Sunday, 23 September 2012

September 20 Rally for BDS - Sydney

Photos by Kate Ausburn,

Around 100-150 attended a September 20 rally and march at Max Brenner in Sydney's western suburb of Parramatta, organised by the Palestine Action Group, which I chaired.  The rally was in support of the global campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli apartheid today. The protest was timed to also commemorate the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon 30 years ago; the Golani Brigade, which Max Brenner's parent company, the Strauss group, donates care packages to, was involved in those massacres.

Photos by Kate Ausburn,

After the Muslim protests last weekend organisers were called in by the police and asked to call off the protest; after stating they didn't feel comfortable doing that, the police stated they would come to an agreement acceptable to both parties, while at the same time informing the organisers they had a high court summons for later that night if one couldn't be reached. However, the police do seemed to have learned from the last time they tried to take us to court for the Nakba day demonstration and it backfired; this time, they agreed to allow us the full use of the road for the alloted time, and to keep the riot police back so long as we marshalled the protest effectively. It all went really smoothly, we outnumbered the far-right pro-Israel mob drinking chocolate around 10-1 (as usual), and it was a really pumping experience!

Photos by Kate Ausburn,

Given the climate and the fact that shock jocks seized on our protest as a "follow up" to the weekend, there was a huge media presence. Of course this wasn't framed in the best way (and they took one of my less sharp moments to quote from, of course), but we got a bit of media from Channel 9. On the night I'm pretty sure 7 gave us a live cross to the news program, and PressTV and ABC Radio definitely got interviews too, although I haven't seen/heard them surface yet.

We also got quite a decent write up beforehand in Sydney's City News, quoting myself from PAG, Haskell from Jews Against the Occupation Sydney, Rachel Evans from Socialist Alliance and a Murdoch Uni academic I don't know. After the interview I assumed they would play the "tapping into Muslim anger" angle (a lot of questions went in this direction) but they actually wrote something extremely favourable, running my quotes regarding Israel's colonial and apartheid occupation of Palestine. W00T!

Photos by Kate Ausburn,

I'm quite happy with the good work for BDS happening here in Sydney, even with all the Islamaphobia being heaped around we still managed to make a very good, peaceful and vibrant mobilisation, and we're in a great position to keep building this campaign and put some runs on the board in the fight against Israeli apartheid :) I'd like to commend everyone involved in this campaign sofar - Palestinian students, independant activists, socialists from different organisations, we've all been working together very collaboratively and have been well recieved to get real traction.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Sydney Uni campaign - what we learned

This speech was delivered to the 2012 national conference of Resistance. An abridged version of this was published in Green Left Weekly.

Since the 2005 fightback against Howard's Voluntarity Student Unionism laws, there's been little in the way of sustained education activism at USYD and in Sydney (or across Australia generally, with student unions unwilling to challenge Labor and managing to channel most student energy into lobbying and PR campaigns. But that has changed. Sydney University and staff have launched a widely-supported campaign against cuts – and it's been a real learning experience.

We've learned that our university is being managed in line with the profits-first agenda of the 1% that run the government and the economy. We've learned that under Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, corporate research partners and “good economic management” take priority over students, staff and society.

But importantly, we’ve also learned we can roll back attempts by university management to implement staff and course cuts. We've learned how we can fight back.

The university of sydney management first signalled there would be restructuring at the end of 2011. However, in early 2012 a "budget black hole" was announced due to lower-than-expected intake of international fee-paying students. Ostensibly due to this black hole, management wanted to cut arbitrarily 120 "underperforming" academic staff, 190 general staff and threatened us with $28 million of non-salary cuts.

Students and staff responded immediately, organising two small rallies in the pouring rain during the university orientation week. Taking heart from the students rising up in Quebec and around the world, students at the University of Sydney began organising and mobilising to defend our staff, our academics, our courses and our quality of education.

We began distributing hundreds of leaflets from information stalls on campus, giving weekly "lecture bashes" in classes to inform fellow students of the campaign's goals, actions and progress, preparing bulletins to challenge the management's PR, and having long and thorough discussions with as many students as possible about the logic behind the cuts and how we could defeat them.

