Tunisia: Salafist rampages bring worst violence since last year

Interview with a revolutionary activist

In the middle of June, days of rioting in Tunisia, supposedly triggered by an art exhibition in a suburb of the capital, Tunis, considered as ‘blasphemous’ by fanatical religious groups, left at least one person dead and 62 injured. Salafist groups – probably helped by elements linked to the fallen regime – armed with knives, clubs and Molotov cocktails, attacked shops, set police stations on fire, raided offices of the trade union and of political parties, and clashed with the police for several days in different parts of the country. Socialistworld.net spoke to a Tunisian revolutionary activist sympathising with the ideas of the CWI on the recent developments and their implications.

What are the origin and the context in which this violence has taken place?

In order to understand the recent events, it is important to realise first that the social climate in Tunisia has been extremely tense for several months. Nothing has changed, and there is a complete failure of the government’s policies to address the root causes of poverty, unemployment, rising prices, and so on. There have been continuing tensions between the government and the trade unions, and numerous strikes in all sectors of the economy, to which the authorities have responded with increasing hostility, including using militias to break them up. The government is desperate to find a way to prevent the working class from expressing its discontent and defending its interests.

Another important element is that a secular right-wing faction (people who are painting themselves as ‘progressive’ but who are organised around some elements of the old dictatorial regime, such Caid Essebsi, the ex-provisional Prime Minister) is re-affirming itself in opposition to the present Ennahda-led government.

Both of these wings are not happy that the debate in society has been dominated by social questions for weeks now. The leading party Ennahda is trying to avoid talking about these things as much as it can. And it has been a regular feature since last year that those in power are trying to divert attention from social questions and to feed division by exploiting issues related to religion and identity.

The picture given is that there is a supposed fundamental cleavage based around the place of religion in society. But for the majority of people, these are secondary questions. The most crucial needs to be addressed are jobs, infrastructure and social development, justice to the martyrs’ families, etc. On all these questions the government is hopeless and increasingly discredited.

It is within such a context that the violence launched by Salafist groups has taken place. One can only wonder if the fact that they are taking place now is a pure coincidence.

What triggered these riots?

It is a petty issue. A painting exhibition was supposedly at the heart of all this. The Salafists pretended that the paintings were against Muslim values, and wanted everybody to believe that religion was in danger because of a few supposedly unbelieving artists who were attacking God. Beyond the fact that this relates to the freedom of expression, the idea that this art exhibition was hurting Islam is not even true.

Some radical Imams and Salafist groups incited the violence. Moreover, the number two leader of Al-Quaeda, Ayman Zawahiri,made a public declaration just on the day before, calling Tunisian Muslims to rise up against a so-called “non-Islamist” government and to demand the application of the Shariah law.

In a matter of a few days things took an uncontrollable turn. Once the riots had begun, all sorts of bandits and marginalised and deprived youth took the streets as well. What followed were days of street violence and clashes between mainly Salafists and the riot police, in different parts of the country. These riots, however, didn’t have a large appeal or popular support. Contrary to the attitude of the population during the recent citywide general strikes that we have witnessed in many regions, the mass of the people didn’t take part but stayed on the sidelines.

What was the reaction of the government?

The government has been playing a balancing game with the Salafists since the beginning, and it continues to do so. On the one hand, Ennahda itself regularly tries to exploit religious sensitivities for its own political and electoral purposes, and generally didn’t intervene when the Salafists engaged in violent actions, in order not to hurt its own more radical base of support. Especially when the Salafists are taking action against left activists or attacking the trade unions, as happened on many occasions in the recent period, the government remained generally silent or lenient.

But this time they could not ignore the fact that these actions were provoking mass outrage among the population. At the same time, the government had been recently more and more pressurised by business people from the tourism sector, as well as by imperialist countries, to do something about these fanatical groups who by their actions are not favouring a “good climate for investment” and for the tourists to come back visiting the country.

