Tunisia: General strikes, power struggles and an economic stalemate

Republic’s president, Marzouki, afraid of ‘new revolution’

In early May, Tunisia’s new president, Moncef Marzouki, decided to extend again, for a period of three months, the state of emergency that Ben Ali had established on January 14 of last year, just before being forced to flee the country. Part of the explanation for such a decision might be found in an interview with Marzouki on the Qatari TV channel Al Jazeera, in which the president confided he had "nightmares" of yet "another revolution"!

Tunisia’s new president, Moncef Marzouki

State repression on the rise

The appalling repression deployed by the police, assisted by civil militias, against peaceful demonstrators on 7 and 9 April in downtown Tunis (see www.socialistworld.net/doc/5693) demonstrated that the ’troika’, the three-party coalition currently in power, is prepared to endorse the worst methods of Ben Ali’s dictatorship to intimidate the opposition, and to stiffen its power against those who want to carry through what is, in effect, an unfinished revolution.

A recent report by the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (NSJT) states that the number of attacks on journalists is "astounding, and has never even reached such a degree during the time of the dictatorial regime of Ben Ali". The appointment of several senior aides of the former regime at the head of the public media in January shows that the leading party Ennahda, assisted by its loose governmental partners, is slowly but surely engaged on the road towards a new dictatorship. So does the use of repressive laws directly inherited from the Ben Ali regime, as indicated in the sentencing in March of two young Tunisians to 7½ years in prison for publishing material "likely to undermine public order or morality". The main undeclared concern of the new regime is to bring back a climate attractive enough for private Tunisian and foreign companies to profit from the continued exploitation of the Tunisian workers is. However, they do not seem to to be able to achieve what they want for now.

Series of citywide general strikes

Indeed, on the social front, the situation is dominated by the continuing emergence of strikes, sit-ins or sometimes disorderly riots or violent clashes with the police, particularly in the poor and rebellious interior regions of the country. Inflation is rising (retail prices of food products have almost doubled in one year) and unemployment explodes over the rooftops. Hence not a day goes by without a social conflict happening somewhere.

Even the Interior Ministry evokes an average of “10 sit-ins every day”. A particular feature of the present situation is the multiplication of citywide general strikes, which have erupted one after the other in the recent period.

On April 24, the inhabitants of the city of Tataouine (in the far South) organised a one-day general strike which paralysed all economic activity. On May 4, residents of the Southern city of Kebili forced the local governor to leave his office, and asked the General Secretary of the UGTT to organise a general strike to protest against the social marginalisation of their region. On May 7, people from Sahline, in the governorate of Monastir, began an open-ended strike. On the next day, after a week of protests, the people of Feriana, in the region of Kasserine (West), decided to observe a general strike. They were demanding their right to work and also the development of the economy. All private and public institutions in the city were paralysed. On May 12, it was the turn of Sidi Amor Bouhajla, in the region of Kairouan (Centre), to experience the same action. The local UGTT of Médenine (South) has declared its intention to organise a general strike too, on May 22.

General strike in Feriana

In some parts of the country, a semi-insurrectionary mood dominates the situation. This is the case for example in the mining area of Gafsa, and especially in the combative town of Redeyef, which was hit by a general strike as well, on May 8. In the epic revolt which took place in the region in 2008, the authoritative union leader in the area, Adnane Hajji, was imprisoned and tortured for his militant activities. Today he has warned the central government of further uprisings and of massive civil disobedience if social demands are not addressed by the end of the month.

The ’law of complementary finances’

In these conditions, the government plays “hot and cold”. It presses, on the one hand, to end these struggles in order to meet the requirements of the capitalist class for ‘stability’. It is also anxious, on the other hand, to avoid a mass, uncontrollable reaction of workers and the poor, tired of broken promises and of the lack of change in their daily lives.

But the new supplementary budget (called the ‘law of complementary finances’) voted for a few days ago in the National Constituent Assembly, reveals clearly that the new government has nothing serious to offer in order to tackle the burning social problems, particularly those hitting the regions who have given the most sacrifices and martyrs to the revolution.

The government pursues its charm offensive to sell the country to private investors while presiding over the same neo-liberal recipes that have led to the steady impoverishment of Tunisian people, to the structural mass unemployment of its youth, to the chronic lack of basic facilities in the interior regions, in which some villages still have no access to water or electricity supplies.

Of course, the adopted budget also includes a few gestures aimed at defusing the social time bomb. But achieving this last aim without touching the rule of capital over the economy, moreover in a context of national and international recession, is close to an impossible mission. In reality, these social measures are minimal compared to the real needs – for100 million dinars more to create new jobs (at least 25,000 in the public sector) and another 100 million dinars for social housing.

1.2 billion dinars for the budget will come from the privatisation of businesses previously owned by Ben Ali’s clique and subsequently seized by the state. This cynical ‘one-shot’ operation not only delivers to the private sector the property of the Tunisian people, stolen by the dictatorship, but will also aggravate further the deficit in the long run by diminishing state revenue. Instead of bringing back into public ownership the 217 companies privatised under Ben Ali’s rule, and using them for the benefit of the country’s population and the rebuilding of the country, the new rulers just change them from one gang of predators to another.

