Eyewitness account from CWI reporter in Tunis
As we prepared to post this new account of developments in the Tunisian revolution, scenes of increasing defiance of the ‘interim’ government were being transmitted from the streets of Tunis. The army was ordered to try and block the ‘caravans’ of demonstrators from various cities converging on the capital city, bent on taking power out of the hands of the tottering Ghannouchi administration. Those who had arrived on Sunday spent the whole night in front of government buildings despite the curfew.
After important sections of the police have come over to the side of the demonstrators, the army has been asked to carry out the dirty work of a frightened regime. Despite General Rachid Ammar’s claim that “the army will protect the revolution” it is vitally important that the movement makes a clear appeal to the soldiers to support the revolution. They should be urged to demand their own elected committees in the army, the right to refuse orders and to elect officers of their choice.
The ‘interim’ regime ordered schools to be re-opened on Monday, but teachers immediately engaged in solid strike action. The participation was 100% in Medenine, Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, Beja, Jendouba and Kairouan, 90% in Zaghouan (near Tunis) where there is no union tradition, and a solid in Tunis.
Little trust is now given to the interim government, in spite of Ghannouchi’s promise to leave politics and dissolve the old ruling party (the RCD). Six months is too long for those who have made the revolution to wait for elections to bring in a new government. They should have the right to elect representatives to a revolutionary assembly that can decide when and how to conduct elections and what the aims of a new government should be.
But no support can be given to any new government that seeks only to remove some of the more unacceptable figures linked to the Ben Ali era in order to secure the continuation of capitalism. Nor should it be given to a government involving personalities and organisations who were in the ’opposition’ (within or outside Tunisia), however ’left’, but who do not challenge the system, arguing that first democracy must be established. On the basis of capitalism in Tunisia and under the domination of the imperialist powers like France who stuck to Ben Ali even when the mass movement entered the streets against him, no genuine lasting democracy can be achieved. The idea of initially carrying through a ‘national democratic revolution’ against dictatorship, whilst maintaining capitalist relations in society, is mistaken. It would hold the working masses back and give time to the ruling class and the imperialist countries to attempt to re-establish firm control and continue its exploitation.
With workers occupying their workplaces and ‘sacking’ their bosses, setting up committees and pushing for general strike action, many important questions are raised. A form of workers’ control is starting to develop. The question of the ownership and management of all industry and banks – not only those linked to the old ruling clique – has been put on the order of the day, alongside the vital need for democratic workers’ control and management.
As the eyewitness report below indicates, elements of a socialist revolution are developing. Such a socialist revolution overthrowing capitalism is the only way out of the social misery that forced people first into acts of despair like burning themselves and then pushed the masses into this revolutionary uprising now inflaming the Arab world.
But an understanding of the need to break the limits of the capitalist system has still to develop amongst the working masses and youth. Illusions in simply a democratic change without changing the social basis of Ben Ali’s dictatorship might bring some fragile stability for a while and give the old elite some breathing space to maintain their power. However, this will be shattered in the future.
A revolutionary socialist party is urgently needed to argue the case for workers’ and poor people to take things into their own hands. The committees set up in the factories and in the areas must find a way of linking up regionally and nationally, along with newly and democratically elected representatives of the UGTT (trade union) at all levels.
As the report below argues, an emergency, democratically elected conference of the UGTT is urgently needed. The current situation could be thoroughly discussed and measures proposed to democratically transform the unions and clear out leaders linked to the old regime. Wherever this way is blocked workers may be forced to set up new democratic trade unions to fight for their interests.
No support should be given, however tentative, to the idea of the trade unions, or any left parties, forming alliances with parties who want to maintain private ownership and control of industry. The leaders of the UGTT should be urged to call an immediate general strike to oust the government and to open the way for establishing a workers’ and poor people’s government.