Within the first week we organised a hundred-strong action outside the Vice-Chancellor's office, staging a "die-in" to signal the death of quality education. Then in week 2 700 students and staff rallied outside Spence's office again, passing a motion of no confidence in him and the whole university management. However, the motion and the demands of students fell on deaf ears, so we resolved to build our campaign.

The Education Action Group formed out of those first initiatives, bringing together a variety of socialists, anarchists, Labor, Greens and general staff & student activists. The EAG went all-out to mobilise for a rally in Week 5, bringing around 1500 people out onto Eastern Avenue to hear from staff members facing the sack, postgraduate students losing their supervisors, etc. This rally was also supported by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU); one of the key factors in the success of the campaign sfar has been the important level of unity in action maintained between student-led EAG and the Sydney University branch of the NTEU, with both groups organising individual pickets, actions and meetings, but all key campaign actions being endorsed by both.

After weeks of building, we mobilised far bigger number of students than we'd hoped to, with contingents from the different faculties facing cuts taking part – many of whom had never taken part in any kind of campaign before in their life. At the end of that rally, many of those students joined the EAG's occupation of the Arts Administration building, which descended on the wing of the Quadrangle in force and filled the offices with around 100 people. We held a democratic assembly, the largest we held all semester, resolving that we would take whatever action necessary to defeat the cuts. The occupation lasted for two hours, frustrating the Dean of Arts, who, despite proclaiming his support for student activism, tried to get us to give up the occupation since the cuts are being driven by government funding. Despite this, we resolved to put an ultimatum to the management, which we stuck to the doors of the VC's office when we finished the occupation, resolving to launch a campaign of escalating mass direct action. Out of that first occupation we planned a student walk-out, a mass referendum and a rally taking to the streets in week 9.

For the walk-out, we quite publicly advertising that there'd be an occupation and "siege on management", so security, not suprisingly, knew we were coming, and prepared an over-the-top response. We marched from the Quad lawns to the Provost's office, attempting another occupation; however, the doors were all well guarded, and a few who made their way in through a window were pushed back out through it by undercover police officers and extra private security workers. So instead, we "laid siege" to management, sitting in and blocking all access in or out of the VC's office for the rest of the day.

Students rallied again three weeks later – and in between we two-day referendum campaign on the cuts, which polled almost 4000 students and staff and passed a resounding 97% no vote (and of the 3% voting yes to the cuts, a third also ticked that they'd be attending the next rally against the cuts! - so I guess we also learned people are naturally inclined to tick yes on a referendum...)

The success of the campaign has been due to the broad diversity of actions and tactics we've used to convince students of the need to take action, join the rallies and fight these cuts. The Week 9 rally on May 7 rally at the Senate – one of the largest mobilisation of students on campus to date - would not have been as successful if the EAG hadn't mobilised all-out for the referendum campaign the week before, hitting the footpaths to spread the word, building excitement and opening thousands of conversations about the campaign and the need to confront management.

Around 1000 people turned out for the May 7 rally, marching out on the streets and across to the other half of campus, where the Senate had been scheduled to meet that day. Although the meeting had been rescheduled and the building was empty, Spence had called in the riot police to defend it, and, when students attempted to occupy the building, we were pushed thrown around, dragged away from the doors, and 3 were arrested. One activist who isn't a student at USYD, a well known community and union activist, was also served with a lifetime ban against setting foot on campus.

Ominously, Michael Spence had sent an email to all staff that morning, warning that the protest would likely be hijacked by "outside agitators" with their "own agenda". Ultimately, this hugely over-the-top response had the opposite effect to that intended by management; the footage of students being treated so roughly on their own campus for attempting to protest non-violently might have put some people off the campaign, but it made far more see the riot squad, not students and staff, as the outside agitators.

After the attempt at the occupation was blocked on May 7, the protest kept going; we got  word of the alternative Senate meeting venue, and votes to once again hold a "siege on management" and blockaded the building. Management put out in the media that the Senate meeting proceeded as normal, but we are reliably informed that we prevented it from meeting in any real sense for the whole day.

