Mass protests of university and school students shook the Tunisian regime in April. Some sections of the workers, protesting against privatisation, also joined in. We have received the following article about the situation in Tunisia toghether with an interview with a Tunisian student activist.
For the common people, Tunisia means summer holidays, beautiful beaches and cheap food. But the common Tunisian does not live in the same country that the Western tourists have been visiting for years.
A small country encapsulated between its big neighbours Algeria and Lybia, Tunisia gained its independence from France in the mid 50's. The "father of the nation", Habib Bourguiba, ruled unopposed for about 30 years, as he gradually consolidated his power through the politics of "stick and carrot". He went through with a policy of distributing the most important political posts of his government to people that were in control of the vast corrupted networks that operated in the country, thus gaining the loyalty of the most important figures of the Tunisian bureaucracy. The considerable economic growth the country experienced throughout the 70's and first half of the 80's made it possible for Bourguiba to "buy" social peace. However, by the mid 80's, the Tunisian economy began to stagnate, and with it came social agitation. The Trade Union movement and the Islamic political forces were leading the popular masses that were now openly putting into question Bourguiba's rule. The need to crush the uprisings led to the appearance on the political scene of Zine Ben Ali, the Tunisian Interior Minister. His control over the military forces and the influence he gained in the bureaucratic apparatus of the state put him in a priviledged position to assumer power, which he finally did on November the 7th 1987, as he declared Bourguiba mentally unfit and occupied his place at the Presidential Palace in Carthage.
Tunisia has a population of about 9 and a half million people. France has about 6 times that number. However, both those countries have the same number of police forces, around 130,000. One can thus see how repressive the Tunisian regime really is. Oppostion parties are not allowed, and those that are now and then permitted to function legally are totally submissive to the Tunisian regime. Parties like the Tunisian Workers' Communist Party (PCOT) and the Islamic Party were banned from the political arena. Having any link with such organizations gives you the "right" to be sent to prison. Maybe you will be lucky enough not to "misteriously" die while in their custody.
Traditional mass organizations like the UGTT (General Union of the Tunisian Workers) and the UGET (General Union of the Tunisian Students) are constantly infiltrated by thugs sent by the Interior Ministery, trying to break the movement and establish their own leadership loyal to Ben Ali. Students are constantly harassed in their Universities, where they have to live side by side with the famous "Universitary Police", which consist of special forces that make sure that the students are continually surveilled. Ben Ali is well aware of the enormous potential of the Tunisian youth to revolt, as they have already shown him several times in the past. Yet the more they are repressed, the stronger they fight back.
Freedom of expression doesn't have any meaning in Tunisia. Independent newspapers are banned, the Internet access is constantly surveilled, as well as regular post, and several Western publications cannot be sold in the country.
Ben Ali also started a process of privatization of basically every single industry of the country. The Tunisian economy is now in the hands of big shark monopolistic companies from France, Italy, Germany and the United States. As the profits of those companies are constantly drained out from Tunis and not re-invested in the country, Tunisia has been losing its traditional markets it had in the past, especially in the Middle East. And of course the appaling state of the Tunisian economy has as a very first consequence the brutal increase in unemployment levels. And Ben Ali gives the extra push by making sure that almost every single job in Tunisia, even the most simple ordinary ones like a cleaner, are given to someone who is loyal to the regime, as most of the job applications firstly have to go through the Interior Ministery for their approval.
Ben Ali and his regime will not last for much longer. Its structures are too weak, and it bases its power on a handful of loyal military commanders. Ben Ali has suceeded in alienating everyone in Tunisia, even the despotic corrupted network of bureaucrats that had initially given him support as he came to power. The disgraceful economic situation of Tunisia also began to cool off foreign investment on the part of the big capitalist states, most notably France and Italy, Tunisia's traditional "partners". Tunisia seems to be on the brink of a revolution. Student strikes multiply as each week passes, not only in Tunis, but all over the country. The Tunisian people are coming out onto the streets. Armed with a Marxist leadership the masses of workers and youth in Tunisia would be able to help the revolutionary process in the country go forward. And a successful revolution in Tunisia would not only affect the country , but it would definitely have a major influence on the whole of the Mahgreb and the Middle East region itself.
