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Tunisia, after the revolutionary fall of Ben Ali

The impact of the first revolutionary fall of a dictator in the Arab world in this century has reached not only the Maghreb and the Near East, but all the European governments are now extremely worried by the evolution of the situation. The process that led to the fall of Ben Ali goes back a […]

Left Voice

February 3, 2011
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The impact of the first revolutionary fall of a dictator in the Arab world in this century has reached not only the Maghreb and the Near East, but all the European governments are now extremely worried by the evolution of the situation. The process that led to the fall of Ben Ali goes back a long way. It is the Tunisian expression of an accumulated popular anger, intensified by the effects of the world economic crisis on the semi-colonial periphery against the regimes that arose from processes of winning independence. Decades ago, these regimes ceased to rely on vague nationalist rhetoric or invoking Arab socialism, to go over completely to being the best servants of imperialism and of its neo-liberal, privatizing offensive in recent decades, with everything that implies in terms of destitution and oppression for the subordinate classes.

A blow dealt to the imperialists and autocrats of the Maghreb and Middle East

However much imperialist strategy founders everywhere, both in Iraq and, especially, in Afghanistan, some of the most reactionary media continue to sing in unison that the best way to impose “democracy” on the Islamic Arab world is through exporting it (including with weapons), starting with the Western countries. What the Tunisian masses have just shown with the overthrow of Ben Ali after a month of massive demonstrations and protests is that the best allies of the worst dictatorships of the region are, precisely, the imperialists, and that tyranny is not fate, or even worse, an inherent fact, of the Islamic Arab masses. The imperialist countries supported one of the most bloodthirsty and dictatorial regimes of the region, although with a democratic facade, to the end. The Tunisian masses have just shown their class brothers and sisters of the Arab world, and beyond, the whole world, that they could only rely on their own forces to put an end to the reactionary regimes that dominate the region.

The process in Tunisia has just dealt a harsh blow to all the autocrats of the Maghreb and Middle East, friends of imperialism, some of them in power for more than two or three decades. Only a few of them, like Gadafi, dared to make such reactionary statements as “Ben Ali is the legal President of Tunisia.” Most of the governments are trying to prohibit the demonstrations in solidarity with the Tunisian revolutionary process, as is the case with the Morocco of Mohamed VI, or trying to marginalize them as much as possible. Despite the reactionary climate that reigns in Egypt, distinguished by the use of inter-religious tensions, dozens of activists managed to gather in front of the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo, yelling “Ben Ali, go get Mubarak (the President of Egypt) and take him to exile!” In Yemen, another country paralyzed by a surreptitious civil war between different factions of the bourgeoisie and a target of US air operations in the name of the War on Terror, more than a thousand students of the University of Sana, the capital, demonstrated, calling on the Arab peoples to follow the Tunisian example, recalling the most glorious hours of the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, when workers’ and popular struggles against colonialism, imperialism and reactionary regimes, were fighting for the Arab Spring.

From the point of view of the international situation, the biggest thing is perhaps the fact that the fall of Ben Ali represented, above all, an extremely heavy blow for the imperialists, more especially, France, the former colonial power. For decades, the Tunisian Destour regime that channeled the struggle for independence against French colonialism, was Paris’ best ally, first with Habib Bourguiba’s arrival in power at the end of the 1950’s, and later, through Ben Ali, after his coup d’état in 1987. With Ben Ali, one of the key allies of Paris in the Maghreb, simultaneously a regional gendarme and guarantor of abundant profits and profitable deals, that both French and Italian and Spanish multinationals made, has just fallen. It is not an accident that, a few days before the tyrant fled, Franco Frattini, the Italian Foreign Minister, declared that, “We condemn any type of violence, but we support the governments that have had courage and have paid for the attacks of terrorism with the blood of their citizens,” or that his French counterpart, Michèle Alliot-Marie, after having welcomed Ben Ali’s Minister, Kamel Morjane, on January 7, proposed that the Tunisian repressive forces be advised by French advisers and police. Nor is it an accident that in the very heart of Europe the revolutionary process awakened the enthusiasm and solidarity of millions of proletarians from the Maghreb or of Maghrebi descent, who constitute one of the most exploited battalions of the working class, with meetings and demonstrations in the Spanish state, Italy and, especially, France, on Saturday, January 15.

