SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 147 - April 2011


Tunisia’s revolution draws breath

A CRUCIAL stage has been reached in the Tunisian revolution. Promises to hold elections to a constituent assembly on 24 July, to disband the political and secret police, and to outlaw the party of the former dictatorship have given a breathing space for the latest prime minister, Béji Caïd Essebsi. Strikes, sit-ins, protests and blockades continue but the intensity has lessened.

However, today’s brittle calm could be shattered at any moment by a new upsurge in struggle, further prevarication by the political establishment or police provocation. The joy which swept through Tunisia when the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was forced out on 14 January has given way to a more sober mood. Those who made the revolution – the working class, unemployed youth, urban and rural poor, along with sections of the middle class – remain vigilant. Nothing has been guaranteed.

Nonetheless, this revolutionary movement – without a clear leadership or direction – has reached great heights. Within a month, Ben Ali was swept away after 23 brutal years – and a total of 50 years of authoritarian rule was brought to an end. Workplace, community and town committees were set up in defence of the revolution. Workers drove out corrupt bosses linked to the old regime.

Time and time again, the incredible courage and revolutionary instincts of the workers, youth and poor have been shown. Hundreds have been killed by state forces, but the determined struggle continues.

For example, attempts to whip up reaction failed following a massive worker-led demo in the capital, Tunis, on 25 February. Over the following weekend, the police were unleashed on the streets for the first time since Ben Ali’s fall. They killed another four protesters. Plain-clothed police tried to spread chaos among the crowds and the police hired gangs of youth and other thugs to smash shops and sow division.

In spite of this counter-revolutionary activity, such was the magnitude of the protests and outrage at the fierce repression that the government was pushed back. The then prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, a Ben Ali stooge, was forced to resign. By mid-week, the second interim government had collapsed.

The promise of elections has been won only through relentless mass pressure. But the process is still in the hands of the establishment, over the heads of the people. There is a scramble to register political parties. At the time of writing, 45 have been approved, others await official sanction. They cover a very wide political spectrum. But the question remains: how can the workers and youth influence events?

Tunisia’s trade union federation, UGTT, has great potential power, particularly in the public sector where around 80% of workers are unionised. Its leadership, however, is thoroughly rotten. Its rank-and-file activists played a significant role in the struggle against French colonial rule. After independence, its leadership became an instrument of the one-party state of the first republic under Habib Bourghiba. As the regime degenerated further into a mafia kleptocracy under Ben Ali, UGTT leaders followed suit.

Nonetheless, its ranks are made up of many principled, courageous, left-wing militants with a long record of fighting against dictatorship and for workers’ rights, pay and conditions. Their aim is to replace the current leaders with those who are combative and accountable at a national congress due in the summer. It is an essential task.

Among the parties being registered are a number on the left from various traditions which have emerged from the underground. The 14 January Front, for example, has brought together some of them around a few basic demands. The potential was illustrated when 8-10,000 attended its rally in Tunis in mid-February. Unfortunately, the front effectively backs the top-down political process controlled by the establishment. And it has not taken steps to build a democratic and dynamic campaigning organisation with local branches and initiatives.

The situation is calling out for a mass party for the workers and youth or, at least, a platform with which to contest the elections. Rank-and-file trade unionists could play a leading role in building active support for such a force which could provide a pole of attraction if it put forward a radical alternative to the capitalist formations, or those promoting any kind of reactionary Islamist programme.

The mass of the population is unemployed or underemployed and faces huge problems. Officially, unemployment is at 14%, although for young graduates it is nearer 40%. Around a quarter of Tunisia’s 10.5 million people live on or near the poverty line. The tentacles of the Ben Ali/Trabelsi mafia still reach deep into the economy. Western multinationals and their government backers continue to suck its lifeblood. Large parts of the political establishment and state machinery remain in place.

From 1987, when Ben Ali took over, an already distorted economic and social system went off the rails completely. Family connections and corruption reigned. Privatisation under IMF and World Bank diktat became a means of redistributing state wealth into the Ben Ali/Trabelsi family coffers. They took over land. They siphoned off untold riches into foreign bank accounts.

The economy was opened up to so-called foreign investment: companies in search of cheap labour. It was a symbiotic relationship: money from western multinationals lined the mafia pockets; wealth from the exploitation of Tunisian workers filled the bank accounts of western big business.

Nearly a quarter of the population is made up of youth aged 18-25 years. They remain excluded from official political decision-making. But they have found a voice through mass action. When the mass occupation ended in the Kasbah, the government square in Tunis, they promised to return if real change does not happen. Already, there is rising discontent at the slow pace of change.

Although the party of the former dictatorship, the RCD, has been dissolved, there is seething anger that some of its representatives have been given the go-ahead to set up new political parties. The revolutionary masses want all RCD leaders, including Ghannouchi, to be imprisoned until proven innocent. They are angered at the light punishment handed out to the Ben Ali/Trabelsi mafia. They oppose the repayment of Tunisia’s so-called ‘debt’ to world powers and agencies (estimated at €577m), and interference by western powers. They also draw attention to the fact that the political police remains largely intact, and has been busy destroying incriminating documents.

Ben Ali’s gangster rule also brought about big disparities between the regions to the detriment of the impoverished interior. The gap became ever greater and is a source of deep resentment to this day. Political repression, economic mismanagement and corruption completely distorted the economy and have led to many bitter disputes.

Protests by unemployed youth demanding transparency in allocating employment continue to take place all over the country. Teachers are protesting to demand reemployment following years out of work because of their union or political activity. A ministerial commission which is supposed to be dealing with this issue is dragging its feet.

In Gafsa, in the south-west, the epicentre of many militant movements, long disputes continue to rage over the allocation of work in the phosphate mining industry. In Gabès, on the south-eastern coast, youth began a hunger strike on 14 March, demanding work. There have also been large protests against environmental destruction from chemical plants due to the drive for short-term profit.

In Sidi Bouzid, where the revolutionary wave began with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December, a sit-in by a large number of youth and unemployed has been in place since 28 January. They have raised demands to reopen mines to create jobs, the development of road and communication infrastructure, to open up credit to small farmers, and the need for a regional hospital. Rail workers are demanding an end to the freeze on jobs which has been in place since 1991.

All of these issues and many more point to the desperate need for a political programme to unite the interconnected interests of the workers, unemployed youth, urban and rural poor. They are also a warning, however, of the potential for division of the masses and/or regions.

The workplace and neighbourhood committees need to be strengthened to play a decisive role in ensuring that the revolutionary movement continues. A party or electoral platform is needed to ensure that the working class, unemployed, urban and rural poor have a voice in the elections – and to ensure that the constituent assembly truly represents them.

The workers and youth have sacrificed too much to allow representatives of the old regime and capitalist class to restore their domination in society. A struggle is needed to nationalise the main sectors of the economy, under democratic workers’ control and management. Only a revolutionary workers’ government would be able to develop socialist planning in the interests of the vast majority of people in Tunisia.

Tim Martyn

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