In the last two weeks, the streets of Tunisia have been the scene of clashes between protesters and the forces of repression. The direct cause behind the outbreak of these events is the solidarity shown by the masses with a young man who immolated himself in the the town of Sidi Bouzid on the 17th December. After this incident, another young man (Hussein Falahi) committed suicide by jumping off a electricity pylon to protest against his unemployment. After this, a third young man, aged 34, committed suicide by jumping into a well in the Gdir region. These acts reflect the deep frustration that young Tunisians are experiencing.
The young Muhammad Bouazizi, 26 years of age, who is an unemployed graduate, burned himself in protest against the confiscation of his small fruit stall under the pretext of selling without license. The police did not allow him to meet with the governor and he was attacked violently by the local state officials. He was transferred to the local hospital in critical condition. Thereafter, a crowd of young people protested outside the headquarters of the municipality to denounce oppression and exploitation, demanding the right to employment for young people in the region. Thousands of citizens were present in these events; most of them are unemployed, and they raised slogans condemning the policy of the ruling class and demanding revenge.
Soon after, a wave of protests spread to other cities. The reports are already talking about the death of a demonstrator, the young Muhammad Bashir Al-Amari (18 years), who was shot while he was protesting in the town of Sidi Bouziane for the right to work, for a decent life, and against corruption. According to recent reports another martyr, the young Shawki Heydari, fell dead after being wounded by police bullets in the back during the protests in Manzel Bouziane.
In the village of Zanoch, located in the municipality of Gafsa, mobilisation increases day after day. Two unemployed graduates organized a sit-in outside the village council on the morning of the 23rd December The evening before, another unemployed young person, Aliani Hashemi, tried to commit a suicide by self immolation. Reports indicate that repressive forces were sent there by the thousands.
The scale of protests has expanded to other cities like Almknasi, Manzel Bouziane, and Rgab. The clashes with the state, which encircle the town of Sidi Bouzid, continued into the night of Sunday 19th and Monday 20th December. The clashes did not stop until 3am on the Monday. The state forces have used tear gas and bombs, and have raided houses and arrested youth.
The town of Sidi Bouzid is still under police control and is sealed off behind a wall of silence by the official and semi-official media.
On Saturday 25th December, the region of Jdid Souk near Sidi Bouzid has seen violent clashes in which the forces of repression used live ammunition. Something similar took place in the area of Sidi Ali Ben Oun, where the repressive forces fired live ammunition and tear gas on bare handed protesters, and they cut the electricity. This did not stop the masses, leading to new clashes between protesters and the repressive forces.
In the city of Bouziane, the intervention of the army and police were needed to impose a state of siege and curfew on the city, and to impose complete control over the Azaafor district. On the same day, Saturday 25th December, the city of Fernana in the municipality of Jendouba experienced disruption to traffic on the road between Ain and Jendouba Drahem when protesters lit a bonfire. According to trade union sources from Jendouba, a number of demonstrators in the town of Fernana had spread gasoline on the main road between Fernana and Jendouba during Saturday evening and set it on fire.
The dictatorship responds
Faced with these protests, the dictatorship has spared neither bullets nor tear gas, and has done everything possible to transform Tunisia into a one-sided war zone against the oppressed and the poor who have risen to demand freedom, the right to decent work, and bread. There have been at least two deaths: Mohammed Basheer Ammari and Shawki Heydari, along with an unknown number of demonstrators who were wounded, whilst others have been imprisoned and even abducted.
The reports reveal cases of torture among prisoners, for instance by the police in the town of Sidi Bouzid, which has caused even more anger among the masses.
Parallel to this brutal repression, the authorities have issued a statement expressing their "full regret" for the incident with the young Muhammad. But they condemned what they called a "group of deceivers" who want to distort "the achievements of change". The Interior Ministry also issued a statement on this occasion that justified the use of live ammunition against unarmed citizens.
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator who has controlled Tunisia with an iron fist for 23 years, made a speech on Tuesday 28th December, in which he stated that, "these riots will damage the reputation of Tunisia with investors", and he pledged to strictly enforce the law against what he called a minority of "extremists" and “paid troublemakers".
He also said that, "the use of violence and riots in the streets by a minority of extremists and provocateurs against the interests of their country is an unacceptable means of expression. It gives a negative and uncivilized image that distorts the picture of our country and hinders the enthusiasm of investors and tourists, which prevent the creation of jobs, which we need to reduce unemployment; therefore, the law will be applied firmly".
This is the logic of a brazen dictatorship: protests against injustice are presented as actions against the interests of the country and "damaging the image of Tunisia amongst investors”. The brutal repression, meanwhile, seems very much in the interest of the country and helps the image of Tunisia! Demonstrations who demand jobs "are unacceptable, negative, and non-civilized”. Looting the country's wealth for decades and depriving the people of all it needs is quite acceptable and a proof of civilized existence.
