Tunisia: Three years on since the fall of Ben Ali

New ‘technocratic’ government no response to workers’ demands

Three years ago, on the 14 January 2011, a new chapter opened in world politics. The overthrow of longtime dictator Ben Ali in Tunisia by a sweeping revolutionary movement marked the trigger and inspiration for mass movements across the world, and for a complete transformation of the political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since. The ruling classes of the imperialist countries, taken completely by surprise when the revolutionary wave in Tunisia brought down one of their key allies, are now desperately hanging on to this country as their last hope for a presentable model of a “democratic transition”, in a region in unprecedented turmoil, hit by rampant violence, political instability and sectarian warfare.

When it comes to the Tunisian masses however, the enthusiastic prospects for a rapid and easy revolutionary victory that would lead to major changes in their lives have long been replaced by renewed hardship and anger.

If most international media are praising what they often refer to as the “Tunisian model” of the so-called “Arab Spring”, the idea of such a success story hardly stands up to serious analysis.

It is true that compared to countries such as Egypt, Syria, Yemen, or Libya, Tunisia appears much more ‘stable’. This is largely due to the existence of a strong and structured trade union movement, thanks to the iconic and powerful UGTT. To an extent, workers’ vigilance and actions have acted as a sort of ‘glue’ to unite the oppressed classes, and as a counterweight to prevent society descending into the type of chaos and violence –be it from the State forces or from religious sectarian groups- that we have witnessed elsewhere.

A country in crisis

However, this is only one side of the coin. Despite being comparatively more “stable”, Tunisia is indeed going through a social and political crisis of unprecedented proportions, and does not really correspond to the rosy picture some try to depict.

As long as the working class do not take control over the running of society, and the economy continues to be plundered for the benefits of a few multinational corporations and wealthy Tunisian families, all the ingredients are there for chronic instability to continue and, in all likelihood, to grow further.

Unemployment continues to rise, prices of basic items have exploded, infrastructure in the interior regions is still desperately lacking, police practices of corruption, torture and arbitrary violence haven’t stopped, religious extremism and jihadist groups have raised their heads.

Legal repression and threats against trade union and political activists have also undergone a boost in the recent months. The case of blogger Yassine Ayari, sentenced on Monday to six months in prison for a post on facebook criticising the remnants of the old regime, highlights once again the persistence of the entrenched ‘deep State’ and the dangers hanging over the heads of political opponents.

An underestimated 24.7% of the population lives officially with less than $2 a day, and an increasing section of Tunisians can no longer even meet their basic food needs. While the country continues to be run for the interests of a tiny ruling elite, the vast majority of the population is facing socio-economic conditions which are worse, in many respects, than under the previous dictator. No wonder, in such a situation, that in a recent poll conducted by a Tunisian research firm, ‘3C Etudes’, 35.2 % of Tunisians regret the downfall of the Ben Ali regime.

Ennahda tested, and rejected

Two years of rule by the right-wing Islamist party Ennahda have provided the masses with a clear barometer to measure how far this party was ready to go in satisfying their demands. And the result is appalling and stark: the project of “Islamic Renaissance” promised by this party has been exposed as an abject failure in every sense.

Three years ago, millions of youth and workers went to the streets risking their lives to finish with Ben Ali’s dictatorship, at the cost of over 300 dead, demanding “jobs, freedom, national dignity”, “Bread and water but no Ben Ali”, “Employment is a right, gang of thieves”, etc. The inconvenient truth for Ennahda is that during those days, this party was absolutely nowhere to be seen.

At the time, the masses were demanding bread, jobs, a halt to labour exploitation and poverty, to the social marginalisation of the interior regions; they were demanding decent public services and infrastructure, freedom of speech and an end to State-sponsored violence – all notions alien to Ennahda’s policies, which have been unapologetically pro-capitalist in content, violent and repressive in their form.

The hardly begun new year has already provided a new round of examples to illustrate this. In the start of January, the Ennahda-led government announced tax levies, including a new transportation tax, in the context of the 2014 budget.

Behind the government are the IMF and other international lenders, who are demanding drastic austerity measures, including cuts in state subsidies – something which the government, sitting on a boiling social cauldron, had not yet felt confident and strong enough to implement.

