Sunday, 18 December 2011

Follow-up

Just a quick follow-up post to my last: the Egyptian Health Ministry is reporting that there have been 10 deaths in Cairo following the military's attack on the #occupycabinet and Tahrir sit-ins. Al-Jazeera is reporting that police and the military have been witnessed abusing protesters with electrical prods, stripping naked and assaulting female protesters (as can be seen in this sickening video), and shooting indiscriminately at retreating protesters.

And adding to the westwashing of the Arab Spring by the Western media is Gigi Ibrahim's experience of being interviewed by the BBC, that respectable authoritative source.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Not a Moment of Silence, but a Lifetime of Struggle.

There's been a lot of talk amongst activist circles about death lately - from the brutal murder of Mustafa Tamimi by the IDF to the passing of the late Christopher Hitchens which has certainly created some intense debate. To me, no death is more or less important than any other; but I'd like to take a moment to say a few things about one in particular which I think resonate with certain truths.

Sometimes, in death someone speaks power to truth in ways which they never could have dreamed of doing through their lives. A year ago today, a man did just this when he set off a chain of events that would lead to his death. Perhaps for him, his act was driven by shame, or desperation, or sheer hopelessness. I certainly don't agree with claims such those made by this report by CNN, which states that his death was "a cry for dignity, justice, and opportunity". Yet his desperate act spoke to the many injustices that the people of his nation and region had suffered for far too long. It spoke to the intolerable cruelty of police states, and the obedient cruelty of those people who make themselves cogs in the machinery of such states. It spoke to the sheer inhuman cruelty of IMF and World Bank policies that split Tunisia into three zones of varying degrees of economic exploitation and in this way denied millions the right to decent fulfilling employment. And above all, it spoke to the cruelty of the global capitalist system, which is built on human suffering just a shade less than slavery.

Just as the confiscation of his vegetable cart became his final straw, Mohamed Bouazizi's death became the final straw for the Tunisian people. Perhaps it's not entirely accurate to call Tunisia's revolution or the Arab Spring it inspired his legacy, when the cruelty was bound to lead to an expression at some point. Yet his desperate act certainly galvanised and strengthened the resolve of all those who knew the regime's cruelty. And it spoke not just to the cruelty of the regime and the situation, but the intolerabe injustice of it - and this realisation, that the situation created by neoliberal capitalism for the majority world is not just unjust, but intolerably and impossibly injust, proved the necessary catalyst to bring down Ben Ali.

Now that "the Protester" has been named the Time Person of the Year, the global capitalist media has come out to continue their campaign of distortion against the revolutionary movements of Tunisia and Egypt, just as they did during the two recent elections. Events like the Bardo sit-in, which don't fit with the narrative that the Tunisians just wanted the right to free and fair elections and to get rid of a few scapegoats - and everything can go back to normal now as soon as the "unrest" of ongoing protests and strikes is over - are ignored.

Yet we should take this December 17 to remember that nothing has changed, that the intolerable cruelty is the same in Tunisia. Even if the provincial poor have the right to vote, they are still poor, the same corrupt officials and police are still hassling them, and the same IMF & World Bank are still presiding over the whole affair. We sitting here on our laptops and smartphones in the first world are still consuming the majority of the world's resources while people are dying of hunger and thirst and curable diseases (unlike Christopher Hitchens, who died of cancer - which itself speaks to the injustice of a world where curable diseases generally get cured for the few and generally don't for the majority). And until a lot more people say no more, take Bouazizi's desperate act as their nadir, and refuse to tolerate the injustice of this system any further, then nothing is going to change.

For our Dead and Disappeared, Not a Moment of Silence, But a Lifetime of Struggle (http://neanarchist.net/sinfronteras/about)

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Book of the Year - Bradt's Palestine

Green Left Weekly asked me to contribute to a list of books of the year. I chose the Bradt Travel Guide for Palestine, which I found an invaluable resource in getting around and knowing how to handle the regime's attempts to deter international solidarity (or even basic functioning of the tourist economy).


Palestine by Sarah Irving
Bradt Travel Guides, 2011
This is the ideal resource for Palestinian solidarity activists and travellers in the Holy Land. The best book of its kind, it delivers a frank and honest picture of Palestine when the vast majority of tourist literature is an accomplice to the erasure of Palestinian history and culture.
As the author states in the introduction, "to visit Palestine is, in some measure, a political act" even for conventional tourists.
The guide's background information section pulls no punches regarding the creation of Israel and the occupation of '67. It's also one of the only guides available that also covers Palestinian communities inside Israel. This is the only book worth reading for travellers to Palestine, whether interested in solidarity activism or not.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Egypt: Elections underway

Here is three links which help in understanding Egypt's parliamentary elections and their relationship with the renewed Tahrir protests and occupation, which have now reached their 11th day and show no sign of giving up the Midan.

Firstly, the Guardian's interactive guide is useful for getting a sense of who the forces are and where they stand. All indications are that the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which is in a coalition with some liberal and left parties but itself sits on the centre-right and conservative side of things, is going to win a landslide. If Tunisia's elections are any indicator, they will pick up much of the vote of the people who supported the revolution, but not the revolutionaries themselves. Many in Tahrir & the smaller sit in outside the Cabinet of Ministers building will be boycotting the election, although the call for a boycott went out too late and was up against too much propaganda from the regime, the Brotherhood & other forces to pick up widespread support.

The Tahrir revolutionaries and their supporters who aren't boycotting the elections seem likely to vote for the "Revolution Continues" alliance, which is largely made up of socialist groups (including the Egyptian Socialist Party, whose members I have interviewed earlier in this blog) but also the Current party, which split from the Muslim Brotherhood youth over questions like supporting ongoing protests after February 11. Ahram Online have profiled the coalition's makeup and policies. On November 20 the alliance announced it would be suspending its campaign, but yesterday it signed on to a joint statement stating they would not cancel their campaign, while calling for the public to join the protests.

Meanwhile, Mostafa Ali, a member of the IST-affilated Revolutionary Socialists party, gave an interview with Socialist Worker on what the elections and the last 11 days mean for the mass movement and revolutionary struggle here. Great analysis, especially in discussing the growth of what he calls the "revolutionary vanguard" - although note the sectarian dig at the "Revolution Continues" alliance:

"THE GENERAL feeling in Tahrir is that the SCAF has cut a deal not only with the Brotherhood and the Salafists, but also with the liberals and a section of the left, a coalition called the Revolution Continues. They are going to divide the seats in the new parliament among themselves."
For the record, the few protesters I spoke to today at the #occupycabinet sit-in were all for a boycott, but none claimed that the leftists running in the election had cut a deal with the SCAF.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Palestine: The Olive Harvest Diaries

The following travelogue was written from notes taken during my first volunteer program in Palestine.

As we stare out over the terraced hills now cut off from the village of al-Khader by Highway 60, the main Israeli bypass road cutting through the southern West Bank, I turn to Baha Hilo, coordinator of the Olive Tree Campaign at the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine, and say "It's a beautiful country".

He pauses, then replies: "Why do you think they want to steal it from us?"

