Tunisia: “Mass struggle constrained by Popular Front and UGTT leaderships”

Interview with Hidouri Abdessalem, member of the regional UGTT office for secondary education, Sidi Bouzid

At the time of publication of this interview, the political crisis in Tunisia is going through its umpteenth episode. The breadth and depth of popular anger against the regime of the ‘Troika’ [=the government led by the right-wing Islamist party Ennahda, also consisting of two other, largely token, coalition partners], marked by the volcanic explosion of protests across the country in the wake of the two political assassinations of left leaders this year (Chokri Belaid in February and Mohamed Brahmi at the end of July) is the backdrop and the fundamental reason for this crisis.

The talks held between the government and the opposition parties, called the ‘initiative for a national dialogue’, were suspended on Monday 4 November. In short, this ‘initiative for a national dialogue’ is nothing but an attempt by the ruling classes to negotiate an arrangement ‘from the top’ to try to provide a solution to the political crisis, while ensuring that ‘those from below’, i.e. workers and trade unionists, the revolutionary youth, the unemployed, the poor, etc. do not get too involved.

Indeed, when the voices from the establishment, the imperialist powers or the mass media get alarmed at the dangers of an extended ‘political vacuum’ in Tunisia, it is not primarily the rise of jihadist violence that they have in mind; their main concern is that the exasperation of the masses could erupt onto the stage again.

The ‘national dialogue’ is aimed at preparing an orderly and negotiated retreat for Ennahda, and the establishment of a supposedly ‘independent’, ‘non-political’ government. The discussions, at least officially, have stumbled on the choice of the new prime minister, discussions which in themselves expose the counter-revolutionary manoeuvres underway. Indeed, the various names that have circulated to lead a future government are all either senile veterans of the old regime or of a pure neo-liberal inclination.

There is obviously nothing “independent” or “non-political” about this. New attacks on workers and the poor are being prepared, notably pushed for by the IMF, and to do this, the imperialist powers and the Tunisian big bosses plead for a government strong enough to be able to keep the masses under control and make them pay for the crisis. A few days ago, the governor of the Central Bank eloquently said that Tunisia "needs a government of commandos to sort the country out".

The trade union organisation, the UGTT, is by far the most organized force in the country. No lasting political settlement can be agreed in the interests of the capitalist class without at least the tacit approval of its leadership. For the workers and the poor masses, however, the Gordian knot of the problem lies in the fact that the leadership of the union federation, instead of mobilizing this force to impose a government of the workers and poor, supported by a national network of rank-and-file, democratically-organised committees at all levels, is proving to be a very cooperative partner for the ruling class and the imperialist countries in the latter’s plans to impose an unelected government in the service of big capital. So much so that the union leaders have shamefully been playing the leading role in the organization and mediation of the ‘national dialogue’.

These union leaders, instead of seriously mobilizing their own troops, have put all their efforts in trying to sort out a behind-the-scenes deal between the main agents of the counter-revolution. All this has been crowned by the approval and direct participation, in these recent talks, of the leaders of the left coalition the ’Popular Front’, despite the clear opposition of large segments of its own members and sympathisers. This strategy, as Abdessalem explains in the interview, is a complete impasse, the leaders of the left and the trade union delivering de facto the interests of their members on the altar of the cynical calculations of their worst class enemies.

Leon Trotsky said that in a period of profound crisis for the capitalist system, the reformist leaders begin to look “more and more like the man who tries to hang on while going down on a rapidly descending escalator”. This metaphor sums up quite well the Tunisian political landscape today. The country is indeed on the verge of a crisis of unprecedented scale.

On 30 October, two attempted suicide attacks were avoided in tourist areas. A week before, in the central region of Sidi Bouzid, at least nine members of the security forces were killed in violent clashes with armed Salafists. Interestingly, in response, the local branch of the UGTT called for a regional general strike, a move quickly followed in the neighbouring region of Kasserine as well, to protest against the killings. This kind of response indicates where the social forces are that can offer a viable solution and around which can be built a genuine political alternative to the growing misery and violence of the present system.

But as mentioned by Abdessalem, there is now a paradox in Tunisia: "The true revolutionary builders, the living forces of the revolutionary process, are marginalised from the political arena." The CWI largely shares this point of view. That is why there is an urgent need to rebuild across the country a mass political force in the service of these ‘builders’, independent of all pro-capitalist parties, and armed with a clear revolutionary socialist programme aimed at putting the country’s key resources in public ownership and working class control.

There was a time when this was the proclaimed aim of the UGTT. At its 1949 congress, the UGTT demanded “the nationalisation of the mines, transport, gas, water, electricity, salt, banks, oil exploration, cement, big land properties, and their management under a form that ensures working-class participation.” Putting forward a similar programme today, combined with clear action goals, would embolden the workers and the poor masses and make a big difference to the present situation.

Activists within the Popular Front and the UGTT who want to continue the revolution and who refuse the current manoeuvres – and there are many – should in our view demand the immediate and definitive removal of their leaders from the farcical ‘national dialogue’, and ask that these leaders are made accountable to their members for the disastrous political strategy they have been following.

Through democratically organised discussions, the lessons of past and present mistakes should be learnt, leading to a process of political clarification and re-organisation on the left on which programme, strategy and tactics are needed for the revolution to move forward.

CWI supporters in Tunisia are open to discuss and collaborate with all who share these considerations. For only in this way can the necessary ‘tools’ and ‘programme’, that Abdessalem refers to at the end of the interview, be sharpened for the battles to come.

Since the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, an unprecedented wave of protests against the regime of Ennahda has shaken Tunisia. What is your balance sheet of these protests?

