Tunisia: New government being assembled

Is the revolution over?

Elections held in Tunisia on 23 October for the Constituent Assembly represented a hard-won reform following the revolution at the beginning of this year and the later, just as determined second occupation of the Kasbah square in the capital Tunis.

Yet the vast majority of the new politicians elected in this Assembly did not play any role in the revolution and only stopped opposing it at the last minute.

Compared to the rigged elections over the last decades these elections were more transparent, which is not really difficult. However, the power of money, support from big business circles, vote-buying practices, activity by networks of the old ruling party, the RCD, and a media still in the hands of people close to the former regime, accompanied the electoral campaign.

These elections were a propaganda opportunity for the Western media about the supposed “spectacular” participation of the electorate. The imperialist rulers – who earlier this year were uncritical of the deadly crackdown against Tunisian protesters, even in some cases offering their services to the dictator Ben Ali – all applauded what they called ‘a model of democracy’. Wacky numbers of “over 90%” voter turnout was circulated.

All this propaganda had a clear purpose: to present the election as the episode closing for good the revolutionary chapter and paving the way for a ‘legitimate’ and ‘democratic’ power. And, it is argued, now that the masses have supposedly got what they wanted, everyone should go back to work.

A participation not so “spectacular”

In reality, while a significant number of voters decided to go to the polls to reclaim a basic democratic right, which they had always been denied, a serious analysis of the results shows that an equally large part of the population abstained.

The overall turnout, based on the whole electorate, was only of 52%. Of those who voted, 31.8% (almost 1,300,000 persons), ‘lost’ their votes because they voted for lists which didn’t get a vote high enough to win a seat. Also, given the highly volatile mood of many amongst those who voted – which was reflected in a number of opinion polls published preceding the elections – it seriously limits the social support for the new Assembly, and consequently the government that will soon emerge from it.

The closer you get to the people who have been at the heart of the revolutionary struggles (the youth and in the poorer interior regions, in particular), the bigger the abstention rate was, reflecting a deep defiance of the political establishment.

Who does this new power really represent?

Indications of this mood of defiance were present on the very day of the opening session of the new Constituent Assembly on 22 November, when thousands of people demonstrated in front of the parliament building – protected by a heavy police presence – to make their numerous grievances heard.

Those present included: families of martyrs killed in the revolution, left and human rights groups, angry youth and workers calling for a “new revolution” and targeting imperialist interference in the country, and also many women worried about the threats to their rights following the victory of Ennahda (the Islamist party). The protesters did not want the revolution to be hijacked by the new political class.

Demonstration in front of the Assembly, 22 November

‘New’ is a relative term as important figures from the old regime were present inside the building to celebrate this so-called ‘historic’ day, including the hated prime minister Caïd Essebsi, and Rachid Ammar, chief of staff of the Tunisian armed forces. The session was opened by the old president Fouad Mebazaâ –a dinosaur of the RCD and of the old Tunisian dictatorship, president of the chamber of deputies during 14 years of Ben Ali’s rule. The presence of these figures from the old regime symbolised the ‘continuity of the state’.

This ‘continuity of the state’, so cherished by many politicians and media, is nothing else than the continuity of the capitalist state machine, with its army, police, bureaucracy and judicial system, all there to preserve the interests of the rich.

The level of the salaries and other advantages of the new politicians will convince even the most reluctant ones that this is their main job. The president of the republic will earn 30,000 dinars (*) the prime minister 8,000, the other ministers 4,500 dinars, the secretaries of state 3,400 dinars, while each member of the Constituent Assembly will receive 2,500 dinars a month. This does not include, in addition to their salaries, a free phone line, a car with a driver and petrol bills covered, free access to public transport, a hotel room, and so on…

This means that the new president, Moncef Marzouki, also leader of the ‘Congress of the Republic’ (CPR), the second largest party in the assembly, despite declaring that he will “not change but will remain a son of the people”, will earn a salary equivalent to the income of about 40 working class families!

In a country where the minimum wage is just above 200 dinars, with the growing difficulties experienced by many, the exorbitant rise in prices and the number of unemployed increasing by the day, these large salaries increases people’s resentment. It shows the class-motivated policy of the new rulers and their disconnection with the social reality and aspirations of the mass of the people.

During the inaugural ceremony in the assembly, the names of people killed in the revolution were read out. But some of the victims’ names from Kasserine – a town 300 kilometres southwest of the capital, which suffered the highest number of martyrs and casualties – were omitted.

