Tunisia: The calm before the storm

New clashes on the horizon

Four students killed in a traffic accident on their way to school, crammed as they were at the back of an old pick-up truck driving on a dirt road in a terrible state: a tragic and almost anecdotal story, passing almost unnoticed, yet illustrating the bitter reality that many Tunisians continue to face after the revolution. The investments in road maintenance, in public transport and other basic infrastructure have been neglected for many years, especially in the marginalized regions of the interior of the country. Added to this is the common practice of corrupt officials pocketing some of the scarce public funds allocated to regional development.

The upper echelons of Tunisian society remain plagued by nepotism, privileges and outstanding corruption. Meanwhile life for the majority of Tunisian people is only getting worse. The explosion of prices (the current rate of real inflation is estimated at 10% by some economists) continues to drive down the purchasing power of the workers and poor, while feeding the profits of a few speculators who control most of the distribution channels.

Social decay

Accompanying the growing crisis facing the country, symptoms of social decay and individual acts of desperation are on the rise. Evidence of this is the trivialization of self-immolations. In this matter Tunisia is about to break the world record, “competing” only with Tibet on this macabre field.

Relying on the widespread social despair and alienation, extreme islamist preachers are increasing their calls for recruits to carry on the “jihad” in Syria, targeting poor neighborhoods where the thousands of young unemployed without a future live, and enriching some “merchants of death” in the process, organizers and profiteers of this traffic.

The recipes of the IMF are being imposed in Tunisia, once again

Far from taking measures to make the life of the masses more bearable, the government of the “Troika” is preparing new neo-liberal plans under the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the watchful eyes of the imperialist powers.

An agreement has been reached in principle between the government and the IMF, following negotiations kept secret for several weeks. This agreement means the IMF will provide a precautionary loan of $ 1.7 billion to Tunisia. This loan is to enable the regime to maintain the payment of current expenses. The foremost item contained in this expenditure is the rayment of existing debt inherited from the Ben Ali: an amount which totals three times the health budget, and five times the employment budget. This is at a time when hospitals are being strangled by the lack of resources and personnel, and unemployment continues its rise towards new record heights.

The idea that such a loan will help “supporting Tunisian growth”, as officially claimed, is a complete hoax. The long legacy of the IMF policies in the region and the more recent examples of Southern European countries show where this debt logic and the “painful” conditions attached to it invariably lead to: an even greater domination of international capital, a choking off growth, and most importantly, a social desert for the mass of the population. On the menu will be further spike in commodity prices through a reform of government subsidies, tax cuts for big businesses, further privatization, slashing of wages, hiring freeze…

The increase in fuel prices introduced in February is a first taste of what this plan of attacks will mean. Among others, the Finance Ministry together with the IMF have embarked on a comprehensive study of the system of public subsidies(these are subsidies on basic items such as bread and fuel) and intend to proceed with “structural reforms” in this field. Through undermining what remains of a system that allows thousands of Tunisians to still hold their heads above water, such reforms are a social time bomb.

New social explosions loom

Meanwhile, the ministers and their deputies lead a luxurious life far away from the concerns of ordinary people. Scandalously, some even wanted to introduce a new increase in their wages and allowances -paid retrospectively-, while preparing to demand the workers and poor to tighten their belts further. Jobless people don’t receive the slightest benefit for subsistence, but the vice-president of the National Constituent Assembly, Maherzia Laabidi, from Ennahda, is granted a wage of no less than 39,000 dinars (nearly 20,000 euros)!

This is further stoking the fires as evidenced by the figures provided by the Ministry of Social Affairs that reported that 126 strikes had taken place during the first quarter of 2013, 14% up on the same period last year.

The end of April saw a new surge in strikes, with a national strike of the magistrates on 17th and 18th April, a general strike in Sidi Thabet on April 20th (in the region of Ariana, Northwestern Tunisia), a strike of customs officers on April 22nd , a strike in the primary education sector on April 24th, a local general strike in the city of Zaghouan (Northeast) on April 26th , a bakers’ strike on April 29th and 30th . And May has already started with a fuel transport strike on 2, 3 and 4 May.

These strikes are mostly concerned with issues related to status, working hours or wages (including the demand to implement gains won in previous strikes). The division between economic and political strikes is very quickly and regularly crossed.


The teachers -who struck in protest against their poor working conditions registered over 90% participation. Notably it had a very political character. Outside the headquarters of the union, in Mohamed Ali square, the striking teachers were shouting “Yes, we could lose our lives, but Ennahdha will eventually be uprooted from our land”. At the end of their gathering, they joined the weekly demonstration of the left coalition of the Popular Front, organised every Wednesday to demand of the islamist rulers: “Who has killed Chokri Belaïd?”.

