Tunisia: Revolution in the balance

Issue section: 
(386)

Fathi Chamkhi is a member of the Popular Front coalition, and Mokhtar Ben Hafsa is a school teacher and union activist. They spoke to Jaouhar Tonsy about the struggle for the Tunisian revolution.


The third anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution is marked by political gridlock and a crisis for the ruling Ennahda party, the Islamist government elected in the wake of the uprising. What form is this taking?

Ennahda has been weakened by waves of widespread protests and deep popular anger that have forced it into discussions with the other opposition parties over a future "non-political" government.

The talks started on 5 October under the umbrella of a national dialogue organised by an alliance of the powerful trade union federation (UGTT), the employers' organisation (UTICA), the Tunisian League of Human Rights and the Order of Lawyers.

The aim of the dialogue is to prepare an orderly retreat for Ennahda and the establishment of a supposedly "independent" government. However, the names short-listed to lead this government are all either veterans of the old regime, or politicians committed to implementing neoliberal policies.

Tunisia's ruling class is desperately attempting to seek a way out of this deepening political and economic crisis. The mass protests that followed the political assassinations of key Popular Front leaders Chokri Belaid in February and Mohamed Brahmi in July could have led to the overthrow of Ennahda.

The murders triggered deep unrest and opened the prospect of a broad political force capable of bringing real change in the interests of workers and the poor. But this opportunity was missed.

Why did the UGTT and Popular Front step back from channelling this wave of anger?

The Popular Front is an alliance of various Arab nationalist and left wing organisations initially formed as a coalition of activists fighting to realise the demands of freedom and social justice raised at the beginning of the revolution.

Due to lack of conviction that the solution would come from further struggle by the masses, Popular Front leaders preferred to build an alliance with the liberals and right wing parties such as Nida Tunis (Call for Tunisia) - a party of businessmen and stalwarts of the former Ben Ali regime.

Ennahda was seriously shaken by the murder of Belaid and Brahmi. A wave of demonstrations against the ruling party triggered two country-wide general strikes that were led by the UGTT. But union leaders then reined in the movement in favour of negotiations.

In August workers and activists occupied municipal buildings in the restive central regions, and raised the slogan of self-management in a series of regional and local assemblies. Some of these assemblies were met by brutal police repression.

In bigger cities a campaign labelled Erhal (Leave Now!) was growing. A week before the "national dialogue", a proposal by civil servants for a wave of disobedience in order to cleanse their institutions of the newly appointed managers was gaining popularity.

Such a campaign could have taken the demands for real democracy into the workplaces and provided support to the call for popular self-management. The Popular Front leadership did not push for the disobedience campaign, but instead is used the Erhal campaign to force Ennahda to negotiate.

On 6 October large protests were held to commemorate the six months since the assassination of Chokri Belaid. The leaders of the Popular Front and UGTT called for their members to raise Tunisian flags and chant patriotic slogans. The excessive use of nationalism in all protests, even by the left, neutralised any possibility of deepening the struggle along class lines.

The leader of Nida Tunis appeared on national TV to oppose the campaign of disobedience, explaining that it threatened the "continuity of the state". Meanwhile Popular Front leaders abandoned the call for justice for the revolution's martyrs, while it did not seriously raise the demand for social justice.

There is widespread unease among the rank and file members of the Popular Front about the collaboration with Nida Tunis, with many refusing to attend meetings.

Amid this general discontent prime minister Ali Laarayedh declared a new "war on terror" against radical Islamists, the Salafists. What is behind this move?

The designation of the Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia as a "terrorist organisation" marked a dangerous turn to a "war on terror", and a rallying call for the forces of counter-revolution. In October, in the central region of Sidi Bouzid, nine members of the security forces were killed in clashes with armed Salafists.

The response of the left and trade union leaders was to drop any criticism of the police - who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of revolutionaries during the uprising against dictator
Ben Ali. While we should recognise that Salafists who have attacked trade unionists, journalists, artists and school teachers in the past two years are a real threat to the revolution, this does not change the reality that the police are as vicious and dangerous as they were under Ben Ali.

The current direction of the left neither reduces the risks of terrorism nor does it improve the security of ordinary people; it only helps to strengthen the ruling class.

The government is preparing a new round of attacks on workers and the poor. The minister of finance announced new austerity measures in the 2014 budget, while the government committed to these measures when it signed the 1 billion pound IMF standby agreement in June.

What are the objectives of the revolutionaries?

We need to build a mass political force that will fight against police crimes and corruption, oppose the austerity measures and fight for real demands of social justice. The Tunisian working class has already proved it can overthrow one dictator; now it faces new challenges in defending the gains of the revolution, as well as realising the demands for social justice.