Comment from socialistworld.net
Overcoming all the fears of the past, the youth, and the working and unemployed masses of Tunisia have risen, like a giant, to their feet and overthrown the hated Ben Ali and his mafiosi. The speed with which the revolution has moved in this one country has brought home to the masses of the entire region the shaky ground upon which their respective brutal regimes are actually based.
Popular jokes in Tunisia have encapsulated this better than anything else: “While we are motivated, let’s go to Tripoli tomorrow, at around 9 am. Bring down Gaddafi at 9.30am – maximum 10am – then come back to continue our revolution!”. In recent protests in Algiers, people were carrying Tunisian flags and shouting “Bouteflika and Ben Ali, assassins!”, as if they wanted to say: ‘Our Tunisian brothers and sisters have done it there, why not do it here?’. The time for settling scores has come!
A wind of freedom
The Tunisian masses have learned in one in one month what it can sometimes take a quarter of a century to appreciate. Throughout Tunisia, their confidence has remained intact, even tended to increase. The people’s mood, stemming from the achievement of having, through a spontaneous uprising and with their bare hands, forced a dictator to flee his country, is a feeling that they are invincible, and that they can crush everything in their way. “Let’s be realistic and demand the impossible!” the Cuban revolutionary fighter, Che Guevara once said. Here, what seemed impossible yesterday, has become possible. Che’s picture is being carried by many young people on their jumpers or on banners in demonstrations.
In the capital Tunis, despite the tanks and soldiers on the streets, and the helicopters flying over people’s heads every day , the “wind of freedom” is in the air – the result of the tremendous struggle of the masses. “People have breathed the air of liberty and things have changed. This is a revolution, not just an uprising”, said Hammady Ben Saleh, a maintenance worker quoted in a newspaper.
Indeed, revolution can be sensed on the streets. The writer John Reed described in his famous book on the 1917 Russian Revolution, “Ten days that shook the world” how “every street corner was a public tribune”. Here in Tunis today, everywhere, groups of people are discussing politics, sharing views and opinions about the situation. They feel profoundly transformed in having the possibility of saying really what they think for the first time. Bookshops are proudly displaying in their shop windows, books forbidden during Ben Ali’s era. The State television, which only a week ago was looking like the “telescreen” of George Orwell’s famous novel “1984” and only reporting the marvelous activities of “Big Brother”, Ben Ali and his wife, is now covering extensively the revolution and the demonstrations taking place all over the country.
The revolutionary process has really hit all fields of society. Underground rappers are beginning to emerge publicly with their incisive lyrics against the dictatorship, and people are abundantly expressing their views after decades of restriction and censorship. “Sous les pavés, les jasmins” (“Under the pavements, the jasmine flowers”) read a banner in French on a demonstration last Saturday in the capital Tunis – an allusion to the famous slogan of France’s revolutionary May, 1968: “Sous les pavés, la plage” (“Under the pavements, the beach”). The term “Jasmine revolution” is used by some poorly inspired commentators to describe the Tunisian revolution.
Anti-RCD pictures have flourished by the thousands on facebook’s profiles. The use of internet in publicising and organising protests has been so widespread during the movement, especially among young people, that the “new” interim government set up after Ben Ali’s downfall, in one of its countless attempts at appearing more “acceptable”, decided to release Slim Amamou, a famous blogger activist jailed a week earlier, to get him to have his hair shaved off and to bring him into the new cabinet as the country’s ‘Secretary of state for youth and sports’!
“Dégage!” (“Get out!”)
There is on the streets of Tunisia a double sentiment: the impression that everything and nothing has changed at the same time. Indeed, the chicken is still running round, even with its head cut off. The new transitional government led by Prime Minister Ghannouchi, in which all key positions are occupied by leaders of the old regime (including the ministers of defence, interior, finance and foreign affairs), has been on a knife edge since its inception. Its very existence is seen as an insult to the revolution. Politicians having blood on their hands who dare to proclaim three days of “national mourning for the martyrs of the revolution” is just beyond bearing.
