Report: Revolution and counter-revolution in Tunisia

From the March 26th to 30th the 13th World Social Forum took place in Tunisia. Tens of thousands of activists from hundreds of organisations around the world came together in workshops and meetings on the campus of the university to discuss solutions to the social problems of the world.

How do you know that you have just arrived in a country that is in the middle of a revolution? Is it the fact that the first thing you see when you arrive at the airport is a group of workers in dispute, who every now and then applaud, apparently, positive comments? Is it the fact that at dinner at a small inn, where sports are being shown on the TV, everybody is talking normally, but once the news starts, silence sets in and everybody present follows it attentively? That the innkeeper with the cry "Dégage" (Get out) throws a paper ball at the TV when the Prime Minister is shown, and this is honoured with laughter of approval? Do you notice it because of the ranks of veteran trade union and party leaders of the Left on a demonstration are protected by human chains of young activists who often consist of 15, 16-year-old girls? Or is it simply the fact that when people realize that you, as a foreigner, are interested in politics do not avoid a discussion, but are eager to hear your thoughts on all sorts of issues and to discuss them? It is probably a mixture of all this and much more. It all shows that people no longer shrug their shoulders and capitulate helplessly before reality, but are conscious of the fact that they are able to change society collectively themselves.

And a change of society is something which is badly needed in Tunisia. Ali, an activist from a self-managed radio station from the revolutionary stronghold of Kasserine, summarized the current situation as follows: "The only thing that has changed with the revolution is that we won the right to say what we think".

A government of the Islamist Ennahda party is in power with its coalition partners, (a centrist and a social democratic party) and is derogatoraly called the "Troika" by the people. The orientation of this government is clear: the privileges of the capitalist class and imperialism must be defended, if needed by force. For the revolutionary workers and youth, every day and in the most cruel way, one fact is shown again and again: as long as the old system is not destroyed and the power of the capitalists and imperialists not broken, the situation will not change. Unemployment continues to rise, mainly because of the "uncertainty of investment" and the subsequent flight of capital from a revolutionary country, in which the workers claim their rights and no longer accept the gradual destruction of their lives. The state apparatus is the same as under Ben Ali, the police clamp down with the same brutality against the repeated strikes, demonstrations and uprisings that have never really stopped since the fall of Ben Ali.

The most prominent victim of the counter-revolution is Chokri Belaïd, the Secretary General of the "Popular Front". In this umbrella organization, the most important communist and leftwing- nationalist organizations in the country have been united since October. This murder was preceded by an ever growing campaign by the counterrevolution. They attacked trade union houses and demonstrations of the Left and threatened to murder leading figures of the movement, until finally, on the 6th of February, Belaïd was assassinated. The revolutionaries say that members of the  “League for the Protection of the Revolution“ are responsible for the murder. Contrary to what their name may imply, they are counterrevolutionary thugs and maintain close links with the ruling Ennahda party. The reaction to this murder was tremendous. A general strike was called for the day of the funeral, which was fully respected. The whole country came to a standstill and 1.4 million people followed the coffin in the capital Tunis in a demonstration that shows the enormous potential of the revolutionary movement. The reason for that, a young journalist told me: "If Chokri Belaïd can be killed, it can happen to all of us."

The reaction of the masses to the murder of Belaïd showed the ruling class that an open counter-revolutionary offensive at the moment is too dangerous. The masses are undefeated. That´s why the ruling class chose a more subtle way of counterrevolution in regards to the Social Forum: that of distraction, exhaustion, deception. The government did not fight the World Social Forum, but rather tried to pick it up to give it a harmless, even counter-revolutionary character. Thus posters appeared all over Tunis, hung up by the city administration, which read: "The revolution for dignity very much welcomes the participants of the World Social Forum from 26. to 30. of March in Tunis ". The TV always reported in detail about the harmless aspects of the forum. And the police was very passive during the whole time. Esma, an activist of the (Communist) Workers Party told me during a demonstration: "Now they are holding back because they are standing before the public in the whole world, but when you are gone, they are beating us up again."

Ennahda Islamists and even the “League for the Protection of the Revolution“ attempted to be at the front of the opening demonstration and the demonstration for a free Palestine, which were both organised in the schedule of the World Social Forum. But the majority of the tens of thousands of participants, especially the Left and Tunisian trade unions, rejected this use of the demonstrations by the counter-revolution. This was very clear on the "Free Palestine" demonstration: During the whole march sentiments against the Islamists were very prevalent and were well placed to get all the media attention. Slogans were chanted against the collaboration with Israel (by the government) and were directed also directly against the Islamists. Several times, almost an open confrontation erupted. The mood was very tense, especially in front of the Palestinian Embassy, where the final rally was held. Islamists who had placed themselves on a canopy in front of the Embassy with the help of the police, were shouted at. The pressure was so great that one of them shed tears. Finally, they had to bow out and leave the roof in haste.

Not only the government, but also American and European big business were clearly trying directly to channel the energy of the activists of the WSF along safe paths. Their method was to participate in the Forum through various foundations and NGOs: for example, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (the Foundation of the German liberal FDP party) which among other things openlly supported the military coup in Honduras, took part. Even USAID, which is a direct agency of the CIA, was present. In the final analysis all these organizations had only one task: to hide the fact that the problems of the workers and the youth cannot be solved within the capitalist system .

