Tunisia: General strike rocks the country

Whip of counter-revolution must lead to renewed struggle on social and economic issues

As the interview below states, the assassination of the left opposition leader Chokri Belaïd represents a "turning point" in the process of revolution and counter-revolution which has unfolded in Tunisia in the last two years. It has opened a new chapter of confrontations in the ongoing battle between the mass of Tunisian workers, poor and young people and the largely discredited Ennahdha-led government. It has also exponentially escalated the political crisis at the top.

Numerous commentators describe the recent events as a “secular upsurge against the Islamists”. Even if attempts by Ennahdha and other Islamist groups – in particular the firebrand Salafist gangs – to roll back the long-standing secular traditions prevailing in the country have played a role in fuelling the general anger, such a simplistic view poorly explains the situation. Indeed, mass unemployment, soaring prices, widespread social misery and marginalisation of the interior regions all constitute the background to the mass political anger directed at the present rulers, whose neo-liberal economic policies have followed exactly the same disastrous road for the majority as those applied by the ex-ruling clique swept from power two years ago.

Since last Wednesday the ruling party has been in the firing line of angry protesters across the country, demanding the fall of the regime and a new revolution. For days, clashes between protesters and police forces have taken place in many areas, especially in the militant regions of the interior of the country such as Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid. Friday’s general strike was the first in the country since 1978. It completely paralysed the country’s economy and was coupled with a historic mass mobilisation in the streets for the commemoration of Belaïd’s death. The slogan, “Chokri, you can rest, we will continue your fight!” encapsulated the prevailing sentiments of many. This was indeed a very politically charged funeral procession, the mood in the streets being one of defiance and mass opposition to the regime. Hundreds of Tunisians protested again on Monday outside the national assembly, demanding the government’s resignation.

The upper echelons of the political establishment have now been engaged for days in behind-the-door talks to try and form a government of so-called ‘national unity’. As has happened quite a number of times since the fall of Ben Ali, the ruling class, fearing the opening of the revolutionary floodgates, is seeking the setting up of a government which can ensure the ‘continuity’ of the state. By this they have in mind ‘their’ State: a State which can maintain the toilers in check, repress the demands of the masses, and block their attempts to take things into their own hands.

The left and the trade union federation – the UGTT – should not sully their hands in these manoeuvres! As Dali explains in the interview below, the coalition of the Popular Front should “refuse any agreement with any forces hostile to the workers and the revolution’s camp”. The Popular Front argues now in favour of a “National Congress of Dialogue” and calls for an “emergency”, or a “crisis”, government. Both the Workers’ Party and the Party of Democratic Patriots (Belaid’s organisation), stand in favour of a government of “National Competence”, all very vague formulations, to say the least, which open the door to possible governmental arrangements between parts of the leadership of the workers’ movement and the left, with pro-capitalist elements. The idea of building national unity presents the serious problem of not making clear who are the friends and who are the enemies of the revolution.

The CWI thinks for its part that there is only one unity possible: the unity of the working class, the youth and the poor to continue their revolution until the establishment of a government carried out through their own mass struggle, through the building of ad hoc organisations – strike committees, neighborhood committees and the like, to link up regionally and nationally.

To make its case clear towards the broad masses, the Popular Front could argue that it would enter into a government only on the basis of a number of conditions, which would include the return of all privatised companies into public hands, the full cancellation of the debt, the launch of a massive plan of public investment in infrastructure and socially useful jobs, the imposition of a state monopoly on foreign trade, and the taking over of the commanding heights of the economy into workers’ hands to be run democratically by their elected representatives. Practically, such a programme can only be implemented independently from all the parties who are defending capitalism, and who are only interested in negotiating ministerial positions in a future government composed of representatives and defenders of big business.

Also, important army units have been deployed in recent days in the capital and other cities. The state of emergency is still ongoing, and the old police apparatus continues with the dirty work of repression and systematic abuse and violence against protesters. The masses should not leave the state forces to control the streets, but should reclaim them en masse. This must be done in conjunction with the building of mass revolutionary defence bodies, organised from below by ordinary people, to prevent the violence of the reaction, and to strike back. Appeals to rank-and-file soldiers should be encouraged for this purpose, to split the State along class lines and counter-act the menace of military plotters.

