Hungry and jobless, Tunisian masses rebel
Published Jan 19, 2011 5:09 PM
Jan. 18 — A popular uprising in the North African state of Tunisia since
mid-December has driven President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the
Western-allied government for 23 years, into exile. Ben Ali fled on Jan. 14
after tens of thousands of workers and youths attacked the Ministry of the
Interior and other government buildings in the capital of Tunis and in the city
Protesters in Tunisia.
When a street vendor who was attacked by police committed suicide by
self-immolation on Dec. 17, it unleashed this enormous struggle. Defying tear
gas and even live fire from the security forces that killed between 50 and 100
people, thousands also demonstrated in dozens of Tunisia’s provincial
cities until they brought down a repressive head of state.
The courage of the Tunisian people and their success in the first step of a
continuing struggle has aroused solidarity and hope worldwide. It has sparked
protest in neighboring countries like Algeria and Egypt, where high prices and
unemployment have hit hard. It has also aroused interest in Europe, where a
year of strikes and protests has not yet stopped “austerity”
programs aimed at depriving the working class of its rights.
Tunisian protest in Vienna.
Photo: Anti-Imperialist Camp
Initially Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi was appointed to succeed Ben Ali.
By the next day, however, on Jan. 15, the speaker of the Parliament replaced
the former head of state of this country of 10.4 million people. That same day
the army seized the airport near Tunis and then moved into the capital in an
attempt to restore state control of the streets.
Militias suspected of being tied to Ben Ali have opened fire on the population
and have clashed with the regular army, according to some reports. Popular and
neighborhood groups have formed self-defense forces to protect their
New government shaky
Because Ben Ali’s ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) political
party was still represented in the new leadership, it immediately drew
criticism and protest from the masses. This new group announced on Jan. 16 that
it would form a government of national unity to bring in representatives of
opposition parties, professional groups and trade union officials.
The RCD officials invited moderate opposition parties into the coalition
government. These are the Democratic Progressive Party and the Democratic Forum
for Labor and Freedoms. Al-Jazeera journalist Ayman Mohyeldin reported Jan. 16,
“We know the incoming national unity government will have three members
of the opposition. It will include some technocrats, independents, and
economists and some figures from Tunisian labor and trade unions. Some of those
have still to be determined.”
As of Jan. 18, the political parties banned by the Ben Ali regime — those
who were strongest in opposition — were excluded from the proposed
government of national unity.
These parties include the Hizr ut-Tahrir, a Pan-Islamic organization formed in
1953 in Palestine that has affiliates throughout the region; another Islamic
party, the Hizb al-Nahda or Renaissance Party, which has some electoral support
inside the country; and a left organization, the Tunisian Workers’
Communist Party (PCOT), which grew out of the student movement and was formed
In an interview with Al Jazeera on Jan. 17, PCOT leader Hamma Hammami, who had
been freed from prison Jan. 14 during the mass uprising, said, “This is a
national government which has nothing national about it. It’s intended to
conserve the old regime in power with all of its authoritarian institutions in
place. This is why people are taking to the street with a new slogan ‘we
don’t want the RCD’.”
The General Labor Union of Tunisia (UGTT) has been repressed over the last two
decades by the ruling RCD party. However, over the last three years there has
been independent trade union activity, particularly in the Gafsa mining basin,
where industrial actions have taken place since 2008.
By Jan. 18, three leaders of the UGTT opposition parties who had accepted
cabinet posts resigned. Two cabinet members who were RCD leaders resigned from
that party. The situation was still fluid.
Military and security forces split
Since the rebellion began throughout Tunisia, there seems to have been a split
between leaders within the security forces presumed to be more loyal to ousted
president Ben Ali and the military, headed by Gen. Rachid Ammar. The head of
the security forces, Ali Seriati, was reportedly arrested on Jan. 15 while
trying to flee over the border with Libya.
There were claims the following day of gun battles outside the presidential
palace in Carthage between elements still loyal to Ben Ali, on one side, and
the regular military on the other. Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj, who had been
relieved of his duties by Ben Ali earlier in the week in an effort to calm
protests, was also reported to have been detained.
With rising tensions between the military and the security forces, people are
arming themselves for protection against state violence. Al-Jazeera
correspondent James Bay reported, “In between the roadblocks, we were
coming across large groups of people who had their own home-made weapons, axes
and steel bars.”
Whither Tunisia and North Africa?
Protesters said all Jan. 17 that they wanted more than just Ben Ali’s
departure. The demands of the youth and workers have been centered on the need
for full employment and the control of inflation stemming from the impact of
the global economic crisis. Ayesha Sabavala, deputy editor of the Economist
Intelligence Unit based in London, told Al-Jazeera, “If the interim
government doesn’t quickly implement measures to reduce the level of
unemployment and increase standards of living, we are going to see more of
Demonstrations on Jan. 14 and 15 focused on the hated Ministry of the Interior
and other government buildings. The new interim administration, which is still
controlled by the ruling RCD party, will not willingly give up control of the
police and army — the state. Nor will leading officials within the
political establishment give up their posts unless, like Ben Ali, they see no
other alternative when faced with a concerted, organized mass force.
In neighboring Algeria, demonstrations have also been taking place since late
December. Four young Algerians tried to burn themselves to death, as did one
person in Egypt and one in Mauritania. These developments in North Africa
impact U.S. and French imperialism, which have both escalated their military
and economic involvement in the region over the last several years.
The outcome of these developments in Tunisia and throughout the region will
depend upon the degree of organization and political determination of the
workers and youth. Will the Tunisian masses rejuvenate a national democratic
revolution inside the country that will be anti-imperialist in its orientation?
The anti-colonial and neocolonial histories of both Tunisia and Algeria have
encompassed left tendencies that have operated both within the trade union
movement and among the youth.
Washington has targeted North Africa in its so-called “war on
terrorism.” Revolutionary developments there can lead to new military
interventions, and anti-imperialists and anti-war activists here will have to
oppose imperialist intervention. The outcome of these developments in the
region portends much for the international working-class struggle against the
worsening economic crisis throughout the world.
Throughout the past year European workers have held massive demonstrations and
general strikes protesting austerity programs connected with the worsening
global economic crisis. In Portugal, Italy, France, Spain, Ireland and even
Greece, where demonstrations and rebellions have been the most widespread and
militant, the actions of the workers and youth have not yet stopped the
austerity programs, let alone forced the governments out of office.
The developments in Tunisia over the last month have gone further than any
other series of demonstrations and rebellions against the crisis of world
capitalism in the countries of Europe. While the situation in North Africa is
more extreme, workers and youth in all the capitalist states throughout the
world also face high rates of unemployment and rising costs of living.
The potential for the seizure of power by the workers or a coalition of
progressive forces with strong and decisive proletarian involvement would prove
to be a monumental political development with international implications. Such
a demonstration of revolutionary organization and political direction would set
a precedent for a general response of the international working class to the
current global economic crisis.
As Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin wrote in a letter to the Central Committee
of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in September of 1917, prior to the
successful seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, “To be successful,
insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon the party, but upon the
advanced class. That is the first point.”
Lenin continues saying that “insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary
upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon
that turning point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity
of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations
in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and
irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third
He then notes that “these three conditions for raising the question of
insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism [referring to a French
revolutionary who focused on insurrection by a small group]. Once these
conditions exist, however, to refuse to treat insurrection as an art is a
betrayal of Marxism and a betrayal of the revolution.” (Lenin,
“Marxism and Insurrection”)
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