The reasons for Ben Ali’s fall

The Tunisian process is not an isolated case, although it is indeed the most complete up to now, in a region that is fully in turmoil. In recent years a series of popular revolts or, at times, strike processes, that have begun to mark a turning point, in the regional situation, as in Egypt or Algeria, have followed one another. Both in the case of Algeria and Egypt, it was an expression of anger towards the terrible and worsening living and working conditions, the increase in the price of basic necessities, the lack of freedoms in countries dominated by a self-contained caste in power through monolithic parties. These are the same ingredients that made the Tunisian crisis explode. These elements were already present during the process of struggle that had shaken the mining area of Gafsa, in Tunisia, in 2008. Thousands of unemployed youths from the city of Redeyef, with the support of the workers and oppositional and militant groups from the only trade-union headquarters, the General Union of the Workers of Tunisia (UGTT), had led a revolt, drowned in blood, for bread, freedom and jobs. Unlike the Algerian and Egyptian processes, this time the Tunisian process of December and January did not remain limited to only one group or region, but spread to the entire country. On the other hand, it had the participation of key sectors of the Tunisian proletariat, from both the public sector and from industry and the tertiary sector (largely dominated by multinationals that relocated their production and services). In short, it managed to smash the consensus existing among the ruling class, by forcing the resignation of a bloodthirsty autocrat, who seemed to have become Tunisia’s President for life, supported by a clientele of gangsters and cops who were acting as junior partners in the planned pillaging of the country, brought about by different imperialisms.

From desperation to revolt, from revolt to the revolutionary fall of the dictator

It all begins in the middle of December with Mohamed Bouazizi’s attempted immolation in Sidi Buzid, a city in the center of the country. A paradigmatic figure of an entire generation, already graduated, without work, forced to survive as a street vendor of fruits and vegetables, the young man tries to immolate himself in front of the local government headquarters, dying days later from his wounds. This desperate act uncovers the anger of hundreds of youths, severely repressed by the police. However, unlike what had happened in Redeyef, Gafsa, two years earlier, the news spreads like wildfire to the whole country.

The demonstrations that spread to the whole country rapidly acquire a violent character. For the first time in years, at different points in Tuniisia and at the same time, the demonstrators confront one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty police forces in the region, that even has 120,000 men and 12,000 paramilitaries, that is, four times as many troops as the Tuniisian armed forces. Lawyers first join the demonstrators, and they are violently repressed. With the return to classes at the beginning of January after their vacations, university and secondary students go down to the street, leading the most profound movement of educated young people since February 1972 (a kind of Tunisian students’ “French May”), when Bourguiba had wobbled for the first time. Repression has very little effect; on the contrary, it pushes the workers to go down to the street. In many places, workers demonstrate in front of the local headquarters of the UGTT (whose national leadership is closely linked to the RCD, Ben Ali’s party), demanding that the strike be called. In other cases, the UGTT joins the strikes when they have already started, so they would not escape the UGTT’s control. This is not only the case in areas of historical working-class insubordination, like the port of Sfax (an economic lung and the country’s second city) or the mining area of Gafsa, already nominal centers of the anti-French struggle in the years 1930 and 1940. The workers’ protest spreads to the entire country, including not only those federations like the post office or education, that always defended anti-regime positions, but the majority of unions.

In view of the funeral of Mohamed Bouazizi, accompanied by 5,000 people who cry out, “Today we weep for you, tomorrow we will make those who pushed you to suicide weep,” Ben Ali opts for talking about some demonstrations orchestrated by the illegal opposition and the Islamists, financed by foreign powers, and labels the demonstrators as terrorists. In spite of harsh repression, Sidi Bouzid, Thala, Regueb and, above all, Kasserine, are the scenes of daily illegal demonstrations. Official premises, even police stations, are attacked. The most chanted slogans are “Tunisia wants freedom, down with the RCD!” [Ben Ali’s party] or “We want water and bread, Ben Ali should leave!” showing the close coordination among political, democratic and social demands.

The situation changes completely between January 11 and 12. While in the main cities, the big supermarket chains (Carrefour) and banks associated with the foreign multinationals and the Trabelsi clan, of the family of Ben Ali and the First Lady, are looted, the regional UGTT of Sfax, the economic engine of the country, orders the general strike, and, for the first time, the demonstrations win the capital. The President decides to sacrifice his Minister of the Interior, to try to subdue the demonstrations. That night the confrontations intensify, as in Gafsa, until well into the morning, where the police murder seven demonstrators. The revolt continues in Kasserine and Beja the next day, where a headquarters of the governing party is attacked.

After having resorted to extreme force, Ben Ali tries to retreat quickly. However, now it is too late. All the promises of an opening up to democracy, in an authoritarian police state, are insufficient to calm the spirits of the demonstrators. In a dreadful Maghrebi remake of De Gaulle, in his January 13 television speech at night, he claims to “have listened to the demonstrators.” He does not speak in literary Arabic, but in Tunisian Arabic, to attempt to appear closer “to his people.” He promises them everything he refused for 23 years: freedom of expression for the press and freedom of association for all political parties, including those condemned to secrecy; he promises to create hundreds of thousands of jobs for young people, all this provided that he can continue in the Presidency until 2014, promising not to run again.

