Tunisia: General Strike on 13 December [called off – see update]

Revolution at a crossroads

[The general strike was later on called of]

Almost two years after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the eyes of many workers and young people are turning towards Tunisia again. The Tunisian revolution is entering a decisive phase. The call for a nationwide general strike on 13 December by the historic trade union, UGTT (General Union of Tunisian Labour), has set the workers and the revolutionary masses towards an open confrontation with the new regime of the ’Troika’ government, led by the right-wing religious party, Ennahda.

A little over a year following the rise to power of this party, the anger of the population is immense, as well as the desire to get rid of this government of usurpers. "The people want the fall of the regime", "The people are tired of the new Trabelsis", "Government of colonialism, you sold Tunisia," are slogans repeated everywhere, across a country weary of the poverty, mass unemployment, contempt and violence of the new government and its neoliberal economic policies, growingly associated with the old regime.

The strike comes at a time when tensions are at their peak, and the government, severely weakened, is sitting on a powder keg. For months and months, the country has lived through an almost uninterrupted wave of strikes, including countless localised general strikes, acts of civil disobedience, road blockades, demonstrations, sit-ins and riots.

The recent events in the city of Siliana (South-West of Tunis), the epicentre of a major social explosion accompanied by violent police repression, have helped to precipitate the present crisis. Yet they are a symptom of what is brewing in the country, particularly in the poorer regions of the interior. These regions have seen nothing in terms of change since the fall of Ben Ali, apart from the political color of the party that organises their misery and commands the cops who shoot at them.

The five-day general strike that took place in Siliana has forced the government to concede on one of the main demands of the people, namely the departure of the local governor, in an attempt to defuse the crisis and prevent its extension. In parallel, national negotiations which took place between the employers’ federation UTICA and the unions have resulted in the bosses conceding a wage increase of 6% in the private sector.

These two episodes helped build an atmosphere of confidence and victory among large sections of workers facing a coalition government more divided than ever, and whose support is declining dramatically.

It is in this context that the party in power, humiliated and wounded, attempted a small ‘coup’ in sending its militias in their hundreds, armed with sticks and knives, into a rally held by trade unionists in Tunis, in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Ferhat Hached, the founder of the UGTT.

This provocation, which led to dozens of casualties in the ranks of the union activists, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It had an electrifying effect and was quickly followed by spontaneous demonstrations of workers and young people, in many places, requiring the UGTT to call for a general strike.

By the evening, the regional sections of the UGTT in four strategic governorates (the Gafsa mining town with longstanding militant traditions, Sfax, the industrial heart of the country, Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the revolution of 14 January, and Kasserine, the city that paid the heaviest toll in terms of martyrs during the revolution) announced regional general strikes in their respective strongholds for Thursday, December 6.

The next day, the extraordinary meeting of the Administrative Commission of the UGTT, under pressure from its supporters and affiliates, decreed a nationwide general strike for December 13 in response to the attacks on its supporters.

A new chapter

This decision marks a turning point in the relationship between the staggering ruling power and the Tunisian trade union movement. The mobilization of the UGTT’s forces was decisive in the fall of the deposed dictator, Ben Ali.

Strictly speaking, it is only the third general strike in the country’s history. The last one took place in 1978, as the culminating point in a period of growing confrontation between the UGTT and the nationalist regime of Bourguiba. It was drowned in blood by the army, leading to hundreds of deaths, thousands of arrests, and a fierce repression against the left.

In the collective consciousness of the Tunisian working class, the general strike means business. In the current climate, it could take on an insurrectionary character. For months, in fact, many sectors and localities have found themselves fighting often isolated from each other, against the ruling power. The strike of 13 December offers for the first time, the opportunity for a coordinated response on the same day across the entire country. Undoubtedly, it will be seen by the masses as an historic day with a unique opportunity for a show of force against the government and its servants and various supporters.

The call for a general strike by the leadership of the UGTT was not taken for granted. For months, in fact, the union leadership has dithered, playing hot and cold by combining occasionally confrontational rhetoric, with proposals of appeasement and ’national dialogue’. Therefore, precious time has already been lost. “The union leaders should name a date for a 24 hour general strike” the CWI commented already following the successful demonstration on 25 February, organized by the UGTT in response to a previous attack by Ennahda’s militias on its headquarters.

The same union leadership who just a few weeks ago were stressing the need for a broad consensus involving all major political forces in the country, has again taken to harsh criticism of the government, under pressure from its own base.

For a serious and sustained battle plan

To make this day a success, a serious battle plan is needed, which is sustained over time and is not afraid to clearly identify the enemies of the revolution and to draw all the conclusions that this implies.

The strike should be a decisive step towards bringing the current government down. Indeed such a government must be recognized as what it is: a government at the service of the capitalist counterrevolution, pushed by the will to restore order for the benefit of private exploiters, factory owners, multinationals and speculators enriching themselves on the backs of the people.

To achieve this goal, the government is ready to do everything, including re-adopting the methods of the old regime, shooting at protesters with rifles, muzzling the media, or sending its militia against the UGTT without which, by the way, many of these leaders would be in Ben Ali’s prisons or in exile.

