need to stop. The demands are no longer possible”)

Nevertheless, despite its pretension to be ‘independent’, and its occasional arguments with the government, the High Commission, by its very character -the commission has only a consultative role, all the final, effective decisions being reserved to the government-, and by virtue of the social and political forces involved in it, remains de facto prisoner of the framework and the conditions posed by the present pro-imperialist regime in setting the rules of the political and electoral game.

It is hard to believe that when this High Commission was created in March, the 14th January Front issued a public statement arguing that “the methods used by the provisional authorities for the formation of this Commission are in line with their policy aimed at derailing the revolution and liquidating the National Council for the Protection of the revolution”, and that now, most of them have endorsed it, and have dropped all their previous criticisms.

There are no men who never make mistakes, but one needs to rectify them quickly. This is even more the case in a revolutionary situation, at a time when all the fundamental questions are posed in an extremely acute manner. If mistakes are not corrected in time, they can open the door for even bigger ones later on. All the genuine revolutionary left activists should demand that their members pull out of this Commission, and assist in the vital task of building a strong, independent movement of the working class and the poor which can overthrow Essebsi’s government and his rotten regime.

First by their involvement in the National Council of the Protection of the Revolution; then by their entrance into the High Commission; the leaderships of the left organisations have shown so far an unwillingness to choose between the road of respect for the existing institutions inherited from the decaying order, and the independent, revolutionary road leading to the confrontation with the capitalists, the dictatorship and their whole system.

Stages theory

This flows from a misinterpretation of the dynamics between the class forces involved in the process of revolution and counter-revolution in our epoch. Indeed, the biggest forces on the left, such as the PCOT, the PTPD (Parti du Travail Patriotique et Démocratique – Patriotic and Democratic Party of Work) or the MPD (Mouvement des Patriotes Démocrates – Movement of Democratic Patriots) are relying upon Maoist or Stalinist ideological foundations, and their strategy is based on an application of the famous ‘two-stages theory’.

This theory considers that a first stage aimed at consolidating capitalist democracy, working hand-in-hand with the presupposed ‘patriotic’ or ‘progressive’ factions of the national bourgeoisie, is necessary before considering any struggle against capitalism. If some popular illusions might exist in the possibility of achieving democracy and social equality in this way, it is however the role of Marxists to learn from the lessons of history, and to patiently explain where such methods lead to: in the history of the workers’ movement, this two-stages method has never led to anything other than to, at best, bitter disappointment and, at worst, terrible defeats. Fighting against dictatorship on behalf of capitalist democracy can only spread illusions that the capitalists are allies in a struggle which they have opposed with all their might.

The social character of the Tunisian revolution was clear from the start: it was not only a revolution against an authoritarian regime, but a struggle against unemployment, poverty wages, overexploitation in the factories; a struggle against the obscene gap between the poor and the luxurious lifestyle of the corrupt ruling mafia. And those two aspects are completely linked to each other: it was through the dictatorial methods of Ben Ali’s regime that the economic exploitation of the masses was able to be maintained to such a degree. Once the dictatorial chains broken, a storm of social demands and strike actions invaded virtually every sector of the economy.

It is for this very reason that capitalism is incapable of bringing a viable and sustainable road to democracy, in Tunisia as in all these countries which are still dominated by imperialist relations. The imperialist countries, and their accomplices in Tunisia, will not tolerate a prolonged period of social instability: at one stage or another, if the working class does not overthrow capitalism, the ruling class will need to resort to strong methods to reinstate its rule and “put the genie back into the bottle”.

If, for their own reasons, factions of the national capitalist class could have found some advantages in the fact that the people’s uprising had removed the Ben Ali-Trabelsi mafias from their own businesses, nevertheless from the very start they took up position on the opposite side of the barricades, frightened that this revolution might go further and threaten their own position, and vehemently opposed to that possibility. If the workers get rid of Ben Ali on Friday, they should be back to work on Monday: that was how far the bourgeoisie was ready to ‘tolerate’ the revolution.