Furthermore, the budgetary scenario, with the prospect of creating new jobs, is based on the assumption of achieving a GDP growth of 3.5% this year. This is complete science-fiction! The Tunisian economy is in a technical recession – with already four consecutive quarters of negative growth – and 80% of its commercial exchanges are being done with a European continent hit by an unprecedented economic meltdown.

May Day

Political crisis

The support for Ennahda has already lost a lot of feathers. The result this party got in last year’s election seems already a distant memory. In one recent poll, 86% of people think the government has failed to address the problem of jobs, while 90% consider it has failed to adress the problem of rising prices. Its two allies, the ‘Congress for the Republic’(CPR) and Ettakatol are passing through unprecedented internal crises and have lost many members. The CPR has now literally split into two different parties.

Faced with this sharp erosion of government support, many political realignments are taking place in the opposition. It is within this context that the former provisional prime minister (and ex-torturer) Caid Essebsi has spearheaded the gathering of a new pole of attraction. He is willing to represent a big ’gathering of the centre parties’, in which ex-RCDists are prominent along with ’Bourguibists’ – supporters of the previous dictator, Habib Bourguiba, and of his regime, as was Essebsi himself.

Kicked out through the door, those people are trying to come back through the window! They use words such as "secularism", "modernity", " Islamist threat" or "alternation in power" just as a smokescreen to reorganise those who thoroughly benefitted under the old regime. For this reason, they have a dim view about the ambitions of hegemony that Ennahda has developed since hs party’s accession to power.

The vast majority of the population, the working class and the youth have absolutely nothing to gain from these two reactionary poles, competing for domination over the state apparatus, with the Islamist-based group on the one hand and that led by Essebsi on the other, .

The Salafists

Added to this are the endless provocations and violent actions organised by Salafist groups, which have generally been responded to with great ‘indulgence’ from the new Ennahda-led authorities and the police. This is because they can also potentially represent a useful counterbalance to the demands and mobilisations of the left and the trade unions.

These Salafist thugs trap mainly alienated young people with an ultra-reactionary version of Sunni Islam. This is sometimes simply an ideological cover for bandits and traffickers of all sorts who exploit the misery and distress of people in search of work, of a sales pitch or simply a few dinars. Their aim is to control people in the name of moral order, and attack anyone who does not agree with them. In El Kabaria, a working class suburb in the South of Tunis, a group of young Salafists attacked the local offices of the PCOT (Workers’ Communist Party of Tunisia), ransacking the party’s premises and physically attacking its members.

May Day

For a one-day countrywide general strike!

The new leadership of the UGTT, elected at the Congress last December, is certainly more in tune with grassroots activists and union workers than the previous one (which is not really difficult). It approves strike action by its membership. It has been able to restore a certain direction to union mobilisation of a mass character, as on the Mayday demonstration, attended by around 30,000 people or at the demonstration on February 25 in response to attacks on its offices (see article on http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/5609).

However, the programme and initiatives of the new team at the head of the union remain far short of what the current situation requires.

Workers, youth, the unemployed, constantly show their willingness to fight for true social transformation, and to prevent counter-revolutionnary trends getting the upper hand over the situation. Under these conditions, the slogan of ’national unity’, urged by the UGTT officials at the Mayday demo, and the rhetoric of the General Secretary, Abassi, stressing the necessity for ’dialogue’ and ’consensus’, do not allow for the drawing of a clear perspective for the type of battles the working class and the popular masses are confronted with. They chain them to the illusion of a peaceful coexistence with their worst enemies.

United front-type initiatives by the left organisations and the trade union federation should be encouraged by all possible means. Building for a major national general strike, to gather all the local battles into one powerful and unified movement, and to bring back into the limelight the real demands of the revolution, remains one of the most burning tasks of the present situation.

Only such a bold initiative can restore the confidence of the masses in the necessary deepening of the revolutionary movement, and draw the lines of a serious revolutionary struggle to end with capitalist exploitation and brutality, and establish a free and democratic socialist society.

In such a struggle the CWI fights for:

  • the unconditional defence of democratic freedoms and women’s rights
  • a progressive reduction of the working week without loss of pay, until full employment
  • a plan of massive public investment in infrastuctures and public services, especially in inland areas
  • the repudiation of the payment of the debt inherited from the dictatorial regime.
  • the imposition of a sliding scale of wages, and the setting up of working class committees of control over prices, to end speculation
  • the nationalisation, under the control and management of the workers and the people, of all the ex-ruling families’ assets and companies
  • for a workers’ government involving the UGTT, and based on democratically elected committees of workers, unemployed and all the vital forces of the revolution
  • a democratically planned economy aiming at meeting the needs of the majority
  • international struggle and solidarity of working people in the building of a socialist world

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May 2012