Deep discredit of the ruling power

The government is deeply discredited and unpopular. The crushing defeats suffered by Ennahda supporters in the elections for the student representatives in the faculty councils of the universities in March (UGET, the left student union, won 250 seats against 34 for the islamist union of UGTE, who are pro-government). Their supporters also suffered a defeat in the elections of the Association of Young Lawyers. These are two recent and symptomatic examples of a broader climate developing throughout society.

Facing widespread discontent, the ruling power has nothing but the weapon of repression to curb the rights of expression and silence those who are fighting back. Attacks against journalists are on a steady increase as are death threats against political opponents and trade unionists. The third version of the draft constitution, made public recently, directly called into question the right to strike and is clearly aimed at curbing union freedoms.

Besides this, there has been a proliferation of political trials, targeting young revolutionaries in particular. A whole generation of fighters who were at the forefront of the uprising against the regime of Ben Ali is now in the dock. Two young grafiti artists from Gabes (on the Eastern coast) were facing up to five years in prison for painting: “The poor are living dead in Tunisia” on walls. In the end they only received a fine of 100 dinars, following the popular fury that their sentence aroused. The people of the region of Ajim, on the Djerba island, have been on a general strike on April 22 in protest against the judgements of the so-called “youth of Ajim”: 10 local youths have been sentenced to 10 years in prison for burning down a policemans house, which happened during the revolutionary events straight after the fall of Ben Ali.

Import of jihadist terrorism into Tunisia?

Many Tunisians were shocked by the discovery of jihadist training camps in the mountainous area of Chaambi in Kasserine (near the Algerian border), and by the explosion of anti-personnel mines laid by these same terrorists, which injured several soldiers from the Army and the National Guard, some of whom have lost limbs. This is hardly surprising though. Although the role of Ennahda in these events is not clear at this stage, the current government clearly bears the blame in any case: the proliferation of jihadism and violent trends of Salafism have been able to act with impunity possibly as a result of the complicity of the very people who have been running the country for over a year and a half.

In the CWI leaflet distributed at the recent World Social Forum in Tunis, we warned against the risk of destabilizing elements of violence becoming more prominent in the case of setbacks in the revolutionary process:

“The growing poverty in the slums nourishes the soil from which the Salafis and jihadists grow, especially among desperate young people who have nothing to lose anymore. The most alienated segments of the population, if they don’t see any way out provided by the trade union movement and the left, could become prey for reactionary demagogues and ready for all sorts of solutions. The only way the working class and the revolutionary youth can rally them behind is by creating a powerful national movement capable of fighting for the demands of all the oppressed. This involves linking the necessary struggle for the defense and expansion of democratic rights with the fight on the issues of employment, housing, cost of living, … Otherwise, the fall in support for Ennahda could partially benefit the Salafists and reactionaries of the like, who could make new inroads among sectors of the poor, the excluded and the marginalized, and mobilize them against the revolution. The country could slide into a spiral of violence for which the masses will pay the price.”

Of course, the working class and the revolutionary youth have so far not suffered major defeats; they have unsuspected reserves of strength, and have tasted at the experience of overthrowing a dictatorship not so long ago. The magnificent response of the Tunisian masses at the assassination of the left opponent Chokri Belaïd has given a glimpse of the difficulties the ruling class will be confronted to, if they want to pass to more brutal methods of repression. For the same reasons, the descent into a civil war-type situation, along the lines of what happened in Algeria in the 1990’s, is not immediately posed. This being said, it would be dangerously mistaken to minimize the potential consequences of a failed revolution in the long run.

The working class and its organisations

At the base of society, the will to fight is obvious, expressing itself daily in many different ways. The objective conditions for revolution, the underlying and aggravating problems of poverty and repression, are clearly preparing the ground for new uprisings. Moreover the existence of a powerful trade union organization, and of left-wing parties with a noticeable influence, is a powerful asset for the continuation of the revolution. But for that, they need to be used in an effective way.

The trade union federation, the UGTT, and the Popular Front coalition, are the organizations most representative of the layers of Tunisian people who made the revolution and who share a common interest in pursuing it to the end. Unfortunately the potential that these forces represent is not exploited as it could and should be.

