Events over the weekend have shown the strength of the revolutionary movement in Tunisia and revealed the weakness of the national unity government. The organisation of a “Liberation Caravan” marching to the capital has the potential, if combined with a mass movement of demonstrations and strikes, to bring down the government.
Saturday, 22 January saw extraordinary scenes in the capital when thousands marched on the prime minister’s office demanding the resignation of the government. Mass demonstrations took place on Sunday in most regional capitals and cities, including Gabes, Monastir, Sfax, etc. Following on from Friday, when police officers throughout the country went on strike and demonstrated, hundreds of police officers joined the demonstration in the capital, many in uniform, others wearing red armbands. In many of the cities where they have demonstrated they have contacted the local UGTT union and asked for help to set up their own trade union organisation.
“Several dozen police officers, some in civilian clothes and some in uniform and wearing red armbands, arrived today [Friday 21] at the Regional Workers’ Union in Ben Guerdane [on the border with Libya], to demand the formation of a trade union in order to defend their moral and material rights,” reported Hssine Betaïeb, a UGTT trade unionist to AFP. “They have told us that whatever the regime might be, they will never in the future use violence against the population again.”
This is very significant. It is clear that in a police force composed of 120,000 people there are many different layers, from the brutal torturer to the callous anti-riot police, to the traffic police, etc. Some of them wish to disassociate themselves from the Ben Ali regime in order to protect themselves. Others have been infected by the prevailing revolutionary mood and are bringing out their accumulated grievances. What is true is that the state apparatus in Tunisia, the armed bodies of men in defence of private property of which Engels spoke, has been extremely weakened by the revolutionary events, though not yet completely destroyed.
This was graphically demonstrated when the demonstration on Saturday arrived at the office of the Prime Minister, which was protected by barbed wire and the presence of anti-riot police. Faced with thousands of angry demonstrators carrying Tunisian banners and a Che Guevara flag the police could only plead with the protestors: “Do whatever you want to do but please don't storm the office of the prime minister.” Had there been a clear leadership, they could have taken over the Prime Minister’s office. The government is truly suspended in mid-air, in the face of the developing revolutionary movement.
On Friday 21, Gannouchi made a speech on live TV begging the people to allow him to rule. Further to all the promises he had already made, he added that the victims of repression would be compensated and that he would quit politics altogether after fresh elections take place. “My role is to bring my country out of this temporary phase and even if I am nominated I will refuse it and leave politics," he said. He added that he had “lived and suffered” like ordinary Tunisians under the dictatorship. What utter hypocrisy from someone who was a minister of Ben Ali for more than 20 years!
These incidents reflect the real balance of forces in the country: the government on the defensive, asking the people for trust, the masses on the streets taking power into their own hands, but still lacking the national coordination and clear leadership which would allow them to take power once and for all.
The trade union movement
On Friday, there was a further meeting of the Central Committee of the UGTT. There is a clear split within the trade union body between those who were loyal to Ben Ali until the last minute but who have been forced into opposition by the mass movement and a growing number of union federations (including postal workers and teachers) and regional union bodies which are further to the left and playing an important role in the movement. It was a meeting of the CC last week, which forced the Executive Bureau to go back on its decision of joining Gannouchi’s government of “national unity”. There were rumours that the Executive was moving again in the direction of rejoining the government, but they were soundly defeated at the CC meeting on Friday.
The union issued a statement calling “for the dissolution of the government and the setting up of a national coalition government which responds to the demands of the demonstrators, the political parties, the NGOs and the population as a whole.” The statement further declared that the UGTT is “committed to continuing the legitimate struggle be that through strikes or peaceful demonstrations until the recomposition of the government according to the conditions set by the UGTT”. In reality, the UGTT national leadership is trailing behind events, as the regional bodies of the union are already calling regional general strikes and demanding that talk be followed up with action.
The way to bring down the government would be to call a national general strike and paralyse the country’s economy. In Jendouba for instance, the regional UGTT has called for a regional general strike on Wednesday 26. The teachers’ union has called for a national indefinite strike “until the fall of the government” starting today, Monday 24, which is the day schools and universities are resuming activities. According to Nabil Haouachi, from the national leadership of the primary school teachers’ union, the strike is already “an unprecedented success”. He confirmed a very high participation throughout the country with “rates of 100% participation in the strike in Médenine (South East), Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine (Centre West), Béja, Jendouba (North West) and Kairouan (Centre)… and 90% in Zaghouan (near Tunis) where there is no trade union tradition and also a very solid strike in Tunis.”