Official propaganda has consisted in explaining the reasons for the current budget deficit as being the result of the rise in wages of public-sector workers in the last few years, and of the fact that too many public-sector jobs had been given out.

These arguments are ludicrous, especially when one knows that 70 Tunisian billionaires have a total wealth 37 times the equivalent of the current State budget. If so many jobs have been created in the public sector, why then such levels of structural unemployment, reaching, in some regions, over 60% among the youth?

Thinking it could fool the masses by the recent announcement of a formal agreement on a new, post-Ennahda “caretaker” cabinet –a decision arrived at in mid-December with the opposition- the outgoing government decided to push through these “unpopular measures” so cherished by big business.

The response from the Tunisian people was not slow to come: immediately after the tax hikes were announced, daily protests swept the country from north to south. Demonstrators, frustrated by the new tax increase, attacked government buildings, stormed police stations, blocked roads, and ransacked local headquarters of the ruling parties.

Protests and strikes began on January 7 and 8 in the southern and central towns of Kasserine, Thala and Gafsa, among the poorest in the country. In Kasserine, a general strike was held on the 8th, coinciding with the 3rd anniversary of the killing of the first martyr in the city by Ben Ali’s police. The strike closed all shops and public institutions in the area. Confrontations also took place between police and inhabitants in the city’s working class neighbourhoods.

General strike in Kasserine

In addition, on Tuesday the 7th, the Tunisian judges began a three-day strike, orientated against the government’s attempts to subdue the judicial system. The strike was adhered to in all the country’s courts.

Several official buildings and police stations were stormed and even torched, such as in Feriana and Maknassy, in the Sidi Bouzid region, while many road blockades were erected across the country. On Thursday the 9th, violent protests spread across the southern city of Tataouine. Protesters burned police vehicles, attacked the police station, burned the ruling Ennahda party’s regional headquarters, and attacked the regional employment office as well.

Ultimately the protests also spilled over into the capital, Tunis. On January 10, mass protests took place outside the government finance buildings, and violent clashes between youth and State forces erupted in the poor Tunis suburb of Ettaddamen.

The role of the UGTT

Beyond the tax issue, which acted as a trigger, a lot of protesters were young unemployed people, expressing their rage against the general state of affairs.

Often in the last three years, the youth have been an important spark to the eruption of social movements, youth employment having been at the centre of the grievances which fuelled the Tunisian revolution in the first place.

However, as the CWI has emphasized many times, the organised workers movement, especially seeing the heavy weight of the trade union federation, occupies a strategic position in the Tunisian economy and society. Such a position has the potential to give social movements a qualitatively different scope, as well as a more organised, and more massive character. With its one million members, and its 150 offices across the country, the UGTT provides a powerful organisational backbone to put the working class at the centre of a strategy aimed at seizing power.

Yet again and again, the working class has been blocked in its tracks by the manoeuvers of its national leadership. The reluctance of the latter to lead a sustained struggle against the viciously anti-working class governments which have succeeded each other since the fall of Ben Ali has been a constant feature of the situation.

Since the summer of last year, the UGTT general secretary Abassi and his team have offered the mediation of the union to solve the country’s political crisis -not by pushing forward the revolutionary demands of the streets and by encouraging the workers and the poor to build a struggle for political power, but, rather, by trying to bring to the same table the different political wings of the capitalist class, and broker a deal convenient to all of them.

As Abdelhak Laabidi, an active trade union leader in the health sector in Béja, commented recently to the Tunisian supporters of the CWI,

“The UGTT is the organization that holds the greatest power in the country: the power of the working class. Any government should be put in a panic by such an organization; but unfortunately, the union bureaucracy hasn’t stopped throwing life buoys to the government, the result of which everyone still sees in the repeated failures at all levels; be they social, political, on security matters etc.. How can one push for a national agreement with parties that are actually engaged in the process of organising the impoverishment of the workers and the poorest layers of society?”

Notwithstanding the presence, in some areas, of militant local trade union leaders, and despite an endless number of solid strike movements taking place regularly on a local, sectorial and regional level, the central bureaucracy at the head of the union has provided its services to save the ruling system whenever the latter was on the verge of being threatened from below.

