Tunisia: “The new government will not prevent a year of important struggles, of mass strikes, riots and popular explosions”

Interview with Dali Malik, CWI supporter in Tunis

A new «National Unity » government has been set up following last October’s general elections. This includes both the self-proclaimed “secularist” party Nidaa Tounes, and the right-wing Islamist party Ennahda. As the two parties are often presented as having diametrically opposed political agendas, and led a verbal war against each other during the electoral campaign, how do you explain that they are now together in the same government?

This was quite predictable. All the leaders of Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda were saying that such a prospect would not take place, but it was mainly an electoral posture. They both knew that if deprived of an outright majority, the winning party would likely have to bargain with the other. A first government proposal excluded Ennahda and was rejected by the opposition. That’s why Nidaa Tounes eventually decided to bring Ennahda ministers on board.

Important sections of the Tunisian and other countries’ ruling class have been arguing for a while in favour of such a “broad union of the right-wing”. Such a coalition seduces them because it supposedly gives them a more stable base to implement their austerity plans. Indeed, the political ‘divisions’ between Ennahda and Nida Tounes are not as profound as what is often claimed: both parties, while relying on different layers of the electorate, are unambiguously pro-bosses and pro-IMF.

What this also reflects is the total absence of genuine democracy. In the end, it all amounts not to what people have voted for in the elections, but to what is wanted by the capitalist class and western imperialism. All sorts of behind-the-scenes arrangements and manoeuvrings have taken place to set up this government, with very few considerations for the actual results of the elections.

Ennahda had to give up power last year under mass popular pressure, and lost many votes in the elections. And now they are brought back into government by the very same people who had concentrated a big part of their campaign against this party! The President, Beji Caid Essebsi, who is also the leading figure of Nidaa Tounes, has appointed as prime minister Habib Essid – a candidate backed by Ennahda. This shows once again that the boundaries between the two political organisations are not as great as the image they gave before the elections.

Both parties launched vitriolic attacks against each other throughout the campaign – Ennahda portraying the rise of Nida Tounes as a return of the old regime, Nida Tounes arguing that Ennahda was responsible for the rise of terrorism in the country, etc. But clearly they do not have real principles nor respect for their own electorate, among whom criticisms have grown in the recent period. An internal crisis is already brewing within Nidaa Tounes because of the double standards of the leadership. These elements of crisis will only multiply in the coming months.

Can Tunisian workers and youth have anything positive to expect from this new cabinet?

Surely not. The whole establishment has been hammering on for months about the need for “reforms” – a prettified term to describe what are in reality counter-reforms, i.e. attacks on people’s living standards, services and working conditions. The Tunisian capitalist class has been noticeably dreaming for a long time of getting rid of the “jewel” of the Tunisian working class:- the system of state subsidies on primary items (fuel, bread, milk, etc.) which maintain the prices of these items under a certain control. This is an extremely sensitive issue, and previous attempts by the ruling class to abolish this system have led to historic confrontations with the UGTT in the past, in particular in 1978 and 1984.

In 1984, following such an attempt, the Bourguiba regime was shaken to its foundations by what has been called “bread riots”. Despite sending army troops onto in the streets, it was not able to quell the mass anger, and eventually had to retreat on the reform. So while the ruling class really wishes to get rid of this state-subsidy system, they also know that it is an enormous risk to take, as it could be the trigger for a break-down in social peace to an unprecedented degree. This is even more so after a period of inflation which has already meant an explosion of prices on important commodities – an important factor in the impoverishment of millions of Tunisians.

Apart from that, the government is also planning new privatisations and budget cuts in the public sector, which, in all likelihood, will involve a wave of lay-offs of state employees. They might try to avoid carrying out too many attacks in strategic sectors such as health care and education, as these are quite militant and strongly unionised workforces where there is already a significant level of strikes taking place.

But clearly, the new government is not going to prevent a year of important social and trade union struggles, of mass strikes, riots and popular explosions. The UGTT trade union leaders are already multiplying warnings to the establishment, demanding more “social emphasis” in the programme of the government, as they know better than anybody else that their militant base will not swallow what is to come.

A recent study by “Freedom House”, an American think-tank, recently came to the conclusion that Tunisia was now the “first free country in the Arab world”. What is the reality on the ground?

This is probably the kind of pro-big business organisation for which “freedom” means essentially the freedom to make money! In Tunisia, journalists are still being put on trial for carrying out their job, activists are receiving death threats, a military court has recently sentenced a blogger to one year in prison on charges that he “insulted the army”, a cartoonist has been beaten up by the police just for having mocked them in one of his cartoons…

The daily abuses by security forces have never really stopped, the police continue to mistreat protesters and activists. In fact, last Sunday a young protester was shot dead and many others injured, in the Southern town of Dehiba near the Libyan border, following social protests against a new tax imposed by the government, during which the police used birdshots and live ammunition.

There is a dire lack of development and jobs in those Southern regions, and it is reported that more than one million Tunisians survive through smuggling activities. The authorities wanted to impose a border tax, which would directly affect trade with neighbouring Libya and cut off the source of revenues of many poor local Tunisians. Protests erupted over the weekend, leading to a general strike in the whole southern governorate of Tataouine on Tuesday. The strike was massively implemented – only bakeries and pharmacies were running. Following the strike, the prime minister was forced to announce the tax would be rolled back.

But typically, the propaganda of the State has portrayed the protesters as thugs, drug lords and terrorists. While some contraband networks are obviously benefiting from this illegal trade, and have attempted to infiltrate the movement, this is to ignore the genuine social plight of many local inhabitants, small traders and young unemployed people.