The Popular Front should articulate a clear plan of action aimed at strengthening the revolution and at defending it against attempts at forcing it back, whether by the military, the police or other reactionary militias. It should call for mass assemblies in workplaces and localities, in universities and public institutions, in schools and in the neighbourhoods etc, for the masses to discuss and determine, in the most democratic and collective way possible, what should be the next steps in their struggle and how to organise everywhere against the counter-revolution. A new general strike, after the success of Friday’s stoppage, could perhaps be prepared, to reaffirm the strength of the revolution and of the organised working class, and to finish off the present ruling clique whose legitimacy, in the eyes of the majority, ran out long ago.

In some areas, the recent incidents have encouraged the masses to renew instinctively previous forms of organisation. Neighbourhood committees have sprung up again in some working class boroughs of Tunis, in Le Kef and a few other areas. These examples should be taken up and spread elsewhere, up to and including in the workplaces and factories, as a springboard towards establishing workers’ control and management over the economy.

The call for a “National Congress” would take on its full meaning if it addressed the revolutionary masses themselves. This proposal should be linked to the need for developing and coordinating committees of struggle on a local, regional and national level. These should elect accountable representatives directly coming from the revolution, from the fighting and living layers of the UGTT, the workers ‘movement and the youth.

Such committees would prepare the working class and the poor for running society and rebuilding it on the basis of a democratically organised, socialist plan of production. Such a bold move, towards the establishment of a democratic and socialist Tunisia, would have an electrifying and inspiring impact for workers and youth in the region, and worldwide. It would link up with the revolutionary workers movement in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, engaging in the first steps towards the building of a free socialist federation of North Africa and the Middle East.

Can you briefly explain what is the context and what are the implications of Chokri Belaïd’s assassination?

Chokri Belaïd’s death is a major event and a turning point in the revolutionary process in Tunisia. But it is important to understand that enormous anger had already accumulated for months against the government. Belaïd’s death took place in a context where the political establishment, the government and the National Constituent Assembly had already been drawn into an unprecedented crisis. This reflects the inability of the ruling classes to hold a ministerial formula capable of imposing their counter-revolutionary plans, while having enough popular support to do so. This is an impossible equation.

It has been seven months now that we are being told about a cabinet reshuffle, but they still cannot agree at the top of the state, above all because of the huge social anger expressed on a daily basis across the country. Hatred against the government had already reached a high level of intensity before the assassination of Chokri Belaïd occurred. This murder lit the fuse. Belaïd was not “the” most prominent revolutionary leader, but he was an activist with a certain stature, who became well known especially after the revolution.

Massive mobilizations exploded everywhere soon after the announcement of his death, some with an insurrectional character. 72 local offices of the ruling party, Ennahdha, were burned in the last couple of days! Large demonstrations took place in the immediate half an hour that followed Belaïd’s death, as well as sit-ins, strikes, clashes with the cops, etc, which are part of the Tunisian landscape, at an even higher level than usual since Wednesday. And on the day of the funeral, a ‘human avalanche’ swept over the capital, and mass demonstrations took place in many cities. Some figures suggest that more than one million people poured onto the streets of Tunis on Friday; it is impossible to describe with words the atmosphere that prevailed there. Slogans in the demonstration included calls for the fall of the regime, for a new revolution, accusing Rached Ghannouchi (leader of Ennahdha) of being an assassin, etc..

What was the impact of the general strike on Friday?

The general strike was extremely solid. Support for it was massive and total. Even companies where there is no union representation, where there is usually no strike, etc, stopped work on this occasion. This is also true for many cafés, small technicians, shopkeepers who are allegedly pro-Ennahdha, which went on strike as well. The whole country was paralyzed, as has probably never happened in the history of Tunisia. The strike, and the mobilization that accompanied it, gave another ‘boost’ to the revolution and to the confidence of the masses. It also hit hard the government, which is now literally trembling on its foundations.

The Prime Minister Jebali is now engaged in endless talks in an attempt to save face for the ruling clique. He tries to reconstruct a governmental machine that can keep going. But anger against Ennahdha has reached a climax, to the point that the party is on the verge of implosion. The radical wing of the party tried to mobilize its troops on Saturday, but it was a flop: even by paying people, they failed to bring more than 3,000 people into central Tunis!

