Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Tunisia: The Revolution Will Continue

Submitted for publication to Green Left Weekly.

The rhetoric from Tunisia's interim government, led by the Islamist party Ennahda (the Renaissance), or from the financial establishment, is that the old regime is gone, and what's needed now is stability and restoration of economic growth to complete the transition to a "democracy".

In an April 2 press release, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde said: "Investors and the population at large need to regain confidence in the future of the economy, to look beyond the short-term difficulties and provide the foundations for a rebound of the Tunisian economy."

Echoing these remarks, on April 29 globalpost reported member of Ennahda's political Burea in Tunis, Said Ferjani, as saying:  “We have to restructure an economy that has failed the country for more than half a century,” he said. “We need some kind of stability. Some of the people don't want stability because they don't want the government to succeed.”

The reality, however, is that the new regime has been largely constituted out of the skeleton of the old. The corrupt bureaucracy may be administered over by new ministers appointed by the government arising from the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, but the repressive police state apparatus remains the same.

And the government of Hamadi Jebali, Prime Minister of Tunisia and Secretary-General of Ennahda, remains rocked by a never-ending wave of demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes by students, workers, democracy activists, feminists and the unemployed, demanding the fulfillment of the demands of the Jasmine Revolution – an end to corruption and the dismantling of the police state, justice for the victims of regime violence, and an economy which serves the needs of Tunisia's people.

Corruption and neopotism remains rife throughout the country. The publicly funded works scheme, known as chantiers (work yards) in French, was expanded by the interim government after Ben Ali's overthrow on January 14, in an attempt to alleviate crippling youth unemployment in the interior territories.

Writing in the Guardian on the 9th of February,  Eileen Byrne reported that in the interior town of Kasserine, the scheme was suffering from widespread abuse by foremen skimming over 50 dinars a month ($33 AUD) from each worker.

In both the impoverished interior towns like Kasserine and the major coastal cities, protests have continued on-and-off since the October 23 CA elections.

A major issue in these protests has been the place of religion in the new state. Throughout January, a group of hardliner religious Salafists occupied a university campus in Manouba and assaulted several administrators, resulting in counter-protests by secular activists demanding an end to religious violence and defence of the civil state.

The Salafist occupation demanded the right for female students to wear the Niqab during exams but also for sharia law to be the basis of the new constitution being written by the CA. The Ennahda-led government called for peace, yet several of Ennahda's CA representatives made public statements supporting the actions of the Salafist occupiers.

Thousands rallied in Tunis' central Avenue Habib Bourguiba on March 20, Tunisia's independance day, to support the demand for a civil state as well as to condemn the interim government's refusal to follow through on demands of the revolution. According to reports by EuroMoney, a chant at these protests was "People are sick of the new Trabelsis" – a reference to the family of Ben Ali's second wife, which was a major beneficiary of the old regime's neopotism.

On March 25, a demonstration by Salafists on the Avenue resulted in a nearby group of performance artists being attacked.

After these protests, a ban on demonstrations in Avenue Habib Bourguiba was announced on March 28 by Interior Minister Ali Laarayadh. The Ministry claimed no-one had been injured in the March 25 incident, according to Tunisia Live; instead it cited complains by businesses and organisations based on the Avenue.

A major protest on April 9 which rejected the ban was met with a major police crackdown. The rally had originally been called to mark national Martyr's Day, but the breakup of a small protest by the unemployed two days before meant it quickly focussed Slogans included "No Fear, No Terror – the Streets Belong to the People".

Marching on Avenue Mohamed V, which adjoins Ave Bourguiba, the protesters were met with lines of riot police, tear gas and assault. Lina Ben Mhenni, who writes the blog Tunisian girl, was among those assaulted by police officers; Jaouhar Ben Mbark, an activist and organizer for Doustourna, suffered a broken arm, as did many others.

"About a dozen police attacked me. There were some men in plain clothes behind them, heckling me and calling me all kinds of names. While the police were dragging me to their police van, these men continued following behind them, hitting me and heckling me," Ben Mbark told Human Rights Watch.

A march of fifteen unemployed youth from Sidi Bouzid attempting to raise awareness for the dire situation of the interior region was also caught up in the violence on April 9. Sidi Bouzid is the town where Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself on December 17, 2010, triggering the uprising against dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

“The renewal of violence against demonstrators in the principal streets of Tunis shows that legal structures remain intact that made repression possible in the past, combining abusive laws and impunity for security forces,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

On April 12, the Ministerial Council backed down, with Minister Laarayadh announcing that the ban would be lifted so long as protests were “peaceful, orderly, remain in file, and adhere to pre-established routes and timings.” An "investigation" into police violence on the day was also announced.

Less than a month later, May Day rallies brought throusands to the streets, with 20,000 marching on Ave Bourguiba. Demands echoed those of the uprising against Ben Ali - "Bread, freedom and national dignity," demanding the right to work, the prosecution of corrupt officials and freedom for the media.

The rallies were organised by Tunisia's largest unions, the UGTT and UTT. However, Tunisia Live reported on April 28 that Ennahda had also endorsed the rally on Ave Bourguiba.

The UGTT was a leading body in the uprising against Ben Ali, and since has played an important role in supporting the wave of strikes and labour protests that has been renewed since the October 23 elections.

In late December, the 22nd Congress of the UGTT elected a new leadership; Nizar Amami reported in International Viewpoint that the newly elected leadership is comprised of a variety of left union activists, both those with party affiliations and independants, to replace the old leadership which had existed under Ben Ali. The only alternative list, formed around the outgoing deputy leader, was largely comprised of those associated with Ennahda.

Whether the step towards such regroupment in the UGTT will be followed suit throughout the rest of civil society – and in particular, by the parties of the left – in order to challenge the establishment's rhetoric of silencing dissent through "stability" remains to be seen.

But the dire need for further advances can be seen in the recent hunger strikes launched by three journalists – Nebil Jeridet, Hana Trabelsi and Walid Hayoun – to denounce corruption and favouritism in allocation of state funding and advertising revenue towards media outlets less critical of the government.

Although the Jasmine Revolution has sofar won impressive gains – the overthrow of Ben Ali and many of his top cronies, the free and fair CA elections in October – the ongoings protests clearly show that the economic and social injustice which drove Tunisians to the breaking point in December 2010 are yet to be addressed. And until they are, the revolution will continue.

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