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.