Since the departure of Ben Ali, the opposition movement in Tunisia is still active. But the social and economic demands that brought Tunisians to the streets months ago have not even begun to be addressed.

The Committee for the Protection of the Revolution, formed in February in response to ongoing protests, draws together over 28 separate organisations, both liberal and conservative forces, including the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the Islamic party An-Nahda and leftist movements. This dynamic coalition has strengthened the hand of protesters, who staged sit-ins in Kasbah Square in front of the prime minister’s office, forcing the resignation of two cabinets viewed as too closely affiliated with the Ben Ali regime.

At the same time, the Committee has been relatively silent on socio-economic questions.


The balance sheet has been mixed. On the one hand, achievements over political freedoms and the dismantling of Ben Ali’s regime are undeniable. Most previously banned political parties have been legalised, and a decision to elect a Constitutional Assembly to write a new Constitution has been made; Ben Ali and many of his ex-partners have been sued.

Political parties, most of which did not participate in the movement, were freed by the revolution. Nevertheless the government has still refused to legalise five parties, including three Islamist parties, believing that such parties are undemocratic. The parties are Hizb-et-Tahrir (Liberation Party), As-Salam (Peace) and the Tunisian Sunni party. The other two parties are the Free Democratic People’s Party and the Liberal Democratic Party of Tunisia.

Their applications were rejected because, according to the Tunisian Constitution, a political party cannot base its principles or its programme on a religious, linguistic, racial, sexual or regional basis. It must also undertake to renounce all forms of violence, bigotry and discrimination, which most of them did. Hizb-et-Tahrir advocates against violence or terrorism, but has not ruled out the use of “rebellion and civil disobedience for the establishment of an Islamic state” and is allegedly opposed to equality between men and women.

On the other hand, social and economic questions have not been put forward, and are notably opposed by conservative and imperialist forces.


The Tunisian government began to enforce neoliberal policies on a small scale from 1985, through the imposition of IMF and World Bank sponsored structural adjustment. The UGTT rejected these policies, and the state cracked down on the union. It was nevertheless Ben Ali’s arrival to power in 1987, with the seizure of political institutions, that allowed international financial institutions to control Tunisia.

Neoliberal policies were reinforced in the 1990s, with free trade agreements with the EU in particular, considered by many Tunisians as colonial agreements. The EU supported the Ben Ali regime from the outset. Multinational companies were exempt from paying taxes for 10 years, and foreign direct investment increased. The labour code was also reformed in the 1990s, allowing for more temporary contracts with miserable salaries and no social security. Many businesses and public departments, including hospitals, high schools and universities, would no longer be required to hire staff directly for cleaning and other services.

The revolution did oust Ben Ali, but has not yet challenged these economic agreements, and Tunisia continues to open its markets to European companies. European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso recently promised Tunisia ‚Ǩ140 million of extra EU aid, on top of the existing ‚Ǩ257 million for 2011-2013, if the new government takes “strong and clear action” to prevent its citizens from leaving for Europe, and taking back the thousands that have already made it to Italy.

Today Tunisia is facing a severe economic crisis with rising unemployment, poverty rates and inflation. The sectors most affected by the near-paralysis of economic activity since late December are tourism, transport, phosphates exportation and the public sector. It is in this atmosphere that any socioeconomic demands are labelled counter-revolutionary by the media and other conservative forces in the country.


Most political parties limit their demands to reforming bourgeois institutions. The leader of the Al-Nahda political party, Rached Ghannouchi, recently stated that the demand for higher salaries is counter-revolutionary at this point in time. The overwhelming majority of political parties have no social or economic programmes. There is much political rhetoric, but in terms of development models, almost nothing. They have been preoccupied with slogans about freedom, and have not challenged the economic agreements signed with the EU, IMF and World Bank. Even the leadership of the UGTT has not officially requested a review of these agreements. Perversely, the managers’ unions are asking for economic reparations due to the revolution and these demands are being received as totally normal.

The struggles of workers and the unemployed ceased with the formation of the Committee for the Protection of the Revolution. Paralysis on the social front is a big problem for the future of the Tunisian revolution. There will be no genuine democracy without social justice, and there will be no social justice without redistribution of wealth and a break with the neoliberal policies, including the cancellation of the debt of the dictatorship, which amounts to 1.12 trillion dinars (557 million Euros). This has to be paid between April and September, at the expense of employment and urgent social spending.

The PCOT (Parti Communiste Ouvrier Tunisien), led by the historical opponent Hamma Hammani, is openly in favour of a moratorium on the foreign debt in order to avoid paying. The PCOT also suggested reducing the budget of the Ministry of Interior which is four times that of the Ministry of Justice. The party also reminded the government of revising the prices of certain food products, which was announced by the ex-President and has not been implemented. The PCOT also advocates nationalisation of key resources, resolution of land ownership and distribution issues, and cancelling the debt of small farmers and making urgent decisions over the electrification of shallow wells in the rural regions, especially in Sidi Bouzid.


It is imperative for progressive forces in Tunisia to link the democratic revolution to the social revolution. The most combative unions should boost the mobilisation of workers to ensure their aspirations and demands are not abandoned by the Committee for the Protection of the Revolution, at the expense of an exclusive focus on political reforms. In this case, there is a risk that a large proportion of the population believes that the revolution brought them nothing and turns to other forces. It is also the responsibility of anti-capitalist forces to offer a political programme that links together social and democratic aspirations of the people. Only the construction of a power from below, which involves the organisation of the exploited can give substance to such a prospect. The bases of each union should prioritise these issues.

The lack of organisation of progressive forces could lead to the arrival or return of conservative forces, because although Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (CDR) party was officially dissolved, it has now been resurrected into a handful of separate political parties. The new arrangements make the Islamist Al-Nahda and the CDRist parties, the most well-organised and funded parties. These are the parties most likely to benefit in any future elections. This is why the PCOT wants to postpone the elections of the Constitutional Assembly in order to have deeper debates around crucial questions such as freedom, social and economic questions and the political system.

These forces want to prevent any fundamental change from occurring as a consequence of the revolutionary movement, and wish to do everything possible to sustain and reproduce the same fundamental socio-economic order, with only minor changes. They seek to balance the interests of the ruling class they represent, and the interests of imperialism to which they are inextricably linked, whilst holding the masses in check with democratic and constitutional manoeuvres.

Months after the revolution that brought down 23 years of authoritarian rule, the struggle in Tunisia is far from over. It was the combination of years of state repression, poverty and unemployment that really inspired people to protest, and while they have seen what is possible, the issues that brought them to the streets have not even begun to be addressed.

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