On the following day, more than 3,000 protesters took to the streets in Kasserine, because they refuse to remain marginalised and feel that the country’s new authorities fail to recognise local people’s contribution to the revolution. The demonstration started peacefully but turned violent following an attempt by the military to suppress the movement by using tear gas and live ammunition shot into the air.

Demonstrators in Kaserine, 23 November

This electric atmosphere continues to dominate the situation, with a growing resentment at the fact that it is not those who have carried out the revolution, the poor people, the workers and the unemployed, who are getting the benefits of all their sacrifices.

Women’s rights under threat

This is also the case in relation to the position of Tunisian women, who played an instrumental role in the revolution, and who are now fearful that the ground gained during their struggle might be stolen from under their feet.

Women did not make the revolution to see their gains being reversed and their rights being undermined. Nevertheless, the rise to power of the Islamist party, Ennahda, combining a neo-liberal approach in the economic field with a conservative approach on morals and culture, could actually mean exactly this.

Outside the Constituent Assembly, one of the leading female figures of Ennahda, Souad Abderrahim, was targeted by a group of demonstrators, who shouted at her the now famous slogan “dégage” (= "leave").

The reason for this was that a few days before, she had made a public speech in the media declaring that “it is inconceivable to draft a law on the protection of single mothers in an Arab-Muslim society, except in cases where the birth of the child has occurred as a result of rape”, adding that single mothers are “an infamy for Tunisian society”, and “ethically speaking, they don’t have the right to exist”.

As the only woman of Ennahda’s 42 elected female representatives not wearing a veil, Abderrahim had become the public face for Ennahda’s ‘moderate’ image and its supposed tolerance of women. Before the elections Abderrahim said: “choosing me as a candidate is a commitment by Ennahda that it supports modernism. …If Ennahda goes back on them (all commitments to defend women rights), I will be the first to oppose it”. This highlights the dangers ahead and shows that Ennahda’s pledges cannot be trusted.

Ennahda’s Souad Abderrahim

Although the party leadership is now engaged in a ‘charm offensive’ vis-à-vis the major imperialist powers, displaying a moderate line for their policy in terms of moral and religious values, Ennahda remains made up of, and pressurised by, ultra-conservative layers who, encouraged by the election victory of the party, have increased their reactionary activities in the recent period. This includes verbal and physical assaults on women who do not wear the veil or do not conform to a certain dress code, blaming working women for being a cause of high unemployment, or arguing for the segregation of schools or other public spaces based on gender.

In early November, a strike by staff and students from a university faculty in Tunis was held to protest against the harassment some teachers and students have been subjected to for similar reasons.

Such protests should be the response whenever women’s rights are the target of religious bigots.

The UGTT union and the workers’ movement in particular, who played historically a very important role in fighting for women’s rights and gender equality, should put boldly its stamp on the situation, engaging a mass campaign on this issue, by linking up the necessary defensive struggle to protect existing women’s rights, with an offensive battle to push them further forward.

As women are the hardest hit by mass unemployment, and working women are the first to be found in insecure and very low paid jobs, such a struggle should be linked with a general struggle for mass job creation, better wages and working conditions for all, and against economic insecurity that puts women in an even more vulnerable position.

“Capital is welcome”

It is increasingly clear that Ennahda leaders will be drawn into acting on different playing fields. While Rached Ghannouchi, president of Ennahda, recently launched a diatribe against the French language describing it as “a pollution”, the party leaders are cosying-up to the French capitalists and government. On the one hand, the party profiles itself as a ‘party of the people’, on the other its economic policy is inspired by the ultra-neo-liberal Turkish ‘model’, ie mass privatisations and systematic attacks on the democratic and social rights of the working class.

It is one thing to win elections, it is another to satisfy the demands of people who have just made a revolution. The main concern of Ennahda party leaders since 23 October has only been to circulate their pledges of allegiance to the market, in an attempt to demonstrate that political Islam and big business can go well together. “Domestic and foreign capital is welcome” insisted Abdelhamid Jelassi, director of Ennahda’s executive office.

This concern for the interests of the capitalist class cannot but conflict with the desire for social change that continues to animate broad sections of the population.

Nothing has really changed

Popular anger is apparent everywhere, as nearly one year after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose protest, against unemployment detonated the revolution the social situation has only deteriorated for the majority of the population. Bouazizi has been posthumously awarded the “Sakharov prize for freedom” in the European Parliament; but the imperialist powers, who have been quick to make Bouazizi into a helpless icon, remain silent over the situation of despair that persists for most young Tunisians of the kind that drove Bouazizi to set himself on fire.