The meeting of the IMT was attended by 130 peopleThe meeting of the IMT was attended by 130 peopleHowever, this was no easy task at the Forum. Most of the mainly young Tunisian activists who came did not seek a way to solve their problems within the capitalist system, but a way to overcome the system as a whole. There was a tremendous interest in the experiences of other countries, theoretical explanations for the problems of the Arab revolution in general and the Tunisian revolution in particular. An expression of this was the participation in the workshop "Marxism and the Arab revolution", organized by the International Marxist Tendency: The auditorium was packed with over 130 participants, the debate was heated, and long after the  meeting had officially ended there were small groups that discussed the fate of the revolution.

At the World Social Forum it was clear that the revolution continues. Not only that, it is extending its basis all the time and it is becoming more and more clear for the broad masses, who are on its side. Above all, the counterrevolutionary character of the ruling Islamists is increasingly clear. In the elections of the university students in March of last year the revolutionary UGET got 36%, just above the Islamist UGTEs 31%. This year, the UGET was able to unite 71% of the votes!

But the example of the UGET also highlights where the problems of the revolution are. While the rank and file consists to a large extent of communists, the General Secretary is the 40-year-old plus Ezzeddine Zaâtour, who took over the leadership of this organization in 2000 under the Ben Ali regime. Since 2003, no conference has taken place in which he could have been voted out. If the UGET is a revolutionary force, then it is not because of but in spite of its leadership and only because of the enormous sacrifice of its activists!

The same applies to the UGTT trade union federation. The enormous authority that the organization achieved through its role in the revolution at the local level  is sharply contrasted by the policy of the national leadership. On 13th of December at the last minute the union leadership cancelled a general strike against the government which it had reluctandly called previously because of enormous pressure from below. What was the result of all this? This hesitation and wavering strengthened the confidence of the counterrevolution, which then went over onto the offensive. The murder of Chokri Belaïd was the ouutcome.

The political situation is at an impasse. The general strike following the assasination of Chokri Belaid has given a very strong impetus to the Left forces and the workers movement. When the right wing Ennahda party tried to mobilise their supporters on the streets as a show of strength and a counterweight to the revolutionary tsunami, the announced million men march could only bring 15.000 onto their feet in Tunis. Compare that with the number of people at the funeral of Chokri Belaid and the numbers who participated in the general strike and the numbers of protests still going on in the country. The overall balance of power in Tunisia at the moment is clearly on the side of the revolution.

This is starting to be reflected in the popularity of the Popular Front. 14% would vote for it according to the latest surveys, after it had got 6% in the elections to the Constituent Assembly last year. But this is still less than its true potential. It is the political force that is perceived as the most consistent opposition to the hated government by combining the demands of the workers, the youth and the poor and publicly represents them. Ennahda is clearly on the defensive and with its back against the wall. So why does the Left not gain more support at the moment? What surely plays a role is that the decades-long carefully nurtured anti-communist prejudices only dissipate very slowly. But the main problem is this: the Left itself does not take the much needed bold iniative to break out of the stalemate either.

Above all, what is needed in a revolution is a clear view of the situation and a bold strategy to get out of the crisis which can be understood by all and tackles the burning problems of the masses. And the first question which has to be answered is: what kind of revolution are we experiencing?

The leadership of the Popular Front offers no clear answer. They are thrown around between elections and a new revolution, between the social needs of the masses and the “democratic“ openings inside the state like a sailor on a ship in a stormy sea. Why is that the case? Because on the one hand, they are subjected to enormous pressure from below: The masses want solutions to their burning problems such as unemployment, poverty, long working hours, high prices, oppression of the most simple democratic rights and growing insecurity.

But on the other hand, they are also under enormous pressure by the bourgeoisie and imperialism, who want a “responsible“ and “modest“ opposition. Unfortunatly, this pressure is not countered enough because the leadership of the Popular Front is still caught up in the Stalinist two stage theory: firstly, we have to complete the democratic stage, where we support the progressive national bourgeoisie in carrying out the democratic tasks, then, in the distant future, we can go over to the socialist stage.

But the truth is this: in the age of Imperialism these two stages cannot be seperated because the bourgoisie in third world countries is a reactionary force and not a revolutionary one as for example it was in the French revolution. Therefore, the workers have to take power even to ensure the most democratic demands, but then cannot stand still having achieved these demands, but also have to begin the socialist transformation of society. It is also true that there cannot be socialism isolated in one third world country. So the task is also to link the movements together with the revolutionary movements in the whole world.

What is needed is an immediate, vigorous and unremmiting offensive of the Popular Front and the UGTT union. A programme of socio-economic and democraric demands need to be formulated and agitated for in the neigbourhoods, the schools, universities, factories etc. Those demands should give a clear solution to the urgent needs of the masses. They should be fought for with demonstrations, marches and sit-ins culminating in a general strike with the aim of overthrowing the Tunisian Troika.

The current Constituant Assembly is a farce and dominated by the elements of the old regime or those willing to compromise with it. The poor and exploited masses are not represented by that assembly. That's why the Popular Front and the UGTT should encourage the setting up of organs of representation amongst those layers who have not gained from the revolution: the workers should elect representatives in their factories, the peasants in their villages, the poor in their neighbourhoods. These must meet at local and regional level and finally bring together elected (and revocable!) representatives of the masses in a National Assembly.

This Assembly could be what the revolutionary masses have been searching for since the overthrow of Ben Ali: an instrument which can finally take power from the old elite and bring the revolution to its victorious conclusion! If this is not done, the counterrevolution will succeed with its strategy of exhausting the opposition, of slowly but surely regrouping its forces and finally crushing the revolution in blood.

The fact is this: Tunisia needs a second revolution to enforce the objectives of the first, be they of a democratic or social nature. For this, a general strike has to be prepared, the workers must take power and then the dictatorship, imperialism and capitalism be eliminated for all time.