It's my fifth day in Palestine, and my first on this year's olive harvest volunteer program run by the JAI. This October, over 110 international volunteers are taking part. We visit and harvest groves around Bethlehem threatened by Israel's system of segregation; both symbolically and economically, the issue is at the heart of the struggle for control of the West Bank. I'm one of two Australians taking part; our group are mostly from Europe and North America and are of many different backgrounds: solidarity groups, Christian peace groups, the Palestinian diaspora, and international YMCA-YWCA programs. None of us can fail to see the injustices here.

The owner of the first farm we visit, in the valley to the west of al-Khader, is one of the lucky ones. He has a small house on his land, built before the Israeli occupation began in 1967, which means he and his family can always access their trees. Most Palestinian farmers own olive groves in the terraced hills on the outskirts of their villages, which are cut off by bypass roads, walls and the settlements of the occupation. Any new construction which would allow farmers to live on their land and have guaranteed access to it requires a permit from the state of Israel –– they are rarely granted.

We get to work before 9am. Hilo rolls out a tarpaulin beneath the overhanging branches of the first tree and shows us how to "milk" a branch: take it between thumb and forefinger and firmly slide it to the end so the olives pop off and rain down onto the sheet. It takes first timers like myself awhile to get the hang of it, and scratches up the forearms are unavoidable. By the time we finish for lunch - stuffed vine leaves, called "Warak Dawali" in Palestine - we've got two sacks full of firm green olives – not a bad first day!

The Keep Hope Alive program is not just about volunteering our labour. On the first afternoon we visit Dheisheh Refugee Camp, the largest in Bethlehem city. A checkpoint gate remains at the entrance from the First Intifada, when the Israeli military surrounded the camp with a fence and this was the only way in or out. The refugees of Dheisheh left it standing to remember the curfews and brutality they suffered for five years. Within a few minutes of wandering the camp's narrow alleys many of us lose our guide; thankfully we take our directions from the unforgettable Banksy mural located in the camp and find the bus again.

Day two takes us to Husan, one of six Palestinian communities in west Bethlehem. The town has a population of nearly 6000. Since 1978 the land owned by the village has shrunk from 7361 dunams (73.61 hectares) to just under 928, taken over by settlements and the military.

Betar Illit is one of these settlements, created in 1984 by land confiscated from Husan and other villages. Its population has grown to more than 38,000. The field we harvest adjoins the Houses of Betar Illit, within the settlement's security fence, so the Palestinian owner had to apply through Israeli courts for permission to harvest his olives. This precarious position is worsened by frequent attacks on the groves, which are treated with indifference by the settlement security and IDF. Last harvest, fire-fighting crews trying to put out blazes lit by settlers were delayed by the authorities, and 35 dunams of fruitful trees were lost.

"When there are settler attacks on farmland," Hilo says, "the surveillance system sees nothing – but when a Palestinian throws a single rock, it identifies them."

The field has soaring views of the valley between the settlement and the Palestinian community of Nahhalin. The people of this land made Bethlehem the land of milk and honey by laboriously building terraces into the steep hills, dragging up chalk to line them to ensure the soil would capture and store water in the winter. So in this semi-arid climate, the farms remain fertile in the long dry summer months, and the olives and other fruit trees provide a bountiful crop. Now, the "biblical" view from this spot is reserved for the settlers.

As Hilo says: "Thousands of years of Palestinian cultivation has become marketing for the real estate of the occupiers.”
We work our way through the morning, pausing for shai (tea) and kahua (coffee) provided by the farmer's family. We thank the farmer's family, and they thank us in return. Picking the olives is hot work, and we are glad to be interrupted by a gecko climbing the branches besides us, going about its way despite the conflict which centres around the olives.

In the afternoon we visit the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, based in Bethlehem since the Israeli occupation, for information on settler activity and the control of resources by settlements in the West Bank.

It's an issue we get to see in greater detail the next day, when we skip the harvest to visit Jerusalem, and see the sharp contrasts between the Palestinian & settler communities to the city's east. Most of this area is slated to become part of the Ma'ale Adumim block, linking the settlement suburbs with nature reserves, bypass roads – even a water park. Vast olive trees, uprooted from farms of the area, stand in the middle of roundabouts or next to observation decks, fed water constantly by sophisticated drip irrigation systems. Settlements never have problems accessing water, even in the depths of summer. Pipes feed in from subterranean aquifers throughout the region. Palestinian communities, on the other hand, frequently have water supplies cut off in the summer; the easiest way to recognise the difference between a Palestinian community and a settler one is the big black rainwater tanks which sprout on the former's rooftops.


The Bedouin of Khan Al-Ahmar, a small hamlet in the shadows of Ma'ale Adumim, sits at the other end of the spectrum. Since 1952, when they arrived after being driven from their original homes near Beersheba, they've managed to carve a bit of home out of the Judean Desert, with fruit trees and corrugated sheet buildings. The Bedouin people have to pay the government for every drop of water, which has to be brought to the community by donkey. When the pipelines carrying water to the settlement were first built, they made punctures in it to gather water, before an agreement was reached and the Israeli authorities installed a meter. They are cut off by military zones, settlements and bypass roads; in recent years, the bypass roads have been lined with metal safety barriers, preventing the shepherds on the west side from accessing Jericho, which had been the only market available to them. The permit system does not allow them into Jerusalem to sell their products. They have no electricity. They have not been allowed to work in the Israeli settlements since 2009; when they were allowed to work, they got no more than 70 shekels a day (around US$20).


Five children from the community have died crossing the highway to get to a school in the West Bank - so the villagers here built their own. The pale brown school, the most stable-looking buildings in the unrecognised village, are made from tyres that the people filled with rubbish and lined with mud. International supporters and an Italian aid agency helped build the school. The community takes great pride in their determination. But the building's future is not guaranteed. After the villagers visited the nearby settlement to tell their story and suggest a cultural exchange program between their new school and the one in the settlement, the settlers petitioned Israel's courts to issue a demolition order for the building, as it "threatened their security". So far three military demolition orders have been served on the building.

The harvest on day four takes us to fields around the village of Jab'a. The Beit Ein settlement in the distance is notorious for attacking nearby villages and farms, including the one we begin to harvest. This land is also threatened by Israel, which has drilled into the aquifers under the Palestinian villages and laid a pipeline through the groves to the settlements - cutting down more olive trees in the process. We pass one of the pumping stations on the way to the farm, clean white machinery painted with the Israeli Flag.


At the farm we are visited by the Israeli police and the IDF during the morning. For “security reasons”, the IDF uprooted over 100 olive trees from this farmer's land earlier in the year. To put that number in context: during the day's work, our group of over forty volunteers is able to pick around eight trees clean. The fruit varies between the thick green kind and the small black ones; the farmer tells us that they both produce oil, but only the larger kind are pickled for eating.

The next day is another inter-city trip, to the southern city of Hebron. Entering the old city through a checkpoint, we pass an impromptu protest of teachers. Restriction of movement goes hand in hand with attacks by about 420 fundamentalist settlers who live in small settlements inside the old city. Their aim is to drive the 30,000 Palestinians out.

The school is one of the focal points of tension. Schoolchildren are often hassled on their way to class. Ordinary school supplies are restricted and must be smuggled in. After visiting the teachers, we pass graffiti reading "Gas the Arabs" on the school wall.

Cages were built over the souks of the old city to protect Palestinians from rocks, rubbish & furniture settlers throw from the top floors of buildings above.