This is a classic strategy to try and curb people’s rights: everybody who does not stand by the state machine and does not unconditionally support the police is presented as a supporter of violence and terrorism. The logic of the “war on terror” is likely to be stepped up by the new government. This, combined with the return of old guard figures in positions of power, means that, despite the relative gains in terms of freedom compared to other countries in the region, the level to which democratic rights are threatened is pretty high.

Things are unsettled and they will be until power is rooted out of the hands of the capitalist class. All the Tunisian governments since the fall of Ben Ali have been defending this class, and all have attempted to turn backwards the wheel of history when it comes to what has been achieved through the revolution.

Tunisia has provided the largest contingent of fighters to the ranks of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS). What is the reality of the terrorist danger, and what should be the response of socialists on this issue?

More than 3,000 Tunisians have joined the ranks of IS, and jihadist networks have been blossoming in some parts of the country, especially in deprived areas, where many hopeless marginalised youth can be found and constitute vulnerable preys. These reactionary groups use extreme, fascist-like violence – and their confrontation not only targets the state; it fundamentally is against the interests of the mass of ordinary people, against women, against the left, the trade union movement, etc.

So the problem is real, and needs a response. However, we need to be clear that the role of the State on this issue is not ‘disinterested’. It exploits this phenomenon for its own advantage, and also feeds it to an extent. It uses it to create a sense of artificial unity behind itself, and to reinforce repression in general. That is why it is important that in the fight against terrorism, we do not trust the state apparatus to do the job by itself; in reality, many people in Tunisia instinctively understand that very well, because the experience of Ben Ali’s rule has taught them that we cannot barter our liberty in exchange for a supposed security.

This is one of the reasons why any terrorist attacks in the country have been faced with spontaneous mobilisations from below. In 2013, two assassinations of left-wing politicians by religious extremists ignited two subsequent general strikes of historic proportions. On a number of other occasions, jihadist or Salafist attacks have been the trigger for popular protests, with workers and young people taking to the streets in response. The powerful trade union movement in Tunisia (including among the security forces), as well as the lack of deep religious fractures in the country, has helped keep the terrorist danger in check.

This does not mean underestimating the reality of the danger, but rather stressing the need for our own answer: it is not by more state repression and more helicopters that we will fight terrorism, but by building an organised and massive fight back, capable of linking up the immediate need to protect our communities with the fight for providing decent jobs and a future to young people, mass public investment in the regions, etc.

The coalition of left-wing forces, the ‘Popular Front’, got 3.66% of votes in last October’s elections, and has now 15 seats in the Parliament. What is the attitude of this organisation vis-a-vis the new government, and what do you think should be the tasks of the left in this new situation?

The Popular Front has made a series of terrible mistakes in the course of the last two years, which has profoundly affected its standing among the working masses, and created bitterness among a layer of its original supporters, even more so among young people. In that sense, their electoral result was far below what the potential of this organisation could have been. But since they have distanced themselves again from Nidaa Tounes (with which they had at some stage concluded an alliance against Ennahda), and have lately re-focused their policies on social themes, they have managed to “save face” and to partially recover some lost ground.

This is mainly due to a militant base which has confronted the leadership on several occasions and forced it to reconsider certain choices of orientation. If the Popular Front has not entered into a government with Nidaa Tounes, for example, this has more to do with the fact that the rank-and-file of the Front would not have accepted it, than with a principled opposition of its leaders not to do so.

During the negotiations about the formation of the government, the Popular Front argued for a government that would freeze the payment of the debt, provide benefits for the unemployed, raise the wages, and would say ‘no’ to any attempt to abolish the state subsidy system. This kind of positioning has helped them to get more support in the latest polls.

There are evident conflicts between the right-wing course encouraged by the Popular Front’s central leadership and the will of many rank-and-file activists and of some local leaders. It is for this reason that we have adopted a position favourable to the Front in some regions during the elections, even though we raised our criticisms in very sharp terms too. The central leading body of the Popular Front is not democratic, and uses what some, even within the Front, refer to as Stalinist methods. Hamma Hammami, the figurehead of the Popular Front, says that he is not a Stalinist anymore. But what he does not say is that he is not a socialist or communist anymore either!

The CWI in Tunisia argues for a mass political movement which could link up the militant activist base of the Popular Front with activists of social movements, unemployed youth and, importantly, with the trade unionists and workers of the UGTT. This will require a militant and combative, socialist programme of action which remains faithful to the original objectives of the revolution, as well as a tireless involvement on the ground.

The context of the two main bourgeois parties being in government gives a unique position to the left and to the UGTT. Also, the increase of the Popular Front’s number of MP’s gives it the possibility to erect itself as the political ‘sounding-board’ of the workers’ movement and of the struggles of the street. But at the same time, the composition of the new government completely discredits the position defended in the past by many leaders in the Front and within the UGTT, of giving a tacit – or explicit – support to Nida Tounes against the Islamists.

The UGTT leadership is very moderate and has used its position to put in place the last pro-capitalist Jomaa government, which attacked the interests and rights of the UGTT’s affiliates. Some in the union say that these leaders have taken interest in everything except in their own members. That is why, while we will continue to defend the UGTT against any attempt to undermine it by the reactionaries, neo-liberals or right-wing Islamists, we also want to encourage workers and trade union members to re-appropriate their union, by pushing for more internal democracy and for the radicalisation of the union’s actions in the face of this new government, starting with the preparation for a coordinated, cross-sector national strike movement against the austerity plans that are to be announced.

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February 2015