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Socialism Today 145 - February 2011

Tunisia’s dictator falls

Over the course of a month an immensely powerful movement of mass revolt has swept away the dictator-president, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. After 23 years he was swept away with lightning speed, testimony to the rage that has accumulated. How far away are the days of Ben Ali’s ‘uncontested’ rule! CHAHID GASHIR reports.

TUNISIA IS A completely different country to the one it was a month ago. Fear of talking about politics, even in private, has been replaced by political ferment. A revolution is beginning. Tunisia, which for years was praised by capitalist commentators and imperialist countries as the most stable regime of the region, depicted as a "model of economic development" by the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in December, is now full of cracks. The tourist paradise, with its marvellous Mediterranean beaches, has shown its ugly face. The violence used to crush the revolt has displayed the real character of one of the most oppressive regimes in the region.

The revolutionary movement which has developed over the last month is of tremendous importance for the masses of the Arab world and beyond. At a time of austerity measures in most countries, with rising food prices affecting everyone, Tunisia can become an example for working people and youth. This is the biggest social upheaval that has shaken the dictatorship for over a quarter of a century and probably in Tunisia’s history.

All the attempts by Ben Ali to calm the situation failed lamentably. His ruling clan had irremediably lost any popular support. After dissolving the entire government, announcing legislative elections within six months, and declaring a state of emergency, the hated president finally fled the country. Protestors jubilantly ripped down his vast portraits adorning the facades of the capital, Tunis.

This epic struggle has created a wave of panic among neighbouring regimes, as well as in the governments of their allies in Europe and the US. The commentaries of US president, Barack Obama, applauding the "courage and dignity of the Tunisian people", are likely to leave a bitter taste for the numerous Tunisians who have tirelessly fought against the American-backed government. Obama is, of course, celebrating an accomplished fact in the hope of ensuring a pro-imperialist outcome. He and his cohorts take no initiative to criticise friendly or client regimes; they said nothing about the blatant rigging of last year’s Egyptian elections.

In the same way, the French government’s muted response to the protests and repression in its former colony has created an outcry from its strong Maghreb community. The statement of French foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, proposing cooperation with the Tunisian government to "restore security", has unveiled once again the real character of French foreign policy in the face of a threat to its investments in one of its outposts.

The uprising could rapidly trigger a domino effect against neighbouring dictatorial regimes. Not coincidently, in recent weeks, the governments of Jordan, Morocco, Algeria and Libya have taken measures to decrease food prices, for fear of similar developments taking place in their own countries. "Every Arab leader is watching Tunisia in fear, while every Arab citizen is watching Tunisia in hope and solidarity", tweeted an Egyptian commentator quoted in the Guardian (15 January).

Spreading like wildfire

THE REVOLT, WHICH started in the small city of Sidi Bouzid in mid-December, spread like wildfire to different parts of the country, and has gone far beyond the simple grievances against joblessness. It has not shown any signs of exhaustion despite the desperate zigzagging moves of Ben Ali’s regime in its struggle for survival. The barbaric repression by the police, under the orders of the ruling clique, led to over 70 people being killed, according to human rights organisations.

Reports of police shooting live ammunition at funeral processions of demonstrators killed on previous days showed how far the regime was ready to go to preserve its grip on power. Such an orgy of violence is typical of a regime whose very existence is at stake. However, it only infuriated workers and youth further. This was also true in other parts of the world, where calls for the end of repression have been mounting.

The Tunisian masses, having lost their fear of the increasingly isolated regime, rose up in every corner of the country. Tunis, the economic heartland – which, in the first weeks, had been spared the massive protests erupting in the poorer central and southern inland provinces – was decisively hit by the movement from 11 January. "We are not afraid!" shouted hundreds of youth rising up on that day and attacking local government buildings in Tunis’s working-class neighbourhood of Ettadem. In response, the government ordered a curfew from 8pm to 5.30am. Initially on that Tuesday night, it deployed army units and armoured vehicles throughout the city. But these measures were largely ineffective, as thousands courageously defied them. Fear changed camp, moving over to the governing elite.

Ruling camp in disarray

DURING JANUARY, SOME ministers, ex-ministers and others in the presidential party, the RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique), began expressing public criticism of Ben Ali and the way he was dealing with the protests. These divisions in the ruling elite expressed the boiling pressure from below. To save their own interests, some in the regime were attempting to prepare the post-Ben Ali period – increasingly prepared to get rid of him, hoping to appease the masses, as you would give a dog a bone in the hope of calming it down.

Reports have also revealed tensions developing in the army. The top army general, Rachid Ammar, was removed on 9 January because he refused to order his soldiers to repress protests, and for his open criticism of the ‘excessive’ use of force. Similar moves multiplied, especially among rank-and-file soldiers refusing to fire on their class brothers and sisters. In some areas, soldiers fraternised with the demonstrators, protecting them from the police.