A reason the tension is the Tomb of the Patriarchs, or Ibrahim Mosque – the site of shrines to three biblical couples. The large building is divided between a synagogue and a mosque. Entry to both is controlled by the IDF. In the mosque, the enclosure showing the direction towards Mecca has pink scars on the white marble - bullet marks. In February 1994, Baruch Goldstein - Brooklyn-born settler - walked into the mosque during Ramadan dawn prayers and opened fire with automatic weapons, killing 29 and wounding 125. A bullet-proof barrier has since been placed between the two sides.

Day seven is a full harvest day in the valley of Wadi Ahmed. The fields are in the northern and western part of Beit Jala, historically within Bethlehem district . But the settlements on the hilltops are built on land confiscated from Beit Jala, considered by Israel to be part of Jerusalem, while the groves in the valleys belong to farmers living in Beit Jala. This means the farmers find themselves prohibited from having free access to their land as Israel restricts access of Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank and Gaza to the holy city.

We must pass the 300 Checkpoint into Jerusalem and drive around to access the valley from the other side, as access from the Palestinian side is restricted to a single gate, requiring special permits. Our farmer can only bring his mother & brother through the gate with him. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers can cruise past on the bypass bridge overhead, the longest in the West Bank.

An IDF Humvee pulls us over on the dirt road leading to the farmer's land and demands "special" permission to enter the valley (even though under Israel's redrawn maps we are still within Israel). The farmer has already contacted the soldiers’ superiors and ensured we are not breaking any Israeli military orders; but they still detain us for a few nervous minutes, before we go on. The family has a stone house built on the land, which must always be inhabited to ensure it isn't destroyed. The planned path of Israel's separation wall goes through this valley to surround Cremisan Monastery, which produces Palestine's only wine.

Most of the trees we harvest are hundreds of years old – I can climb high enough to get vertigo. But no branches snap beneath us; the trees here are stronger than I realise. At the end of the day, we walk past one planted in Roman times; it's possibly the second oldest thing I've seen after the Pyramids.

Our last day of harvest takes back to the fields south of al Khader, on the other side of Efrat settlement (the biblical name for Bethlehem). It takes us over an hour to get to the field; even the bypass roads Palestinians can drive on aren't equally accessible, and even our bus was pulled over, held up for half an hour, and the driver was given several fines for being un-roadworthy. This generally only happens to the white-and-green plated Palestinian vehicles.

The demountable blocks on the edge of this farmer's terraces are settlement "outposts" - where some settlers relocate a few kilometres away in a strategic location. Israel is required to build roads, power lines, water mains, and all the necessary infrastructure for a modern state once they have done this. Over time, settlements expand to include the outposts.

The farmer knows his fields down in the valley, in which all manner of fruit and vegetables are growing, might be safe for the near future; but the outpost metres away represents a clear threat.

Our farewell night party comes, and it's hard to believe that we must leave behind all our new friends. Perhaps it's being thrown together and exposed to the daily struggle of Palestinian life that has built our bond; or perhaps it's our common drive to go beyond the package tourists with whom we share our hotel, and see the real story of this land.

Despite our different countries and reasons for getting involved, we have formed our own network of solidarity activists – committed to joining campaigns calling attention to the crime of Israel's occupation within our home countries, but also to working for peace in a practical way, with our own hands – and showing ordinary Palestinian farmers, families and communities that, no matter how little our governments care for the injustices done here, the people of the world do.

Interview with the Tunisian Communist Worker's Party, part 2

The following questions were answered by leading members of the Tunisian Communist Worker's Party (PCOT) in follow-up to my earlier interview with Samir Taamallah. The response to the first question comes from a statement by Hamma Hammami; a more detailed statement on PCOT's election results can be read here, and it has been translated by blogger The Moor Next Door.



Ted Walker: How do you feel about PCOT's results in the elections? Do you feel the campaign was successful in raising the issues that you wanted to?



Hamma Hammami: Some newspapers consider that the elections of October 23th were extraordinary and unique, furthermore, perfect; this is clearly an exaggeration. We have to avoid blind optimism for the election's results, and instead consider it with more criticism.

There were many complaints against some lists, and I don’t think the judiciary system would be rude in taking positions in their affairs. But despite our criticism, the PCOT aren't asking to rerun the elections or to cancel them, however we have some remarks to mention:

First, the reduced number of participants in the elections; according to the ISIE, only 48.9% have voted! Such statistics are worrying and their impacts on the political future of the Constituent Assembly (CA) would be important, because the constitution doesn't reflect the opinion of the majority. To heal this problem, the PCOT is calling for the constitution, once it would be finished, to be presented to the people in a referendum; thus, the Tunisian population would accept it or not!

Second, political money (money invested by parties in their electoral campaign) was a significant factor in differentiating the results of the parties. No one can deny that there an obvious difference between spending 25 dinars on an elector and spending 500 dinars on him.

Third, the use of religious rhetoric in mosques and public areas directly & indirectly influenced people. The biggest failure is that persons who should have reacted against such attempts to influence voters didn’t, and behaved just as passively as they did under Ben Ali regime. It’s just like there were hidden powers which want to create divides between atheists and religious people.

Fourth, the poor role played by the media, especially public media, meant that they didn’t help people distinguish, choose and understand what does the constitution and its content mean.

Fifth, there were mutual attacks between parties which sometimes reached a very pitiful edge.

Sixth, there were many infractions of electoral rules were noticed in polling stations, confirmed by a wide number of observers.

To conclude: no one can deny that the Tunisian election was manipulated by international actors (most notably American and European ones) which are aiming to limit the Tunisian revolution to minor reforms and modifications and want to sustain the former system, the former pro-capitalist economic, political and social policies. The foreign intervention was materialized by the transitory government and some parties, because during the election campaign there were many people traveling in and out Tunisia and we were hearing many assurances from different parties that Tunisia will maintain the old political and economic policies.


Ted: How does PCOT evaluate its own participation in the election?


Chrif Khraief: We estimate that our participation was very weak, and we’re not satisfied because 3 seats in the CA doesn’t reflect at all the real weight of the party on the streets. No one can deny the historical role, the historical activism and the big impact of PCOT in building the revolution. We are looking critically at ourselves all the time in the purpose of going forward and overcoming our weaknesses and improve ourselves.

It’s true that PCOT have learnt revolutionary activism and have always done it very well, but we’ve never learnt or experienced electoral campaigning. We made a clean electoral campaign in which we focused on our program and proposals for the constitution and the transitory government and we relied on our activists' energy and motivation, mainly young ones, but we’ve suffered from our weak implantation in cities and countryside which negatively impact transforming political reputation to an electoral power. And we lost many voices by changing our name “PCOT” to “Al Badil (Revolutionary Alternative)”; many people didn’t recognize us on polling day.

We made a big mistake when we didn’t organise a supervisor for each polling station, which allowed to some parties to catch the opportunity to influence people. We’ve also faced the electoral campaign with very modest material means and we relied on campaign funding given by the authorities, which reached us very late in the campaign. Additionally, our candidates were the target of a very rude campaign of attacks because of our principles and integrity; some parties spread many rumors against us which didn’t allow us reach our target result of 10%.

