Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution is at a crossroads: will the wind of protest stop with the fall of Ben Ali and the composition of a “unity government” already weakened by the resignation of four ministers? Or will the mobilization continue, leading to a new system of governance?
The basic question is, will we witness a socialist revolution in the near future or will the Tunisian protest movement end with this democratic revolution? This is a common feature of revolutionary processes around the world and across time, and the outcome has varied greatly. The events of the past days are a good indicator of what we can expect in the near future.
On Monday, 17th January, three days after ex-President Ben Ali resigned from power and after one month of popular protest, which caused 78 deaths, Mohammed Ghannouchi, the Tunisian prime minister, announced the new so-called “unity government”. It includes three opposition leaders and a few personalities from civil society, while eight ministers from the previous regime were able to keep key posts such as defense, foreign affairs, interior affairs and finance.
The main duty of this unity government is to prepare the presidential and legislative elections, according to the prime minister. Ghannouchi also indicated that the Ministry of Information, accused of censoring freedom of the press and expression in the country, had been suppressed. He announced the upcoming release of all political prisoners and "total freedom of information" in the country.
The new “unity” government was met with anger and protests by many Tunisians throughout the country. On Monday up to 1,000 protesters gathered mainly near Tunis' Habib Bourguiba Avenue to demonstrate against the announcement. Tanks and troops were deployed, and water cannons and tear gas fired against demonstrators who demanded that members of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (CDR) be excluded from the new government.
"The revolution continues! CDR out!" chanted hundreds of protesters dispersed by the police. Similar rallies were held in Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine and Regueb. On Tuesday, demonstrations were also organized in the center of Tunis and several other cities such as Sfax, to protest against the new government.
In Tunis, riot police fired tear gas and clashed with protesters during a rally against the new government in the centre of the capital while security forces tried to prevent protesters from regrouping in different towns. The resignation of the interim President Fouad Mebazaa and Prime Minister Ghannouchi from the former ruling party CDR on Tuesday night did not appease the opposition or the protesters.
Masoud Ramadani, a workers union activist, actually declared that this government did not answer the aspirations of the trade unions leaders. This feeling was translated politically on Tuesday, when Tunisia’s junior minister for transportation and two other ministers members of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) resigned from the newly formed government. The union decided on Tuesday not to recognize the new government at an extraordinary meeting near Tunis. The head of the UGTT Abdesalam Jerad criticised the government for including among its members "barons of the old regime who participated in the repression and in the system of dictatorship". He added that he wanted a government that meets the aspirations of the Union and of the people, and that they will continue to struggle with workers and others to achieve this demand.
By Tuesday afternoon, the Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedom (FDLT) announced the suspension of its participation in the “unity” government, where it had a ministry.
The Communist Party of Tunisian Workers (PCOT) actually described the formation of the new government as a "small reform" (reformette) and said they would not present any presidential candidate. Hamma Hammami, the party’s spokesperson, declared that although this is a national government, it has nothing national about it. He added that it intended to conserve the old regime in power with all of its authoritarian institutions in place.
The Islamist movement el-Nahdha, through its leader in exile in London, Rachid al Ghannouchi, said it would consider joining the government if asked to do so. These two major political movements were not included in the new “unity” government and they are still prohibited in Tunisia.
One of Tunisia's best known opposition figures, Moncef Marzouki, a 65-year-old medical doctor and human rights activist, was met by a crowd of his supporters at Tunis airport on Tuesday. The previous day he had characterised the country's new government as a "masquerade" still dominated by supporters of ex-President Ben Ali, criticising it as a "false opening".
The government has only included three opposition political parties which were already legalized under the Ben Ali’s regime. Members of opposition parties included in the interim government have defended its composition, however, saying that the members of the incumbent party who have been retained are not politicians, but technocrats.
The Tunisian people are back in the streets to finish their revolution and do not want to see further traces of the old regime. The UGTT, with the important participation of the students, are leading the movement of protests. These are the two sectors of society that have been the most affected by liberal economic policies, advised by the IMF, of the regime these past years.
The Tunisian economy is based primarily on service companies (43.2% of GDP in 2007), on products with low added value (olive oil, grains) and the export of phosphate (second exporter globally). Economic development is also very uneven: predominantly focused on the Tell region to the west (hill region) with phosphates, and on the coast, with industries and tourism.
This leaves the South and North with very significant poverty rates. The government's liberal economic policy did not develop Tunisia; quite the opposite, it gave away the country to a small minority mainly linked to the regime, as well as to foreign interests. Tunisian industries now enrich Europe.
The privileged relationship between France and Ben Ali is partly explained by the fact that it was the most important foreign investor in Tunisia in 2008, with a record of 280 million euro in investments. Over 1,250 French companies are now active in Tunisia, with a total of 106,000 jobs. The unemployment rate nevertheless doubled through the years, especially affecting young graduate students who cannot find work opportunities, while the rate of enrollment in school declined and the country observed growing inequality in society.
The UGTT has led the opposition to these policies for years, despite being severely weakened by a combination of repression, privatisation of state jobs and sometimes accommodation by the union leadership. In 1978 and 1983, it was workers from the UGTT who launched strikes against neoliberal policies, which were increasing the cost of living.
In 2008, it is once again the UGTT that forms the basis of the uprisings in the mines, mainly in the region of Gafsa. On Friday, 14th January, the UGTT called for a general strike, and more than 10,000 workers and students gathered in the streets of Tunis. Throughout the country there were thousands more marching. Yesterday, the UGTT, together with other opposition political parties including PCOT, decided to not recognize the current “unity government”, reflecting the feeling of the protesters.
