Tunisia: 'They cannot steal the revolution from us!'

Following the hasty departure of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, Tunisia’s uprising has continued to mobilise across the country against the fake “national unity” government imposed upon it by the dictator’s cronies, desperate to cling to power.

Ben Ali’s exit, after 23 years of suffocating dictatorial rule, came about after four weeks of sustained mass protests. The spark was the December 17 police attack on a university-educated street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in the central town of Sidi Bouzid. Claiming Bouazizi did not have a permit, police confiscated his goods and assaulted him. In a desperate act of protest, Bouazizi bought petrol with his remaining funds, marched to city hall, doused his clothing and set himself ablaze. He died in hospital 19 days later.

Immediately after Bouazizi’s desperate act, daily protests erupted against unemployment and rising food prices, spreading to cities and towns across the country. Unemployed teachers, bus drivers, high school students and street vendors joined the mobilisations. Protesters burned tires, established barricades and chanted slogans demanding jobs and democratic rights.

The regime initially responded with beatings, tear gas and live ammunition. On December 28, Ben Ali vowed to punish protesters by applying the law “in all firmness”, claiming the protests were organised by a “minority of extremists and terrorists”. But the more ruthless the attacks of the regime’s 120,000-strong police force, the angrier people became. By the start of the new year, protests involving tens of thousands of young people had spread to a dozen cities, including the capital, Tunis. Strikes were organised by local sections of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). In early January, 8000 lawyers struck, bringing the entire judiciary to a halt.

On January 13, after the death of some 100 protesters, Ben Ali sacked his interior minister and promised to investigate the killings. He also announced he would not contest the 2014 election. After these concessions failed to pacify protesters, Ben Ali promised fresh legislative elections within six months. But, after five fraudulent elections during his 23 years in power, the people weren’t buying it. Ben Ali’s concessions only emboldened the protesters, hungry for change.

Desperate to regain control, Ben Ali declared a state of emergency, dismissing his entire cabinet and issuing a shoot-to-kill order against any protesters who defied police curfews. But when armed forces chief General Rachid Ben Ammar refused to order his troops to fire on demonstrators in the streets, the game was up.

Dictator flees

On January 14, the dictator and his entourage fled, in four helicopters, to the island of Malta. When Malta refused to accept them, Ben Ali boarded a plane to Paris. But the Sarkozy government, a long-time sponsor of his regime, also denied him entry. The plane detoured to Saudi Arabia, where he was offered a warm welcome by the house of Saud. His wife, Leila Trabelsi, left the country days earlier, taking her children and a ton and a half of gold bullion to Dubai. The Trabelsi family were despised for their corrupt lifestyle and financial scandals.

Desperate to preserve the regime’s hold on power, the presidential security apparatus started a campaign of violence and property destruction in a last-ditch attempt to justify repression. This only widened the breach between the security apparatus and the army, as rank-and-file soldiers began to fraternise with protesters and popular committees sprang up to defend neighbourhoods from police repression. The head of presidential security and the former interior minister were arrested by soldiers, along with members of the Trabelsi family, as they attempted to flee the country.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s ruling class jostled to maintain a semblance of order through a series of political manoeuvres. Invoking the constitution, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi declared himself interim president. Then, when there was no let-up in the popular insurrection that had engulfed the country, the speaker of the parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, assumed the presidency. Mebazaa promptly asked Ghannouchi to have talks with all political forces in order to form a “national unity” government charged with calling elections within 60 days.

On January 18, Ghannouchi announced the composition of his government. Fourteen former cabinet ministers from the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) government held all the key ministerial posts, including prime minister and ministers of defence, interior, economy and foreign affairs. Legal opposition figures were offered token ministries. The head of the liberal Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), Najib Chebbi, was appointed as minister for regional development; Moustapha Ben Jaafar, from the social-democratic Forum démocratique pour le travail et la liberté (FDTL) was given the health ministry; and Ahmed Ibrahim, from the former Communist Party Ettajdid, was given higher education. To secure some legitimacy, the first meeting of the new cabinet, on January 20, announced the legalisation of all political parties, the release of political prisoners (many of whom had already been freed in the popular insurrection) and the nationalisation of all RCD buildings. Three days of national mourning were declared for the martyrs of the revolution by the same leaders responsible for their killings.

Ben Ali regime without Ben Ali

However on January 19, before the cabinet had met, three ministers affiliated with the UGTT resigned their positions in the face of mass opposition to their participation in the new regime. “We are unable to participate in a government that includes symbols of the old regime”, UGTT secretary general Abdessalem Jrad told the media, after leaving a meeting with the prime minister, according to a report in l’Humanite.