 The morning of May 7 it had been announced that the total number of forced redundancies being sent to academics was 23 – with around 50 academics accepting redundancies, around half of the numbers management had been attempting to originally cut. (check & list exact numbers). This wasn't a full victory, but it was a victory nonetheless.

Maintaining and building upon our strong staff-student mobilisations which were united behind clear demands – and not the words or actions of a few – is what ultimately limited the numbers of staff management could cut. We leanred that from other movements around the world like the mass mobilisations of the students in the UK, Chile and Quebec, and from the success of our own struggle at Sydney University.

But the campaign at USYD has sofar this year been almost entirely defensive in nature. There are more aspects to the "change plan" that management hasn't started to implement yet which we have done little about – the cuts to general staff, courses, the recently announced restructuring of the Koori Centre, etc. We've been reacting to management, not getting ahead of their plans. This is the same across many Australian universities, where defensive battles have been sparked; generally, we are on the backfoot.

Several students confronted VC Michael Spence at the NUS Education Conference just a couple of weeks ago – he'd been invited by the Labor students as, since they got funding to hold the conference, they had to have him invite us since it was "his uni". We thought otherwise, and disrupted his speech by claiming the lectern, heckling and holding placards – to which the general response from NUS delegates was, shamefully, frostiness for us and applause for Spence. We've asserted that it's not – but the question is still open for this campaign, and more broadly – what's our vision for the campus, for our education, and how are we going to fight to get it put into place instead of the neoliberal agenda being pushed now?

These cuts are being implemented by a layer of management who have been appointed into a climate of marketised, competitive education, where funding is contingent on "selling your education product" to students. Vice-Chancellors and other figures who might have stood up against government have been the ones implementing the cuts. But the USYD Dean of Arts, Duncan Iverson, wasn't wrong when he told us Federal government funding is what's driving the problem.

I quote from the USYD EAG's semester wrap-up document:

“Self-interested managers are just the tip of the iceberg. There is a bigger logic of competition and education-for-profit that we have to fight against... Australia was the only OECD country to lower its contribution to higher education in the decade between 1995 and 2005...

As Universities are forced to compete for students, grants and rankings, they will find more and more ways to cut our education to the bone. This is why they are cutting staff at the same time as releasing a Budget Briefing for 2012, which outlines that the first goal for next year is to increase the “net operating margin” from $133 million in 2011 to $183 million in 2013, to fund “additional capital expenditure”. We must continue fighting together for a quality education because we still see the poisonous global trends of budget cutting and austerity.”

So while we need to make each campus an organising space against attacks on our education, as students across Australia and the world we also need to take the fight to the government and demand free and good quality public education. We need to link up and unite our struggles to actually challenge the neoliberal model of education.

That is why we should also look at ways to link up with other campaigners globally and across Australia, as well as those asiring due to TAFE cuts already being undertaken by the reactionary governments of austerity on the East coast. This moment could be an opportunity to broaden and deepen our campaigns, forming a broad-based education activist network, unifying campaigns demanding free, quality education for all.
So if you've worried about your education but never thought about being an activist – get informed, learn what we can do. Because when we exercise our collective strength, we are powerful.

What's the next step in this process? The upcoming EduFactory! conference will be a great opportunity for activists from across Australia to do just that, and may prove an important moment for the direction of our movement. Be there.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Tunisia: Ennahda fails to deliver promises of work and freedom

Originally published in Green Left Weekly, Saturday September 1

Almost a year since Tunisia's Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, Islamist party Ennahda, leader of the coalition government, continues to lose the confidence of those who rose up against dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in late 2010.

Anger was prompted by Constitutional Article 27, which was passed by the Committee on Rights and Freedoms on August 1, defining women's rights as "complementary" to those of men, placing women "at the heart of the family and as man's associate".

This enraged feminists democracy activists, who saw the article as trying to undermine the principle of equality for all citizens, enshrined in Article 22. Formal equality for women has been a strong principle in Tunisian society since the days of post-independence ruler Habib Bourguiba.

