TUNISIA: After Ben Ali’s Ouster: Big Mood for a Second Revolution
TUNISIA: After Ben Ali’s Ouster: Big Mood for a Second Revolution
At the recent Summer School of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) held in Belgium H.T Soweto (DSM, CWI) spoke with three comrades of CWI in Tunisia on the current situation of the revolution in the country which set alight the entire Arab world and now Israel with mass uprisings which have already claimed three dictatorial regimes in the region. Below is the excerpt from the interview.
SD: The Tunisian revolution was like a bolt from the blues igniting a tidal wave of mass movement across North Africa and the Middle East. The Western media and their counterpart in Nigeria and much of African countries try to pass it off as just a movement for democracy. How true is this or are there any other factors responsible for the movement of the Tunisian masses?
Answer: Tunisia is a country which has a quite important tradition of struggle especially trade union struggle which dates back to the struggle against French colonial rule. But the 55 years of so-called independence were actually periods of dictatorship which never achieved any development for the Tunisian masses. For a long time there has been frustration and anger at the regime and massive hope of people for change. The dictatorship in its final years became more and more repressive and this radicalized people’s consciousness for change.
Also the economic policy of the regime was a big factor. The regime implemented harsh Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) which brought much hardship on the people. Official statistics says 24.7% of the population live on less than 2 dollars a day. The preceding period before the harsh neo-liberal regime of Ben Ali, you had the implementation of some limited social programs which benefitted at least the middle class but now you have more neo-liberal policies which benefit only a tiny minority of the population, mainly the ruling families and their cronies, and foreign multinationals.
Inevitably in such condition, the combination of neo-liberal economic and social policies, the lack of democratic rights under the dictatorship, the massive corruption and nepotism of the elites, and the tradition of struggle of Tunisian masses, the only result could be a revolution as we have already seen happen. The local uprising that happened in the Gafsa mining basin (South West) in 2008 was like a precursor to the revolution. The people of Gafsa showed a way forward and their actions created a new opening for the challenging and eventual overthrow of the regime.
Nobody can downplay the fact that the main issue that sparked the revolution was jobs. Tunisia is a country where over 700, 000 are unemployed. Not surprising the main slogan was “job is a right, gang of thieves”. Other slogan was “work, freedom and dignity”. It shows the connection between social and economic demand on one hand and the increasingly political demands for democratic rights on the other.
These are extremely concrete issues affecting North Africa generally. People who started the revolution were unemployed youth, soon followed by the working class. So it was not just a revolution for democratic rights, economic issues also played a very crucial role. This combination between political demands and demands for social dignity, jobs and decent life were the main demands that brought the masses together.
SD: What is the character of the trade unions in Tunisia and what role did they play in the movement?
Answer: The trade unions, especially the UGTT (General Union of Tunisian Workers, the main Tunisian trade union federation), were instrumental to drawing up the demands and mobilizing the working class to play crucial roles. A lot of the slogans they used in the demonstration were easily taken up by the masses in the region because the issues are similar. Despite the bureaucratic character of the trade unions, the trade unions were still a point of attraction for the movement.
However the character of the trade unions meant the revolution could not achieve more than it did despite the revolutionary energy of the masses. Most UGTT leaders were ardent supporters of Ben Ali few months back and have a long history of betrayals of working class’ struggle. It was not surprising that the UGTT is disregarded by some sections of young people and unemployed youth.
The attitude of the UGTT national leadership is an extremely important factor in the impasse facing the revolution at present. Yet the UGTT has still an immense potential power in terms of militant rank and file membership and its presence among important sections of the working class. Therefore in moving the revolution forward, there is the urgent necessity to campaign for cleansing the UGTT of all sclerotic elements linked to the dictatorship and reclaim the union as a fighting and democratic organization led by genuine workers’ representatives.
SD: At what stage is the Tunisian revolution now?
Answer: The revolution toppled Ben Ali’s dictatorship, two transitional governments and led to the removal of a number of local leaders of the ex-ruling party, RCD, corrupt bosses and managers from companies and state institutions. The revolution also led to the organization of the first Constituent Assembly aside other important social gains conceded by the ruling elite. Nevertheless due to the pro-capitalist outlook of the opposition and trade union leaders, the revolution has not yet broken the backbone of the dictatorship’s powerful state apparatus, nor the economic relations upon which the old hated regime was based.
There is still an atmosphere of politicization. Not a day passes without a demonstration especially in response to suspicious move from elements of the old ruling elite. At the moment there are numerous strikes breaking out in many different sections of the working class. One feature is the struggle in the energy sector in the British Gas company where workers went on strike. There are quite very aggressive strikes at the moment.
Since the beginning of the revolution there have been wave of strikes in many sections. Some have actually won some concessions. One of the problems is the leadership of the trade unions, the UGTT, which tries to prevent those struggles and, when it cannot, to control them from the top while the trade union activists need to discuss the strategies to broaden and unify the struggles. This leaves a bitter taste because on the one hand there have been movement which have won concessions while on the other hand there is the potential to go much further than what has been achieved yet.
Equally many people are beginning to feel that all the economic and social issues that sparked the revolution and the toppling of Ben Ali’s dictatorship and his party, the RCD, are not been met. For instance, there has been no serious effort to return Ben Ali and the ruling families’ colossal fortunes back for the benefit of the Tunisian people. Equally the policies of Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi’s provisional government which consist of reassuring the imperialist countries of its servility to their requirements continue to create anger among the working masses and youth. While the fundamental social problems that brought the Tunisian masses to the point of revolution are still unresolved, that entire regions live in dire poverty, huge unemployment levels and lack of the most crucial basic services, the government firmly sticks to its programme of paying back the over 20 billion euro external debt contracted by Ben Ali’s ruling clan.
Against this background, such is the appetite for change that there is the increasing call for a second revolution to win complete economic and political freedom. But there is also the danger of counterrevolution taken over given the weakness of the opposition and the absence of a working class political party with socialist programs.
There for what is missing and is urgently required to move the Tunisian revolution forward to achieving complete liberation of Tunisian masses from neo-liberal attacks and political dictatorship of the capitalist ruling elite is a mass working class political party armed with the ideas, programmes and method of socialism. This is why there is the necessity for transformation of the trade unions and cleaning out the bureaucratic elements who continue to act as an obstacle to the full expression of masses; thirst for revolutionary change. Also the numerous local revolutionary committees that sprung up in the aftermath of Ben Ali’s departure need to be maintained and consolidated. The revival of these revolutionary committees is of vital importance in uniting the movement and undermining the baleful control of the UGTT bureaucracy.
Even a small group armed with CWI ideas can contribute to systematically push the left to question their program for the revolution because at the moment there is a sort of cynicism among the radicals against people pushing for revolution and getting organized for that purpose. The last word has not yet been heard about the Tunisian revolution though. This is why building the forces of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) is an urgent task in showing a clear way forward to change seeking workers and youth of Tunisia.