Three opposition parties banned under Ben Ali - the Communist Workers Party (PCOT), the Islamic Hizb an-Nahda and the nationalist Congress for the Republic - all declined to participate in negotiations for a new government, denouncing it as an attempt to maintain the Ben Ali regime without Ben Ali.

The PCOT has called for the spreading of popular committees and the convening of a constituent assembly, bringing together the various forces involved in the popular revolt to rewrite the constitution. PCOT leader Hamma Hammami, freed from prison during the mass uprising on January 14, told Al Jazeera, “This is a national government which has nothing national about it. It’s intended to conserve the old regime in power with all of its authoritarian institutions in place. This is why people are taking to the street with a new slogan ‘We don’t want the RCD’.”

Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi (no relation to the prime minister), told the Financial Times from exile in London, “This is not a rupture with that era ... The faces we see are the same faces of the old regime with some new faces from the official opposition.” He added: “Basing the transition on the current constitution to build a democratic system is a futile attempt to build democracy from dictatorship”.

Even before news of the appointment of a government had spread, thousands of workers and youth were back on the streets demanding the RCD’s exclusion from the government and the party’s dissolution. “They cannot steal the revolution from us”, Abdel Haq Kharshouni, a protester in Tunis, told the Financial Times. “We do not want to be ruled by tyrants any more.” According to l’Humanite, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tunis, demanding the resignation of the new government. “Down with the RCD, torturer of the people!”, “People revolt against the supporters of Ali Ben!” chanted protesters, calling for “a new parliament, a new constitution and a new republic!” Abir Selmi, a young unemployed graduate, told l’Humanite: “The resignation of Ghannouchi from the RCD is part of a strategy to retain power. We do not want the RCD, there is no more confidence [in it]. Without removing the RCDers there will be no real change.”

Nearby, the RCD headquarters -  the target of protesters’ anger - was surrounded by tanks and soldiers, “looking like a Bastille”, according to l’Humanite. Tunisian League of Human Rights president Mokhtar Trifi demanded confiscation of the RCD’s property and the freezing of its accounts. “We must dissolve the party responsible for all our woes, a tool for repression against the people”, lawyer Radhia Nasraoui told l’Humanite. “We do not want this ‘coup’ of a government even with a democratic setting.” Nasraoui called for a cabinet without the RCD that included “representatives of the opposition who really fought the power of Ben Ali plus representatives of regions involved in the changes taking place”.

Strikes and mobilisations continue

On January 21 the UGTT issued a statement calling “for the dissolution of the government and the setting up of a national coalition government which responds to the demands of the demonstrators, the political parties, the NGOs and the population as a whole”. The statement declared that the UGTT is “committed to continuing the legitimate struggle be that through strikes or peaceful demonstrations until the recomposition of the government according to the conditions set by the UGTT”.

However, divisions have emerged within the UGTT over what these conditions are. Members of the union federation’s executive committee - some of whom participated in negotiations with Ghannouchi over his proposed government - were loyal oppositionists under the Ben Ali regime and only reluctantly joined the mobilisations that ousted the dictator.

Meanwhile some UGTT-affiliated unions (including postal workers and teachers) and regional union bodies have continued to advocate strikes to bring down the government. Teachers began an indefinite general strike “until the fall of the government” on January 24, the day schools and universities were scheduled to resume classes. According to Nabil Haouachi, from the national leadership of the primary school teachers’ union, the strike is already “an unprecedented success”.

In corrupt state enterprises, ministries and private companies with close links to the old regime, workers have been taking direct action to oust RCD officials from positions of power. On January 18, UGTT workers at STAR, one of the country’s main insurance companies, went on strike and expelled the company’s CEO, Abdelkarim Merdassi, in protest at his links with the Trabelsi clan. The workers’ physical expulsion of Merdassi from his office was caught on video camera and spread via Facebook.

Similar movements have been reported at the oil distribution company SNDP, where the CEO was ousted by the workers because he had given the Trabelsi clan concessions of petrol stations worth millions of euros. At the Banque de Tunisie, the CEO and other high-ranking officers have been barred from entering their offices by the workers, organised by the UGTT, in order to prevent the destruction of potentially incriminating documents.

Also expelled from their positions by the action of the workers and their trade unions were Moncef Bouden, from the Tax Office, Moncef Dakhli, CEO of the National Agricultural Bank, and Montassar Ouaïli, CEO of Tunisie Telecom. Tunis public transport workers have also struck to demand the dismissal of the CEO of their company.