Activist Wafa Ben Hassine wrote in independent collective blog Nawaat on August 3 that "the gains that women have acquired in Tunisia are admittedly unmatched in the Arab world, and Tunisians are proud of that".

Thousands of people took to the streets of downtown Tunis to protest against the definition of women in Article 27 on August 13. Reuters said protesters chanted "Rise up women for your rights to be enshrined in the constitution".

The question of women's rights, and the relationship between religion and the state in Tunisia, has come into focus since the January 14 downfall of Ben Ali. The dictator used Tunisia's legacy of equality to justify suppression of political Islam movements such as Ennahda, as well as taking part in the “war on terror”.

Hardline Salafists were locked out of taking part in the CA elections, but have polarised national opinion with a campaign of aggression against alcohol vendors. The first Salafist Party, the Reform Front, was granted official recognition in May, reported Tunisia Live. Ennahda leader Rasheed Ghannouchi attended the party's first conference in July.

In mid-June, suspected Salafists destroyed an art exhibition in Tunis they considered offensive to Islam, resulting in riots that left one dead, while in August actor and comedian Lotfi Abdelli's show in Menzel Bourguiba was obstructed by a Salafist sit-in.

Media freedom

Media freedom is another front where confidence in Ennahda had been shaken.

Two hundred journalists rallied on August 22 against the appointment of Lofti Touati to director general of the Dar Assabah state-run newspaper. Associated Press reported the protests were angry at the government for going back on a promise to consult with civil society leaders before making such appointments.

Touati is a former police commissioner. He has come under fire after orderingpiece in Dar Assabah critical of his appointment and accusing him of being "too close to Ennahda" to be replaced with advertisements.

Minister of foreign affairs, Rafik Abdessalem, was reported by TAP state news agency on August 26 as saying that Ennahda's goal was to "clean up" the media and prevent them from "[transforming] themselves into forums of opposition to government action".

Tunisia's president Moncef Marzouki responded at the congress of the centrist Congress Party for the Republic (CPR), one of the parties of the troika government.

He criticised "the appointments of Ennahda supporters in key positions whether they are competent or not”, Jeune Afrique reported on August 25. “Our brothers in Ennahda are working to control the administrative and political state."

Tunisian cyber activists, at the forefront of the uprising against Ben Ali, have lodged a bid with the Interior Ministry to reveal the identity of the figure responsible for administering Tunisia's regime of internet censorship, nicknamed "Ammar404".

Nawaat reported on August 21 that Sofiane Chourabi, one of the initiators of the idea, said: "It seems that this government is working on wiping out and marginalising this issue, so that those who committed violations would not be held accountable."

Food, work and national dignity

On the economic front, Ennahda and the coalition have done little to differentiate from the old regime. Al-Akhbar English reported on August 17 that the minister for investment, Riadh Bettaib, announced the state would take out a further $1 billion in World Bank loans.

And radical labour struggle has continued to grow. The General Union of Tunisisan Workers (UGTT), under radical left leadership since it's constitution in January, has led a wave of strikes in the south and interior aimed at fulfilling the Jasmine revolution's demands of “work, freedom, national dignity”.

City-wide general strikes have swept through Tataouine, Monastir, Kasserine and Kariouan, as well as Sidi Bouzid, the town where fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself on December 17, 2010, which triggered the Arab uprisings.

Day workers in Sidi Bouzid demonstrated on July 26 over a two month delay in wages, reported Al Akhbar English, attacking the party offices of Ennahda. Ongoing water shortages in the region over the past six months have also raised anger. Sidi Bouzid's governor, Mohamed Najib Masouri, has blamed residents who failed to pay their bills for the shortages.

The December 17 Progressive Forces Front, along with the UGTT and other forces, organised a demonstration on August 9 to take up the demands of securing water supplies and settling workers' wages.

The demonstration also called for the resignation of the governor and the regional commander of the National Guard, and the dissolution of the whole CA for failing to address the issues of Sidi Bouzid and Tunisia's poorer interior regions.