The national executive of the UGTT, as a matter of fact, is more concerned about establishing a “restoration of normality” than actually bringing down the farcical government of national unity. In a separate statement the union’s general secretary calls "upon all workers to respond to all attempts to stop the activity of our economic order and to maintain the normal mode of activity and vigilance to ensure the smooth running and management of the companies, and renews the call upon all progressive and democratic forces to maintain what has been achieved by the uprising of our people, to avert all risks to circumvent them and their objectives."
Reports coming in at the end of last week referred to the resumption of production at the country’s main industrial centres by Friday, meaning that they had been paralyzed, either by strike action or the general chaos caused by the revolutionary events, for nearly a week.
As we reported on Friday, workers in state owned companies and in others that have been privatized have been taking all sorts of direct action (strikes, occupations, sit-ins, petitions) to demand their rights and particularly to remove the most corrupt managers and those with links to the Ben Ali Trabelsi clan.
As well as the examples we already reported (STAR insurance, National Agricultural Bank, Tunisie Telecom, national tax office, etc), there were also strike movements and occupations at the National Water Company where workers occupied the company’s buildings demanding the removal of managers and directors linked to old regime. In Béja, workers and doctors at the local hospital demonstrated demanding the removal of RCD symbols from the premises. Also in the Béja region there were reports of peasants occupying land which they said had been confiscated from them by Ben Ali’s nephew.
Air stewards of Tunisair marched to the central headquarters of the company in the Charguia industrial area, demanding the removal of the company’s CEOs but also the regularization of their contracts. Civil Aviation Office workers also demanded the removal of their director whom they said had been involved in handing over public property and airport concessions to Ben Ali’s relatives. In Monastir, airport workers have announced the occupation of the installations today (Monday 24). Political demands against corruption, for the removal of managers, etc, have been become united with social demands, for better wages and conditions, etc.
The movement is not only affecting traditional sectors of the working class, but also “liberal” professionals, middle ranking layers, etc. In Tunis, scientists and other personnel at the City of Sciences also decided to occupy the installations until the director is removed. Thousands of culture workers (artists, theatre workers, cinema technicians, writers, etc) gathered on Saturday night outside the National Theatre to demand the resignation of the government and pay tribute to the martyrs of the revolution.
Meanwhile, in Siliana, where the revolutionary people have created local and regional councils and decided to take power, a mass demonstration on Saturday marched on the regional governor’s office. The governor had to be whisked away under the protection of the Army and the masses proceeded to occupy the governorate building. With their actions they proved that their statements were serious and that they meant business. Siliana is now under the control of the revolutionary people. We recommend all our readers watch the video footage of this glorious episode of the Tunisian revolution.
After a week of regional strikes and mass demonstrations against the government, a growing feeling of anger and frustration was developing among sections of the movement. They could feel that Gannouchi’s government was stealing the revolution from the workers and youth and that something was needed to put an end to it.
The initiative came from the revolutionary youth in Sidi Bouzid, which quickly spread throughout the country. They have organised a “Liberation Caravan” that has marched on the capital with the aim of “overthrowing the government”. At first the march was supposed to walk all the way to Tunis, but the youth got impatient and they decided to drive, in order to get there faster. By Sunday afternoon, some 1000 youth from Sidi Bouzid, Regueb and other towns and cities from the interior had arrived in the capital and camped in the yard outside the Kasbah, the site of the Prime Minister’s office. “The Kasbah is the Bastille of Tunis, and we will bring it down like the French sans-culottes destroyed the Bastille in 1789,” said one of the demonstrators. Another added: “We have overthrown Ben Ali, but we have not yet overthrown his system.”