The urban poor

This had led to deepening frustration among rank-and-file workers, but also among a wide range of young people and urban poor, of which many desperately try to survive through all sorts of daily informal activities.

Despairing and increasingly alienated by a union which doesn’t seem to be giving any direction for the revolutionary struggle to move forward, some of these latter layers have been tempted to go into the blind alley of riots in order to express their legitimate, but directionless, anger. Sometimes, local criminals have also taken advantage of the state of confusion to begin looting stores, or damaging properties.

The reasons for these developments, which have been seen clearly at the end of the cycle of the recent January mobilisations, lie first and foremost in the role played by the UGTT leadership which has repeatedly failed, as the last leaflet of the CWI in Tunisia commented,

“to offer a perspective to build a sustained and ambitious mass movement: one which would integrate the grievances of the numerous unemployed youth and urban poor into consideration, and would mobilise fully and efficiently the strength of the working class when the situation is demanding it in the most pressing manner.”

On the other hand, while we completely understand the reasons behind these riots, they often contribute to push the broader masses off the streets, provide ammunition propaganda for the State to reign in and divide the movement, and, on top of it, degrade poor and working class neighbourhoods already suffering heavily from the lack of public investment.

The government forced to leave

Nevertheless, despite its complications, the mass explosion of popular fury in January was enough to make the government shake on its foundations. Pressed by the risk of losing control over the situation, on Thursday 9, following an emergency cabinet meeting, the outgoing Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh announced in a press conference that all new taxes imposed on vehicles by the new 2014 budget would be suspended until further notice.

This government’s retreat shows that with the growing pressure by the IMF & co to deliver austerity on the one hand, and the mass anger building up in society on the other, very little margin of manoeuvre will be left for any pro-capitalist government to navigate “smoothly” through the next period. New class battles and political turmoil are inevitable.

In the meantime, January’s protest movement undoubtedly forced the government’s resignation. While this resignation was formally part of a deal already hammered out at the end of last year, there was no clear calendar nor guarantee for that to actually happen; in that sense, there is no question that Ennahda’s concrete and immediate resignation was precipitated by the pressure of the mass movement.

“To the surprise of secular-minded sceptics, Ennahda has kept its word”, commented ‘the Economist’ magazine on the fact that the party had finally decided to step down. This “voluntary exit” has still nothing to do with the Islamists of Ennahda “keeping their word”, but everything to do with the mass rejection of this party in the streets, and the fear by the ruling class of further revolutionary outbursts if Ennahda stays in power.

This, even the far-sighted leaders and strategists of Ennahda had begun to seriously understand. This is the main reason why the CWI had already commented in previous material that, since the murder of Mohamed Brahmi last August (see our previous material here – http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/6408), the end of Ennahda’s rule was more a question of “when” than of “if”.

An “independent” government?

The resignation of Laarayedh’s government has consisted of the passing of power to a new government of so-called “independent technocrats”. This move is pompously presented as closing the chapter of the political crisis opened up by the assassination of Brahmi.

Yet if the end of Ennahda’s rule could temporarily bring a certain lull in the class struggle, and a relief among certain layers, this, in all likelihood, will be very short-lived.

The new Prime Minister in charge is the former Industry Minister, Mehdi Jomaa. As the CWI leaflet was correctly pointing out, “the idea that a government run by a member of the outgoing coalition -and most of whose career has been spent in a lucrative position at the head of a group owned by the French oil multinational Total- could be labelled as “independent” is quite laughable.”

New Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa

Some of the new figures even include people who have worked in senior positions under Ben Ali, such as Hafedh Ben Slah, the new Justice Minister. In essence, this government responds to the exigencies of the ruling class for an administration supposedly “consensual” enough to make the masses swallow more easily the pill of austerity that is to come. But the success of such an operation is a different matter.

The role of the masses in the revolution, and the new Constitution

Prisoners of their own prejudices and detached from the day-to-day reality lived by the majority, not many pro-capitalist commentators and politicians really grasp the crucial role played by the masses in what has unfolded in Tunisia in the last three years.