The national trade union bureaucracy is de facto blocking the prospect of a determined and united confrontation with the ruling power, and leaves the regions, the localities and the various sectors fighting on their own, isolated from each other. Futile calls for “national dialogue”, again reiterated by the Secretary General of the UGTT, Hassine Abassi, on Mayday, replace the vital and urgent call for a unified struggle across the country aimed at bringing down the Troika regime, and at pursuing firm and decisive revolutionary mobilizations until victory is achieved.

The Popular Front represents a potentially vital vehicle for rebuilding political representation for the revolution, the working class and the oppressed. But some bitterness is legitimately palpable among many of its supporters and grassroots activists, because of the lack of a serious lead given by the Front’s leadership, and the absence of serious industrial demands being formulated since the successful general strike of February 8. Between a resolutely revolutionary policy, encouraged by many rank-and-file activists, and the choice of an essentially reformist and institutional outlook, respecting the rules posed by the capitalist State –which is the road followed by most of the coalition’s leaders- the Front is at a crossroads.

As the CWI has warned more than once, if the Popular Front does not urgently adopt a bold strategic plan, based on clear socialist policies, organising the struggle of the working masses for overthrowing the Ennahda regime and for taking power, the momentum built around it could be lost. The danger of a certain political softening (ie a shift to the right and the search for compromises with non-working class forces), may surface in a more explicit way.

In particular, it is vital that the Front keeps a total political independence from all the pro-business forces who advocate the “sacred union” against the Islamists to better deflect the attention away from the class war in progress in the country. The history of the entire region is bound up with catastrophic revolutionary defeats because the left submerged itself in treacherous alliances with national bourgeois forces. The rallying to the Popular Front of the “El Shaab” movement, for example, is not a good sign. The statement by its Secretary General, recently announcing that the Popular Front represents the “hope of achieving the objectives of the revolution, namely: justice, democracy and productivity” (!) is a serious departure from what the vast majority of activists, trade unionists, youth, the unemployed, members or supporters of the Front, are actually fighting for.

More than ever, the Popular Front needs to adopt a clear and offensive revolutionary program. A program that:

1) Fights uncompromisingly for full democratic rights, for the right to protest, assemble and strike, for the end of the state of emergency, for an immediate end to political trials and police brutality.

2) Clearly argues for a sustained struggle until the fall of the present regime. This could start with a call for a new general strike, supported by strong protests and mobilizations all across the country. This should not be a “one-off operation” without a future as it happened on February 8, but the starting point of an unabated struggle deploying the full power of the organized working class, until the Ennahda-led government (and its expired and non-representative Constituent Assembly) is brought down once and for all.

3) Calls on the implementation of radical economic measures such as:

-The occupation of industrial sites threatened with closure, layoffs or relocation, and their expropriation and nationalization under the democratic control of the workers;

  • The full and unconditional refusal of payment of the debt, and the preparation of a vast campaign of agitation and mobilization to engage a war against the plans of the IMF;

-The introduction of a sliding scale of the wages and the immediate opening of the books of all major distribution companies;

-The nationalization, under the control of the workers and the community, of the banks and major industries, and the introduction of a State monopoly on foreign trade;

-The introduction of a mass plan of public investment in infrastructure projects (roads, hospitals, public lighting, green areas, leisure centers for young people, etc), in order to provide jobs to the unemployed and to end the marginalization of the regions;

-The introduction of a 38h/working week without loss of pay in all sectors.

3) Encourages, wherever it’s possible, the setting up of collective structures of organization, at the level of the workplaces, neighborhoods, villages, schools and universities: grassroots committees of action composed of democratically-elected and fighting delegates, in order to coordinate the struggle of the masses at every level. Collective bodies of self-defense also urgently need to be organised, to counter the violence of the militias and the repression of the State machine. This should be combined with class appeals towards the ranks of the armed forces, especially towards conscript soldiers.

4) Popularizes the necessity of a revolutionary government composed of genuine representatives of the key actors of the revolution: the workers, the revolutionary youth, the unemployed and the poor peasants, and their associated organisations. The call for a “Congress of Salvation” initiated by the Popular Front, understood in this way, would then take its full meaning: a revolutionary Congress, made up of elected delegates directly coming from the living forces of the revolution from all over the country, erecting its own power, and challenging the existing regime and all its appendages.

Ultimately, the viability of such a power would depend upon the realization of a program which can encapsulate the support of the majority, in Tunisia as well as internationally. Only a democratic and socialist planned economy can achieve this. This is the program that the supporters of the CWI in Tunisia, active in the League of the Workers’ Left (LGO), itself part of the Popular Front, will continue to defend in the present and coming struggles.

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