“Jobs or death” was for example the slogan of a recent sit-in at the Bizerte oil refinery in the north. Tens of thousands of jobs have actually been destroyed since the beginning of the year, sharpening an already critical social situation for many poor families. And the economic crisis hitting the eurozone, the main commercial outlet of Tunisian production, means that things will not get better. As long as production is based on profits for a few private big shareholders and speculators, and not on meeting human needs, then nothing will fundamentally change.

Many of the objective reasons which prompted the Tunisian population to make the revolution are still present in their daily lives. The refrain “nothing has changed” is more and more audible. The demand for a “second revolution”, played down in the recent elections – which have brought a certain hope among some sections of the population – is not on the same level as in Egypt right now. However, it can come back quickly onto the agenda.

Democratic freedoms remain precarious, and are regularly challenged by bouts of violence on the part of the security forces. The huge police apparatus continues to hang like the sword of Damocles over the revolution. The ‘Occupy Tunis’ protest, which took place on 11 November, and saw the largest demonstration in the streets of Tunis since August, was violently attacked by the police, for no apparent reason except the desire to intimidate all those people who still want to protest.

Occupy Tunis protest, 11 November

And protests are numerous, as anticipated in our last article. Since the election, a new series of strikes and social protests have erupted onto the scene. Workers in the tourism sector, iron miners in Le Kef (in the north west), workers of the brewery ‘Celtia’, employees of the social security, railway workers, pharmaceutical workers in Sfax (on the eastern coast), and many others, have experienced successive solid strike actions. Despite the incessant propaganda about strikers being “irresponsible”, the recent report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in September 2011 has confirmed that “wages in Tunisia remain low despite rising profits.”

These social movements, however, continue to suffer from a lack of coordination, due to the refusal of the leadership of the UGTT (the main trade union federation) to give these struggles any concrete support and a more generalised character. The union bureaucrats, former friends of the dictator Ben Ali, have been involved in all the petty manoeuvres of the transitional government to make workers and poor people pay for the economic crisis and for the old regime’s debt, and to try to restore the situation in favour of the capitalists, multinationals and banks.

The Congress of the UGTT, which will take place on 2 December, should be fully transparent, with publicity of the debates, and full accountability of the new elected leadership. It must also be seen by unionised workers as the beginning of a massive clearing out, at all levels of the trade union, of all the "leaders" who have collaborated with the bosses and with the old regime in the past period, and have attempted to block the aspirations of the working class.

A well prepared one-day general strike, for example on the date of the anniversary of Bouazizi’s self immolation that sparked the revolution (17 December), and supported by local strike committees, democratically elected by the rank-and-file, could be a positive way to re-start the social battle on a healthier basis, and give a boost to the confidence of all workers.

Such a campaign should include the following demands:

  • A plan of large-scale public investment in the interior regions
  • A massive programme of decent job creation for young people
  • For the reduction of the working week without loss of pay
  • For the bringing into public ownership and workers’ control of all Ben Ali and Trabelsi’s wealth
  • An end to police brutality
  • For the unconditional defence of women’s rights
  • For a refusal to pay the old regime’s debt
  • For nationalisation under workers’ control of major industry and the banks
  • For a government of the workers and the poor

Any party relying on the continuation of the rotten capitalist system, ie on the submission of the Tunisian economy to the making of profit for large private companies and banks, and on the payment of the debt to financial institutions, will not have any solution for all those who sleep hungry at night, who survive on low wages, or to the endless queues of young people who have never been given the chance to know what a real job is.

None of the parties involved in talks to form the new government – Ennahda, the Congress for the Republic, and Ettakatol – address this question. All are preparing to continue with the same disastrous economic policy of the old regime.

The combination of crises facing the country, and the experiences of the masses in the last year – the most important of which being the break in the ‘wall of fear’ – will inevitably crystallise into new outbreaks of mass struggle. These struggles must have their own political expression, through a mass party that fights for a revolutionary government of working people, the poor and the youth.

Instead of offering the companies and shares previously owned by the Mafia families to the stock exchanges, as suggested by Ennahda, such a government would take immediate action to nationalise them, under the democratic control of workers and the wider public, as a starting point towards a broader plan to shift production and the economy as a whole to develop the country and improve the living standards of the masses.

The seeds of such a society – a democratic socialist society, based on the cooperation and solidarity of working people, instead of profit, corruption and exploitation of labour – have been sown by the great Tunisian revolutionary movement. A further, decisive, mass struggle by the majority in society will have to be carried out to enable these seeds to germinate, and to make the revolution succeed permanently.

*1 Dinar is worth 0.51 Euro/ 0.44 Pound/ 0.68 US Dollar

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November 2011