The protests against the regime of Ennahda, triggered by the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, and of Chokri Belaid before him, expressed a wider renewal of the revolutionary process, aimed at the fall of the government of the ’Troika’ and the fall of the system.

But given the lack of a clear programme and a sufficiently influential revolutionary group, these mobilizations were manipulated by the national bureaucracy of the UGTT, by liberal political parties and by the opportunist leaders of the left parties, with the aim of overcoming the crisis by the tool of ‘national dialogue’, without pushing these mobilizations to their real objectives: the fall of the system.

In the name of unity in the fight against Islamists, the leadership of the Popular Front has joined ’Nidaa Tounes’ (a party in which many forces of the old state apparatus and the old regime have sought refuge) and other political forces in the ’National Salvation Front’. What do you think of this alliance and what implications does it have for the struggle of the masses?

The current political scene in Tunisia is characterized by a kind of ‘tri-polarisation’: the pole with the reactionary Islamists from Ennahda and its allies, the liberal centre of the old regime, headed by the ’Nidaa Tounes’ party, grouped under the leadership of Caid Essebsi, and, as a counterweight to these two poles, the Popular Front and the UGTT.

But after the assassination of Chokri Belaid, the situation started to change: the so-called ‘democratic’ and ‘modernist’ forces have banded together against violence and terrorism (in a so-called ‘Congress of Salvation’); this step marked the beginning of the political deadlock for the Popular Front, as its leadership began a more open alliance with the enemies of the working class and the oppressed people, i.e. with the old guard of the former regime of Ben Ali.

The latter, no doubt, is ready for compromise with the Islamists as far as the political and economic choices of the country are concerned.

As a result, the mass struggle has been manipulated and constrained by the leadership of the Popular Front and the UGTT, according to the rhythm of the ‘national dialogue’, and the interests of its various parties and their political agendas.

In late July, it was reported that in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid local forms of dual power were established, taking the management of local affairs out of the hands of Ennahda. What is the situation today?

We can say that in the interior regions, there is a certain political vacuum in services, administration and security. In revolutionary moments, the mobilizations have raised the slogan of self-management, and in Sidi Bouzid we have tried to build a revolutionary counter-power, through the regional and local communities.

But faced with brutal police repression, the lack of support and adoption of such initiatives on a national scale, we were not able to get rid for good of the regional authorities of Sidi Bouzid.

From the beginning, the position of the national leadership of the UGTT was against dual power because it obstructs the ‘dialogue’ and ‘compromise’ with the regime, towards which this leadership is pushing at all costs.

Can you explain what happened on 23 October and on the following days?

23 October, according to the Troika, was the date of the successful transition to democracy; but according to the other parties and especially for the majority of the Tunisian people, it is a date marking failure. Hence the massive protests that flared up once again against Ennahda, and also against Islamist terrorists.

But once again, the mobilization of 23 and 24 October against the Troika has been manipulated by the political parties to improve their positions in the national dialogue, and not for the fall of the system and the government which the Tunisian people were demanding.

What do you think is the reality of the Salafist and Jihadist danger in the current situation? What is the relationship of these groups with the ruling party? How should revolutionaries deal with such a situation?

When we speak of a political Islamist pole, we talk of a global network, articulated with some major powers and the interests of global capital, so I do not think we can draw a rigid barrier between the jihadis and Ennahda, or with the Salafist party ’Ettahrir’.

The Salafists are widely regarded as militias used by the current rulers, who practice violence, sometimes with watchwords coming directly from Ennahda headquarters, against activists and trade unionists… Ennahda’s goal has been to try and stay in power with the help of these militias.

Faced with this situation, I believe, once again, that the revolutionary forces must get organized, to continue the revolutionary process in the interior regions and elsewhere. In the absence of large tools and resources, this task is difficult, but not impossible.

What are, in your opinion, the strengths and limits of the role of the UGTT in the current crisis?

On the one hand, the leadership of the UGTT has played a sort of backup role for virtually all the transitional governments since 14 January 2011 up to 23 October 2013, and among others through the recent initiative of the national dialogue. Currently, it is also in directly compromising with the bosses’ federation (UTICA). On the other hand, at the grassroots level of the union, the union activists are trying to continue the revolutionary process.

What do you think are the initiatives to be undertaken now for the continuation and success of the revolution in Tunisia?

What is happening in Tunisia and the Arab world is an ongoing revolutionary process, highlighting the need for a socialist horizon against capitalism and the Israeli regime, but now there is in this process a certain paradox: the "true revolutionary builders", the living forces of the revolutionary process, are marginalised from the political arena, while the counter-revolutionary forces are striving to divert this very same process, so we are facing a ’revolution betrayed’.

Initiatives to be undertaken now for the continuation and success of the revolutionary movement in Tunisia must be to continue the struggle while building guarantees about the revolutionary tools, programme and party necessary. In practical terms we have to build local and regional committees everywhere for this fight.

What lessons / advice would you give to socialist activists, trade unionists, revolutionaries struggling against capitalism in their countries?

The lessons and tips we can draw from the revolutionary process from my point of view are:

• To consciously target power from the start of the process, and fight on the basis of well-defined revolutionary tasks. Many left forces have not targeted power in Tunis but have instead pushed for reforming the existing system. This does not work.

• To unite the revolutionary forces against our enemies and create fighting organisations, with means going beyond theory towards practice, that is to say, being able to act on the ground day and night.

• To transform the conflict with the enemy also on the public domain and in the mass media, to turn public opinion against the class enemies

• To find a network of struggle capable of assisting the protests by going outside the national framework towards the international one.

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November 2013