Although our results are not satisfying, we’ve learnt a lot from this experience, we actually know our weakness and we’re more than ever convinced by our principles.


Ted: Do you feel like the new government will make any deep social or economic changes? Will it pursue real justice against the former regime?


Chrif Khraief: We don’t believe at all that the new government, with its current composition, is willing to make radical and real changes on the social and economic fronts. Even before the first sitting of the CA, they’ve reassured the world that they would hold on the same way of the former regime. This is especially true regarding economic policy; they have statedthey will pay foreign debts and they still sustaining the market economy which lead to political dictatorship, economic regression and social inequality.

On the social front, the CA has shown no interest in the poor people and disadvantaged interior which were neglected for a long time under Ben Ali, which was one of the reasons behind protests and strikes. And given the lack of judicial reform, even if they would take decisions, they would be fake, because we can’t exercise real democracy when the agents of the former regime are still active, the judiciary system is still not fair or free, and the media is still not free, the administration is still corrupt, and people involved in torture and corruption are still free. We can’t talk about real justice without talking about accountability and giving back esteem to the victims of Ben Ali.


Ted: There has been major strikes called in tourism, transport and other industries since the elections were held. Have PCOT members been involved in or supporting these actions? What place is the UGTT and workers taking in the revolutionary struggle?


Chrif Khraief: PCOT was not behind those protests, but it’s supporting them and forever will do! We will insist that the government realize promises it gave just after the revolution like canceling interim work wages, subsidising those worked on a fixed wage, adopting transparent standards of recruitment, etc.

Workers are, at present, split into two groups. There are the kind of revolutionaries which aims to concretize interior democracy within the UGTT, and to defend workers against capitalists and bosses. This kind includes democrats, left, syndicalists, and others; it was always present in the brightest moment of the UGTT – the strike of 26 January 1978, the bread revolution of 1984, legitimacy fights of 1985, support of Iraq in Gulf War of 1990, Redeyef and Oum Laarayes uprising of 2008. But mainly and above all, these workers were involved in the revolutionary movements which led to the downfall of Ben Ali on January 14.

All activists of this kind are going to have an assembly in December to pursue the path of revolution and to install a real democracy and to pursue defending workers rights against the second kind of workers. These are the bureaucrats which are representing the counter-revolutionary power (bosses syndicate) which want to fail the negotiations and modify the orientations of debates by playing with buying power of Tunisians (prices all still rising day by day although salaries not), rather than making the union become a tool of worker's independence and power. These bureaucrats are the ones which supported Ben Ali until the last moment and treated revolutionaries as trouble makers.


Ted: What do you think about the #occupy protest movement which has been growing around the world and which recently saw an Occupy Tunis protest on the 11th of November?


Jilani Hamemi: The #occupy protest movement which began in Wall street in USA is a logical consequence of the collapsing capitalist system.

In fact, the capitalist system has passed through many crisis which occurred periodically through its history, but they are getting closer and closer – the TIC crisis, military industry’s crisis, real estate crisis, and now a crisis based on a bad banking system with a lot of interests which harm the American citizen budget and standard of life. And now, the Occupy protest movement is giving hope that we can change this capitalist system to a communist one. This movement is tagging its origin from the “Arab spring” and it’s materializing a similar revolutionary struggle against miserable life conditions.

The capitalist system is now making every effort to absorb the street’s anger and make frequent interventions – but these have not worked so far, because the people want real changes; a minimum guaranteed industrial wage, a guaranteed yearly income, the right of work, the right of free education, of public health care, the canceling of their debts due to interest, and even the canceling of many country’s foreign debt, such as Tunisia. They are demanding a new society based on democracy, equality, and freedom.

That’s the real way of struggle. We have to hold on to reach our objective; the struggle won’t be easy, but it's not impossible for us to win. But we must remain critically aware of the movement's weaknesses.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Palestine: First Thoughts

On the shared taxi from the airport, a fellow Aussie of a less political bent looked out at the apartheid wall running alongside the highway and, when we came to a watchtower, said: "That looks like a prison" - I wish he'd known how right he was...

It's certainly a surreal experience to land at Ben Gurion, pass through the infamous Israeli border control (I was so nervous approaching the counter I couldn't even make myself smile...) and to arrive in Palestine. Here more than anywhere else in the world you can feel the arbitrary nature of borders; occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank flow out of 1948 Israel within the space of a matter of minutes from the airport. Yet for this tiny historical division, millions are opressed, lives have been lost, and the world watches...






The surreal feeling was with me for my first four days in Jerusalem - especially when I went wandering through the old city, the heart of the conflict here since 1948 and for centuries before that, to look for a laundromat! It took a few days for it to really sink in that this was a place where people go about their lives. Indeed, Palestinians are resolute to go on living their lives in the face of this occupation... although from time to time, ordinary life is impossible here.

The Second Intifada began when Ariel Sharon decided to enter the Haram ash-Sherif (or Temple Mount, containing the Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock) via this bridge on September 28, 2000, accompanied by around 1000 soldiers.





This one REALLY needs no explanation...








Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Egypt: Massacre of Coptic protesters

The following article was first published at Green Left Weekly on October 16, after the massacre of Coptic protesters the previous week. Given the advances made by the revolution in uniting the struggle against the SCAF since then, the incident was an important turning point.


Regime tries to whip up religion tensions with anti-Copt violence

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Walking around downtown Cairo on October 10, everything felt relatively normal ― if, perhaps, a little more tense than usual for post-January 25 Cairo.

That is, until I came across the wrecks of burnt out cars on the Corniche el Nil in Maspero, just north of Tahrir Square, being pulled apart by enterprising young men.

The night before, Coptic Christians marched from Shubra to protest acts of discrimination against Copts by the interim government, including the destruction of St. George's Church in Aswan and the forceful break-up of a protest on October 5. The marchers were assaulted by unidentified groups of thugs before being massacred by the military.

At least 26 people were killed in the ensuing violence, many by army armoured personnel carriers that drove straight into the crowd of thousands, gunners firing wildly into the night.

But despite the headlines flashing across the world, it is wrong to call this an act of sectarian violence. What happened on the night of October 9 was state violence against peaceful protesters, on a scale not seen since Hosni Mubarak's ouster on February 11.

Eyewitness reports on social media sites such as Twitter claimed that the groups of thugs attacking the protesters grabbed people and dragged them over to army and police forces to be arrested. This suggests that the lion's share of violence was not created by the religious tensions, but the regime's baltageya (political thugs loyal to the interior ministry).

The regime has been busily exploiting religious tensions within Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, trying to split the unity between Christians, Muslims, atheists and other Egyptians shown during the occupations of Tahrir Square.

This includes broadcasts from the state media, which, as protesters were being massacred on October 9, were busily reporting that Christians were stealing weapons from the army and killing Muslim soldiers, the Al Masry Al Youm site said.

Mohamed Abou El-Ghar, of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said in a cross-party press conference on October 10 that condemned the violence that the state media had urged Muslims into the street to protect the armed forces. The state media claimed the protesters were burning Qurans in the street.

Yet, despite this campaign, the graffiti around the city showing the Christian cross and the Islamic crescent, with the words "2gether 4ever", has been some of the best preserved since the start of the revolution.

Another rumour repeated to me on the streets of downtown Cairo as the bloodshed was unfolding was that the protesters were marching to support Mubarak.