"Go back to school, go back to work": sections of the petty bourgeoisie are mobilised against the strikes

But among some of the leaders of the Tunisian organised left, the tacit, and sometimes explicit, idea that the revolutionary struggle of Tunisian people is above all a bourgeois revolution against dictatorship, which justifies inter-class alliances and the postponement of the social demands of the working and poor masses and the struggle for socialism to an indistinct future, remains a powerful one.

This method is to some extent reflected in the question of how to tackle the challenge of Tunisia’s political Islam.

“All-class front” against Ennahdha, or class unity against capitalism and imperialism?

The rising popularity of the Islamist party Ennahdha, despite the fact that it did not take any active part in the revolution, is of growing concern to many left activists. Ennahdha’s organisational strength, its important financial means, the political vacuum that exist, are among the factors explaining this growth. But the convoys of humanitarian aid that the movement is sending for the poorest regions of the country help to highlight the importance of another factor: the growing social frustration among the poor –especially in the inland areas- that Ennahdha is trying to capitalise on.

These last two months, the Islamist party has organised, with some success, public meetings in many parts of the country. A number of opinion polls have suggested that Ennahda could gather around 20-25% of the votes in the coming elections.

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahdha

This explains why, after having for decades justified Ben Ali’s regime under the guise of the “Islamist threat”, some factions of the capitalist class leave now the door open to a more pragmatic attitude towards the same forces they have vehemently denounced in the past. This is clearly one of the cards that the bourgeoisie is ready to play among the different methods it is testing to restore its social order.

“For years, we have stupidly forbidden ourselves a dialogue with the Islamists”, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Alain Juppé regretted recently. At the beginning of May, a delegation from Ennahdha was even invited by the US administration, and received by a number of Democrat and Republican senators. The general secretary of the movement, Hamadi Jebali, commented afterwards that “the reaction of the Americans were very positive. They supported our vision and our programs with regards to human and women’s rights (…) We have reaffirmed that Ennahdha is a pacific, civilian and moderate movement”.

Significantly, leaders of Ennahdha have been repeatedly making speeches appeasing the capitalist class in the last period. Jebali declared in an interview for the magazine ‘Jeune Afrique’ on the 13th May: “We tell investors and businessmen to be confident, because Ennahdha will assist and support them”. However, the verbal support that Ennahdha gave to the strike of the workers of ‘Tunisie Télécom’-who have been struggling for several weeks against a big Dubai investor; or the party’s double language, remarked upon by many people in relation to its attitude towards civil liberties, shows that the party remains affected by different social and political trends and is torn by internal contradictions.

The most influential leaders of the party, though, are showing at the moment a willingness to barter imperialist support in exchange for some guarantees to present a more respectable image and an allegiance to the rules of ‘democracy’, and a systematic public disassociation from the activities of fundamentalist groups. How far this can go, however, remains to be seen; splits or defections from its ranks, or shifts in one direction or the other, could emerge on the basis of the coming events, when Ennahdha will have to go beyond the level of simple propaganda.

This being said, this would not be the first time that the forces of capital encourage Islamist groups, as the regime of Bourguiba used to do in order to combat the influence of the left during the ‘70’s (before turning on them later). But in the present conditions, an electoral success of Ennahdha could also lead them to clashes and confrontations with some layers in the State apparatus who have been opposing them for many years under Ben Ali’s rule, and who remain profoundly hostile to such a prospect.

Anyway, the growing strength of Ennahdha has raised intense debates and growing worries among revolutionaries and the left in Tunisia.

The CWI believes that above all it is social oppression, poverty and unemployment, combined with the weaknesses of the left in providing viable answers to tackle these burning questions, that are the fundamental basis on which Ennahda is gathering increasing support. Unfortunately, the present approach of some on the left in relation to this issue might lead to an increase, rather than a reduction, in Ennahdha’s impact.