This is the reason the military was withdrawn from Tunis on 13 January, to be replaced by the police and other security forces, generally considered as more loyal to the regime. But even sections of the police have been affected by the mass movement. The New York Times related how two police officers directed enraged protestors away from attacking a police station in Tunis, convincing them to go to the rich beachfront mansions of the president’s relatives!

The revolution must exploit these splits inside the state apparatus, to strengthen its own forces. Despite Ben Ali’s departure, the old state apparatus, with its huge repressive machine, has remained essentially intact. According to some estimates, outside the army, 80-120,000 people have been deployed by the state to control the population.

Despite the understandable euphoria that exists after Ben Ali’s departure, the revolutionary process has just begun. All the dangers that lie ahead must be faced with a correct policy. Reactionary forces, from inside or outside the state machine, could try to exploit the state of confusion to take back the initiative, and organise violence against progressive forces, trade unionists, young protestors, etc.

To face this, a class appeal should be made to the rank-and-file state forces to win them over to the side of the revolution. The creation of genuinely elected committees of soldiers must be part of such a process, to clear the army of all reactionary elements and collaborators with the old regime.

Reports are circulating about gangs looting, robbing houses and shops, setting fire to buildings and attacking people. There are high suspicions that these are police, security forces and former criminals engaged by the former president’s clique to show that ‘chaos reigns’ without Ben Ali, and trying to blame peaceful protestors.

The ‘law-and-order’ issue has also been used by the interim authorities to try and justify the maintenance of martial law, and to impose big restrictions on civil liberties. Both must be challenged, through the formation of democratically run, armed workers’ defence forces to protect neighbourhoods and protests against arbitrary violence. It has been reported that in the northern seaside city of Gammarth, inhabitants are organising their neighbourhood to protect themselves from the regime’s militias. Such initiatives must be taken up everywhere.

Ben Ali’s desperate zigzags

BEN ALI, IN a desperate attempt to serve up a scapegoat, sacked his interior minister, Rafik Belhaj Kacem (the national police chief), on 12 January. But this failed to satisfy the militant spirit and desire for revenge among the Tunisian masses. Then Ben Ali tried to put more stress on the ‘carrot’ rather than the ‘stick’, rolling out one concession after another.

In his televised speech on the night of 13 January he promised not to seek a new presidential term in 2014. He said that his troops had been ordered to stop shooting live ammunition against demonstrators. He announced the end of internet censorship and total freedom for the media, more ‘political pluralism’ and reductions in the price of bread, milk and sugar. This was a complete u-turn. But the measures did not stem the anger. This sign of weakness strengthened the confidence of the movement, galvanising its forces, and opening the gate for the protests to rush in an even more radical direction. This was illustrated by the unprecedented thousands-strong demo that took place along Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis on 14 January. Protestors shouted: "No to Ben Ali, the uprising continues!" "Ben Ali assassin!" "Ben Ali, out!" "Go, go, go… game over!"

Obviously, the concessions made by Ben Ali were only cosmetic, a desperate attempt to avoid the struggle going further and threatening the very foundations of capitalist interests. His removal from power had become a prominent part of the movement’s demands. Even if it was not necessarily formulated clearly, behind that call the whole system on which Ben Ali’s power relied was being instinctively questioned.

The tight grip of Ben Ali and his family, who have been in control, through massive corruption and extortion, of huge parts of the wealth and profitable business activities, became the symbols of the corrupt power of the rich Tunisian capitalist class. "No, no to the Trabelsis who looted the budget!" had been one of the popular slogans, targeting Ben Ali’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi and her family, who own major stakes in many companies. "Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage", reported a cable by an American ambassador, recently released by WikiLeaks. By 13 January, according to reports, some of Ben Ali’s relatives had already fled the country. Ben Ali’s billionaire son-in-law, Mohamed Sakher El Materi, took refuge in his luxurious mansion in Montreal.

A rotten official opposition

BEN ALI HAS been removed. Unfortunately, so far there is no clear, independent working-class political force that can give a lead on what to do next, and take initiatives to achieve a proper political and social revolution that would transform society. To achieve this, a break must be made with capitalism and a start made to plan the renovation of society along socialist lines, fulfilling the interests of the majority by establishing real social justice, tackling the problem of unemployment, and satisfying the long-standing aspirations for real democratic rights.

The absence of a leadership armed with a clear socialist programme and capable of explaining how to take the movement forward could result in temporary ebbs in the movement. The political vacuum leaves open the possibility of all sorts of forces trying to exploit the situation to their own advantage. In such a situation, a coup by part of the army, presenting itself as a democratic ‘cleaner of the Augean stables’, is not excluded. Such a coup could even enjoy some popular support a while.

On the other hand, some bourgeois opposition leaders, who were already trying to depict Ben Ali’s last speech as an ‘overture’ from the government, will try to use their previous absence from political office to preserve the old order. Tunisia’s main opposition leader, Najib Chebbi (Progressive Democratic Party), called the president’s announcement "very good", while Mustapha Ben Jaafar (Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties) said that it "opens up possibilities".

