Tunisia – for a national general strike against the Gannouchi government!

Wednesday, January 26 was marked by yet more massive demonstrations throughout Tunisia against the “national unity” government, whose key ministers come from the government of the hated dictator Ben Ali. The same dictator that the masses forced to flee two weeks ago.

The regional structures of the UGTT had called for general strikes in Sfax, El Kef, Sidi Bouzid, Jendouba, Kairouan, Siliana, Gabés, Nabeul and others. The strikes and mobilizations had a common slogan and a united aim: to bring down the government, which the masses correctly consider simply a continuation of the hated RCD regime of Ben Ali.

A government suspended in mid-air

Meanwhile, in the capital, thousands of youth, arrived from all corners of the country as part of the Caravan for Liberation, were still camped outside the government buildings. Attempts by the riot police on Monday and Tuesday to remove them had failed. General Rachid Ammar, the Chief of Staff of the Tunisian Army, who was removed by Ben Ali for refusing to use the army against the revolutionary movement, also attempted to get the demonstrators to clear the way and allow the government to work. Using the enormous authority that the Army and himself have gained by appearing to be on the side of the people against Ben Ali, he addressed the crowd.

He told them that their demands were justified and gave them guarantees that the Army would defend their revolution. He also gave them assurances that the Army “would respect the constitution” (though he did not say which one) and asked them, politely, to leave: “I would love it if this place was to emptied, so that the government can work”. Without appearing to be too close to the current government of Gannouchi (the former Prime Minister under Ben Ali), he also added that inside the government compound that the demonstrators have been surrounding since Sunday “there are not only Ministers, but also functionaries who are attempting to make the country work”.

And then he added an ominous warning: “your movement can be manipulated by other elements, to create a vacuum of power, and when there is a vacuum of power, the Army would have to intervene”. Neither nice polite words, nor veiled threats worked. The crowd applauded, ecstatically; sang the national anthem, praised the army general whom they see as having sided with the revolution... but remained solidly in the Kasbah esplanade, blocking the government building. The revolutionary youth who have marched to the capital have a very clear idea of why they are there: “The battle will be decided in Tunis. This is the reason why we have come. The government must be overthrown. They are like a cancer, which needs to be cleaned out, not a shred can be left behind" (see video of the sit-in outside the Prime Minister’s office)

This really shows the enormous power of the revolutionary movement at the present time and the extremely favourable balance of forces. The Chief of Staff of the Army is forced to go and speak to the people directly and asks them to please go away and allow the government to work, and when they refuse there is nothing he can do. Who has power in Tunisia? The streets or the government and the state?

Inside, having entered through some back door, the council of ministers met and announced that there was going to be an “imminent government reshuffle”. But the announcement never came. And 48h later, it still has not arrived. There were also rumours of a “Committee of the Wise” being formed, but nothing has yet come out of it. This really shows the enormous difficulties of the Tunisian ruling class (and their imperialist puppet masters) are encountering in finding a government which is acceptable to the masses and has some legitimacy. The revolutionary movement of the workers and youth prevents them from regaining full control of the situation.

Caravan of Liberation in Tunis, 23 January. Photo: Nasser NouriCaravan of Liberation in Tunis, 23 January. Photo: Nasser Nouri On Tuesday we saw the first attempts of the counter-revolution to regroup. Gangs of thugs and militias from the RCD attacked union offices in Gafsa, Kasserine (West) Béjà (North), Monastir et Mehdia (Centre). In the mining region of Gafsa a gang of men armed with sticks, knives and chains, attacked the offices of the regional union and injured a number of trade unionists present. The Army intervened, firing warning shots in the air and evicted them from the premises. Also in the capital Tunis, a demonstration had been called in favour of the national unity government. This was part of a growing media campaign “against strikes”, “against chaos”, against “disrupting the economy”, and generally against “extremist elements within the UGTT”. Showing the real balance of forces, the demonstration gathered about 200 people and was quickly dispersed by protesters against the government despite having heavy police protection (see video). If the situation is not decisively resolved in favour of the workers and youth, then such demonstrations might grow and reaction can gain support in the streets. But at the present time, they are extremely weak.

Regional general strikes and mass demonstrations

It is in this context that the regional strikes are taking place today, Wednesday 26, and they could be crucial to force the downfall of the government. In the statement calling for the strike, the regional UGTT in Sfax made clear what were the aims of the movement:

“After examining the general situation in the country and the latest political and social developments on light of our people’s revolution, and what is being plotted against it by internal and external conspiracies aimed to circumvent its objectives and gains,”

“we decided to start a general strike on Wednesday, January 26, 2011 in defense of the demands of our people to overthrow the government of the former regime and to dissolve the Constitutional Democratic Rally.” (see full text in English and Arabic).