The movement of protest is showing its will to go further with the revolution by refusing to pander to the former regime. They want real change in the nature of the political system, which will not allow the return of the old order. In this respect, Trotsky's theory of “permanent revolution” is relevant.
Firstly, on the Tunisian level, we have seen that the democratic revolution did not get rid of the former regime. The unity government includes 8 ministers from it, and they hold key portfolios such as the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for running the next presidential elections. No plans have been announced to nationalise key industries and/or to recuperate important parts of the economy held by the relatives of the Ben Ali family.
The current “unity” government clearly does not reflect the expectations of the protesters. The Tunisian people want a government that reflects the protest movement and its needs and aspirations, which are democratic and social. Working people, with the mobilisation of students, should take the next step in order not to let the old regime return.
One solution is to take the same measures which were taken during the liberation of Tunisia in 1956, by nationalising the main resources of the country. In 1956, Tunisia nationalised the resources that had been stolen and the state managed 80 percent of the economy, provoking strong growth. Today, large sectors of the Tunisian economy have been privatised.
Important sectors of the economy have also been sold through the years to a small minority linked to the ex-president's family, strongly facilitated by the corruption of the regime. They now control banks such as the International Arab Bank of Tunisia (BIAT), Tunisian bank, Zeitounia and Mediobanca; service companies such as the Tunisian Navigation Company (CTN), the national transport company Ennakl and the company MAS, involved in the management of airport services in Tunis; and the media, including major radio stations and TV channels and newspapers.
The Ben Ali family also possess the Cactus company, which holds 60 percent of the national channel income. The family is also responsible for stealing people's land; tens of hectares of farmland have actually been distributed to the family. They were finally able, with the complicity of the Central Bank, to transfer massive amounts of money overseas. Transfers from the Ben Ali family have been estimated at $18 billion in the period 1987-2009, the equivalent of the Tunisian debt.
Therefore in order to secure political democracy and to try to put an end to inequality, exploitation and oppression, the movement of protest led by the workers and students must be able to move towards socialist revolution. This will not be possible if all the means of production, as well as the mental ones, are in the control of this small minority of capitalists linked to the former regime.
Workers and students can continue to organise committees in neighborhoods and villages, as was witnessed throughout the country since Friday, in order to continue the struggle and spread the message of revolution. Democratic rights will be guaranteed not through a so-called unity government, mostly composed of former regime members and already discredited by the resignation of ministers linked to the UGTT, but by the working class accession to power.
St. Just, a leader of the French Revolution in 1789, declared, “Those who make half a revolution dig their own grave.” This has shown to be true throughout history, especially if we compare the German revolution, which had its ups and downs until 1923, but ended with the victory of capitalism and the rise of Nazism, while the Russian revolution allowed the establishment of the Soviet Union, as well as workers councils to rule Russia until they were destroyed by Stalin in the late 1920s.
Secondly, in order for the socialist revolution to be successful and to secure its achievements from foreign interference, it needs to spread to other countries in the region. The neighboring authoritarian regimes remained silent during the whole period of the revolt until now, fearing similar events in their countries. Sources say that Libyan leader Khadhafi publicly regret the departure of Ben Ali, has helped the ex-president flee the country, and assisted groups of looters to create further anarchy in the street.
Many regimes in the region share the same patterns than Tunisia: authoritarian, with high levels of corruption, few democratic rights, high unemployment, particularly affecting graduates, and high costs of living, while social rights have been increasingly cut through the years following IMF policies.
The Arab streets welcomed and congratulated the Tunisians for the Jasmine Revolution, reflected in images of people waving Tunisian flags or tearing pictures of Ben Ali all over the region. Many protests also took place in several Arab countries following the revolution in Tunisia, the majority with social crisis features. In Jordan, thousands of people in different cities protested against high unemployment and high costs of living. The protesters asked as well for the resignation of the current government, and in a communiqu√© delivered by Jordanian Unions they declared that the revolution in Tunisia is a lesson for all, calling the Arab crowd to start an uprising against their authoritarian leaders. Fifty Jordanian trade unionists staged a sit-in on Saturday in front of the Embassy of Tunisia in Amman, and called for the spread of the Tunisian revolution.
In the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Sunday, a thousand students called on Arab nations to rise against their leaders, just like the Tunisians. In Oman, about 200 people demonstrated in the capital Muscat on Monday, denouncing the high costs of living, a rare phenomenon in this monarchy. In addition to these demonstrations, the Tunisian who set himself on fire has been taken as an example elsewhere in the Arab world. People have repeated his gesture these past few days in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania as a way to protest against their conditions of life.
A few authoritarian regimes have understood the danger of similar events in their countries and have announced social welfare plans in order to avoid them. Kuwait, for example, has decided to grant $4 billion to the indigenous population and to provide free food for a period of fourteen months during a series of national celebrations on the anniversary of the Emirate. In Syria, which is witnessing more and more inequality in society in the last few years, announced by presidential decree on Monday the creation of a "National Fund for Social Aid" of $250 million. The fund is intended to assist some 420,000 families living in extreme poverty. The Syrian government also announced its intention to invest $14 billion in human development within its five year plan (2011-2015).
The Tunisian revolution may spread throughout the countries of the region that suffer from the same ills of the Ben Ali regime. The revolutionary process in Tunisia will definitely be strengthened by similar events in neighboring countries and the toppling of a second authoritarian regime. Progressive movements could then gather their forces against reactionary and imperialist forces, and become the basis for other progressive movements struggling in their countries.
Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution has never has been so current: the Tunisian protest movement has refused the “unity” government, as well as all the symbols of the former regime. It has shown its intention to continue the revolution and make it permanent. Workers and students have now to continue the struggle by challenging the current regime and create new forms of power in order to achieve a socialist revolution.
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