Two years after the revolution, the living conditions of the majority are, in many ways, worse than before. Prices of basic commodities are exploding, unemployment as well, the bosses are sacking thousands of workers and closing factories in search of more lucrative profits, while the ruling party not only agrees to pay the debts of the old regime, but is contracting new loans vis-à-vis international creditors, which will inevitably be presented to the poor, the unemployed, the workers and their families, to pay.

Needless to say, there is absolutely nothing to expect from such a government. Self-righteous moralists and scared representatives of pro-capitalist parties can roll their eyes and denounce the ’political’ act of the UGTT as much as they want: this government has lost all forms of legitimacy, which is measured not by electoral arithmetic overtaken by facts, but by the facts themselves.

These facts are unambiguous: not surprisingly, the government has absolutely failed on all the basic demands of the revolution, and acts against them at every moment. Such a government must go. If it does not leave the scene, the revolutionary movement and the labor movement in particular, by redeploying its power, will have to show it the exit door. If the strike of the 13th is not enough to make it understand this, another general mobilization will have to follow until it does.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the UGTT stands by claims of minimal order for the strike: it demands only the disbanding of the pro-Ennahda militias and bringing them to trial. While all around the country, demonstrations are demanding the overthrow of the government, these demands are well behind what the situation requires: requesting Ennahda to dissolve its own militias while leaving the reins of power in its hands will remain merely a pious wish.

In addition, the government, although weakened, has not yet said its last word. If the objective of the strike lacks ambition, and does not form part of a dynamic and escalating struggle to wrest power from the hands of the counter-revolution and pass it to the revolution itself; if the momentum is followed by procrastination and hesitation on the follow-up of the movement, or by a new phase of attempts to negotiate with the authorities, the counter revolution could attempt to regain the initiative and engage in a violent retaliation. To do this, Ennahda could rely on a significant part of the State apparatus which, although in occasional disagreement with this party on the road to follow, could however very well find common ground when the question comes of breaking the neck of the revolution and ’neutralizing’ the UGTT, a bit too noisy for its tastes.

An initial success of the strike could force the enemy to retreat for a time, but then see acts of reprisal and vengeful violence, targeting symbols of the revolution and its living forces, starting with the UGTT itself.

This is why the implications of the battle the working class is entering into now must be spelled out correctly. The coming days must see a thorough preparation for the strike. Mass meetings in neighborhoods, general assemblies in the workplaces and in the universities, should help to build a solid and active support for the strike across the country, and discuss how to make it a resounding success. Action committees in the neighborhoods, flying pickets, well coordinated stewarding teams, and mass, disciplined demonstrations should help to ensure a successful running of the strike and prevent attacks and provocations by the reaction.

For a government of the working class and the revolutionary youth!

Even before the announcement of the general strike, the President of the Republic Moncef Marzouki considered it necessary to specify in a televised speech that "We do not have only a single Siliana (…) I am afraid that this situation could happen again in many regions and that this could threaten the future of the revolution. ". A sentence which speaks volumes about the uncertainty and panic which affects the ruling circles.

The spectre of the revolution that overthrew Ben Ali scares the regime, in the palace of Carthage and in the ministerial departments. Indeed, the UGTT occupies a central place in the Tunisian landscape, and is undoubtedly the only organized force that has mass support among the Tunisian population. Its call for a general strike ripped off the masks of all those who try to surf on popular discontent for their own opportunistic interests.

One of the spokesmen of the Salafist party, Hizb Attahrir, for example issued a call to condemn and criminalize the UGTT, calling the call for a general strike on 13 December a "leap into the unknown", adding that the UGTT was on the side of Ben Ali until the very end, and denying any contribution of the trade union to the revolution of January 2011.

The claims of a contribution by Hizb Attahrir to the revolution is a question in itself so ridiculous that it does not even deserve attention. On the other hand, if the previous national leadership of the UGTT was indeed associated with the dictatorship of Ben Ali, the union, which has hundreds of thousands of workers in its ranks, provided nevertheless the spine of the revolutionary mobilizations that led to the fall of this same dictatorship.

And today, Ennahda, although under a different ideological veneer, is slowly but surely moving towards restoring a dictatorship. Already torture has resumed service, violent militias are running free, political trials multiply, corruption abounds, and the masses suffer again and again.

The time to end this government has now come, which the masses have understood. The general strike, which has been brewing for months, is the most powerful weapon available to the working class. On its success and its consequences depend nothing less than the fate of the revolution itself and the future of the country.

Even the Tunisian General Confederation of Workers (CGTT), a small and more moderate trade union created after the revolution and claiming some 50,000 members, said last Thursday that it was in "full solidarity" with the UGTT. The employees at the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), from the UGTT, have decided to observe a strike from December 11 to 13 to show their refusal of "patronage" and the attempts by the Troika to interfere with administration. This kind of example illustrates how if the force of the working class, in all sectors, is mobilised in all its power, the country could stop running overnight, and the government could be hanging by a thread.

