Tunisia: New upsurge of struggle as government attacks trade union

“No more fear, the power is in the hands of the people” – Tens of thousands demand the fall of the government

On Saturday 25 February, thousands of people took to the streets of central Tunis in what represents one of the biggest showings of strength by the revolutionary masses for months. This followed physical raids against the UGTT trade union federation which took place in different parts of the country on previous days (more info in article here). These well-coordinated attacks, aimed at trying to destroy the capacity of resistance of the trade union against the reactionary agenda of the new pro-capitalist Ennahda-led regime, have acted as a trigger to push people onto the streets to defend their rights and their revolution.

A defiant response against the government

The protest started at noon in Mohamed Ali square, where the headquarters of the UGTT stands. Hundreds rapidly became thousands and, as the square had become too small for the increasing number of demonstrators, the march moved towards Bourguiba Avenue in a human flood, composed of workers, trade unionists, UGTT sympathisers, left groups, young people, human rights campaigners etc. Women, concerned about the growing threats on their rights and freedoms, were present in important numbers.

“The people want the fall of the regime”, “Demonstrations and confrontations until the government falls”, “Citizens wake up, the government is messing with you!”, “Ennahda get out!”, “Jobs, freedom, national dignity”, “Long live the UGTT”, “Don’t touch our UGTT”, “The UGTT is the real force in the country”, “No more fear, the power is in the hands of the people”, “Faithful, faithful to the blood of the martyrs”. These were among the slogans shouted by the marchers, in a militant and defiant response to the government, highly suspected of being behind the acts of provocation and vandalism against UGTT offices. At the forefront of the demo were the municipal workers, who have been involved in a national strike since last Monday.

Striking garbage workers at the demo

The anger of the protesters was also directed against the holding in Tunis of the Conference of the “Friends of Syria”. This initiative, sponsored by imperialist powers and Gulf sheikhdoms, is aimed at planning the post-Assad period along the lines of this gang of criminal regimes’ interests. The growing influence of the Qatari and US regimes in Tunisian politics was also denounced by demonstrators.

“A mood of 14 January”

Reports in the mainstream media talk of what appears as quite a small number of protesters on Saturday’s protest, of around 3,000 to 5,000. However, a simple look at pictures and videos taken during the demo, showing an Avenue overcrowded with people, carrying UGTT banners, red and Tunisian flags, and portraits of Farhat Hached – the founder of the UGTT, murdered in 1952 by a pro-colonial armed group linked to the French secret services, and whose tomb had been vandalised just two days before Saturday’s demonstration – is sufficient to negate such ridiculous claims.

As one supporter of the CWI present in the march commented, there was “a mood of 14 January”, in reference to the date of the gigantic demo on the same Avenue in 2011, which preceded by a few hours the departure of the dictator Ben Ali. The UGTT, which speaks of “tens of thousands of demonstrators”, has undoubtedly got it more right than some of the pro-establishment media whose role in denigrating workers’ action no longer needs to be explained.

Savage police repression

The end of the demo was marked by police brutality against peaceful demonstrators, as well as against a number of journalists and passers by. When the march approached the building of the infamous Interior Ministry, chanting the now familiar slogan, “dégage!” (“Get out!”), the police became increasingly nervous. Around 3pm, after part of the demo had dispersed, tear gas, insults and beatings were unleashed into the crowd, soon following a well-known pattern, with gangs of police looking around and using indiscriminate violence, arbitrarily injuring and arresting people in and around the Avenue and the nearby streets during subsequent hours.

One eyewitness blog account spoke of “Images of a war in downtown Tunis…a large group of police officers, some of them masked, and armed with batons, are shooting tear gas. An unbelievable ferocity. Injured people, women, and children are rushed to the hospital of Charles Nicole…A suffocating atmosphere. Until now, clashes continue, and the torturers are freely and illegally repressing a peaceful, and authorised protest in this post-revolutionary Tunisia”.

Twelve journalists were beaten up in the process, in an obvious attempt to prevent them from reporting on police abuse. Acts of police violence against journalists have been on the increase in the recent period. The SNJT (National Union of Tunisian Journalists) has declared that “these actions are repetitive episodes of a strategy of intimidation against journalists, which aims to control the media, similar to what the deposed regime used to do”.