Indeed, mass strikes and protests of workers and youth not only ousted Ben Ali from power in January 2011, but have also been the driving factor in the political course of events ever since. Any analysis ‘forgetting’ to consider, in particular, the unparalleled force and influence of the Tunisian trade union movement can hardly explain anything happening in in the country.

For example, last Sunday night, the new constitution was adopted by an overwhelming majority of assembly members. This constitution is presented as quite “advanced”, at least comparative to the rest of the Arab world (theoretically accepting, for example, gender equality, not mentioning the Shariah law as the source of law, etc).

A lot of analysts explain this by the fact that Ennahda has supposedly a more “compromising” policy than its Muslim Brotherhood counterparts elsewhere, in Egypt for instance. But not a lot, if any, refer to the still important traditions of secularism and in favour of women’s rights existing in Tunisia due to the historical role played by the UGTT on these issues, and to the expected backslash and resistance that attacking any of these gains (like the ban on polygamy, equal access to divorce, etc) would provoke. It is however key to explaining why the reactionary bigots of Ennahda have been forced to more “pragmatism” in their repressive project of Islamisation of society.

This being said, there is not much to be delighted about in this new constitution. When it comes to women rights, saying that there is still a long way to go towards gender equality is a euphemism. For example, while 70% of men in Tunisia are classed as participating in the workforce, the figure is only 27% for women. An article published last year on our website ( http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/6321) indicated all the threats and challenges facing women in Tunisia, that any formal article in a Constitution won’t be able to address without a serious, grassroots struggle to fundamentally transform the way society operates.

Many commentators insist on the fact that having a new constitution was an important -and now supposedly achieved- demand of the revolution. But the constitution by itself was only one of many revolutionary demands, from which the crucial economic and social ones were not detached.

The demand for a Constituent Assembly to draw up a new Constitution had indeed, in the spirit of many workers and youth who raised it in the first place, a completely different character to the one which has been set up. Indeed, the majority of the political elite present in the Assembly, and the Constitutional text it has produced, has not been concerned about addressing the social and economic transformations that the majority of the population was aspiring to. On the contrary, the policies continuously pursued by government and Assembly alike have only made things worse for the ‘99%’ of the population. The new constitution won’t make any change to that. Only a serious mass struggle on the ground will.

From a political point of view, how can one talk about “democracy” when governmental deals are being arranged behind closed door? When ministers and Assembly members live off scandalously high wages and privileges while big segments of the population financially struggle on a daily basis? When the instruments of repression, including dictatorial laws used under Ben Ali, are being re-used across the country to deal with those who resist?

Socialist policies

To sum it up, despite the propaganda under way, the demands of the Tunisian revolution have not been achieved at all. This cannot happen within the straight jacket of a capitalist-run economy, where the wealth produced is syphoned off for the profits of a few.

An alternative model of running society, a democratic and socialist society, carried on by working people themselves, would put an end to wasteful capitalist plunder, and use the resources available to elevate tremendously society’s capacities to respond to people’s needs.

A truly revolutionary government, unlike those which have been in power since the fall of Ben Ali, would use radical means to tackle the country’s problems of poverty, corruption, homelessness and hunger. It would mobilise en masse the workers, the youth, the urban and rural poor etc, to build support for policies directly challenging the capitalist system, the big parasitic bosses and landlords, and their State machine.

To start with, it would make a clear stand by refusing to pay the debt to international creditors, by imposing a State control on foreign trade, and by putting the big private conglomerates under public ownership and democratic workers’ control.

Building the fight back now

A mass, independent and relentless struggle from below will have to be pursued for that to happen. The revolutionary movement can only rely on its own forces, and needs to be properly organised and structured at all levels, to be fully effective.

As the CWI leaflet commented, in the immediate term, “anti-cuts and anti-austerity action committees should be set up in popular neighbourhoods, in the workplaces, in university campuses and colleges, to prepare the new expected austerity wave to come.

Discussions should be organised from now on in local branches of the UGTT and UGET [the student union] across the country to try and coordinate the fight back. A pre-emptive general strike of 24H across the country would be a good start to bring back the initiative on the side of the working class, and to give a strong warning to the new administration that any austerity move will be met by fierce and uncompromising resistance from below.”

