Tunisia: masses in revolt

The uprising in Tunisia is a response to the world capitalist crisis which is pushing more people into poverty and social misery; the people have said ‘enough!’ Annie Richards reports on the uprising in Tunisia.

The trigger that unleashed waves of protest across Tunisia was the tragic self-immolation of 26-year-old street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on 17 December 2010. The police had confiscated Mohammed’s stall and, when he went to complain, local government officials refused to speak with him. In desperation, he set himself alight with paint stripper. According to a friend, Mohammed had experienced police harassment since he started working to support his family at the age of ten by selling fruit in the city centre. In Tunisia, a country with a 30% youth unemployment rate, working in the informal economy is commonplace. Even for university graduates, finding stable employment is increasingly difficult without personal connections.

When Mohammed was hospitalised with third-degree burns, protests were initiated by his extended family network. Mohammed’s act of desperation resounded across the country and wider region: many people were angry about high unemployment, soaring food prices, police repression and political corruption. Demonstrations spread to other cities, including the capital Tunis, rapidly involving broad sections of the population. Esam Al Amin reported that ‘by the start of the New Year tens of thousands of people, joined by labour unions, students, lawyers, professional syndicates, and other opposition groups, were demonstrating in over a dozen cities. By the end of the week, labour unions called for commercial strikes across the country, while 8,000 lawyers went on strike, bringing the entire judiciary system to an immediate halt.’ (Counterpunch, 19 January 2011). The trade union, Tunisian General Union of Labour (UGTT), initially opposed the demonstrations, but as they gained momentum, rank and file trade unionists joined in and forced the leadership to support the struggle, which they did by calling strike action and organising a ‘caravan of liberation’ from the rural areas to the capital city.

The protesters demanded jobs, affordable food, the release of political prisoners and an end to political corruption. Protests continued despite police repression, including severe beating of protesters, use of tear gas and live gunfire. Over 100 people were killed and many more injured during a month of protests. At least 42 were killed in a prison fire in the coastal town of Monastir after guards refused to open the doors. Over 70 people were shot dead by the security services. As the movement developed, the main demand was simply an end to the dictatorship, symbolised by the President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power since 1987.

Unable to stop the protests, the government was forced to make concessions. On 10 January it ordered the closure of schools and universities in an attempt to prevent people from congregating, and announced plans to create 300,000 new jobs. On 12 January the President sacked the interior minister, Rafik Belhaj Kacem, promised to investigate protesters’ deaths and called for the release of detained protesters. A day later, he promised to hold elections within six months. When this still failed to stem protests, Ben Ali attempted to impose a state of emergency, dismissing the entire cabinet and threatening to deploy the army on a shoot-to-kill basis. However, the head of the army, General Rachid Ben Ammar, refused to comply. On 14 January Ben Ali was forced to flee the country.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi attempted to exercise presidential duties but had to back down within 24 hours under pressure from mass mobilisation on the streets. Politicians from the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) then tried to establish an interim ‘unity’ government with representatives from certain opposition groups and trade-union backed independent ministers. However, within days, a handful of newly-appointed ministers resigned in response to popular pressure.

The majority of the people want to be rid of the old regime entirely, and do not support any coalition government involving former members of the regime. Moves by the RCD to formally dissolve itself did nothing to reduce popular anger, nor did government attempts to wind down the revolution with three days of national mourning. The UGTT has refused to recognise the current government, and its members have been on indefinite strike. The army is playing a more progressive role than the police, claiming to defend the uprising, though it simultaneously protects the coalition government. It seems likely that the coalition government will soon crumble, with reports on 24 January of negotiations taking place to create a ‘committee of “wise men” to replace the interim government and “protect the revolution”.’

Struggles to come

An important development has been the formation of neighbourhood committees to defend communities against attacks and looting by members of the former president’s security services. Years of repression have had an impact on the level of community organisation; many political activists were imprisoned. The development of grassroots organisations to defend the people will be a major factor determining gains for the future. There is approximately one policeman for every 40 adults in Tunisia, two-thirds of them plain-clothes. Breaking down the police state apparatus will be a big struggle and it is not clear yet what the outcome will be.

Imperialist governments will watch what they once hailed as a model of neo-liberalism with anxiety. The majority of foreign businesses are French, the former colonial power. Tunisia’s Le Temps newspaper reported 43 banks, 66 shops and 11 industrial plants destroyed – French supermarkets Carrefour and Geant were especially targeted. It was probably with these investments in mind that French foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, offered to send French security forces to support the corrupt regime. However, she was unprepared for the public anger she would provoke, especially amongst the large North African community in France and was forced to spend the next week apologising for her gaffe. Within a few days the French government sought to disassociate itself from its former ally, refusing entry to the fleeing Tunisian President and expelling several of his family members from the country.

The US government is evidently hedging its bets: US President Obama waited until Ben Ali fled the country before praising ‘the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people’, a hypocritical statement considering his administration’s previous support for the regime. The Tunisian government was considered a ‘friendly’ country, willing to torture terror suspects on behalf of imperialism. Loss of investments is not the only concern for the imperialists: a revolutionary government would have a profound impact on all Arab peoples. As protests spread throughout the region the imperialist ruling classes and the Arab elites have every reason to be fearful.

Victory to the Tunisian people!

FRFI 219 February / March 2011


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