On 14 January, after prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, said he was taking over, there were reports of protests outside the interior ministry, calling for his immediate resignation. Subsequently, the Constitutional Council announced that the leader of the lower house of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, would be the interim president. The constitution requires new presidential elections to be held within 60 days. These people are preparing to stab the heroic mass struggle in the back. Ghannouchi is an economist who has spent his entire political career alongside Ben Ali. Mebazaa is also part of the corrupt political elite. As Youssef Gaigi, a Tunisian activist quoted by Al-Jazeera, remarked: "People don’t know if they can trust this guy because he was also part of the establishment. He was part of the political party that ruled over Tunisia for the past 23 years, and was heavily involved in the previous government, which is known now as a dictatorship".

The masses have not displayed such energy, sacrifice and blood just to see other members of the ruling elite take Ben Ali’s place. On the first day after Ben Ali fled, the government deployed the army, police and security services on the streets. This is a warning to workers, the unemployed, young people and the urban and rural poor. Officially, this was to ensure ‘law and order’, but that was not the aim. The ‘law and order’ Ben Ali’s associates want is that which allows them to remain in control. This is why it is essential that working people get organised and build mass, independent organisations that can elaborate a revolutionary strategy to get out of this impasse and avoid their revolution being stolen from above.

Workers and young people should not put any confidence in any recomposition of power among the plundering and murdering bandits. The old regime’s repressive apparatus must not be allowed to continue and the old government cannot remain in power. Calls for a ‘national unity government’ – increasingly raised by sections of the opposition – could only make sense if they mean a government of unity of the working class and oppressed. Such a government would have to genuinely represent the masses in struggle, be willing to completely purge those who ran and profited from Ben Ali’s regime, and stand firmly against any compromise with all capitalist rulers. Any other ‘unity’ would mean neutering the revolutionary movement and effectively using it as an auxiliary force to replace one clan of oppressors with another. Genuinely free elections can be organised under the democratic control of the working people. This is the only way to prevent supporters of the old regime trying to subvert the revolution.

Independent working-class action

IN THAT SENSE, the question of who controls the country’s wealth and the means of production has become one of the central issues, if the movement is to solve the crisis of unemployment and poverty. As long as economic relations remain on a capitalist basis, run for the profits of a few, no sustainable and fundamental change can be made to the living conditions of the majority. Only the organised working class, by taking control of the commanding heights of the economy, can bring such a change.

Part of the leadership of the trade union body, the UGTT (Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens), has shared long-standing, friendly relationships with the dictatorship. Its general secretary, for instance, reiterated his support for Ben Ali only a few days before his downfall. Despite this, it was eventually carried away by the repercussions of the revolutionary wave among its 500,000-strong membership. Consequently, it was forced to call for action. "Loyal to the regime since the late 1980s, the UGTT supported the re-election of Ben Ali in 2009. Its role since the start of the movement, on 17 December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, however, is quite different. Many debates were first organised around the country in the buildings of the regional sections, which resulted in late December the general secretary of the UGTT threatening criminal prosecution of the members attending such meetings. The day after Christmas, the movement, which relied on a few dissident branches of the union, such as those of the postal sector or of primary and secondary education, had gradually won all branches of the union". (Mediapart, 12 January)

Solid citywide general strikes have taken place in Sfax, Sousse, Kasserine and Tunis. In the capital, despite the call of the union leaders not to demonstrate during the two-hour general strike on 14 January, many took to the streets anyway. This struggle to sweep away the old regime should urgently be extended and coordinated including, if necessary, through a general strike. The formation of democratically controlled committees, elected by workers in the workplaces, is necessary for this. Similar organising committees should be set up in the neighbourhoods and villages, to make sure the struggle is everywhere controlled from below. These committees could then link up with each other on a local, regional, and national basis, to give the foundation of a government of the working people and poor masses.

Such a government – in which every elected official would not gain more than the wage of an ordinary worker and would be subject to recall – would confiscate the major companies and banks from the mafia-type rulers who still control them, and put them under public ownership, under the democratic control and management of the working population as a whole. This would lay the basis to start the socialist reconstruction of society, based on the democratic planning of the economy. Such a step would stand as an inspiring example for the masses of the whole region.

The CWI stands for the full recognition of all democratic rights: the freedom of speech, assembly and of the press, and for an immediate end to the state of emergency. We call for the immediate release of all political prisoners and for setting up working-class courts to judge the criminals, assassins and torturers who are still running free or even occupying leading positions in the state apparatus. Tunisia’s future must not be decided in a deal between elements of the old regime and pro-capitalist opposition leaders. Instead, there must be free and fully democratic elections for a revolutionary constitutional assembly, where representatives of the workers and poor could decide the country’s future.

We call for actions to take place on an international scale in solidarity with the Tunisian struggle. Initiatives can help to structure an international campaign to publicise and support actively this revolution in the making.


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