Since the beginning of the year, the mining area of Gafsa, Tunisia, has been in a state of social turmoil. In this phosphate mining area, the Compagnie des Phosphates de Gafsa reigns supreme. It is supported by the despotic and corrupt regime of Ben Ali. In addition to the pollution linked to the activities of extraction and treatment, poverty and mass unemployment have triggered a huge protest movement.
Workers and youth in the mining area are mobilising to defend their dignity, and are struggling for jobs, better housing conditions, health and education. They denounce this system of economic and social plunder and looting. The strikes have increased. The teachers, some branches of the civil service and even small shopkeepers have been mobilized.
The movement has taken on various forms. For example, in several cities in the area, unemployed youths and widows of workers who have been victims of accidents at the Compagnie des Phosphates are organising "sit-ins" with tents in front of official buildings. The Ben Ali regime has violently suppressed the movement, for fear that Redeyef could become a symbol of the anger of the youth and workers throughout the country, and that the movement could spread. Hundreds of arrests have taken place since the beginning of the year. The police harass and brutalize on a daily basis the people in struggle. The city is virtually under siege. That is how things stand in this country where, according to Sarkozy, "the space for freedoms is progressing!"
The Gafsa region is known for its militant and revolutionary traditions. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the strike which took place under Bourguiba, that began in the mining area of Redeyef and spread to workers and youth throughout the region of Gafsa, and eventually lead to a general nationwide strike. At that time, the brutal repression of the movement claimed hundreds of lives. Thousands of workers and trade unionists were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
The so-called "economic miracle"
The Ben Ali regime boasts of an "economic miracle" in Tunisia. But who benefits from this growth that is based primarily on mass tourism? The capitalists who dominate the tourism industry and rake in all the profits! Huge fortunes are being accumulated through real estate speculation, while the mass of the population languishes in unemployment and poverty. While French, Spanish and German companies relocate to Tunisia to take advantage of an underpaid and over-exploited workforce, other companies throw their workers onto the streets and leave Tunisia to find even less expensive workers elsewhere. Another result of the Ben Ali "miracle" is that hundreds of young people are trying to flee the country by sea, on ramshackle boats. Many end up drowning.
On May 7, Redeyef, a town of 30,000 inhabitants, was surrounded by the police. According to witnesses, several hundred people ‑ men, women and children - taking with them only the bare necessities, tried to leave the city with the idea of abandoning it to the security forces. They were dissuaded from doing this by the leaders of the strike committee, and finally they decided to remain and continue the fight. Indeed, a "mass evacuation" of this kind would not have been an effective means of struggle. In any case, this episode illustrates the enormous gulf that has opened up between the people and the authorities. It also reflects the exasperation of a population that faces the behaviour of the "official" trade union leaders, who are notoriously corrupt and completely in the pay of the regime. Hand in hand with the latter, these union "leaders" have tried to isolate and demoralize the strikers and the population in revolt.
Two days later, on May 9, Taher Saidi, aged 44, was seriously wounded during an intervention of the security forces in the town of Om Larais (35,000 inhabitants). He died on May 19 at the regional hospital of Gafsa.
The incident that led to the events of May 7 was the death of an unemployed youth who, the day before, had been electrocuted inside a local electricity installation, following a particularly brutal intervention on the part of the security forces against a demonstration of unemployed youths. They were protesting against the results of the less than crystal clear entrance exams to the Compagnie des Phosphates de Gafsa, that were marred by cronyism. The company had in fact agreed to take on unemployed youths from the region in January. A group decided to occupy the electric generator - with the power switched off - that supplies energy to the plant. A police brigade armed with tear gas began to evacuate the generator. The electricity supply was switched on again and several young demonstrators were electrocuted in the process. Rescue operations did not begin until several hours after the accident. The young man who died was 26 years. His name was Hichem Ben Jeddou El Aleimi. Another, Ahmed Ben Salah Fajraoui, aged 21, was seriously injured.
Furthermore, the Ben Ali regime has arrested several militants, among whom are the students Znaïdia and Jihed Nejib Ben Ali, but also the unemployed Houcine Ben Soltane, Abid Tababi, Ismail Hlaimi and Atef Ben Salehn. They were awaiting trial in court for May 29.
The imprisoned students and unemployed youth, as all the inhabitants of the mining area of Gafsa, need our solidarity. However, mere declarations of solidarity are not enough. Faced with a media wall of silence surrounding the events in the mining area of Gafsa, La Riposte calls upon all trade unions and left parties to do what they can to bring this struggle to the attention of workers in France and internationally. Trade unions in the press and the TV industry have an important role to play in this. Airport and tourist industry workers' unions should also be mobilized to denounce the repression. We must initiate strike actions and trade union boycotts that directly affect capitalist interests in Tunisia. Solidarity also requires the raising and sending of funds to support the struggle.
La Riposte wrote this article in close collaboration with direct participants in the struggle in the Gafsa region. This means we did not have to rely on accounts of the events in the European press. We thank them warmly for their valuable assistance.
- Tunisia: youth still defiant of the Ben Ali dictatorship by Jean Duval (March 14, 2005)
- Tens of thousands of youth rise up against the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia by Jean Duval (March 7, 2005)
- Tunisia: mass protests against the regime by Sidi-Bou-Said (April 22, 2000)