The protest was attacked by police with tear gas and rubber bullets, putting five in hospital. Blogger Lina Ben Mhenni said one young activist of the Tunisian Workers' Party (POT), Saddem Akermi, was hospitalised after he was shot with a rubber bullet.

An Ennahda spokesperson blamed the demonstrations on the party Nidaa Tunis (Call to Tunis), which formed on July 19 and is comprised of ex-regime figures.

He claimed to have "proof that some figures within the region known to be close to Nidaa Tunis sided with criminals, thieves and alcohol vendors to spread anarchy in Sidi Bouzid," reported Leaders.

The December 17 Front and UGTT responded with a general strike on August 14. TAP said thousands marched through the town and rallied outside the local courthouse to demand the release of prisoners from the previous protests.

Crisis of legitimacy

These struggles have shaken the confidence of many Tunisians in the Ennahda-led troika to chart a new path for Tunisia after the ousting of Ben Ali.

An International Crisis Group report published in June dismissed the "spectre of a second insurrection", but identified that continued political turmoil and a failure to address severe economic inequality could "risk snowballing into a legitimacy crisis for the newly elected government".

Nidaa Tunis has been presenting itself as the alternative vision to the troika. The party, led by elder statesman and post-Ben Ali prime minister from February to December last year, Beji Caid Essebsi, has been condemned by troika parties as a renewal of the old regime. CPR secretary general Mohammed Abbou told Tunisian radio that Nidaa Tunis represented "a return to tyranny," reported Tunisie Numerique.

Essebsi responded to the attacks, calling them "free of charge". He publicly supported the demonstrators in Sidi Bouzid, saying "it is inappropriate to describe this way the democrats, activists and human rights components of civil society who took to the streets to protest against repression and to defend their rights."

Given the moves of Ennahda in office, and the emboldened Salafist aggression since the downfall of Ben Ali, Nidaa has taken up space for a secular-based "Doustourian" (constitutional) party with the popular recognition and networks to electorally challenge Ennahda outright, unlike the two secular troika partners, the CPR and social-democrat Ettakatol.

Two representatives of the CPR in the CA, Dhamir Manai and Abdelaziz Kotti, said they had joined Nidaa on August 23, joining members of the 17 different parties formed out of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD).

The left alternative

However, the left has also made steps to challenge both poles of the mainstream political spectrum and follow through on the demands of the Jasmine revolution.

The Tunisian Communist Workers Party (PCOT), which holds three seats in the CA and has some of the best recognition of any of the far-left parties, made the decision to rename itself the Tunisian Workers Party (POT) in July.

Party spokesperson Mohamed Mzam told Tunisia Live on July 11 that the party aimed to "avoid the stereotype most Tunisians think of when hearing the word 'communist'", and that people should instead "focus on what a political party is committed to offer them on political, social and economic levels."

The decision came after a long process of discussion and a general referendum within the party. Discussion had begun immediately after the overthrow of Ben Ali, but was postponed for the CA elections last October. This may have accounted for PCOT's inability to win serious space in the CA.

POT has also participated in the reformation of the national January 14 Front, which was active immediately after the overthrow of Ben Ali to push for further democratisation, but quickly broke apart. Negotiations to re-form the alliance began in July, and on August 13 a first agreement was announced between 12 left parties from a variety of Marxist, Nasserist, Baathist, Green and other backgrounds, alongside independent revolutionaries.

Mohamed Brahmi, of the Nasserist Movement of the People party, said the front was formed "following the example of the December 17 Front set up in Sidi Bouzid".

POT's chairperson Hamma Hammami described the coalition as "a political front and not essentially electoral. It will work for the realisation of the objectives of the revolution."

The reformation of the front is an important step forward for strengthening the democratic struggle. The spectre of a "second insurrection" may well prove a possibility before new elections are due in next year.

Please read Kefteji's posts on the battle for media freedom and the debate over Constitutional Article 27 for more information on those topics. Tunisian Girl has also written an update on the appointment of Lofti Touati to Dar Assabah, including a protest that took place as my original article went to print, and the call for a general stike on September 11 in protest.