This, and the other regional strikes are quite clearly political general strikes for the overthrow of the government, showing the revolutionary character of the movement of the Tunisian workers and the extremely advanced character of their demands.

Also very significant is the fact that the regional trade union structures and the revolutionary committees are increasingly taking over tasks of the administration of public and economic life. As well as the examples we have already mentioned in Siliana (where the regional revolutionary council has expelled the governor and effectively taken power) and Sidi Bou Ali, the Sfax UGTT also started to make decisions over the economy. The statement says:

“from the keenness of the Regional Executive Bureau to provide basic and vital services to the citizens, we decide to exclude from the general strike the workers in the vital sectors especially hospitals and clinics, water and electricity, gas and bakeries, and municipalities graves, we also decided to secure trips from and to to the island Kerkennah.”

So, not only the unions are calling a political strike to overthrow the existing government, but also they decided which sectors of the workers will continue to work under their authority in order to guarantee basic essential services. This is an answer to all those who cry and shout about “chaos” and “disruption”. As a matter of fact it is precisely workers’ power, workers’ control, which can guarantee order, but revolutionary order, not capitalist order. This was already demonstrated by the setting up of neighborhood self-defence committees to maintain order against the RCD and police gangs.

The demonstration in Sfax, the country’s second largest city and the most important industrial centre was huge, of historic proportions. Some reports talked of 100,000 demonstrators, and even the bourgeois media put the figure at “over 50,000”. The mood was extremely radical and angry as can be seen in these videos (video 1, video 2).

Amongst the slogans which the demonstrators chanted were: “the people want to bring down the government”, “Tunisia is free – RCD Out!”, "Tunisia is Free - Down with the government!" and showing a great awareness of the international repercussion of the Tunisian revolution: “Thawra hatta’l nasr (revolution until victory) – from Tunis to Cairo”. Another slogan that was heard on the demo was "Tunisia is Arabic - No foreign tutelage" and "Tunisia is Arabic - no American tutelage," in opposition to the visit of US Assistant Secretaryof State for Near East Affairs, Jeffrey D. Feltman, who is currently in Tunisia. Many suspect that the US had a hand in the way in which Ben Ali was replaced by a government packed with his own ministers and there is a deep felt anti-imperialist anger at the continuing US behind the scenes meddling to abort the revolution. The demonstration ended with an appeal by the regional UGTT for the demonstrators to march on Tunis on Thursday 27, to join the Caravan of Liberation for the overthrow of the government. That is also the day fixed by the secondary teachers’ union for their national strike.

Similar mass demonstrations took place in towns and cities around the country, including Nabeul (video), Kairouan (video), Djerba (video), Kelibia (video), as well as in Tunis, where there were clashes with the police and the presence of provocateurs from the RCD.

The situation, as we have been stressing for a some days, is one where the workers and youth could take power relatively easily. The government is suspended in mid-air, forced to enter its own meeting rooms through the back door, not able to use neither the Army nor the police to crush the movement and looking desperately for a way forward. One final push on the part of the revolutionary movement would bring it down. A nation-wide general strike combined with workplace occupations and a march on the capital could topple the current weak government. An appeal to the Army ranks and to the police officers wanting to set up a union would paralyse the effective force of the capitalist state.

Down with the government! But what is the alternative?

However, in order to bring down the government an answer needs to be provided to the question: what to put in its place. Here is where there is more confusion and this confusion and lack of leadership has prevented the movement from taking power so far.

The legal opposition parties are part of the current government and they have no authority amongst the masses, as they played no role whatsoever in the revolution and stayed with Ben Ali right until the end. The former Communist Party (Ettijdad) is probably the worst of all. Having conditioned its participation in the government on there not being any RCD linked ministers, then stayed in the government anyway and went on to organise rallies and campaign in favour of it! They must subscribe to the Groucho Marx version of Marxism, based on the motto: “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others”!

The leadership of the UGTT, the Executive Bureau, was also in favour of participating in the government and was forced by the more radical forces in the Central Administration Council (the Central Committee) to withdraw its ministers and later on to call for action to overthrow the government. As we speak, the EB of the UGTT is conducting frantic negotiations at the UGTT national headquarters with all sorts of liberal figures, human rights advocates, lawyers, etc, to put together a proposal for a new government which they will then present to the interim president Fouad Mebezza for his approval! This is parliamentary cretinism of the worst sort. The executive of the UGTT is under enormous pressure from below, from the revolutionary workers and youth to lead the struggle for the overthrow of the current government. However, instead of bringing it down through action, the UGTT leadership wants to ask the current government, politely, to appoint a new one!