No doubt seeking to bolster their own support base and fan the flames of religious tension, the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement calling on Copts to cease protesting for the sake of "democracy".

“There are certain channels, means and times for demanding legitimate demands and all Egyptian people have legitimate demands, not only our Coptic brothers,” said the statement. “This is certainly not the right time to demand them since the current government is an interim government and the general conditions are abnormal."

The Brotherhood demanded the regime keep the current timetable for elections.

The Revolutionary Socialists, on the other hand, condemned the oppression of Copts "which goes hand-in-hand with a policy of divide and rule between Christian and Muslim working people".

"We will continue to defend our revolution, and the people’s right to free expression, to protest, demonstrate and strike, in order to restore our stolen rights, and to cleanse the country of the roots of corruption, which is still poisoning our revolution and attempting to overturn it," their statement read.

Coptic protests continued on October 10, with mourners rallying outside the Coptic hotel in the Cairo suburb of Ramsis. They chanted against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's power behind the throne since Mubarak's downfall, before marching to the State TV building in Maspero.

Reports from Al Masry Al Youm said up to 20,000 took part in the march.

Despite a huge police and army presence at Maspero earlier in the day, which looked like it was gearing up to block the protests, there was no massacre this time. Local residents showed support for the protesters, and some threw bottles of water to the marchers.

The interim government has responded to the violence and international condemnation by launching a quick inquiry, detaining 25 suspects implicated in the violence. It added the “Equality Law” to the penal code, which stipulates special punishment for anyone who carries out any action that causes violence against individuals or communities based on gender, race, language or religion, or which might lead to unequal opportunity or social inequality, reports from State TV said.

But in Egypt's current climate of lax police enforcement, and the open unity of the army and police in repressing the protests (a change in tactics from the days of the uprising against Mubarak), perhaps the only real change to Egypt's political landscape after October 9 will be a growing awareness that the SCAF, despite its rhetoric, is doing everything in its power to hold back the revolution.

Reflections on the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia (part 1)

The following account was written during my final days in Tunisia, mainly as an informational & perspective piece for my comrades in the Socialist Alliance party in Australia. It was then published by LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Much of the content was first taken from my other articles & interviews, which can be read in more detail below; given that Tunisia's elections have now taken place and Egypt's protest movement has again reached critical mass in calling for the end of the military dictatorship, the state of affairs for the left is quite different from when I first wrote these pieces. Stay posted for further thoughts :)

Egypt


Arriving in Egypt the day before the September 9 protests that brought tens of thousands into the street, marches to the Ministry of Interior and the Supreme Court, and then the storming of the Israeli embassy, certainly threw me in at the deep end! But arriving in Cairo at almost any point would have been like that.

For the last few months, Friday protests -- in Cairo's Tahrir Square and nationwide -- have been going on more or less every week. The week after September 9, there was a protest at Tahrir Square of around a thousand against the military trials; today there are "back to the barracks" protests demanding a quicker timetable for creating a civilian government.

But even outside of what could be called the "democracy" movement of bloggers and activists, there has been mass democratic struggle in almost all layers of society, and the Tahrir protests are really only the tip of the iceberg. Most days when I walk around the city or meet various people there are little sit-ins or protests or speakouts happening outside ministries or public buildings. More than once I was simply spending time in my room and saw protesters marching past from my balcony that I had heard nothing about!

New workers' movement

The lion's share of these protests are by parts of the new workers' movement, which has been growing here for several years. The official trade unions and syndicates, more than 4000 in total, were sewn up by US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak's ruling misnamed National Democratic Party (NDP), but in the last few years underground independent unions have been forming out of wildcat struggles within Egypt's major factories and businesses. Now there's more than 150 independent unions, and more are being established all the time; some of these unions have won official recognition, and are leading struggles – both for economic demands like better pay and conditions, but also for structural reforms, to get rid of Mubarak's cronies and for more workers' control.

For example, one protest march I saw was by secondary school teachers, who are striking for better pay, demanding the removal of the minister and more funding for public education – a major issue, as all Egyptian families have to shell out for either private schooling or extra tuition due to the inadequacy of the state schools.

Cronies

The key figureheads of the old regime are imprisoned or on trial in absentia, but in pretty much every big business, ministry or government department and public service – Mubarak-era cronies are still in power, and the networks of corruption still exist. The repression of protest and activism may have eased up since February 11, but corruption – such as the bribes to get things done in the system – have worsened.

On this basis, it's clear to most Egyptians that the revolution hasn't changed much yet, but the revolutionary movement still seems to have the support of most people on the street. The trade union movement is a big part of this – revolutionaries aren't just talking about the nebulous structure of the whole political class, or rights and class in an abstract way, but also conducting campaigns against specific individual figures at all levels of power, who ordinary people know are corrupt and are stooges of the rich and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (which, thanks to years of billion-dollar blank cheques from the US, owns of huge swathes of industry).

Revolutionary left

Meeting with comrades of the Egyptian Socialist Party (a socialist unity project which seems like the closest thing here to Germany's Die Linke or Australia's Socialist Alliance) was really illuminating, especially for putting the particular struggles in context and finding out more about what's been going on with the independent trade union movement. It's a very radical movement. The Egyptian Socialist Party and other revolutionary socialists have prioritised working in this area, which is one of the reasons why it's been growing so successfully.

Key leaders of the democracy movement are also affiliated to one or another of the socialist parties, united under the banner of the "Coalition of Socialist Forces" – the Revolutionary Socialists have been joined by several of the leading blogger/democracy activists, while the Egyptian Socialist Party, for example, has joined by many of the leaders of the Kefaya movement, which grew as a grassroots opposition force in 2004-2005 before stagnating somewhat after disappointing electoral results saw the Muslim Brotherhood become the main parliamentary opposition.

A big part of the inability of the democracy movement to make much ground up until now has been its inability to link with the urban poor and disadvantaged rural communities (something the Muslim Brotherhood has until now done much more successfully). So the unity between the different areas of struggle has been a key part in the success and growth of the revolutionary movement in the last six months; a key part of the democracy element right now, for example, is getting rid of the anti-strike and anti-demonstration laws imposed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces following the overthrow of Mubarak, as well as the state of emergency law. This obviously helps relate the democracy struggle to the mass working-class uprising going on.

Another aspect has been pro-poor work on a more direct level; revolutionary youth have been going into poorer communities, especially the informal slum settlements on the edge of Cairo, and helping to establish committees and networks simply to fight for access to basic infrastructure, jobs, food, etc. This is very exciting; there's a big layer of revolutionary "Tahrir" youth who are joining the organised left now that it's out from underground and openly propagandising.

While I was meeting with a comrade at the downtown Cairo office of the Egyptian Socialist Party, there was a meeting of around 20 young members, some with pre-January experience in politics but most without, debating the best ways to take the revolution forward. It was certainly a world away from some of the sleepy education meetings I've been part of in Australia! Many of the "Tahrir" youth can tend towards an ultraleft emphasis on protest, occupation and confronting the state – to what extent to embrace this tendency instead of emphasising the many kinds of party-building and activism needed to grow the movement has been something of a debate among the left here.