Indeed, the recent initiative of a broad “Front of the forces of progress and modernity”, whose implicit objective is to struggle against Ennahdha’s influence, and which consists of some of the left parties, the PTPD and the MPD, with pro-capitalist forces, is a false approach.

Indeed, many of the revolutionary unemployed, workers and young people will hardly find anything “progressive” or “modern” in some of the parties present in this Front, such as Ettajdid, the ex-Stalinist Communist Party, which significant sections of the people who made the revolution now consider as “traitors who have sold the martyrs’ blood”. This party now openly advocates pro-business policies (“since our congress in 1993, we have completely broken with the Marxist ideology”, declared recently their general secretary Ahmad Brahim); it participated in Ghannouchi’s provisional government from the 17th January onwards, and has helped the ruling elite all the way through to stabilise its rule over the revolutionary storm (notably by condemning strike actions from the teachers’ union when Ahmed Brahim was occupying the post of Minister of Higher Education).

Moreover, the struggle against the influence of right-wing political Islam must go far beyond abstract calls for “secularism” and “modernity” in order for it to be effective. This is particularly the case in a country where the vast majority of the population is Muslim, and seeing the confusion sown by Islamist forces in arguing that secularism leads to banning religion from society, and presenting it as a “cultural import from the West”.

Of course, Marxists consider that religious beliefs are a private affair, and stand for the separation of State and religion. But a secular Constitution in itself will not make the danger from Ennahdha disappear. Focusing the whole debate around this question, and separating it from the social and economic concerns of the majority, can only lead to polarising the whole debate around the place of religion in society, and to distract attention from the fundamental class issues and interests that are behind those forces.

Such an approach might have some attraction for educated middle class people and atheist intellectuals; but in bringing together part of the left and people who openly defend market policies and have played the role of the “fifth wheel of the cart” of the old regime, it also runs the risk of alienating broad layers of the poor masses, and in the end, pushing them in the arms of political Islam.

It is only by building class unity around a programme addressing the deep social needs of the masses, as well as the aspirations for real democratic rights, and by unveiling the real character of Ennahdha and other Islamist forces on those issues, that their impact can be seriously undermined. Whether it is under the guise of religion, or of “progress” and “modernity”, it is the profit-driven system of capitalism against which the left needs to direct the struggle, without giving the impression that it is just leading a cultural combat against religion as such.

In a situation of increasing social marginalisation and an explosive level of unemployment, all sorts of divisions can develop, including on the basis of religion, that reactionary forces of all sorts will not miss an occasion to stir up. The deadly tribal clashes that have occurred in the region of Gafsa, the violent attack on the Choucha refugee camp (Eastern Tunisia, near the Libyan border) by local inhabitants, the fights in Tunis between local merchants and traders relocated from the poorer inland provinces, or the actions of some unemployed who, to claim a job, are invading workplaces to dislodge the workers and take their place, are all warning examples of what could spring up if a bold lead is not given to unify the different layers of the working and downtrodden masses in a common struggle against capitalism, imperialism and landlordism.

In the Southern mining town of Metlaoui, 11 were killed in 3 days of fierce tribal clashes

The solid general strike which hit the governorate of Tataouine (extreme South), for three days at the end of May, and paralysed all sectors, administration, and local trade, is a concrete example of how this unity can be built in practice:

Bringing together unemployed youth, public sectors workers, small shopkeepers and craftsmen, etc, and combining social and political demands, this general strike took place following an appeal by a group of youths who had been involved for a few days in a sit-in to demand jobs in the region’s oil companies. Giving a flavour of the strength of the strike, even the right-wing paper ‘La Presse’ was commenting on the second day that “The daily activity in general was completely paralyzed yesterday in the governorate of Tataouine (…) Sit-ins were observed in all the delegations. A large rally is held outside the headquarters of the governorate, and in the absence of the governor.”