The following day, January 14, tens of thousands successfully demonstrate for the first time in years, in the heart of the capital, on Bourguiba Avenue, in front of the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior, the symbol par excellence of the regime. They chant what they really want, the President’s resignation. On the one hand, the police unleash fierce repression, and on the other, Ben Ali announces in extremis that he is dismissing the entire government. Now it does no good.

In view of the determination of the demonstrators in the capital and the confrontations and looting in the rest of the country, the army refuses to repress. Some days before, Rachid Ammar, chief of staff, had already refused, for which he had been dismissed. Central groups of the establishment and the foreign embassies withdraw support from Ben Ali. He has no other choice than to flee the country by airplane the same day and take refuge in Saudi Arabia, after his friend Sarkozy had refused him the right to seek asylum in France. The fall of Ben Ali leaves a vacuum of power that the RCD “doves,” the army and groups of the bourgeois opposition, with the support of imperialism, are trying to fill, to prevent the situation from degenerating even more, by seeking to propose a definitive stabilization of the situation in the medium term. Far from ending, however, the process continues to be open, after the flight of Ben Ali.

Ghannouchi’s puppet government, between continuity and cosmetic reforms

However much the number of demonstrators in the capital had diminished between January 18 and 19, looting ceased and the media try to insist on a gradual return to normalcy in the streets of Tunis, the acute crisis the country is experiencing is far from having ended. After the flight of Ben Ali and several days of complete confusion, with the continuation of the demonstrations, the looting of the palaces of the relatives of the Trabelsi clan and Ben Ali, the emergence of self-defense committees in neighborhoods and cities, to respond to the provocations of the hired killers from the security forces still loyal to Ben Ali, the bourgeoisie, with the support of the armed forces that play an increasingly large role, is trying to restore order. Some of the main culprits of the dictatorship were arrested, like the former security chief, General Seriati. At the political level, the hard men of the old regime were displaced to leave room for the alleged RCD “doves,” politicians less implicated in repression, the crimes and gangster practices of Ben Ali’s clan. Fouad Mebazaa, former President of the Parliament, who, for his part, appointed Ben Ali’s former Premier, Mohamed Ghannouchi, as Prime Minister, took office as President, announcing elections in six months (and not two, as the Constitution itself provides). This is a government of continuity, that is trying, through some touch ups and changes, to keep a structure capable of assuring a transition that can safeguard the interests of the Tunisian bourgeoisie and, especially, the deals of the imperialists.

In order to strengthen the aspect of changing the facade, the Premier opened his government to forces of “his majesty’s former opposition” and to recognized personalities. After the proclamation of the new cabinet on January 17, the main ministries continue to be in the hands of reliable men from the RCD, but Ghannouchi reserved some posts for the opposition, betting that would be enough to give the new authority an image of reform. That is why the cabinet proclaimed on Monday, January 17, was at first composed of four moderate and social democratic parties, among them, the former Tunisian Communist Party, Ettajdid, Mustafa Ben Jaafar’s Democratic Forum for Freedom and Labor, and especially three ministers from the UGTT (Abdeljelil Bédoui, Vice Premier, Anouar Ben Gueddour, and Mohamed Dimassi).

Less than 24 hours later, the whole agreement blew up, under pressure from the street and the still illegal opposition (the moderate Congress for the Republic of the historic oppositionist Moncef Marzuki, Hamma Hammami’s Tunisian Workers Communist Party [PCOT], and the Islamist Ennahda). Together with other groups of the bourgeois opposition, like the lawyers’ union, Marzuki is demanding the establishment of a government of national salvation, without the RCD, and the dissolution of Ben Ali’s former party. The disaffiliation of the President and the Premier from the leadership of Ben Ali’s former party were not enough to calm the spirits, and, facing the pressure from the UGTT rank and file, the three union leaders and Ben Jaafar resigned.

Despite the announcement of the release of 1,800 political prisoners, the prosecution of Ben Ali for corruption, and the dissolution of the former Information Ministry, responsible for censorship, on January 19, new demonstrations took place in the capital, Regueb, Kasserine, and other cities, with attacks on RCD headquarters. “We want a new Parliament, a new Constitution, a new Republic,” the demonstrators chanted on Bourguiba Avenue, “We got rid of the dictator, but not the dictatorship yet.” For his part, Ghannouchi is unable to announce when he will make public the definitive creation of the longed-for “national unity government,” to calm down the imperialist foreign ministries, while Moody’s has just lowered Tunisia’s credit rating, owing to the extreme volatility of the situation.

For a revolutionary alternative for the working class of Tunisia and the Maghreb

The bulk of the Tunisian bourgeoisie (the new government, the army, plus the moderate opposition) and of imperialism is now betting on a “political transition to democracy,” that is, a democratic counterrevolution by which to save the main thing, Tunisian capitalism and the “agreements on plundering” with imperialism. The European Union, with France at the head, are also in that, and then comes the Arab League,eager for calm to return, and all the journalists and talk show personalities, that now indeed say that Ben Ali was a dictator; all in struggle so that the situation should return to normal, and, above all, that those mobilized should return to their houses.