The institutional crisis is profound. All the opposition parties have abandoned their presence in the Constituent Assembly, and the regime is seriously destabilised. Also, frictions have arisen in the political rulers’ relationship with the imperialist powers on the way forward. From the point of view of the ruling classes, there is therefore no obvious solution. Two weeks ago, discussions were still underway with the international financial institutions to undertake a programme of “structural reforms” (a euphemism for plans of neoliberal attacks, such as the dropping of certain subsidies on some essential commodities, further privatizations, wage cuts, etc.).

But the death of Belaïd and its consequences have put all their plans in jeopardy. The ‘pragmatic’ layer of Ennahdha leaders around Jebali, as well as the imperialists, seem to favour the option of a government of “technocrats”, but even this formula is difficult for them to implement, and even if it is put in place, it is not sure it will be able to hold on. Under these conditions, we must be on our guard because even the option of a coup can not be ruled out any more, although it is not the most immediately likely perspective.

What about the left-wing coalition of the Popular Front?

The Popular Front has had a strong involvement in the struggles and social movements since its foundation last October. It plays a central role in the mobilization and its activists are a driving force in almost all the mobilisations which are taking place in the country. For example, the Front played a decisive role in the regional strike of Siliana last December and in the most recent regional strike in Le Kef. In this sense, the Front is seen widely as a political force on the side of the revolutionary struggle, and its base is mainly composed of young revolutionaries, trade unionists, unemployed people. Chokri Belaïd was a spokesperson for the Popular Front, and through him, it is also the work of the Front and of its supporters which is in the firing line.

However, the Front also has deficiencies and limitations in its analysis of the current situation, in its concrete proposals, and in its internal functioning as well. Although it has a large grassroots presence on the ground, its activists have little weight and influence on the positions put forward by its leaders and on the decision-making process within it; it is not very inclusive.

Above all, the Front remains quite vague regarding the most important question of the revolution which conditions many others: the question of who holds power in the country. The Front is not homogeneous, and some of the components within it are still strongly influenced by the strategy of a “stages revolution”. That is to say: we must first consolidate democracy and freedoms before challenging capitalism. This logic leads them to approach the question of “democracy” in a framework that does not put clearly into question the existing institutions, or envisage the taking of power other than through the channels of classical parliamentarism.

Of course, we are in favour of the greatest democracy possible, and we fight for freedom. But we believe that we can not disconnect these questions from the social content of the revolution. As Marxists often say, under capitalism, democracy “stops at the factory gates”. Indeed, we believe that a genuine democracy can only be achieved if the workers directly control what is done with the fruits of their work. We fight for a real democracy, across the whole of society, involving the exercising of power by the masses themselves at all levels: in the workplaces, in the neighbourhoods, the schools. We are struggling inside the Front to strengthen these points, for the Front to formulate a programme without ambiguity on the class content of a taking of power, and for it to refuse any agreement with any forces hostile to the workers and the revolution’s camp.

The Popular Front speaks today of the need for a “crisis government”. But all depends on the content that is given to such a formulation. In our view, a way out of the crisis can’t take place without the prospect of overthrowing a social and economic system that is in profound crisis, and makes the working masses pay every day for its anarchic functioning.

This involves in our view the outright cancellation of the debt – an issue which is a source of disputes within the Front. Some just demand the “freezing” of the debt for some time, or the setting up of an audit to determine its ‘odious’ (unacceptable) part. The logic of this implies that at least part of the debt is somehow legitimate, whereas it is the result of the plundering of public resources by the old ruling mafia, with the support of the international capitalist institutions. We are also in favour of the nationalization, under workers’ control, of all the companies laying-off workers, as well as of the banks and the multinationals. Their activity is exclusively organised in order to suck the blood of the masses in order to enrich a handful of parasites.

We are ready to work together with other forces to achieve these objectives. For this, we are ready for some form of flexibility, but there is a point on which we do not waver: the crisis of capitalism has reached a point of no return, and what is needed is a clear strategy to get out of it. This is the only way to provide a future and real opportunities to the majority of the Tunisian population, including the millions of unemployed that this country has. If workers decide by themselves on investment plans, and reorganize the economy according to a general plan depending on the needs of each, the means could be developed to provide a decent and socially useful job for everyone. Today we are a minority to put forward such a programme, but the logic of events implies that one day, these proposals will be taken up by the majority.

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February 2013