The sit-in was in clear violation of the curfew imposed by the government, but there was not much the police or the army could do at that point (see video). There were reports of similar caravans coming from other towns and cities in the country, but also of movements by the Army to stop them, even leading to clashes. On Sunday evening, protestors from Borj Cedra and Soliman, South of Tunis were blocked by the Army when they were on their way to the capital, but it seems that after some wrangling they were allowed through. On the same day, the army attempted to stop three buses and a number of cars leaving the mining city of Gafsa for the capital. After the youth threatened to go back to Gafsa and declare a general strike, the army allowed them through. A similar situation developed in Kasserine, when the army also blocked the caravan leaving for the capital and even fired warning shots against the crowd. After some struggle the youth fought their way through.
Early this morning (Monday 24), there were clashes between the police and the protestors outside the Prime Minister’s building. The army and the police had cordoned off the Kasbah. According to some reports, the Army put itself between the protestors and the police and broke up the skirmishes with warning shots in the air.
We can see in these skirmishes how the government is already testing the ground, trying to reassert its authority and seeing how strong the movement is and how much they can use the forces of repression against it. So far, all the reports of mostly minor clashes between the Army and the police and the revolutionary people have ended up with the masses imposing their will.
It is crucial that the revolutionary committees, which have already sprung up in the neighbourhoods, cities and regions, should establish close links with the rank and file soldiers, encourage them to set up their own committees for revolutionary vigilance. The same should be done with police officers setting up trade unions.
This situation of dual power between the government and the streets cannot last indefinitely. What is lacking is a clear leadership of the movement. A nationwide general strike, the coordination of the revolutionary committees and the formation of soldiers’ committees could very rapidly lead to the overthrow of the government of Gannouchi and its replacement by a genuine revolutionary government to convene a constituent assembly. It is not ruled out that the UGTT, under enormous pressure from below, might be forced to call such a general strike.
Mass demonstrations have taken place again today, Monday, in most cities. In Regueb and Sidi Bouzid it was a women’s march this time, while in the mining city of Gafsa, students and teachers marched together against the government. A massive demonstration took place in Kef as well.
But the question still remains: who is to replace the current government? A national assembly of elected representatives from the revolutionary committees and from the workplace and local unions could elect a government trusted by the revolutionary people. Failing that there are different options opening up.
There have already been intense rumours of a new government being set up on the initiative of “trusted” political figures from the past who might still command certain legitimacy and who are not directly tainted by association with Ben Ali. There has been talk of a “Committee for the Channelling of the Revolution” being set up by people from the Bourguiba era, such as Ahmed Mestiri, Ahmed Bensalah and Mostafa El Filali, who are already holding talks with “NGOs, civil society organizations and the UGTT”.
A political analyst who defends the current government has “warned” that the alternative to this is the Army stepping in: “With the continuation of the people’s marches, organized by the left wing of the UGTT, we will end up with an ‘18 Brumaire à la Tunisienne’ with calls for the army to take power." This cannot be ruled out, and it is probably one of the reasons why the Army high command has, so far, kept a low profile and cultivated an image of itself as an institution that is on the side of the people.
At the moment, however, the balance of forces is extremely favourable to the revolution. Real power is in the hands of the masses on “the streets”. The state has been enormously weakened, with the rank and file soldiers and police sympathising for the mass movement. The government pleads with the masses, begs the masses to allow it to govern. But the movement marches on relentlessly. Everywhere, in the offices, the factories, in the TV, radio and newspaper offices, the workers have taken control.
In these conditions there is no force that could stop the Tunisian workers and youth from taking power. It is there for the taking. What is missing is a party of the working class that is prepared to lead all the oppressed layers of society in completing the revolution. A general strike of all workers with the taking over of all factories and offices, a strike of the university and school students with the occupation of all schools and universities, combined with an appeal to the rank and file soldiers and police would sweep aside all the remnants of the old Ben Ali regime.
Unless this is done, the Tunisian ruling elite will reorganise behind other, less tainted, figures. They will even push to one side the present farcical government if that is what it takes to appease the masses. They will bring on board opposition figures, even people who have been in exile, as long as these new politicians accept the continued existence of capitalism in Tunisia. For as long as this rotten, corrupt elite manage to hold on to the key economic levers in the country, they will be able to play for time and prepare a comeback in more favourable conditions in the future.
What is required is a clean break. Democracy yes, but with it must come the expropriation of this elite. That is the only way of making sure they never come back. What is lacking is a clear leadership which would raise such a perspective and settle the matter decisively in favour of the revolutionary masses, brushing to one side this government and with it the remains of the old regime.