When it comes to the few so-called “opposition parties”, having accepted ministerial posts in this government – the PDP and Ettajdid – renamed on the streets as ’opposition de carton’ (’cardboard opposition’), each additional day spent in the government is killing their political future. However, frightened by the mass movement, they are among the politicians who are ready for any sort of compromise in order to stabilise the capitalist order of things, even to play the fifth wheel in the cart of the Ghannouchi government.
Demonstrations are continuing on a daily basis all over the country, demanding this government to “dégager” (to get out). On Friday, several thousand people demonstrated, starting from the big Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, rallying many inhabitants on their way through the Casbah, to end their march in front of the government’s building. “Don’t steal our dream!”, “Let’s continue the revolution!”, “They have stolen our wealth, they won’t steal our revolution!”, “RCD out, our movement continues!”, “Out, out, out, corrupt people!”, were among the numerous slogans shouted from the streets. In fact, not one region of Tunisia is escaping these daily protests, aimed at expurgating from the country every single trace of the old dictatorial regime.
As the old adage says, “appetite grows increases with the eating”. The masses, having won a tremendous battle, are not ready to stop half way, and to see their victory confiscated from the very same people who have ruled the country with Ben Ali for years. Challenging this new self-appointed government, they understand that leaving it in power means emptying their revolution of its substance, with the spectrum of being plunged back into what they have so courageously fought against at the price of their blood and tireless sacrifice.
For a week now, all possible desperate attempts have been made by this interim coalition to try justifying its existence in the eyes of the masses, delivering one concession after the other. On Friday, the Prime Minister Ghannouchi even delivered an interview on live TV, with crocodile tears wetting his eyes, in which he declared that he would quit political life “in the shortest possible time frame”. “Like all Tunisian people”, he was “afraid under Ben Ali’s rule”. However, Ghannouchi was not so afraid when it came to signing agreements with the IMF, supervising privatisations for the benefit of capital, or approving the savage repression of a movement which he now pretends to be the political expression of.
People want a real break with the past. Ben Ali had spun a huge web to control and repress any sign of opposition in the country. Now that the “spider” is gone, the web, although damaged, is yet still there, and people are determined to get rid of it. At the time of writing, a “Caravan of Liberation” coming from poor central-west Tunisian regions – where the revolutionary wave initially started – by braving the curfew, has reached the capital with the very purpose of bringing the government down. “The aim of this caravan is to make this government fall, especially the ministers of the RCD”, insisted a trade unionist participating in the march, composed of thousands of people of all ages. Similar marches are planned to start from other cities, and with the same purpose.
Having hardly announced the progressive reopening of schools and universities (which were closed down since the 10th of January, because of fear of student agitation), the government is already facing an unlimited strike from the teachers from primary education from Monday onwards (i.e. the day schools were supposed to restart lessons). The main demand is the dissolution of the transitional government. This hated government may not have long to go, especially now that parts of its state apparatus are crumbling.
Police fraternising with the revolution
On last Friday’s demonstration in Tunis, an unprecedented event occurred, that was yet to reveal its scale. Several policemen fraternised with the demonstrators, and proclaimed their support for the revolution. A few police climbed onto their own vans or “salad boxes” and started to apologise for their role in the recent event. They swore their solidarity and support to an excited revolutionary crowd who shouted: “The police with us! The police, children of the people!”. “We are on your side, we support the revolution, we didn’t want to shoot at you; our superiors did”, replied the police. In the aftermath, several of them were carried away on demonstrators’ shoulders, some even starting crying.
The following day, many more police officers joined the other protesters in the capital, all wearing red armbands in solidarity with the marching crowds. “We have also been victims for years of Ben Ali’s regime” one of them explained. One demonstrator interviewed by a German television station said in English: “These cops get 250-300 Dinars (€130-160) a month. They cannot even feed their families. We don’t blame them”.