The revolutionary left in Egypt is well aware of the need to keep this struggle growing; to strengthen the parties and forces of the left so they can lead the struggle is everyone's primary task – while at the same time doing as much as possible to work towards unity, such as opening joint party offices in smaller cities where the left was unable to organise during the underground Mubarak years.

The left here hasn't yet won the kind of legitimacy to be seen as leading the revolution – that still lies with pro-democracy groups like the April 6 Youth movement or the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth – but they are very aware of the need to build a dual legitimacy to that of the pseudo-revolutionary government of SCAF stooges and Mubarakists through the struggle. In my opinion, this, rather than any electoral or democratic battle, is what will determine the failure or success of the revolution in Egypt.

Tunisia

Travelling to Tunisia was a bit of a shock after the turbulent revolutionary spirit of Cairo. When I first arrived, I was especially shocked by the fact that Avenue Habib Bourguiba and the Kasbah square (the two sites of major protest in the capital Tunis) are under occupation by the police, with razor wire set up outside the prime minister's office, the Ministry of Interior, the French embassy and pretty much anywhere that people will specifically protest against. The army is on the streets too; I've got no idea if they still have a pro-revolutionary image here, despite its US funding, but it is much smaller than the police forces. Either way, the streets are definitely under wraps at present, and mass struggle has been much more successfully contained.

Mass protests and strikes have definitely slowed down in Tunisia, at least in the major urban centres of the coast, over the last couple of months. The heavy police presence probably has something to do with this, but also the coming constituent assembly elections, which will take place on October 23. The constituent assembly will be responsible for writing a new constitution, and also appointing a new interim government for the next 12 months; after that time, a full-term government will be elected. This timetable is designed, as far as I can tell, to tread the line between reining in the revolutionary energy of Tunisia's youth and winning enough legitimacy among the majority of the population to avoid a "second revolution" protest wave breaking out.

But if the ex-Ben Ali regime figures who make up the present government are re-appointed to the new one, as the current prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, has signalled he is seeking to do, then I think people will hit the streets again; most of the activists and leftists I've spoken to here think it's possible.

I understand the situation is completely different in the disadvantaged interior of the country, where some cities and towns impoverished by government and International Monetary Fund policies, which prioritise investment on the coast to reduce infrastructure needs, have just kicked the police and government out; unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to get out there.

However, I think in some crucial ways here the struggle is weaker than is Egypt, even taking into account that the last two months have been during a lull due to electoralist organisation.

But the revolutionary struggle isn't dead or dormant here, despite the election sucking up the energy of a good number of democracy activists and the organised left. Like in Egypt, there are struggles within every element of society to get rid of corrupt figures from the old regime. For example, on my second day here I saw two protests: one, a group of around 650 graduate secondary teachers staging a sit-in at the Ministry of Education to demand the government create jobs for them; and another demanding the release of a police officer whistleblower who revealed that two recently appointed figures were corrupt and were responsible for killing protesters.

Tunisian left

One factor in Tunisia was union activity here; leftists were able to hide under the umbrella of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail) at the local branch level under Ben Ali dictatorship, although the top leadership was bought off by the regime. The UGTT was one of the key bodies, along with blogger-journalist-activists, in spreading the uprising from the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, where Muhammad Bouazizi self-immolated on December 17, 2010, to the bigger cities along the coast, due to the slightly greater leeway for activity at the local branch level.

There have been some initiatives to set up independent trade unions, including by the police, which have been quashed by the regime; I'm yet to hear of any purging of the UGTT of Ben Ali collaborators, but I really don't know what the state of play is there or whether the UGTT remains a functional body actually leading the workers' movement.

One exception worth mentioning is the national union of students; it had some leeway to struggle under the first post-colonial dictator Bourguiba, but was totally infiltrated by Ben Ali and became totally useless. Since January 14 it's been reclaimed and is leading struggles on campuses, over basic things like money for textbooks or students unfairly dismissed by the corrupt administrations still in place at most universities.

Due to the closeness of the relationship with France, many exiled left organisations organised among the diaspora in France for the last 10 or 20 years and have now returned; some of the more radical of the centre-left formations, which look likely to do well in the elections, such as Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedoms), are in this category. Revolutionary groups have returned since Ben Ali's downfall. The Left Worker's League (LGO), the main Trotskyist group, seems to fall into this category; most of the democracy activists and young people I've spoken to here don't even know who they are, and I haven't been able to get in touch with them or meet them yet.

Communist Workers' Party of Tunisia

I did manage, however, to meet with a member of the central committee of the Communist Workers' Party of Tunisia (PCOT), which played an essential role in the uprising against Ben Ali (largely through their involvement in the UGTT) and who seem to be the biggest and best force on the left here. Despite their affiliation to the Hoxhaist (Albanian Maoist) international tendency, they have the sharpest line on the ongoing revolution and how to keep advancing the struggle of anybody that I've spoken to here. It is definitely the only big-name party in Tunisia that hasn't switched to safe rhetoric due to the approaching election, and it is still talking about revolution!

The biggest weakness that I'd identify of the PCOT is that it isn't as well respected among democracy activists, or as big a part of that movement as, for example, the revolutionary socialists in Egypt are. Indeed, many of the leading blogger-journalist-activists here, such as Slim Amamou (who was named the minister of youth within the second post-January 14 government, although he recently resigned that post) and Azyz Amami, are leaders of the Tunisian Pirate Party, which seems to be taking on the role of groups like April 6 or the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth in Egypt. And still more are standing for election as independant candidates.

The PCOT is a very old party, which struggled underground for a long time, which means it is well positioned to organise for the elections – this, I think, may have deterred people who are rightly cynical of the electoral process. However, revolutionary young people are definitely looking to the organised left, and to the PCOT especially (the local "goth" subculture in Tunis, for example, is full of PCOT militants!). The PCOT's main office in Tunis was absolutely bustling with young people doing various things for the election campaign.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Interview with the Tunisian Communist Worker's Party


I met with Samir Taamallah, a former political prisoner and member of the central committee of the Communist Worker's Party of Tunisia (PCOT), in Tunis on October 4, to discuss the campaign for the Constituent Assembly elections and Tunisia's ongoing revolutionary struggle.


Ted: How is the election campaign going?


Samir: We are still in the beginning of the campaign – opening offices in all regions, getting together the essential means of a campaign; these things are not easy for a party without major financial support like ours! We are working in communities, printing flyers & posters, distributing as much of our material as we can with few concrete resources. In addition, we are also profiling ourselves on the internet – through Facebook, Twitter, our website, etc.


Ted: What issues have you been campaigning on?


Samir: We've mainly been campaigning on three fronts – the political, the social, and the economic.


On the political side, the issue is how to write the constitution & how the new parliament will be formed. We are struggling for the new constitution to defend freedom of thought and belief, individual liberty, gender equality and the right of employment. On this front, we are also looking for a change with Tunisia's foreign relations, especially our relationship with Israel.


On the social front, we are fighting for essential services to be made available to all citizens – free healthcare, free education, free housing – as well as for fairer income levels to address inequality. Right now we are calling for a raise in the minimum wage to around 400 dinars a month to keep up with inflation.


