Tunisia: Six years after the fall of Ben Ali, demands of revolution still to be realised

New revolts brewing. 
“How do you expect me to make a living?” was the reported cry of then 27 year-old Mohamed Bouazizi when he soaked himself with gasoline, before pouring himself on fire on December 17, 2010 – triggering a snowballing movement of mass revolt against the corrupt dictatorship of President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown less than a month later, on January 14, 2011.

Below is a slightly edited and longer version of a leaflet distributed in the streets of Tunis today, 14 January, on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of the revolutionary overthrow of Dictator Ben Ali.

Six years later, a huge number of young Tunisians still have no decent foundations on which to build a future on. A new study carried out by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) has revealed that 45.2% of young Tunisians between 18 and 34 years-old want to migrate to Europe, and 1,000 Tunisians have died while making the journey since 2011.

These figures speak volumes about the complete bankruptcy of the ruling politicians to guarantee work and dignity – demands at the very heart of the 2010-11 popular uprising. The much talked about persistence of the jihadist danger is, before all, the expression of an economic system which vomits and marginalizes large sections of its youth, whose rage and frustrations are then channelled and exploited in a reactionary direction by fundamentalist groups, such as Daesh.

Offering a job to all young Tunisians would deal a bigger blow to such organisations than any of the vast “anti-terrorist” operations carried out by the State. These are often used as an excuse for the stigmatisation of entire neighbourhoods and a justification for perpetuating a climate of police terror and abuse on people who are not terrorists.

New budget

Despite the promises of social equity and of “shared sacrifice”, the Financial Law for 2017, adopted by the Parliament in December, confirms the general trajectory adopted by Chahed’s government since its inception, and in fact by all governments since 2011: continuously seeking money from within the pockets of those who have the least, in order to enrich those who have already the most.

While the “exaggerated” claims of workers are regularly blamed for the state of the public finances, the reality is that big corporations have never paid so little taxes than today – and they are rewarded with a new array of additional tax gifts for the New Year, in the name of “promoting investment” – despite the fact that these fiscal advantages have demonstrated time and again to have no or little incidence on the level of investments (which are at historic low) while having dramatic incidence on the fortunes accumulated by the super-rich, as much as on the impoverishment of the rest of society.

Meanwhile, the demands of the unemployed, the poor and the salaried workers, and the recurrent cries of despair emanated from the inland regions, remain largely ignored.

No wonder, in these conditions, that the popularity of the present government and of the presidency is nosediving. In 2016 alone, the satisfaction with Presidency Essebsi declined markedly from 51.3% in April to 41.9% in October, then to 32.7% in December. The political authority of the prime minister is following a similar direction.

Meanwhile, the number of strikes and social movements has exploded, with last year the highest number on record since 2011 (nearly 1,000). The last few weeks have seen tens of thousands of construction workers, midwives, day care workers, teachers of secondary education, and many more taking industrial action. A report by the Ministry of Social Affairs also shows a great increase in the rate of participation in these strikes. A growing layer of workers realise that this is the only way to go if to secure a future for them and for their families.

Counter-revolutionary government

This government, despite its pretensions, has totally failed the people. This is not surprising, as it never had the least intention to satisfy the demands of the revolution in the first place. Set up in the corridors of power, with the backing of Western powers, this government was essentially built to try and block these demands, which have never stopped to be raised for the last six years, up and down the country. The State repression against political and social activists and the criminalization of class conflicts responds directly to this objective, as evidenced by the proliferation of political trials against people who have been involved in sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations.

But the stifling of struggles will be facilitated if every sector, every community, every company, every locality fights on its own. Our enemy is sharpening its preparation for broader confrontations, and we have to be ready too. What is needed is a generalised and nationally coordinated struggle against this government.

The solid general strike that took place on Thursday, in Meknassi, in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid, shows the way. It is by these types of methods that we drove Ben Ali out, even though the ruling elite would like us to forget it. The role of the working class in our revolution is being systematically and consciously downplayed by the spokespeople and commentators of the ruling class, as the latter dreads a repetition of mass working class upheavals erupting in the future.

The same is true in Egypt. Journalist Peter Speetjens was correct to point out that, “Today, we all know the heroic images of Egyptians, young and old, occupying Tahrir Square, resisting police and even camel raids, while calling for president Hosni Mubarak to step down and the 30-year state of emergency to end. Much less known are the doctors, bus drivers, textile workers and thousands and thousands of other labourers who went on strike and crippled the country.”

Similarly, the mobilization of the Tunisian working class through mass strike action is the only weapon that can push back the counter-revolution, now in the form of Chahed’s so-called “national unity” coalition. Significantly, the mere threat of a general strike by the union leaders on 8 December 2016 was enough to force the government to back down on its plan to freeze public sector wages for a year.

But it is also necessary to link words to actions, in order to build a serious relationship of forces in favour of our movement. The content of the new budget, and the new austerity attacks that will undoubtedly fall in the coming year, justifies more than mere threats. Today we need 10, 20, 30 Meknassi’s across the country! The ingredients for this exist, as a wind of revolt is brewing everywhere.

The Left, the UGTT and the various social movements should work together to develop a joint action plan culminating in a national general strike for jobs, wages and regional development. Local popular action committees, as they already exist in some areas, need to extend across the country and coordinate their action on a local, regional and countrywide basis.

Beyond the need for an offensive and coordinated strategy for the grassroots struggle, a larger debate is necessary about the political alternative we need. The fact that the Popular Front, in spite of all its leadership’s limitations, hesitations, and past mistakes, managed to preserve a popularity rate turning around 10%, is indicative of the potential for the rebuilding of a mass revolutionary political force. Popular Front rank-and-file members, trade unionists from the UGTT, and activists from social movements could play a critical role to bring such a mass party into shape.

The inability of all successive governments since Ben Ali to satisfy the people’s demands is not a simple matter of circumstances; it is a conscious political choice. This choice is to serve the interests of the capitalist class, the handful of multinational companies and rich Tunisian families who control the major sectors of the Tunisian economy, and who have an immense leverage over the ruling parties and over the representatives in the Assembly. This elite want to make the economy work solely for its own benefits. For this reason it blocks any move in the direction of alleviating the suffering, poverty, unemployment and social problems that exist and grow out of its rotten system.

In order to break with this logic, we will need to fight for a government that, unlike all the previous ones, is prepared to take on the large fortunes who today “call the shots”, to refuse to pay the illegitimate debt that enriches international creditors in the tune of billions of dinars, and to nationalize, under the democratic control of the people, the country’ major companies and banks. This would lay the basis for planning the economy, according to the needs of the majority, to start massive public investments, develop infrastructure and public services, create jobs for the unemployed, and end the continuing marginalization of vast swathes of the country.

Let us build without further delay the struggle for such a government: a democratic and socialist one.

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January 2017