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali did not fail to condemn those who "do not want the good for their country" – the "foreign television stations that broadcast lies without investigation, and that adopt an attitude of intimidation and hostility towards Tunisia". In reality he wants to continue to kill, arrest, and punish quietly without being disturbed.
Reports say that the dictatorial regime in Tunisia has used fascist methods to quell the demonstrations, using extreme violence against demonstrators in the streets and public places. Police conducted random arrests and have initiated a campaign of kidnapping under the cover of night with the help of police checkpoints. The regime also used groups of criminals organised into militias to attack citizens. Dozens of reactionary militias, backed by police, also violently attacked demonstrators with sticks and stones.
The crackdown has spared no-one. The leader of the Communist Workers Party, Ammar Amroussia, was arrested alongwith an unknown number of young people and party activists. In an amusing gesture from the authorities, they have announced a total ban on all forms of protest and demonstrations! As if these were legal forms of expression before. Again we see what level of repression this regime is willing to resort in order to defend its rotten parasitic privileges.
This repression, however, is not a sign of strength; on the contrary it is proof of the weakness of the regime and its total bankruptcy. The level of terror the regime tries to exercise shows that is aware that it can be overthrown by this mass movement. Trying to retake the initiative and win new support, it has also recently conducted a manoeuvre by reshuffling its government.
The reasons behind the mobilization
Besides the direct and the immediate trigger of these movements we find more profound reasons. Tunisia, from the point of view of capitalist imperialism, has been considered a haven for private investment in tourism and the service sector. Tourism was the largest source of foreign money. The country hosts seven million tourists per year. The annual income of the tourism sector is estimated at about 5.2 billion dollars, employing approximately 350 000 people. Tunisia has also been touted as the most stable country in the region; an attractive destination for foreign investment from Europe and Gulf countries thanks to the "opening" of its economy and its commitment to fully liberalize the Tunisian Dinar.
However, the country is now experiencing crisis, having been ruined by a terrible exploitation of the productive forces. The regime and the imperialists have always praised its economic model, as it gave the best results and relatively high growth rates. This was used by the regime to justify any acts of repression and persecution – but all of this has come to an end . The yearly growth figures of 5% over the last decade will have fallen to 3% by the end of 2009.
Even this long period of growth had no positive effect on the living standards and working conditions of workers. The unemployment rate in 2004, according to official figures, was 13.9% of the workforce. At the end of 2009 this rate peaked to at least 22%. Offers of employment and vacancies are precarious and temporary; this is especially the case in the industrial free zones. To keep the Tunisian industry competitive in textiles and mechanical and electronic industries, poverty wages have been imposed on workers. which do not meet the minimum living standards, since the minimum wage in Tunisia is 250 dinars (130 euros). Since 80% of trade in Tunisia is with the European Union, which in turn is experiencing a deep recession, we can expect a greater decline in the next period.
On top of these economic factors that are fuelling the struggle of the masses, there is also the dictatorship, the stifling of all forms of freedom, and the brutal repression by the police.
The working class is mobilising
What is more crucial in this movement is the attitude of the working class and its ability to enter the fight under its own independent banner and organisation, to take the lead for all the oppressed layers of society. We are have seen the embryo of this developing in the recent struggles.
On Wednesday 22nd December, the trade unions officially entered the protest movement. In Bizerte, a meeting of workers and trade unionists was organised at the headquarters of the Regional Union to express the solidarity of the union of Bizerte and their members for protests in Sidi Bouzid; This was the first attempt made to mobilise union members from outside the region of Sidi Bouzid. This meeting had a large presence of students as well.
Later on Friday 24th December a large number of trade unionists and activists from civil society met in the headquarters of the regional union in Bizerte, again to express their support for the movement of popular protest in Sidi Bouzid. The protesters also staged a sit-in outside the headquarters of the regional labour union during, where they chanted slogans such as “the right to work is a duty; protest is a duty; lifting the state of siege is a duty”, “employment is a right”, “employment! Freedom! Dignity!”, and calling the Tunisian rulers a “group of thieves”.
The regional branch of the labour unions in Mahdia, Kairouan, and Jendouba have expressed their support with the protest movement in the region of Sidi Bouzid. On top of that a large number of union officials issued a statement expressing their unconditional solidarity with the masses of Sidi Bouzid, their willingness to provide all forms of legal aid, demanding the immediate release of all detainees and the lifting of the siege imposed on the city, and asking the government to meet all the demands of the of the protesters for employment and development.
The union of secondary education, Alrdev, also expressed its full support to the protesters in Sidi Bouzid and rejected the “option of force” to solve social problems. In addition it announced a regional strike in Sidi Bozin on the 12th January for the release of all detainees.
These movements are a great step forward and are the best way to show class solidarity with the demonstrators. Unions must assume their responsibilities as organisations of struggle to unite workers against exploitation, oppression, dictatorship, and repression. In order to achieve this most effectively, unions must call for a nationwide general strike, demand an immediate end to repression, condemn those responsible for the repression of protesters, and call for political freedoms.
