Tunisian student youth remain very defiant despite the repression against them. The immediate reason for the spontaneous student protest two weeks ago was dictator-president Ben Ali’s invitation to Ariel Sharon, the butcher of the Palestinian Intifada, to visit Tunisia in November. This invitation is becoming a focal point through which all the social frustrations of the youth in particular are erupting.
The anger at this invitation has not calmed down in the slightest; on the contrary, many people still remember when the warplanes of Israel bombed the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation based in Tunisia twenty years ago! The leadership of the PLO had been given safe haven in the capital after having been expelled from Lebanon by the soldiers of Tsahal and the reactionary Christian militias.
This act of humiliation is still deeply felt by ordinary Tunisians and is fresh in their memories. The fact that students protesting against the visit of Sharon were severely repressed has increased the unpopularity of Ben Ali and his regime. In an attempt to calm the anger of the Tunisian masses the regime has insisted that the invitation of Sharon will not mean the normalisation of relations with Israel. This was a vain attempt on the part of the regime to defuse the protests. It has not succeeded.
Last Thursday, March 10, the university students of all the campuses in the country organised a general strike to reaffirm their opposition to Sharon and to demand the liberation of the students who had been arrested earlier. The strike was generalised in the capital Tunis as well as in the interior. The officially recognised General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET), which had been forced to call for the national strike, tried to restrain and limit the actions of the students to “peaceful protests within the limits of the campus”.
Students should join with the workers
This advice was not heeded in all faculties around the country. The campus in the northwest of the capital was surrounded by police vans and anti-riot forces occupied and blocked all access to neighbouring streets. The demonstrators clashed with the police and five students were arrested. Instinctively, many students understand that they need to unite with the rest of the population if they want to gather more forces to defeat the regime. The students alone will not be able to topple the dictatorship. Only the unity of the students, the workers and peasants can achieve victory.
The tactic of the state is aimed at containing the protest of university students and limiting their actions to ‘safe’ campuses. This is not a new tactic. It has been used by other regimes in other countries by other dictators. What the dictatorship fears is that the actions of the students could spill over to the workers, the poor peasants and the lower middle classes. The regime is deathly afraid of the possibility that the daring actions of the students could inspire and encourage other layers to follow their example, i.e. the workers and urban poor in particular.
When for instance on March 2, students and opposition groups called for a demonstration in Monastir, the entire city was sealed off by the police who controlled and blocked all access to the centre of town.
The regime can tolerate student action as long as it is limited to the campuses. They hope this policy of massive containment combined with repression – the harsh use of the truncheon, arrests, torture, imprisonment, the censorship of opposition papers and the closing down of internet sites, as well as a campaign against the Arab satellite television station Al Jazeera –will be sufficient to divert and finally extinguish the flames of anger.
On the same day of the national student strike ten students were put on trial. These were students from the cities of Sfax, Gafsa (in the South) and Bizerte (in the North) who were arrested in the first week of protest. All of them have been sentenced to two to three months in prison.
Lawyers were also on strike last Wednesday. They were also protesting against the invitation of Sharon and demanded the release of one of their colleagues who is still in jail for having demonstrated. Ninety percent of the nation’s lawyers have joined the stoppage. In general assemblies in the palace of justice even the lawyers known for their support of the regime voted in favour of the strike! The lawyers have now called for a demonstration next Wednesday, March 15, in front of the prison of Tunis. On March 16, the human rights association (Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l’homme) has called for a national day of protest.
Down with the capitalist Ben Ali dictatorship
These protests of university and high school students followed by the lawyers are very significant. They indicate the first stirrings against the bloody dictatorship of Ben Ali in Tunisian society. The regime has been able to impose relative calm and quietness in Tunisian society for a long time through the lead carpet of repression and tight social control, as well as through economic growth. Tunisia was presented to international investors as a haven of peace and calm in an area not known for its stability. Tunisia was dubbed, not accidentally, the ‘African dragon’ for its economic performance. The rumblings amongst the middle layers of society (the students and the lawyers) are ominous for the survival of the regime. A recent Internet poll on tunisnews.com revealed, despite its obvious limitations, that 38.9 percent of the respondents felt that the “anger of the Tunisians has given them confidence”. Another 21.3 percent declared they were “surprised by the scope” of the anger.
Students have always been a sensitive barometer of the changes in the mood of society. Contrary to workers and peasants they have more material facilities to engage in protests. Not only are the students a barometer for the storms ahead in Tunisia, but they will also arouse the spirits of many people who have been demoralised over the last years.
Emboldened by the street protests some of the opposition parties have now called for a national march against Sharon’s visit on April 8. This march could become the rallying point not only of students but also of many workers.
If this march is going to be successful it must be combined with a call for a new national strike across campuses and high schools supported by work stoppages in the factories and the offices. The students should go to the working class neighbourhoods and the factories to agitate for the national march of protest. By setting up democratic action committees comprised of elected representatives of the workers and the youth they will give a more organised expression to the protest.The national march cannot only to be directed against the humiliating invitation of Sharon and the liberation of all political prisoners. The program of demands of this march should be broadened to include demands for full democratic rights (the right to free speech, to demonstrate and organise, to free elections etc.) and the social and economic demands of the toiling masses (a job for every one, for wage increases, and no to exploitation etc.). To achieve these demands it will not be sufficient to simply attempt to pressurise the regime into giving some concessions or reforms. What is needed is nothing less than the complete overthrow of the capitalist and pro-imperialist Ben Ali dictatorship! The only way to achieve real democratic rights and freedom, and the only way to end exploitation and the submission to imperialism is to establish a socialist Tunisia as part of a socialist federation of the Middle East.