Already, the regional general strikes of 6 December saw a massive turnout, with for example 95% participation in the governorate of Gafsa, according to figures provided by the UGTT. In all governorates concerned, cities and towns were largely paralyzed, with a very high proportion of public and private institutions completely closed down.

This gives a prelude of the potentially explosive character that the general strike of 13 December could acquire. Although the national leadership of the UGTT tries to minimize its impact, the call in itself has opened a breach into which the masses could enter with force, with the possibility of this movement partially escaping the control and framework that its leaders want to give it.

All politicians and capitalists now understand very well that the fall of the government would open up a new chapter for the Tunisian revolution. Demonstrating once again the power of the workers and of the mass movement, such a development would be accompanied by a new rise of class militancy and its impact would go beyond Tunisian borders.

Najib Chebbi, whose party ‘Al Joumhouri’ seems to have no other clear ambition than to save the face of the ruling class when needed, does not express anything else when he asks Ennahda to make "public apologies" to the UGTT. Everyone knows that a general strike creates the objective conditions for a possible fall of the present government. The latter is torn as never before, and the strike of the 13th could deal it a fatal blow.

The timing of the strike is historic in many senses. The contradiction between the possibility for the UGTT, given the weight it has in the Tunisian labor movement, to take power on the one hand, and the unwillingness of its own leadership to actually do so, on the other hand, could reach, in the coming days and weeks, a tipping point.

It is not ruled out that the turn of events could even force the ruling class, in the context of a structural political impasse, to compose a new government involving representatives of the leadership of the UGTT. In this context, it is crucial that the lessons are learned from the recent past. If all the governments that have succeeded in power since the fall of Ben Ali were unable to meet the needs of the masses and their revolutionary aspirations, the reason is simple: all have acted with determination to defend the interests of capital against those of labour, the profits of the shareholders and private investors – who do not invest – rather than the pressing social needs of the population. In the context of the current historic worldwide crisis of capitalism, the possibility of the slightest sustainable improvement in the living standards of the population on the basis of this system is dashed.

This is why the only long term solution lies in the strategic preparation of the working masses for the eventual seizure of political and economic power. Workers should refuse obstinately all governmental pacts between representatives of the left and of the labor movement with pro-capitalist forces or politicians.

In this sense, the ‘Popular Front’, a front gathering left-wing parties and Arab nationalist forces, and which plays an important role in the present protests, has a primary responsibility to formulate an action plan and a strategy maintaining total independence vis-à-vis the capitalist class and its parties. Unfortunately, ambiguous formulas made by some leaders of the Front, demanding a "crisis government" without specifying its political and economic content, attests to the apparent reluctance of these leaders to call a spade a spade.

The CWI believes that the UGTT, as the largest labor organization in the country, should encourage the workers to take the power in their own name, assisted in that by the UDC (Union of the Unemployed Graduates) and the left and popular organizations who share this goal. Such a move should be assisted by the creation, throughout the country, of revolutionary committees of action and struggle, democratically organised at each level, to give a mass base and the involvement of the working masses and the poor in this process.

Inhabitants of Siliana march against the government

Such a government, supported by the masses and their committees, could then use the revolutionary impetus created to confront quickly the current capitalist economic system, which produces poverty, unemployment, rising cost of living and low wages with the sole purpose of enriching a clique of parasites who own and control the means of production.

The movement must also address, in an organised manner, the soldiers as well as the cops who still have a minimum of consciousness, to encourage them to refuse to be used in repression against their brothers and sisters. In Siliana, units of the army have refused to intervene and fire on demonstrators. Such examples could be expanded elsewhere. General assemblies and committees inside the armed forces would allow the soldiers to democratically organize and to choose to serve the interests of their class rather than those of the opposite camp.

In order for the current movement and the general strike of 13 December not to lead to mass demoralization and disillusionment of the revolutionary masses – which some wings of the reaction (police, Salafists, pro-Ennahda militias etc) would not fail to exploit for their own benefits – it is essential to give a quick and accurate follow-up to this strike. In order to maintain the initiative and continue the counter-offensive, there must be a plan to move towards determined incursions into capitalist private property, including through occupying the workplaces and the factories.

Only a socialist programme, organizing workers, youth and poor for the seizure of large estates, the nationalisation of the banks and big companies and multinationals, the refusal to pay the debt, and the rational and democratic planning of all the country’s resources to meet social needs, would be able to offer a decent future matching the value of the sacrifices made. This would set an inspirational example to be spread across the region and beyond, opening the door towards making capitalism history once and for all.

-Hand off the UGTT! For the defense of trade union rights and the right to strike!

-Ennahda get out! General strike to bring down the government!

-For the creation of revolutionary action committees across the country to prepare for the strike and its aftermath

-For a sustained fight towards a revolutionary government of workers and youth, supported by the UGTT and popular organisations

-For the immediate nationalisation of the strategic sectors of the economy under workers’ control and management.

-Solidarity with our Egyptian brothers and sisters

-For democratic socialism – for the international revolution.

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December 2012