In the town of Sidi Bou Rouis, in Siliana, the “Bou Rouis Council for the Protection of the People’s Revolution” issued a declaration on January 20 demanding: “The formation of a national transitional government consisting of national figures known for their integrity and who were not involved with the former regime to run state affairs and draft a new constitution and new electoral rules”. The declaration also called for “The dissolution of the House of Representatives and the Council of Advisers” and “The issuing of a ban to prevent elements of the former regime from exercising any political activity on the grounds of complicity with the former ruling party which plunged the country into a dark period dominated by injustice and tyranny, corruption and unemployment and the wastage of an unprecedented amount of wealth ...”.

The Bou Rouis Council followed up its words with deeds when, the following day, a mass demonstration took control of the regional governor’s office, forcing the governor to flee under army protection.

Also on January 21, hundreds of youth set off from Sidi Bouzid in a “liberation caravan” that arrived in the capital the following afternoon. Joined by others from Regueb Kasserine and other towns in the interior, they camped in the yard outside the Kasbah, the site of the prime minister’s office. “The Kasbah is the Bastille of Tunis, and we will bring it down”, said one of the demonstrators, according to a report on Middle East Online.

Protests spread internationally

The conditions that gave rise to Tunisia’s popular uprising - high unemployment and rising food prices - exist throughout the Arab world. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s price index, food is now more expensive than ever, with prices having risen a staggering 32% in the last half of 2010. Governments in the imperialist nations in the US and Western Europe have poured trillions of dollars into propping up banks and pushing down interest rates. A growing money supply and record low interest rates have provided an opportunity for speculators to borrow on the cheap to buy basic commodities that look likely to appreciate, like food and oil.

Meanwhile, workers in North Africa and the Middle East, who have long provided Western Europe’s capitalist businesses with a cheap labour force, face fewer employment opportunities at home or abroad. Consequently the Tunisian uprising is showing signs of spreading across the Arab world.

In neighbouring Algeria in early January, riots broke out in response to price increases for food and other staples. Demonstrators attacked banks, police stations and government offices, and strikes broke out among railway workers and students at five universities, as unions and student groups came together to demand democratisation and an end to police violence. Inspired by the Tunisian uprising, protesters held out against police violence and mass arrests. The Algerian government then retreated, declaring a 41 percent cut to taxes on food.

On January 15, the day after Tunisia’s dictator was toppled, mass demonstrations erupted in Jordan. In actions dubbed “Jordan’s Days of Rage”, thousands of people poured through the streets of the capital, Amman, and other cities to protest rising food prices and demand the government’s resignation. The country’s 14 trade unions held a sit-in outside parliament.

Two days later, a new round of food riots broke out in northern Sudan, where the government is pushing up prices by removing subsidies on food and petroleum.

And in Egypt, where almost half of the country’s 80 million people live under the UN poverty line of US$2 a day, 20,000 democracy activists marched through central Cairo on January 25. Described by its organisers as a “day of revolution against police brutality, poverty, corruption and unemployment”, the demonstration demanded a higher minimum wage and the end of dictator Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30 years in power. In the largest protest in Egypt for years, protesters defiantly held up placards reading: “Tunisia is the solution” and shouted “Down with Mubarak!”, as their protest was attacked by water cannon, baton charges and tear gas. Thousands also marched in Alexandria and other Egyptian cities.

US, France seek to prop up remnants

Fearful of the challenge posed by Tunisia’s revolution to stable capitalist rule - not only in Tunisia, but throughout the Arab world - Washington and Paris have been quick to throw their support behind Ghannouchi’s fake “national unity” government. On January 24, Al Jazeera reported that US secretary of state Hillary Clinton had called Ghannouchi, saying that “the US was encouraged by the indications that the interim government is trying to be inclusive”.

On the same day, according to Al Jazeera, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said his government had previously “underestimated” the anger of the Tunisian people against Ben Ali. Acknowledging that his government had been “slow” to speak out against Ben Ali - allegedly to avoid being seen as “interfering” in the sovereignty of the former French colony - Sarkozy announced an offer of emergency aid to Tunisia during this “transition” period. “I have asked [prime minister] Francois Fillon to prepare measures that will be presented to Tunisia to help the transitional government, especially on the economic front”, Sarkozy told reporters in Paris.

These moves to bestow political and economic support on Ghannouchi’s illegitimate government are aimed at shoring up Washington and Paris’s neo-colonial control over the North African nation and preventing other Arab regimes from toppling as unrest spreads. The Tunisian revolution deserves our determined solidarity. It is an inspiration not only to those struggling against the system of neo-colonial power in the Arab world, but for working people everywhere.