That’s why they went for a crackdown, endorsing police intervention, the Interior Ministry even declaring that they would be willing to use live ammunition to quell further unrest (which they did, shooting dead one man in Sousse), and called the people involved in the riots “terrorists”, “extremists”, etc. The authorities imposed a 9pm-5am curfew in the capital, Tunis, as well as in seven other regions of the country, and arrested over 160 Salafists.

However, this still went hand-in-hand with proposals by Ennahda leaders to implement repressive laws condemning those who supposedly disrespect religious sensitivities, as well as with a call by the same party to demonstrate with “our Salafist brothers” after Friday’s prayers. But ultimately they pulled back from this last call, as its provocative character was “over the top”.

What is the appreciation of the government among the population?

It is clear that Ennahda has dropped dramatically in popularity, and has not the same margin of manoeuvre that they used to have in the past. Whenever a representative of the government travels into the regions, he is booed or his presence provokes clashes. I don’t think Ennahda will be able to repeat a score of over 40% in the elections as they did last November. A lot of people have voted Ennahda the last time, but won’t do it anymore.

Obviously Ennahda still maintains a certain base of support but it has been reduced. That’s why they had a tendency, despite their initial ‘moderate’ profile, to lean more and more upon radical elements to survive.

But people are angry that Ennahda is ruling with the same methods of brutality and nepotism as the RCD used to do. The party is using repressive laws set up by Ben Ali to deal with opponents, it places loyal figures in every sphere of the State, in the media, in the administration, in the justice system, and so on.

That is precisely why a figure of the old regime such as Essebsi has been able to make a comeback onto the political scene, by trying to exploit the rising popular anger against the ruling coalition (“coalition”, by the way, is an exaggerated term, as in reality the so-called troika doesn’t really exist: it is Ennahda which is the commanding machine of all this). Hence it is more than a possibility that old regime loyalists have also been involved in the recent clashes, in order to fuel a ‘strategy of tension’ which, they hope, would benefit this particular wing of the ruling class.

The working class especially is fed up with empty promises. The recent complementary budget which has been passed through in the Parliament is a provocation: it empties the pockets of the poor to give to the even poorer sections of society. Some subventions for poor families, as well as the construction of new social housing units have been decided, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the needs, and is mainly based on sharing misery instead of attacking the interests of the rich. It is also a way for the new regime to seed division between workers and the other layers of the poor, the unemployed, etc. That’s about all this government is capable of offering.

What is the response of the left in the present situation?

Faced with the danger of an emerging pole around Essebsi on the one hand, and the troika with its ambivalent attitude towards the Salafists on the other, the left needs to encourage and build an independent working class pole based on the UGTT and on the genuine demands of the revolution. We need to re-centre the debate on the issues that really matter for the people; the question is not of religious and non-religious people, but about fighting together for a society based on decent living standards for all, creating jobs for the unemployed, cleaning the State machine, etc.

The left organisations have a noticeable influence in the trade unions, but the problem is often that the political expression that they give to their work is below what is needed and doesn’t match the rapid radicalisation which is taking place among the masses in struggle. Some on the left, though they remain marginal at this stage, are even arguing now that faced with the danger of “islamisation” of the country, we should forget for a moment our strategic ambitions, and make an alliance with Essebsi and his clan.

We are willing to establish the necessary connection with the broader working class. For that purpose we need to stand uncompromisingly for the refusal of the payment of the debt inherited from the tyrant Ben Ali, for the nationalisation of the banks and of the big companies, for a steady development of the infrastructure on the basis of a massive public investment programme, especially in the interior regions.

We say there is no point of arguing against the present power if it is to fall back in the arms of people linked with the regime that the revolution just got rid of. During the recent crisis, we have encouraged initiatives based on the organisation of the people themselves to defend their neighbourhoods and their integrity against the violence of the Salafists. But we also fought consistently to defy the curfews imposed by the State and against police brutality, as we don’t want a State-imposed solution, with the military, the police and the national guard controlling our streets, as such a scenario would inevitably make our own struggle much more difficult.

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July 2012