This illustrates once again the continuous threat of the police State’s omnipotent brutality, but also the vulnerability of demonstrations if they are not properly stewarded. Police repression and provocations, aimed at building a climate of fear to discourage people to attend street protests, has been a consistent feature of virtually all demonstrations of an important size that have taken place in central Tunis during the past year.

Lessons need to be drawn from that, in order to avoid this police strategy becoming a serious factor in the de-mobilisation of broader layers, and to stop police provocation from causing serious clashes. The trade unions have an important responsibility in making sure that the demonstrations they organise are stewarded and protected adequately, with disciplined stewarding teams all the way through, armed with batons if necessary, to defend the march and make sure that any move by the marchers is made in the most collective manner possible. This should avoid defenseless and vulnerable individuals or small group of people being targeted by heavily armed police, or being pushed into counter-productive rioting-type reactions.

Union leaders should name a date for a 24-hour general strike

Saturday’s demo, despite its success, has only shown a glimpse of what the organised workers’ movement is capable of. Though the demo was big, it remained only a small indication of what the hundreds of thousands-strong UGTT can mobilise, in the streets as well as in the workplaces. While giving a strong signal, Saturday’s demo will not be sufficient, as such, to sweep away the counter-revolutionary threats which hang over the living forces of the revolution, the working class, the revolutionary youth and their organisations.

That is why this fight should not be left here, as it is clear the government and its followers will do everything to take back the upper hand, and try again to weaken the role of the UGTT. There is no serious ‘negotiation’ or dialogue that can be expected from a government which is practicing a scorched-earth policy, aimed at muzzling the working class, undermining the trade union and sending its thugs and the police against those who want to keep the revolution and its objectives alive.

Already, on a private radio station, the Prime Minister, Jebali, called the participants in the march of Saturday “residues of the dissolved RCD” (the ex-ruling party), and has accused ‘businessmen’ of having funded the transport of protesters to the capital to protest against the government.

This statement is a conscious attempt at trying to soil the combative legacy of the powerful workers’ union, as well as its resistance against the diktats of the new regime. It is also a profound insult to the hundreds of thousands of genuine union activists who played a crucial role in the revolutionary movement. These activists heroic role was played despite the treacherous role of the pro-Ben Ali UGTT bureaucrats who used to lead the union (some of whom had the nerve to show up on Saturday’s demonstration), and who were instrumental in undermining the struggle of the rank-and-file UGTT workers they were supposed to represent.

The election, at the last Congress, of a new leadership of the UGTT, which is perceived as more militant, has been followed by a certain rise in industrial disputes in many areas. This has convinced the ruling class to engage in more determined attempts to subdue the union.

The present leadership of the UGTT should not allow the momentum to slip from its hands, but should on the contrary step up its campaign to build a mass, grass-roots movement capable of challenging the present pro-imperialist government and its neo-liberal policies. The popular slogan in the demo “Demonstrations and confrontations until the government falls” reflects the will of many to fight along these uncompromising lines, and the potential for such a fight being taken up by important layers of left, union and worker activists.

The UGTT should deploy all its efforts to mobilise its full power; which can only be done by addressing not only the immediate issues of the recent attacks against its offices, but by linking that with the broader political and social issues which form the basis for the frustrations of millions, whose revolution has not led to the fundamental change they expected. The role of the organised left in this process is crucial, for example in encouraging the UGTT to name without further delay the date for a 24-hour general strike. Mass assemblies and meetings in all workplaces and working class and poor communities in every corner of the country, could play a key role in the preparation of such a strike and allow for a genuine contribution from below to the struggle and its strategy. Such a comprehensive and combative program of action could arouse huge enthusiasm among the masses, and give them the confidence this is a battle worth to be fought for.

No to the attacks on the UGTT and democratic rights! No to police brutality!

No to the hijacking of the revolution! No to a new dictatorship!

Renew the struggle for an end to the rule of the bosses and their political representatives. Build a mass movement for the fall of this government, and to build a government based on genuine representatives of the poor masses, the youth and the working class!

For the movement to adopt a programme of nationalisation under democratic workers’ control, of all major private businesses and planning to meet the still urgent needs of the majority of the population.

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February 2012