On economic issues, we are part of the campaign to suspend debt service payments, and to channel this money towards investmentment in Tunisia. At least in the short term, we need to cancel these payments if we are to develop our economy. We are also encouragining Tunisian investment for the needs of our country, not for the profit principle – we are not against investment, but we want it to be done in a reasonable way which benefits the people. Under Ben Ali, all capital was directed & exploited by the regime – everyone who wanted to start a business competing with the regime's favoured monopolies would feel problems from the government.


Ted: Do you think the elections will adress the problems facing Tunisia?


Samir: That depends on what happens after the elections. There are two possible outcomes from these elections – either the Sebsi government will stay in power and continue working as it has, or we will build a new government chosen by the Constituent Assembly. PCOT is fighting for the latter course – we believe that only a new government can make real immediate inroads into the structure of the old regime. We believe that the Sebsi government is putting obstacles in front of the process of democratic transition – for example, the possibility of referendums which is being discussed right now, which will take more time to organise and delay a real transition to democracy.


PCOT stands for a transitional justice – we believe that there can be no democracy without getting rid of the structures of corruption and all figures from the former regime being judged in a fair way. For this to happen, we need a new government to form.


Ted: What were your personal experiences of repression under Ben Ali?


Samir: I am a member of the national leadership within PCOT. In 1994, I was sentenced to five years and three months in prison – but I was not imprisoned. I remained underground, constantly moving from place to place, and in that way I stayed safe from the regime.


Then in February 1998, I was again judged, and this time sentenced to nine years and three months. As with the first time, I lived underground; I was eventually imprisoned in 2002, along with Hamma Hammami and Abdel Jabbar Mandouri. In the same year, we were released from prisoned, and we continued the struggle. We have never changed our minds or made concessions to the regime, despite the Ben Ali regime's persecution. We faced beating, threats, everyday fighting with the police – this was the common experience for every communist militant in Tunisia before the revolution.


Ted: In your opinion, will the revolution of January 14 keep going?


Samir: PCOT sees a revolution not just as a moment but a progression of events over time. We consider the elections as just a crossroads between revolutionary forces, which want to pursue the revolution until it become a public & popular awareness of the meaning & value of freedoms as a right, and the the counter-revolutionary powers, which include the former members of the RCD – each member of the central committee of the RCD has made their own party, they are working in the same way to go back to the past and renew their power.


Other counter-revolutionary powers include the transitional government which has made fictitious concessions to calm down the population. For example, the decision was made to dissolve the political police of the State Security Department; yet it is well known that all members of the bureau were found new jobs one by one and are still working.


We believe that the Sebsi government is struggling against the revolution – putting obstacles to justice, undermining our independance, maintaining the regime's media. The government is ruling beyond its mandate and is illegitimate. For example, the old judiciary files for the Trabelsi family or other regime figures are not being pursued and they are being allowed to flee the country one by one or only pursued for small crimes – but not murders or drug trafficking.


Parties using money to buy votes are also acting as counter-revolutionary powers; they can lead the revolution in the wrong path by using its slogans – for example, give your vote to the revolution. Those who buy your vote today will sell you tomorrow.

We believe that the counter-revolutionary powers are negotiating with the population, giving some rights against security and political stability. But they are not making the kind of deep social and economic change the revolution was fighting for that we need in order to start on a new basis. For example, the violent conflicts between the clans in the south are being empowered by the counter-revolutionary powers giving political capital, with help of the political police, as a way of undermining the revolution; people's energy is being chanelled into fighting a fake problem which has never existed in Tunisia in order to push the revolution from its path


Tunisians are very aware of this situation, but still have a peaceful temper, and are willing to give a chance for the interim government to step down and the Constituent Assembly to move the democratic transition forward; but if the elections don't deliver real change they are ready to make another revolution. The consciousness of Tunisians is strong; sofar, all of these attempts against the revolution have failed.


Ted: Are elections the only way forward for Tunisia's revolution?


Samir: From the beginning, we wanted to form a national revolutionary government made by parties, associations, independants – but other powers refused. The Higher Independant Election Committee is a fake body set up to counter this idea and instead channel the revolution into protecting the status quo.


We've reached the point where elections, if transparent, honest and fair can really help for success of a democratic transition; PCOT are willing to give the elections a chance and see the outcome.


We are willing to not return to the beginning point of the January 14 uprising, but to look forward to the revolutionary struggle; the new generation of Tunisians are no longer afraid of anything. Fear was the main idea by which Ben Ali stayed in power, but it is now useless.

Tunisia: Riding the Citizen Bus

September 27.

"In the mornings, Tunisia is full of optimism," Sameh Krichah says to me as the sun rises over Tunisia's coastal mountains. It's a feeling I can certainly relate to as myself and a group of young Tunisian activists travel south to the city of Kariouan on the Bus Citoyen (Citizen Bus).


We arrive in Kariouan before 9AM, our spacious bus, complete with professional logos, pulling up on the side of a dusty road where doors and frames are displayed against the concrete rim of a stormwater channel, and at once the activists are hard at work. They fan out up and down the street and stop passers by – workers, shoppers at the weekly streetside markets, passers by – and start talking about politics. Just a year ago, such a project might have gotten organisers arrested; today, it is just one small part of the growing movement for democracy in Tunis.


According to their Facebook page, Bus Citoyen is a "project of awakening and introduction to citizenship and the functioning of democracy; the 'bus people' travel the country to disseminate educational content and awareness of the need to vote” ahead of the October 23 elections to the Constituent Assembly, which brings together independant activists & those from a variety of non-partisan groups.


After decades of rule by dictatorship, with falsified elections routinely delivering Ben Ali 99% of the vote, the march towards Constituent Assembly elections within a year and the turbulent changes of government in the face of ongoing mass demonstrations and strikes has moved with whirlwind pace.


The activists start by asking people if they know about the elections and understand how to vote; most stop, if only to say yes and read over Bus Citoyen's pamphlet. But everywhere we go, in doorways and by souk stalls, people going about their daily lives are willing to exchange at least a few words. Some men take a leaflet and listen mutely, perhaps only wishing to be noticed by the confident young women from Tunis. But many are willing to give their opinion on the elections, the transition to democracy and the state of the economy. Some walking past seek out the activists to take a leaflet out of their hand (a welcome change from the somewhat more isolated norm in Australia!); at times, impromptu crowds form to hear them speak.


This is the new Tunisia, post-January 14; a people proud and eager to debate their future. Sitting on dirty white and yellow plastic chairs on a dirty tiled pavement scattered with leaves from well-trimmed trees, we speak with a former police officer (pictured, in purple shirt) who was dismissed from his post during the revolution. The next table over, another group of young men, all 18, will all be voting; they can't wait to see change in their country.


But not everyone is so positive about Tunisia's future; in the old city, a storeman tells us that he doesn't think El Sebsi's interim government is going about the transition in the right way – a common concern amongst those we meet with – and that he won't be voting. He is not the only one to tell us this; several men tell us that these elections will be no different to those that happened under Ben Ali.


Sabrine Bel Haj, a student from Carthage and one of the 'bus people', tells me: “In the cities, some people are aware of the issues and some are not. But in the countryside, people ask us, who should I vote for? The internet exists, but when people can't afford running water they can't afford luxuries like computers.”