Such examples need to be discussed and extended elsewhere. As more and more people are drawing the conclusion that the regime and the living conditions of the people have hardly changed – a sentiment which is expressed in the idea increasingly put forward of the need for a “second revolution”- a plan for a nationwide general strike should be raised and prepared, with a series of demands that can bring back the masses together in the struggle, and translate concretely the need for the continuation of the objectives of the revolution: for a decent job and pay for all; for a massive public investment programme to create socially useful jobs, decent public services and the development of the inland regions; for the refusal to pay the debt of the dictatorship; for the immediate end to all abuses against freedom of expression and assembly; for the immediate disarming and popular judgment of all the counter-revolutionary criminals, torturers and killers; for a revolutionary Constituent Assembly elected under the democratic control of the revolutionary masses and their committees; for the nationalisation under workers’ control of the industries and banks, starting with the assets of Ben Ali and Trabelsi’s families.

Fighting for an international socialist perspective

If the old order cannot restore its power in the same way as before, it is not because Essebsi’s government has a more “democratic motivation” than previous governments; it is only due to the vigilance of the revolutionary youth and workers, and the revolutionary potential of the masses which has been demonstrated by their magnificent uprising.

The above example of the general strike in Tataouine, but also the other recent regional general strike that took place in the governorate of Siliana (130 km South-West of Tunis) on the 10th May, the ongoing courageous strike of workers of Tunisie Télécom, the many strikes and other protest actions of all sorts that are still going on in many areas, all show that this revolutionary potential is still alive and well.

However, many people also understand that the future of the revolution is at stake, using the correct words of Che Guevara who stated that “revolutions are like bicycles: if they are not in motion, they fall over”.

The majority of ordinary Tunisian people share the same ultimate objectives: to clear out the whole of the dictatorship once and for all, to get rid of dire poverty and mass unemployment, and to achieve real social and democratic equality for all. To fulfill these objectives, the revolutionary masses need to get organised and prepared to take their struggle to a higher stage. They will have to take bold and audacious initiatives to prevent the old order trying to reverse the clock of history, and diverting their revolution into the channels of a decaying capitalism.

The prospect of Tunisia becoming a ‘democratic’ and ‘prosperous’ nation within the framework of capitalism is a chimera. As the deepening crisis and severe austerity policies on the European continent demonstrate, the dynamics of capitalism is not to elevate neo-colonial countries to the level of the so-called ‘developed’ countries of the West; it is the other way round. Capitalism can only bring new sufferings and misery, more of the same policies that the Tunisian masses have fought at the cost of so many sacrifices.

Breaking the power of the minority of rich capitalists and foreign imperialist vultures who perpetuate their control over Tunisia’s resources and prevent any real development of the country in the masses’ interests, is the only viable way forward. The workers, the youth and the poor masses need to struggle to establish their own independent, revolutionary power that will confront capitalism as a system, by bringing the major companies, banks and big landed properties into public ownership and democratic control, and establishing a planned economy through which the nation’s wealth can be used for the benefits of all. Only then will a reduction in the gruelling working hours in the factories, jobs for the many unemployed, and decent healthcare, education and housing for all, and a dramatic rise in the living standards of millions, be within reach.

The socialist perspective is the only way to provide the material means for the emancipation of the workers, the peasants, the youth, the unemployed, the small shop keepers and craftsmen, and all other layers of the urban and rural poor.

For such a struggle to be sustainable, and especially in view of the subsidiary role that the Tunisian economy plays in the international division of labour, it will need to be posed on an international level, and assisted by the working class movement in the whole region and beyond. A large-scale appeal to the workers and youth of the West to assist the Tunisian revolution by engaging in solidarity protests and industrial action, especially in countries like France, Italy, or the US, who have important capital investment in Tunisia, would contribute to dramatically bringing forward the agony of this rotten system on a world scale. As the powerful international repercussions of the Tunisian revolution have already shown, such a decisive breakthrough would soon be emulated by millions in North Africa, in the Middle East and around the world. The urgent task of building mass socialist parties of the working clas

Special financial appeal to all readers of socialistworld.net

Support building alternative socialist media

Socialistworld.net provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. Socialistworld.net also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


June 2011