But even amongst the most advanced elements of the revolutionary left in the UGTT and also in the smaller left wing political parties which were illegal until very recently, there seems to be no clear idea of what or how to replace the Gannouchi government.

The general strike call of the Sfax UGTT talks of “replacing it with a national salvation government in which enemies of our people are excluded.” This is a very good slogan, and one that is similar to that of the recently formed January 14 Front, which talks of “an interim government which enjoys the confidence of the people, of the militant progressive political, social, and trade-union forces, and of the youth.“ The January 14 Front has been formed mainly by the Party of Tunisian Communist Workers (PCOT), the Tunisian Patriotic and Democratic Labour Party, and some smaller left wing, Nasserite and left Arab nationalist currents.

The declaration of the January 14 Front correctly talks about the need to widen the scope of the committees:

“The Front hails all the committees, associations, and forms of popular self-organization and invites them to widen their sphere of intervention to all that concerns the conduct of public affairs and various aspects of everyday life.”

Basically it is calling the revolutionary committees to take power, to become real soviets. What is missing is the crucial aspect of the need to link them up at a local, regional and national level, thus becoming the basis for dual power nationally, not only at a local or regional level as it is already the case in some places.

Amongst the organizations in the Front is the recently created Left Workers League, which on January 24 issued a statement calling for: “achieving a Constituent and a people’s democratic workers government, with a social and economic programme which puts an end to the neo-liberal approach imposed by world capital.” This is clearly a more advanced demand, as it defines that the new government should be a workers’ government, a democratic government and a people’s government. The formulation is a bit confused, but if what is meant is that there should be a government that responds to the interests of the revolutionary masses of the working people who have made this revolution, then there is no objection.

But, how is such a government to be formed? In our opinion a revolutionary government cannot be based on any of the institutions of the old regime, but should be set up on the basis of the existing revolutionary committees and councils, the regional trade union structures and workers’ committees in the workplaces. A national assembly of delegates from these bodies should be convened in the capital, taking advantage of the presence of the revolutionary youth from all provinces. They should elect, amongst themselves, a provisional revolutionary government of national salvation to convene a constituent assembly within the shortest space of time possible.

In the same way that the revolutionary left within the UGTT has imposed its withdrawal from the Gannouchi government and the call for its overthrow, they should force the CC of the UGTT to adopt such a program for a national salvation government based on the revolutionary committees.

Down with the dictatorship and the capitalist system it served

The January 14 Front also calls for the expropriation of “the former ruling family, their close relations and associates, and all the civil servants who used their positions to grow rich at the expense of the people,“ as well as “to renationalise those institutions which have been privatized”. These demands are absolutely correct, and as a matter of fact, the expropriation of the properties of Trabelsi clan and all those associated to it would go a long way in giving such a government control over the key levers of the economy. If you added to that the properties of all imperialist powers which supported and benefited from the Ben Ali regime, then you would have abolished capitalism in Tunisia. However the Front does not go all the way in calling for a break with capitalism and instead talks of the need ”to formulate an economic and social policy which breaks with the liberal capitalist approach”, as if there was another approach to capitalism which would be nicer to the workers and the people.

It has to be said clearly that the ruling class is already extremely worried about the revolutionary movement of the workers encroaching on the sacred right of private property. This is how a business magazine described the situation:

“The Tunisian revolution has entered like a storm in the companies and public institutions. Directors are being chased away in parking lots and workers collectives are moving into self-management mode”.

The article continues: “Tunisian workers, in companies and public institutions have brought the revolution to their workplaces” and “directors and managers of public companies have had to run seeking refuge, followed by a crowd of vindictive workers”. It concludes: “the hope of the government and the businessmen is that the movement will limit itself to those corrupt functionaries linked to the Ben Ali – Trabelsi clan. But it is not certain that this will be the case.”

If there was a serious appeal on the part of the trade union left, for workers to occupy the workplaces and implement workers’ control, such a movement would spread like wildfire. There are already instances where the workers have demanded the opening of the books of their companies in order to investigate the corrupt dealings of the Trabelsi clan. The workers at the tax office have kicked out their directors and taken over the dossiers which shed light into some of those. The potential is there for a movement which not only sweeps away the whole of the undemocratic state apparatus of the dictatorship, but also does away with the capitalist economic system it served.

Down with the national unity government! For a national general strike! For a revolutionary government based on the committees and the trade unions! For a revolutionary constituent assembly! For a revolutionary socialist Tunisia! For a Socialist Federation of the Arab World, with full democratic rights to all ethnic, national and religious minorities!