An Interview with a Tunisian student
The student strikes began last year, the main issue being the student appeal for the reform of CAPES (Certificat d'Aptitude à la Profession d'Enseignement du Secondaire) a new reform in the Tunisian educational system. Although this was the main issue at stake, we do want to address some other serious problems, such as the fact that there was an increase in the price of meal tickets by 100 % from 100 millimes to 200 millimes. Some of the students cannot afford to pay those. We are also suffering from the rise of the registration fees, which were set at 30 dinars.
At another level, students are also experiencing difficulties in their day-to-day life at University. There is a special police force that was created exclusively to deal with students inside the faculties, with their own police precincts inside the university compound. During the student strikes, many students were arrested. One of the students was detained just because he had produced a poem criticizing the government policies (the Tunisian President's name was mentioned in the poem). At a certain stage during the strikes, the students decided to sit in and refused to leave the University (Manouba University, in Tunis). While doing this in a most peaceful way, the police then began to charge us. One student suffered critical injuries to his eyes as a consequence of the police attack.
As a consequence of the student protest movement, the Tunisian authorities stated that they would remove the police agents from inside the Universities. However, they went back in their word not long after.
We are also witnessing many upheavals in the secondary schools over the reform in the education system. Schools were damaged during the protests, and, as a consequence, the government felt the need to declare that the so-called reform was nothing more than rumours. However, the reform of the education system had been announced on national TV by the Tunisian Minister of Education only weeks before.
Another issue that we also want to address is the fact that Tunisian Universities are very overcrowded. We also have problems with transport, especially with the extreme overcrowdedness of buses.
At another level, we also wanted to express our sympathy towards Fathi Chamkhi , a Geography and History Professor from the Manouba University in Tunis that was arrested not too long ago because he had formed RAID (Rassemblement pour une Alternative Internationale de Développement) an organization that opposes the economic plans of the Tunisian government in privatization and in which he outlined some possible alternatives to the economic policies that the Tunisian government has been embracing.
But it is not only the student population that is suffering from the policies put forward by Mr. Ben Ali and his government. The Tunisian Health System has been in constant degradation. Since 1990 the price for admission to the hospitals has risen quite sharply. From half a dinar before 1990, we now have to pay 4 and a half dinars. In 1998 we had to start paying for medical examinations, while before they were free. There was also an important rise in the price of pharmaceutical products; whereas before they were almost free, nowadays we have to pay a high amount in order to purchase them.
Another very important question is privatization. Since 1990 almost every single industry in the country has been privatized, sometimes with quite disastrous consequences. For instance, the olive oil industry, which used to be one of the most respected and profitable industries in Tunisia, has now lost most of its importance. The quality of the products produced started to gradually decline, and as an immediate consequence, we started to lose the markets where we had always exported our olive oil (especially the Middle East market).
Curiously, even the most "timid" reference to any privatization matters on the part of the students during our strikes would immediately lead to prosecution by the Tunisian authorities.
Freedom of expression does not exist in our country, starting from the Internet, in which access to many many sites is blocked to ordinary Tunisians (sites like the ones from Amnesty International, Reporteres sans frontieres, and sites of international lawyers), and the written press, which is under strict government control. Even foreign publications, such as the French newspaper "Le Monde" and others are strictly surveilled, and whenever its contents do not agree with the government "criteria", they are quickly banned from public sale.
As a final note, it is interesting to note that while the Tunisian people are suffering under enormous economic and social difficulties, in 1998 the Tunisian authorities started to build the new headquarters for the governamental ruling party (RCD). The modest cost of this enterprise is 19 million dinars.
Sidi-Bou-Said, 22nd of April 2000