The limits of the movement
The movement of the Tunisian masses has demonstrated the depth of discontent accumulated under the surface. More importantly it has revealed the enormous magnitude of revolutionary energy amongst the masses of workers, unemployed youth, and the rest of the oppressed strata, and their overwhelming desire to change society.
Despite the use of live ammunition and tear gas against unarmed demonstrators, the Tunisian dictatorial capitalist regime could not stop the movement of the masses. On the contrary repression has only led to more demonstrations. The Tunisian people have shown the highest degree of bravery in their challenges against the barbarism of the state.
This movement indicates, from our point of view, the end of an era characterised by an apparent stagnation of the class struggle, and is an expression of the accumulation of many explosive factors. It is the beginning of another stage of mass movements that sooner or later will overthrow the regime of tyranny and exploitation in Tunisia once and for all.
But despite everything, it is a "spontaneous" movement, a movement that is not guided by a scientific program and clear prospects. But this is not primarily the problem of the masses; the masses have done all they should do, they have demonstrated against repression and have made all sorts of sacrifices. What more can we ask for?
The masses know exactly what they do not want: they do not want oppression or exploitation, or unemployment, or famine, or poverty, or exploitation – and they have mobilized to reject it all! But they do not know exactly what they do want. They do not know what the alternative is. This is understandable. The question of the alternative is the task of Marxists and revolutionary workers.
If a revolutionary Marxist party existed in Tunisia, rooted in the working class and oppressed masses in general – a party with a transitional program and a clear scientific socialist internationalist perspective – the working class in Tunisia would be able to transform this wonderful movement in to a successful revolution that could throw the capitalist dictatorship regime in to the dustbin of history and build the system of socialism, justice and equality. But such a leadership is exactly what is missing today.
We Marxists, members of the IMT, propose some ideas for discussion amongst left activists, the working class in general, and the young rebels in the streets of Tunisia, as part of our contribution to the developing of an alternative that can direct the movement towards revolutionary horizons.
We Marxists, call upon the left activists and workers to organise the mass movement by launching the initiative to set up democratically elected committees of struggle in working class neighbourhoods, factories, and universities, aiming at organising and giving leadership to the movement. These committees will be the embryo of peoples’ and workers’ councils. They should be coordinated at local, district, and at the city level, and should form regional and national coordination.
We call for the defence of workers' neighbourhoods, the headquarters of unions, and demonstrations against the attacks of reaction and repression by forming militias for self-defence, controlled by elected bodies and committees of struggle. The dictatorship has a system of repression and organizes fascist militias to attack the masses; we must form our own militia to defend ourselves!
We call for mobilisation in the labour unions, amongst workers in poor neighbourhoods, universities, and in the ranks of left-wing parties for a general strike against the dictatorship, oppression, and exploitation.
We call for an end to repression and for the prosecution of any perpetrators of violence against the masses. We demand the imposition of all forms of democratic freedoms: the right to strike, the right to demonstrate, and the right to take collective action.
We must organize the strike on a platform of popular demands, such as the immediate increase of the minimum wage to meet all the needs of daily life, and cultural and recreational activities for workers and their families.
We must demand the end to privatisation and for the nationalisation of all the vital economic sectors under workers' control, destroying the dictatorship of Ben Ali, and the construction of a democratic regime based on the democratic control of workers and poor masses through democratically elected councils.
We also need to win our brothers and sons in the system of repression: the ordinary soldiers and policemen, who live under the same conditions as us, through a fraternal call to turn their arms against our common enemy – this system of exploitation and oppression. We must maintain a firm stance against all acts of repression and at the same time invite them to join the ranks of their fellow workers, peasants, and the poor.
We propose to issue an internationalist call to the north African working-class to show international solidarity with Tunisian workers in their struggle against the brutal repression to which they are exposed. We have already seen the first step in this direction in Jordan, Lebanon, and Europe, where different solidarity activities have been organized. We must give life to the traditions of militant solidarity that characterised the struggle against colonialism in the Maghreb region, especially since this region is going through important social and political struggles, such as the heroic struggles in Algeria against unemployment and for the right to housing, or the heroic struggles in Morocco and Western Sahara against unemployment and privatisation, and for the right to housing.
We call on young workers and Marxist militants to establish Marxist groups amongst the ranks of the revolutionary fighters in the streets. Tens of thousands of young people rebelled against the dictatorship of Ben Ali in Tunisia, but the Tunisian youth and workers need much more than heroism and determination. They need a mass revolutionary party to assist them. This party does not exist yet, but we must aim to form it out the of the most advanced youth and workers who are today protesting in the streets of Tunisia.
The only real way to achieve democratic rights and freedoms, and to end exploitation and submission to imperialism, is to establish a socialist Tunisia as part of a socialist federation of the Middle East.
January 3, 2011
[This is a translation of an article published by the Arabic website of the IMT, Marxy.com]
Videos of the protests
Watch another video on Al Jazeera here