However, the blatant nature of the first rash attempts at “cosmetic democratization” forces the movement of the masses to maintain a direct rejection of Ghannouchi’s national unity government and of the preservation of Ben Ali’s former party. One of the most profound obstacles for these attempts at democratic counterrevolution lies in the extreme weakness of what were the traditional intermediaries in the Arab world, whether bourgeois secularist or Islamist nationalism or Stalinism, the very existence of which had been outlawed by Ben Ali for two decades, and that are now unable, as in other countries of the region, like Egypt or Morocco, to represent a responsible bourgeois opposition. These apparatuses, that played a role of containment or diversion in the revolutions after the processes of independence, enjoy considerably worse health than then for repeating their “exploit,” nor is Tunisian Islamism, for the moment, in a condition to take over again, immediately. This situation, that favors the development of independent mobilization, is not going to last forever. New petit-bourgeois, secularist or Islamist intermediaries, will prepare to capitalize on the revolution and lead them to some type of “negotiated political transition.” It is necessary to begin to oppose them with a program of action against the program of democratic counterrevolution.

The former legal opposition (Ettajdid, Movement of Democratic Socialists, etc.) defends the dialogue and the national unity government that will seek reconciliation with the hangmen of the dictatorship, which will leave intact the agreements of Tunisia’s submission to imperialism and that will not solve any of the problems of unemployment, high prices, and destitution, that the workers and people of Tunisia are suffering. Other parties, like Marzuki’s or the Islamist Ennahda are essentially defending the same strategy, although radicalizing their proposals by demanding the establishment of a unity government based on the exclusion of the RCD and the calling of a Constituent Assembly, leaving standing for now all that remains of the Ben Ali regime.

It is necessary to propose that the only real and authentically democratic solution for Tunisia, through breaking with the “doves” of the RCD or of the bourgeois secular or Muslim opposition, goes through calling a Constituent Assembly, capable of again discussing, from the the country’s grassroots themselves, the ruins of Ben Ali’s regime and the agreements of imperialist submission to France and the European Union. This Constituent Assembly can only be called by a workers’ and people’s government based on the strike committees and people’s committees, independent of the army, a government set up by those who were the driving force of the revolutionary fall of Ben Ali, the working class and the youth.

After having maintained a criminal dialogue with Ben Ali for decades, the leadership of the UGTT is defending the perspective of an agreement with the bourgeois national unity government that would be ready to carry out a cosmetic reform of the regime, slightly more radical than what Ghannouchi has been proposing until now. Ghannouchi knows that the second card of an interim government, in addition to the army, would be the trade-union headquarters. It is necessary to oppose this road with the need to put an end to all that union bureaucracy that follows the head of the UGTT, which negotiated the exploitation and oppression of the working class and the people with the blood of the oppositionists, selling them out to the police and the security apparatuses. Based on the experience the Tunisian working class has just had, the militant opposition in the UGTT would have the ability to call a big congress of the rank and file of the union, so that the workers, young people, and students from the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET) could recover the UGTT and put it to the exclusive service of their interests. On the other hand, we must defend the path of developing the independent self-organization of the workers and people, based on the struggles that brought the main enterprises of the country to a standstill. This goes through setting up strike committees and neighborhood committees, independent of any bourgeois variant and autonomous from the army, which we can in no way trust to fight to the end, against the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime and the national unity government.

We must counter the fake democracy that imperialism and the different wings of the Tunisian bourgeoisie will promote, with the struggle for a Constituent Assembly, to discuss the problems of the country completely, by explaining that a Constituent Assembly of this type will only be achieved if the workers and people impose a Workers’ and Peasants’ Government. It would be the only perspective of power capable of ending destitution and unemployment, through a program that would include a big public works’ plan under the control of the workers and the people, the re-nationalization and expropriation of all the imperialist multinationals in pursuit of building a socialist Tunisia in the framework of the struggle for a Federation of Socialist Republics of the Maghreb and Middle East.

Without a revolutionary Marxist party rooted in the proletariat and youth, that offers the masses a perspective really independent of any bourgeois faction, it is impossible for the Tunisian process to win completely. That is why we defend the perspective of rebuilding a world party of socialist revolution and its national sections, the Fourth International. The fall of Ben Ali is the first attack of a revolutionary process that, if it is deepened, would represent a crack in the system of imperialist control. That is why we, from the advanced workers and revolutionaries in the central countries, have to develop practical and political solidarity with our class brothers and sisters from the other side of the Mediterranean to the greatest extent possible, since every blow against the Tunisian bourgeoisie and its puppet Ghannouchi is a blow dealt to imperialism.

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Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.


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