Of course, as the experience of last year has amply demonstrated, such a general strike can’t be left without a future or be used only as a means of ‘letting off steam’. It would only make full sense if it is part of an ambitious agenda aimed at stopping the capitalists’ agenda for good. A series of mass and escalating strike actions would help the workers’ movement to flex its muscles in preparation for bringing down this government.

This would have to include clear demands aimed at going onto the offensive against the economic dictatorship of big business; in that sense, mass occupations of the workplaces should be considered, encouraging the imposition of workers’ control over production, and the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, as well as of the big land properties, in the hands of the working class and poor peasants.

To avoid seeing the fight being diverted once again by the union bureaucracy, and to build the most powerful movement actively involving the widest layers of the population possible, setting up collective structures of struggle will be vital. Popular committees, workers’ committees, action committees, revolutionary committees, neighbourhood committees and the likes,…such kind of local structures need to be developed everywhere; this must help workers, the poor and the youth to democratically organize and control their movement from below.

Such committees, if connected locally, regionally and nationally via a system of elected delegates subject to recall, would lay the foundations to prepare the working masses to sweep the capitalists’ power away once and for all, and to start building a government of their own, that can really meet their aspirations.

Abdelhak Laabidi, after having been attacked on 21 December

The revolutionary forces also need to defend themselves against violence, from the State machine as well as from right-wing Islamist militias. On Monday, two students from the UGET who were in hunger strike have been knifed by individuals presumably linked to Ennahda. Last December, the above-mentioned trade unionist Abdelhak Laabidi was beaten up by two politically-motivated thugs, leaving him with fractured ribs and bruises everywhere on his body, and a hemorrhage in the eye which almost left him blind. These are only two recent examples among many.

The revolutionary movement needs to build democratically-organised defence forces to be able to face up to this violence, while making appeals to the rank-and-file of the army and the police to win sympathy for its demands, and split the State forces along class lines.

The left

Unfortunately, the leaderships of the main parties said to be ‘socialist’, ‘Marxist’ or ‘communist’ in Tunisia have often abandoned the defence of such a bold and fighting programme, these leaders having run instead after short-term and unprincipled agreements with political parties defending neo-liberal agendas.

The leaders of the coalition of the ‘Popular Front’, in particular, by disgracefully embracing a political deal with forces linked to the old regime last year, through the ‘National Salvation Front’, bear a huge responsibility in the crisis facing the organised left at present.

In December again, the Popular Front leaders, after having met with the US ambassador, have reaffirmed their support for the establishment of a new technocratic government. In the last few days, they have only been arguing over the names of this or that Minister to be part of the Jomaa-led government, while not rejecting in principle what is nothing other than the new executive team imposed by the ruling class to push through its anti-worker and anti-poor policies.

The CWI supporters in Tunisia are trying to push through discussions with others on the left about the need for building a new political alternative that can genuinely represent the working class and the poor, and remain faithful to their aspirations for revolutionary change.

Many, in the ranks of the left, among the Popular Front membership, in the social movements and elsewhere, are seriously questioning the way the left leaders have been conducting themselves in the course of the last years: in essence, by wavering between radicalism in theory and providing in practice a left cover to the ruling class’ plans of ending the revolutionary process. Importantly, many at the base of the UGTT in particular, and at some intermediary levels of the union as well, are very critical of the policies of the union’s central leadership.

Many political realignments, splits etc, have taken place on the left as a consequence of the recent experiences, and of the failure of the Popular Front and UGTT leadership to offer an alternative to the rule of the capitalist elite.

The CWI in Tunisia appeals to all union and social movements activists, as well as all political groups who refuse programmatic agreements with pro-capitalist parties and who reject the new government, to set up a broad political platform aimed at building the fight back along clear, independent class lines. This would be a welcome step forward in order to rebuild the political instrument that the workers, the poor masses and the revolutionary youth so cruelly need: a mass party defending their interests and fighting unreservedly on the streets, in the neighbourhoods, in the workplaces and in the unions, for their demands to be satisfied.

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January 2014