Scenes like this have been repeated in many other places. In Sfax, the police demonstrated on Friday throughout the city’s main streets, wearing red armbands, singing the national anthem and shouting slogans calling for freedom. The march ended in front of the UGTT building, where one of the demonstrators read a declaration denouncing their working conditions and calling for the creation of a trade union able to defend their rights. In Sousse, Gabès, Sidi Bouzid, Monastir, Bizerte, the police also joined demonstrators in support of the revolution, generally demanding trade union rights and wage increases, sometimes even engaging in strike action.
Class issues coming to the fore
One of the peculiar aspects of this revolution is the fact that the Ben Ali and Trabelsi family had actually succeeded in raising against themselves the whole country, including, for its own reasons, part of the national bourgeoisie. They felt robbed by the control that “the family” had developed with tentacles over substantial parts of the economy – “fingers in every pie”: banks, insurance, transport, medias, communication, tourism, advertisement, housing, commerce, car industry, etc. This conflict between different parts of the ruling class came to a head on 18 January – four days after Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia. Two hundred business leaders invaded the headquarters of UTICA, the Tunisian Bosses’ Organisation, demanding the resignation of Hedi Jilani, the “boss of the bosses”. He was close to the old power and linked to the Trabelsi-Ben Ali families through the marriage of one of his daughters.
Of course, all these bosses could accommodate themselves with a regime that was offering an attractive framework for business activities, based on the exploitation of a muzzled and flexible workforce, especially in the free trade zones. But now that most of the family has been arrested or has fled the country, the national capitalist class, as well as the foreign multinationals and banks, would like to get their hands on the family’s assets and companies. They are looking with very suspicious eyes at those enraged working masses who don’t want to stop their revolution now and “go back to normal”, as they would like them to do. In that sense, the question of who will control the old family’s shares and companies has become a strategic question, through which the class demarcation of the revolutionary process is appearing crystal clear. The nationalisation of this wealth, not under the present corrupt capitalist government, but under direct workers’ control and management, is the only viable option to bring all these resources back where they belong.
Several bosses’ federations have made calls begging Tunisian people to go back to work. This “Let’s go back to work” mantra, by the way, is not only coming from the ruling class. The bureaucratic leaders at the top of the UGTT (national trade union) don’t feel very comfortable either with demonstrations and strikes spreading all over the place. “The street must recover its serenity” according to the words of Abid Briki, joint general secretary of the trade union organisation. On the contrary, the working class and the poor, having get rid of their dictatorial chains, feel it is now the moment to put their class grievances to the front. Concrete action is needed, however, to take the movement forward onto a new level.
For that purpose, they will need a leadership which is ready to fight on their side, not those people who are supporting Ben Ali one day and talking about revolution the next. A campaign for an extraordinary congress of the UGTT, prepared on the basis of democratic elections in every local branch, should be pushed for in the ranks of the trade union as soon as possible. This would enable a genuine leadership, emerging from the revolutionary struggle, to be democratically elected at the head of the union, instead of untrustworthy people like Abid Briki or Abdessalem Jrad. They did everything in the past to erect a barrage against the revolution, before being swept along against their will by the massive pressure within the ranks of the union.
The demand for a general strike can be heard everywhere. Such a move would be a decisive hammer blow to place this interim government, and any other attempting to maintain the status quo, into the bin of history – what the overwhelming majority of Tunisian people heartily desire. On Friday, many protesters gathered in front of the UGTT’s headquarters in Tunis to demand a general strike to be called. This was also part of the demands raised by demonstrators in Sousse, and other places.
Meanwhile, class anger is growing in many sectors. The bus drivers of Tunis went on a near-total strike for two days. Numerous managers, bosses and other high-ranking officials who collaborated with the old regime have suffered the revenge of the working class in many companies and in the public services.