The government is taking some measures to educate voters on the plethora of parties and independants standing for election in each circonscription; all parties will be given equal space for newspaper and television coverage once the official election campaign begins on October 1, while black stencil squares on buildings and walls in public places mark off areas assigned for each list to put up posters. But for the 25% of the population which is illiterate (relatively low by regional standards) and will be voting based on the recognition of party symbols, face-to-face projects like Bus Citoyen are some of the only sources of non-partisan information.


After a post-lunch nap inside the shady bus, the 'bus people' set up a stall outside the entrance to the Medina, and instantly a crowd forms. A temperamental power outlet is found somewhere, and political videos are played on a laptop, a large speaker drawing attention across the square. Everywhere people talk: strangers join in on conversations with the activists; kids kick half-flat footballs worn to the fabric across the square; vendors and sellers shout straight into the milling crowd; tourists clump together, eyes on each other. The activists keep it up until the sun sets, before heading to the hotel for the night.


Over the next four days, the bus will travel out from Kariouan to neighbouring suburbs and villages; it is just one of several travelling to every corner of Tunisia. But after just one day alongside these passionate young men and women willing to give up their time for the sake of their fellow citizens, it's hard not to feel optimistic for Tunisia's future.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Tunisia: ‘This is the start of a global wave of protests’

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Lina Ben Mhenni.

Lina Ben Mhenni, 27, is a Tunisian blogger and activist for freedom of speech, women’s rights and student rights. Her blog, A Tunisian Girl, was censored under Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime.

During the early days of the uprising against Ben Ali that started on December 17 last year, she travelled to the rural Tunisian cities of Sidi Bouzid, Regueb and Kasserine to document police repression and catalysing protests throughout the country.

Ben Ali was overthrown on January 14, inspiring the wave of pro-democracy struggles that have broken out across the Arab world.

Ben Mhenni has been awarded the Deutsche Welle International Blog Award and El Mundo’s International Journalism Prize. She was also nominated for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. I spoke with her in Tunis.

What do you think your Nobel nomination means for Tunisia and the Arab spring?

It’s a recognition of the importance of what happened here and what is happening across the Arab world — it started here in Tunisia, but it spread to other parts of the Arab world, and then to Europe and now to the United States. This is the beginning of a global wave of protest.

How do you see the role of media in a democratic system?

Media is very important for a democratic system. When it’s independent, it can help in changing things. But when it’s manipulated and controlled, it’s a weapon against freedom and democracy.

The role of the media should be to show you the true reality, not to work for governments or dictatorships. It should reflect the perspective of citizens, not the state.

The internet has certainly opened up more space for this. Before January 14, what we had in Tunisia was not media, it was working for the system. The bloggers played the role of media in covering the revolution.

The media is still manipulated by government and political parties — and bloggers and cyber activists continue to play that role of citizen journalists.

Do you think the elections will improve the situation here in Tunisia or change any of the issues that led to the uprising against Ben Ali?

I can’t anticipate things, but the fact that in the election there are parties established by people who worked for the system and who should be tried for what they did make me pessimistic. The truth is, I don’t know if things will change or not, no-one knows at this point.

On your blog you have called the Islamist party Ennadha a “serious threat to democracy”. What do you mean by that?

Of course, I respect all opinions, but I said this because I personally think they have a double discourse. For example, when their leaders are speaking for the media they have one discourse — but on social media, in videos of their member’s behaviour, for example, where they say that women should stay at home as a solution for employment.

I’m a woman, I’m working, my mother is working, I can’t accept this. Here in Tunisia women have played an important role in building the society and the revolution. No one has a right to take away these rights.

My fear comes from this double discourse; otherwise I respect their right to take part in the elections.

Do you think the Tunisian revolution is over? Where is the struggle for democracy here now heading?

No, the revolution did not finish on January 14 — it started on January 14! Ben Ali left the country, but he is just the head of the system.

Every day I am more and more convinced that the whole system is still there. The police are back to committing violence, there are more and more limitations on freedom of speech. We can see that the justice system is not independent yet.

The fact that there are people who worked for Ben Ali presenting themselves for the elections shows that this revolution is not complete. We have to be very careful with what’s going on. Now we have these elections, we have to observe what is going to happen. After that, we will see.


Originally published at Green Left Weekly: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/49003

Monday, 7 November 2011

Tunisia: First Thoughts + Photos

Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām

Place du Governement... still a police state.

After the turmoil of Cairo, with ongoing mass protests and the general hubbub of one of the regi on's capitals, Tunis was both a relief and a shock. The more laid-back atmosphere of Tunis reminds me of Australia (I found myself saying "she'll be right" every five minutes) but arriving around a month before the Constituent Assembly elections meant that the interim government was pulling out all the stops in stopping public spaces from being used in unsanctioned ways. I have to admit that I did find myself despairing a little bit to be seeing such a blatant exercise of police state power in the nation where the Arab Spring began - but I quickly realised that Tunisia's revolutionary struggle, like Egypt's, has only just begun.

This is Avenue Habib Bourguiba, where the protests which toppled Zine el Abidine Ben Ali were centred.. in September & October it was under total lockdown, police & military trucks full of reinforcements & barbed wire emplacements at either end. Since Ben Ali's downfall, the Kasbah (a beautiful tiled square across the road from the Place du Government, above) has been the usual place for mass assemblies; every time I went there to lie in the sun and listen to my iPod, there was at least one truck full of police &or soldiers lounging about. Perhaps that's why nobody bothered me! Tunis is definitely nowhere near as overcrowded as Cairo, but it's a bustling cosmopolitan city - a great place to spend my birthday :)


Unemployed secondary teachers staging a sit-in outside of the Ministry of Education - when I spoke to them they had been there daily for over one month, although the police had turfed them from the footpath & fortified it after a few weeks. They represented Tunisia's situation in many ways - feeling like the political process of interim governments and Constituent Assembly had little ability to deliver the reforms they were asking for, which were just jobs. They had all completed their education but had nowhere to work; the interim Prime Minister had told them verbally but refused to give it in writnig that they would get jobs by January (by which time the new government appointed by the Consitutent Assembly will be in power).


Activists from Italy & Tunisia meet at La Goulette port to raise awareness for the Tunisian & Libyan refugees being detained on Lampedusa. Marine Le Pen, who appears to be a far more articulate French version of Pauline Hanson to Sarkozy's John Howard, travelled to the island after the revolutions to tell the Italian navy to "turn the boats around" and "take them back where they came from". Australia is 10 years ahead of the curve when it comes to racist rhetoric, woo! */sarcasm* Pictures is Azyz Amami, one of Tunisia's blogger crew who along with Slim Amamou was arrested and tortured during the uprising against Ben Ali.


Graffiti on Avenue de France - "How much better is Tunisia without Ben Ali Baabar & the 40 thieves"











Some things need no translation... Although for those not familiar with Tunisia, the Trabelsi family were one of those who profited from Ben Ali's rule; they fled the country when the Revolution started. The UJCT (Union of Communist Youth of Tunisia) is the youth wing of the Tunisian Worker's Communist Party (PCOT from the French, or "poct" in common language...). Poct were, along with the Tunisian bloggers, democracy activists & others, one of the forces which were most central to the success of the uprising against Ben Ali - especially due to their somewhat clandestine involvement in the trade unions, whose leaders were collaborators with Ben Ali but which still were relatively safe places for leftists at the branch levels.