Not expecting any initiative from above to get the RCD out, workers have initiated by themselves a process of “cleaning up” their workplaces from those hated figures. On Wednesday, during their strike, employees of the public insurance company STAR removed their boss, accused of corruption and complicity with Ben Ali’s regime. The same happened at the Banque Nationale Agricole (National Agricultural Bank), at the National Company of Oil Distribution – SNDP, at the airline company Tunisair. Committees of trade unionists have taken control of the news at the radio and television offices. “We are now deciding the editorial line,” explained Fawzia Mezzi, a journalist of ‘La Presse’, a daily newspaper which used to operate under the orders of Ben Ali’s entourage. Even blind people have demonstrated to overthrow the president of their association, sold to Ben Ali!
A first battle has been won, but not the war
The present government is possibly mortally wounded. Everybody feels it. But the fundamental question is what is going to replace it. When you have demonstrators climbing on governmental offices, writing on the walls “Viva Revolution!” or “People’s Ministry”, and when official government is not even able to move because substantial parts of its own armed forces are on the side of the revolution, there is a strong feeling that a “People’s Ministryis within reach. But while for some such a government means a government by and for working people, others seek to divert the opposition to the renamed RCD regime in the direction of a non-class national unity government that would leave capitalism untouched.
The UGTT is talking about a “government of national salvation”, but without giving any concrete explanation of what that really means. Salvation of what? In the interests of whom? A government without RCD members in its ranks would probably be welcomed by many as an important step forward. But the masses should refuse any “behind-the-scene” deal aimed at putting an unelected government in power. Many opposition leaders are waiting their hour to be called into a new “democratic” government that will only use its authority to restore order in class relations, reassure foreign investors and continue the same capitalist policies that have caused so much misery for the masses of Tunisia. Any government that does not break with capitalism will maintain it; only a workers and poor farmers’ government can build a new, socialist society.
Rabeh Arfaoui, a representative of Ettajdid – the former ’Communist’ Party, which now holds the Education ministry in the interim government – was recently quoted as saying: “The speeches about self-run committees and the establishment of a revolutionary government are making people dream, but it is not feasible. We are not in the context of a Bolshevik revolution”.
While Arfaoui is helping to defend the old apparatus sticking to power, these «self-run» committees are spreading. These could form the basis for carrying through a decisive break with capitalism and appealing to workers, youth and the oppressed in other countries to follow suit. However currently there is no force that can bring the movement together and argue for the decisive steps that are necessary to break with the power of the capitalists. The creation of such a force, a mass revolutionary working class party, is needed to make the prospect of a socialist revolution a reality.
The different committees that have mushroomed in many places are clearly showing that the Tunisian working masses are potentially ready for taking the running of the country into their hands. La ’Presse de Tunisie’ wrote on Saturday (22 January) that, “In Zarsis [in the South-East of Tunisia], straight after Ben Ali’s flight, neighbourhood committees were formed, and started working: collecting garbage and dealing with road traffic during the day, chasing Ben Ali’s militias and looters, and protectiing the city during the night”.
Such examples are countless. They provide a living answer to all the assertions of the media, foreign politicians etc, who urge the Tunisian people to let the country be run either by the present combination of politicians and officials coming from the old regime, or by a “technocratic government”. They are the “only ones having sufficient experience to do it”, they claim. This contemptuous attitude is a million miles away from the idea expressed by the Bolshevik leader Lenin in 1917 – that “every cook should be able to become Prime Minister”. These are arguments coming from a panicking ruling class who want to padlock the revolutionary process into market-oriented channels at any cost.
Rank-and-file structures and popular committees, run democratically by elected representatives, need to be formed and extended everywhere – in the workplaces, in the neighbourhoods, in the schools and universities, but also in the army and in the police. Then these need to be coordinated with each other through a system of delegates on a local, regional and all-Tunisia level. This would provide the backbone for the setting up of a new type of government – really democratic, being a direct expression of the working masses and of their revolution, and ready to take radical measures to transform people’s lives, through the socialist planning of the economy in the interests of the working class and the broad masses. The repercussions in the entire Arab world show how these developments could help to develop the fight against capitalism and imperialism to open the door for a socialist transformation of society worldwide.